She put the starch in the Collar City

kate mullany 150th anniversary poster rchsToday's bit of local history: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Collar Laundry Union in Troy, the first female labor union in the country, in February 1864. The leader of that effort: Kate Mullany, an Irish immigrant who was just 19 years old at the time. From a great Brownstoner post by Montrose Morris about Mullany:

The collar laundresses had asked management for higher wages, but they were ignored. Well, not totally ignored. The commercial laundries had all installed new starch machines that could run the collars through a starch bath much faster than human hands. The machine increased production, but also make the women on the other end of the process work much harder to keep up with the machine. The scalding water from the machine had burned many of the women working with it, and the increased production was causing the pressers to burn themselves and the collars trying to keep up. Any collar ruined was docked from their pay.
Kate Mullany had been listening to the men in her building and neighborhood talk about their success in forming an Iron Molder's Union for their jobs in the steel mills. After an initial struggle, they had been able to successfully bargain for improved work conditions and higher wages. She talked with them about organizing a women's laundry union, and the men were encouraging. With conditions worsening in the laundries, and no pay raises in sight, Kate decided that someone had to do something, and that person had to be her. With the help of her co-worker Esther Keegan, Kate Mullany decided to organize the female laundresses into a union. On February 23, 1864, the three hundred women who signed up as the Collar Laundry Union walked out of all of the fourteen commercial laundries in Troy. The strike was on.

The strike's slogan: "Don't iron while the strike is hot!"

The union eventually won a raise. Mullany would go on to help other unions and she eventually became the first woman named to a labor union's national office. And Mullany's house -- at 350 8th Street in Troy, near the off-ramp from the Collar City Bridge -- is now a National Historic Site.

This Saturday (February 22), the Rensselaer County Historical Society will be commemorating the Collar Laundry Union strike with an re-enactment march from the RSCH building (57 2nd Street) to the Atrium. It starts at 11 am.

By the way: As the first part of the clip alludes to, doing laundry back then wasn't like doing laundry now. It was hard. That's the first part of the Brownstoner piece -- it'll make you reconsider using the word "sweatshop" in reference to some sort of modern office job.

poster via Rensselaer County Historical Society

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