TROY, N.Y. -- An obscure Irish woman who rebelled against white collar grime is the focus of a multi-million dollar history project sponsored by the Troy, N.Y.-based American Labor Studies Center.
Laundress Kate Mullany's claim to fame is to have led, at age 25, a February 1864 strike by the all-female workforce that washed detachable linen collars at a Troy factory after they were manufactured and before they were sold. Her efforts led to a 25 percent pay hike and the founding of the first all-female labor union in the United States.
The founding of the Collar Laundry Workingwomen's Association is so important to the American labor movement that retired New York State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Paul Cole used political muscle to get the house where Mullany lived in Troy designated a National Historic Site, over the objections of the National Park Service, and bypassing the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The muscle Cole used included arranging for then-First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to use the house as a backdrop for a speech she gave on women's labor issues. In the speech, she quoted author Carole Turbin, whose book "Working Women of Collar City" is a bible of sorts.
"I wasn't drawn to Kate Mullaney at all --- she was peripheral to my study," Turbin said, in a telephone interview. "I was inspired by the woman's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to learn about class and ethnic divisions among women. In graduate school I realized I had to know more history, and discovered that in the late 19th century the branch of the Suffrage movement led by Susan. B. Anthony tried to get women in trade unions, the Collar Laundry Union of Troy."
Anthony traveled to Troy to interview Mullany as a possible standard-bearer for the suffragette movement.
"She was disappointed in Mullany" Turbin said. "Mullany didn't care about the vote. She just wanted higher wages.
At the time of Mullany's single-minded pursuit of better pay, Troy was the center of the detachable collar and cuff industry. The industry itself was started in 1827 by a woman, Hannah Lord Montague, the wife of Orlando Montague, who manufactured women's shoes. According to Turbin's book, in a flash of inventiveness, Montague solved a household problem, since men's collars soiled before the shirt. She reached for a pair of scissors, cut off the collar of the shirt she was laundering and attached white tape to either end and sewed the selvage.
The first detachable collar was made. It could be washed, starched and ironed separately from the shirt, according to Turbin.
Collar making at first was a home-based industry, employing daughters, relatives, neighbors. Boys after school delivered collars by wagons. By the 1850s, with the inventions of the washing machine, sewing machine and steam power, collar making moved out of households and into factories. By the 1860s, collar making dominated the region's economy, with about 15 firms employing nearly 4,000 women in collar factories and shops and thousands more women stitching collars at home.
The other dominant industry in Troy was iron molding. Four large iron mills and 14 smaller iron mills employed 2,000 men or 17 percent of the male population over age 15.
Against this backdrop, Mullany and Esther Keegan, the collar laundresses vice president, rallied fellow workers to strike not once but twice. A second strike in 1869 was not as successful as the first. The collar manufacturers had by this time formed a trade association, and the united front of management outlasted the united front of labor.
Mullany's union supported union strikes in other places, most notably in New York City, where factory workers in the garment industry launched strikes for higher wages. In 1868, Mullany was appointed assistant scretary of the newly formed National Labor Union.
Back in Troy, the dragged-out 1869 strike led to the end of the collar union. It dissolved within a year. Mullany and colleagues founded the Cooperative Collar and Cuff factory, and that effort lasted a year.
By then, Mullany was married to John Fogarty, an iron molder, and the couple moved to Buffalo. Very little is known about Mullany's life. She returned alone to Troy in 1903. She lived with her sister in the brick house until her death in 1906. She is buried at St. Peter's Cemetery in Troy.
The brick house, now the Kate Mullany National Historic Site, where Mullany lived during the early and late parts of her life, was owned by her mother. Following the receipt of a life insurance policy, possibly, it is not known for sure, Bridget Mullany bought the Eighth Street property and paid for a building to be erected on the site. A duplex, the building had six apartments. The Mullany women lived in a third-floor apartment.
A 2004 survey by the National Park Service, which is charged with managing National Historic Sites, initially recommended against the building's inclusion on its list due to a lack of close association with Mullany. After an advisory committee review, the site was recommended and declared in April 1998 a National Historic Landmark. On July 15, 1998, Clinton delivered her speech at the house.
In 2002, Cole purchased the property as a location for his American Labor Studies Center. He secured funds to restore the property. Further funds are becoming available to create a historically accurate apartment interior on the third floor.
"It's the only National Historic Site in the Capital Region," wrote Tom Carroll, a member of the labor studies center board and former executive director of the Burden Iron Works Museum in Troy, in an email. "It has now been granted a line-item account number in the National Park Service's annual budget. (As yet that's unfunded, but this is the first step toward having an annual operating appropriation for it in the federal budget.) The roof and the south wall and much else has been renovated. The next step is the restoration of the Mullany residence apartment on the top floor, which is in the process of getting underway."
Cole muscles on, using donated labor from various unions to get the job done. Operating engineers did site improvement, before landscaping. Painters came in and painted pro bono.
Single men, like soldiers and returning Civil War soldiers, were the first customers of the detachable collar, cuff and later bib or dickey. After the Civil War, men in droves left farms and began working in cities, mainly in offices. Particularly, men from middle class families swelled these ranks. In cities, the mark of social status was a clean white collar, giving rise to the familiar term "white collar worker."
Keeping those collars clean was the work of Mullany and the other women who laundered. Washing out sizing, then starching and finally ironing collars and other detachables was the work of the all-female collar union. Yet with all that hard labor, the women of the union saw beyond the scope of their own jobs, industry and city and sent support to union organizing efforts in other cities.
Perhaps it was the effects of the famine in Ireland that gave these mostly Irish immigrant women such a focus on wages and the empowerment that earning money gave them and contributed to their families social welfare.
"She's the first female officer of a national labor union," Cole said. "This is the social history of working class women."
If you go ...
What: Kate Mullany National Historic Site
Where: 350 Eighth Ave., Troy, N.Y.
When: By appointment only
Information: American Labor Studies Center director Paul Cole, katemullanynhs.org and (518) 331-4474