On this holiday we celebrate the American worker and his or her contribution to our American life, but the holiday was actually born as a way to appease workers after a brutal crackdown on the workers and the union during the Pullman strike of 1894.

The people who made the Pullman railroad cars lived in a company town. They were paid by the Pullman Company, lived in company housing and had their rent automatically deducted from their paychecks. When the economy crashed in 1893 there were layoffs, and wage cuts, but no decrease in rents.

The workers walked out.  They were soon joined by railroad workers led by the young Socialist leader Eugene Debs. Train service was disrupted.  The mail could not get through. There was rioting and destruction of railroad equipment, sometimes by mobs of non-union workers. 80 million dollars of damage was done and thirty people died.

The strike became a national issue.  Unable to resolve the labor dispute President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and sent troops to disband the strike.

Pullman Strikers Confronting the National Guard

Eventually the workers were overpowered and forced to sign a pledge never to unionize again.  Eugene Debs, defended by Clarence Darrow, saw the charge of obstructing the mail dropped, but spent six months in prison for violating a federal injunction.  He continued to organize. When he ran for President in 1920 on a Socialist ticket he won a million votes.

Labor had long pressed Congress for a Labor Day holiday.  The bill was passed by both houses and hit Cleveland’s desk six days after the end of the strike.  The bill was signed into law as a means of appeasing the labor movement.   The new holiday was seen by labor not just as a holiday, but as a day for organizing.

Today we see Labor Day as the holiday that marks the end of summer.  Kids go back to school, parents breathe a sigh of relief, we grill things and try not to think about cold weather and heating bills.

Of course, genealogists think about their ancestors and I am no exception.  Here are some of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and their labors.

Samuel Bublick opened a candy store, what we might consider a convenience store in New York City.

Joseph Mason

 

Joseph Mason worked as a leather cutter making ladies handbags.  He was a wiry little man with arms of steel.

Morris Silverman was a capmaker in New York City.

Morris Silverman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His son Alex would organize for the capmakers union.

Alex Silver

Alex’s son, Stanley would work for the Signal Corp and then as a salesman.  He would be a union steward.

Stanley Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am Stanley’s daughter.

 

John and Annie Costello homesteaded a farm in Sprague, Washington.

James and Sophie Cole

James and Sophie Cole homesteaded a farm in Primrose, Nebraska.

Edwin Cole

 

 

 

 

Their son Edwin would cook in a lumber camp, pour cement for the WPA and work as a janitor in a hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edwin’s son Merwin would become a union organizer, a carpenter and a contractor.

Marian and Merwin Cole

 

My husband is Merwin’s son

 

 

 

 

 

Stanley’s daughter and Merwin’s son got to go to college and now work at jobs that leave them trying to figure out how to get enough exercise. Wow!

Merwin’s son and Stanley’s daughter post exercise

 

 

 

Kerry Scott at Clue Wagon asked, “What is the one thing you would grab if your house was on fire?”

The question assumes that loved ones (I include pets here) are safe.

My guess is that I would approach this problem the way I approach my genealogy research.  I have to save the photos, no wait there’s the computer, oh, the kids baby bracelets, Just a minute, I’m almost ready….until being dragged from the house by a worried and more focused spouse.

The real question here then is “What objects are most meaningful in your life?”

I have a vase that sits in my living room.  My mother remembers her father bringing the vase home when she was a little girl.  My mother was born in 1910.  That puts the date when the vase enters our life at  1918 or 1920.   For as long as I can remember it sat on a sideboard in my mother’s house.  It came to live with me when my mother moved to assisted living here in Connecticut. A few years ago Antique Roadshow came to Hartford, Ct and I took my vase.  The expert told me it was a post-war piece made in Japan for the export market. I assume he meant WWI.  There were a lot of exports to this country around 1920, so maybe my vase was one of them.  He valued it at $350. It is priceless to me.

 

It is a simple inanimate object.  Many would not consider it beautiful.  Certainly, most would consider it silent, but it speaks volumes to me.

My grandfather worked as a leather cutter in a factory that made ladies’ handbags. He was not a sentimental man and there was little money for useless extras.  Yet he saw the vase in a pawnshop and he needed it. He needed it in the way we all sometimes need something beautiful that we cannot afford and have no earthly use for, but that continues to yell at us, “Buy me!”  We are fools if we do not listen.

I have been in homes of people who live in soul crushing poverty, both in this country and others and I have never seen a home without at least one object that is there just because it is beautiful.  It might just be a picture ripped from a magazine, but it is essential to that house.  I am always amazed when we are involved in a local or national conversation about what is necessary for our children’s education.  Art is always high on the hit list, yet it is art in all its forms that fully expresses our humanity.

I don’t know what that vase said to my grandfather. I know it meant the world to my mother.  To me it says, “You are connected through time to people who understood beauty and knew its meaning even when times were difficult and a secure future was hard to envision.”

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it takes a thousand words to understand a picture.

These pictures  look simple enough, a happy young couple at the beach in an earlier time, but for me these pictures evoke memories that should not be mine, memories that belong to those young people.  The young people are my parents, Stanley and Henrietta Silver, and the memories the photos invoke in me are those of stories told so often and so well that the memories feel like my own.

To understand these pictures you need to understand their context.  The photos were taken in Wildwood, New Jersey around 1930, many years before I was born.  My grandmother Pauline operated a boardinghouse in Wildwood during the summer months.

To understand these pictures you need to know that my parents and grandparents lived in a row house in an intensely urban environment, no grass, no trees, no air conditioning. My grandmother worked hard all summer so her family could leave the city for the fun, the freedom and the comfort of the Jersey shore.

My Grandparents and my aunts in their swimsuits

I do not speak here of the Jersey shore of the similarly named television show.  I speak of the Jersey shore in the days before casinos.  In pictures the beaches look crowded and they are, but compared to Philadelphia’s less affluent neighborhoods this was wide-open space.  I listened for years to my parents and my older cousins tell stories about Wildwood.  For the young people in that picture it was the beach, looking good in a bathing suit, the boardwalk, maybe a quick smooch under the boardwalk. My entire extended family would spend their weekends there reveling in the cool breezes and each other’s company. They spent their days on the beach or on the boardwalk and they went to photo studios to have their pictures taken in their beach attire.

My mother and my grandfather 1913

My grandmother gave up the boardinghouse before I was born, but my family continued to cool off at the Jersey shore for years to come.  A few of my cousins rented cottages in the town of Brigantine.  On weekends the entire Silver clan would migrate to Brigantine.  These were small cottages, but somehow there was room for everyone.  I remember the ocean and the boardwalk, catching crabs and eating salt-water taffy.  Sooner or later someone would dump a crab pot on the kitchen floor.  Crabs, kids and grownups would scatter, jumping on the furniture until someone corralled the crabs and they were boiled and eaten.

My family doesn’t go “down the shore” anymore.  My generation grew up, went to college and moved around the country and the world in search of jobs, love, and adventure.  We meet at weddings and funerals and remember those times.  Now there is talk of a family reunion, maybe down the shore.

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