Women’s Labor in the Progressive Era
The Rise of the Woman in the Factory
Paper mill employees, c. 1905. Kalamazoo Valley Museum Collection
Prior to the Progressive Era (1896-1917), the role of women as workers in the industrial economy of Kalamazoo was narrowly regulated, but as more labor was needed to generate greater output in particular markets (Paper, Garments, Cigars, e.g.), women as young as 15 were increasingly used to expand labor pools.
In July of 1903, the
Kalamazoo Gazette recognized the increase in use of women, and published an article detailing the new ‘normal’ for many women, thrust into working long hours in factory settings, often without the support of union protections. This latter conflict would boil over in several instances of women organizing to confront their employers with demands for better pay and working conditions, first at the French Garment Skirt Company in 1900, and then later in 1912 at the Kalamazoo Corset Company. The following text is taken directly from the Kalamazoo Gazette...
Over 2500 Employed in Kalamazoo Factories
In the daily rush of business of these advanced times, the importance of women laborers is seldom considered. Fifty years ago the girls of the family, when they had finished their schooling and very often before their courses were completed were taken in hand by the mother of the household and given daily lessons in house keeping, lessons in cooking, sweeping and in fact all the duties of a house wife were administered often with painful severity and thought of far more importance than the arts and sciences studied today. The boys of the family were the ones, after a schooling to start out and rub up against the world.
Today the girl, often not over 15 or 16 years of age, leaves the school and earns her weekly wages the same as the boy. They have forced their way into the whirl of business and today, they are a mighty proposition in the industrial interests of the land. Kalamazoo is no exception to the general rule of the 30,000 or 35,000 inhabitants of which this city can boast there are about 2500 girls and women earning their daily bread and in some cases supporting or helping to support large families on the money earned in the factories, paper mills and stores of this city.
According to the ninth annual report of the inspection of factories by Scott Griswold, commissioner of labor for 1902 the following factories are listed as employing the largest number of women in Kalamazoo, William Shakespeare Manufacturing Company, Doubleday Brothers, Lillies Cigar Company, Zeedyk Cigar Company, Verdun Cigar Company, Puritan Corset Company, Kalamazoo Corset Company, Kalamazoo Laundry Company, Dunkley Celery and Preserving Company, Upjohn Pill & Granule Company,
Henderson-Ames Company, American Playing Card Company, Bryant Paper Company, Imperial Coating Mills, Riverview Coating Mills, Kalamazoo Paper company, Superior Paper Company, Gibson Paper Company, French Garment Company, Ihling Bros & Everhard, Kalamazoo Pant & Overall Company, Henrietta Skirt Company, Kalamazoo Paper Box Company and the King Paper Company. A much longer list is given of the firms employing a smaller number of women.
In point of the number employed, the corset and paper industries rank first, and a brief outline of the work done by the women and girls in the two corset factories of this city will give a better idea of the real worth and importance of female labor. With the aid of female labor, Kalamazoo has gradually gained precedence in the manufacture of corsets, until today probably as many, if not more corsets are shipped out of Kalamazoo than any other city in America. The total production of the two companies, The Kalamazoo Corset Company and the the Puritan Corset Company will this year reach a total of about 2,460,000 corsets. There are about 550 women and girls helping to turn out this enormous number of the finished article, or about seven times that of the number of men engaged in the business.
The work done by the women is of great importance. They operate the power machines which sew the parts together, put the steels and whale bones in the corsets by hand in the finer grades, and in the cheaper ones operate the machines which insert the split rattan which is used. They do the binding and trimming of the corsets and in the high class of work trim the corsets with lace and ribbon by hand. Each factory employs a large number of women to do what is called the “lace work.” This is done at the homes of the women instead of in the factory and is the inserting of baby ribbon in lace which is later used in the trimming of the high priced articles. A large number of girls are also kept busy placing the corsets in the paste board boxes ready to be packed for shipment.
Women strikers at the Kalamazoo Corset Company, c. early 20th Century. Kalamazoo Valley Museum Collection
It will be seen that at almost every stage of the manufacture of the corset woman’s labor is used and forms an important part in the making of the article. The part the women do in the work does not really constitute a trade, women by application to the business soon gain a speed and accuracy, and an old experienced person at the business is of course worth more than a novice.
Such is the influence women’s labor holds upon the corset industry of Kalamazoo and to their labors alone is the present vastness and importance, in this city and in others, due.
Article reprinted by Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2024