Before May Day, Recalling the Paterson Strike Pageant of 1913

Occupy Wall Street, with the support of several community and university groups, has announced a full slate of activities in New York City for May 1, International Workers' Day. In addition to calls for a general strike, the OWS has announced plans for a "Pop-up Occupation" of Bryant Park, a solidarity march and rally (already granted permits), and a Free University from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. in Madison Square Park. In light of these activities on behalf of the 99%, I thought it would be instructive to take a look at a similarly spirited event that happened in the city 99 years ago - the Paterson Strike Pageant of 1913.

In the late spring and early summer of 1913, nurse and activist Margaret Sanger, writer Max Eastman, artist John Sloan and his wife Dolly, the Harvard-educated radical journalist John Reed, I.W.W. leader Big Bill Haywood, and others worked tirelessly to organize a pageant in support of striking workers. Over a thousand workers in the silk mill industry had walked off their jobs earlier in the year in Paterson, New Jersey, and they agreed to personally take part in an elaborate staging of their plight. The venue was Madison Square Garden. The Garden then was located just off Madison Square Park. The pageant opened on June 7, 1913.

Organizing the visual and performance aspects of the pageant took place in and around Greenwich Village where most of the organizers lived and worked. The organizers structured the pageant in episodes narrating the events of the strike - first, the walkout with workers singing the Marseillaise, the violent clashes with police, the shooting of an innocent bystander, and the I.W.W.'s mass meeting. Episode Five reenacted the May Day Parade in Paterson, with women and children dressed in red. The scene dramatized the emotional moments when the women on strike handed over their children to temporary "strike mothers" in other cities.

Mabel Dodge, a financial supporter of the strike and friend to the organizers, wrote in her autobiography, "No one realized the fun of having placed the letters I.W.W. ten feet high on each of the four sides of the Madison Square Tower in bright red electric lights, so that they could be seen from one end of town to the other." (from Movers and Shakers by Mabel Dodge Luhan) Inside the Garden, Sloan painted the ninety-foot backdrop of the Paterson silk mill.

Madison Square Garden, New York City. Created/Published between 1900 and 1910.
The Library of Congress.

In recounting the events of the pageant, Dodge acknowledges, "Everybody worked except me." Dodge's job, as she saw it, was to inspire John Reed, her lover of the moment, and to raise money. Dodge, as a wealthy Fifth Avenue heiress, spent a lot of energy trying to convince the anarchists in her circle that she was a good capitalist. The most humorous parts of her autobiography - although I don't think she saw them as funny - involve her worries that her friend, the anarchist Emma Goldman, might possibly kill her.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the Paterson Strike Pageant failed to raise enough funds through admission fees to make a significant economic contribution to the depleting strike fund. Furthermore, the event led to a bitter argument between the labor movement activists and the Greenwich Village arts radicals, with labor leaders accusing the Villagers of taking the profits of the pageant. The accusation proved unfounded, as the artists had loaned money to the cause. News reports indicated that the disappointing profit of $350 after expenses caused a great deal of ill will. The strike was, in effect, broken in August of 1913. (See T‪he Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger‬, Volume 1, ‪University of Illinois Press‬, ‪2003‬, p. 54)

Still, most all contemporary accounts indicate that at least for the night of the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden everyone was uplifted and in good spirits. Two reviews follow.

Here is a review from The Survey: social, charitable, civic : a journal of constructive philanthropy, Volume 30 from June 28, 1913.

The Independent noted in the following excerpt, "No stage in the country had even seen a more real dramatic expression of American life--only a part of it, to be sure, but a genuine and significant part."

Happy May Day.

See May 1 page for Occupy Wall Street with list of events.

See also the post One Hundred Years Ago in Bohemia: Greenwich Village 1912.

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