Allentown Silk in the Nineteenth Century: Reassertion of Gender Hierarchies

By Heather Lash
Image 1. Silk was considered one of the only industry jobs women were capable of working due to prior “domestic skills.” (“What Silk Means to Allentown” 1915: 13)


Silk was a booming industry for Allentown around the 1880s with the introduction of the Adelaide Silk Mill into the city. The industry was essential in restructuring the economy after the decline of iron in 1873, and offered many new employment opportunities for people living within Allentown (Hall & Hall 1987: 290). With the emergence of the silk industry in Allentown during the 1880s, an increase in opportunities arose for women to enter the male dominated industry. Long before silk manufacturing was a thriving industry, textile manufacturing and specifically the trade of spinning, was largely limited to women, who used silk product to make clothes for their family (Clark 1919: 93). The textiles created by women were created domestically, and used primarily within the household. As silk increased in value and was more favorable to the wealthy, woman’s engagement in the silk trade dimmed. A new emphasis was placed on making as much silk as possible for sale rather than for the use of one’s own family (Clark 1919: 142). While the silk industry started with immigrants, it quickly popularized within the United States, where an increasing number of women had opportunities to enter the silk industry.

This was the case for silk mills during the nineteenth-century who located themselves in Paterson, N.J. (Margrave 1985: 9). Paterson, N.J. became one of the base silk manufacturing centers in the United States. Through the Paterson’s success, administration expanded the textile industry to other areas on the east coast of the United States; introducing the Adelaide Silk Mill into Allentown. Silk was imported from countries abroad featuring a variety of different silk types influencing the quality, color, and design of the final product. Countries exporting to the United States included Japan, China, and Italy (Scranton 1985: 43).

With the opening of the Adelaide Silk Mill, many more employment opportunities were available for women and children (“What Silk Means to Allentown” 1915: 13). However, female skills were taken advantage of, and often female workers were labeled as “unskilled” in comparison to their male co-workers who worked with the silk machines rather than the silk product (Margrave 1985: 26). Treatment of Allentown female silk workers replicated the treatment of female industry workers across the United States. Life as a working woman required the sacrifice of personal time and leisure, as women were responsible for working in both the public and domestic sphere – engaging in what is recognized as “double duty” (Tong 2014: 98-99). Women were expected to be thankful for the opportunities provided by the silk manufacturing companies, and accept their poor treatment because no other industry was willing to provide work for women and young girls. Therefore, the patriarchal position men held over women existed in the industry, and affected the way women were treated and recognized for their product within the silk industry. The effect of a patriarchal system is evident through the open expression of gender and job hierarchies.

Life as a Working Woman

Image 2: The claim implies silk mills are necessary to continue allowing women within the public male dominated work place. (“What Silk Means to Allentown” 1915: 13)

Even the way women were treated within the silk industry was gendered. Often the underappreciation of women was represented in the disagreement between female workers and their male employers. Payment for both women and men was through wages, however women were often paid much less than men (Cooper 1986: 191). This was partially due to a woman’s position in society during the early 1900s, where a woman was dominated by a man, both as work, and at home. Overall, while outwardly the silk industry seemed to be the first step in supporting women, and encouraging female empowerment within industry, silk manufacturing emphasized the unequal distribution of favors towards men, and reaffirmed a number of hierarchies within Allentown society based on differences of gender.

The attitude towards women in Allentown reinforcing differences in gender is evident in Images 1 and 2. The newspaper clippings from The Allentown Leader imply the women and girls employed within the silk industry should be thankful for the generosity of the men running silk companies. Without these men to help give money and job opportunities to women and their children, these families would be poor and hungry. The language used within many newspaper articles about the silk industry mentions women in this way. Women were used as tools to produce sellable product, and had no authority or power to challenge the individuals providing resources necessary for survival. Women had no choice but to be thankful and accept the conditions of the silk industry, including working double duty, and earning a very minimal wage, because “what would women, who would otherwise starve, do if there were no silk mills to provide work?” (“What Silk…” 1915: 13)


The gender hierarchy was reinforced in a variety of ways, the first being the categorization of women into jobs considered “unskilled.” This gender hierarchy also intersected with the type of job each worker was employed. Men were more often considered “skilled” workers, while women were considered “unskilled” workers and were therefore paid less. While many more women were employed within the industry, men were often given preferential wages and recognized as skilled laborers. Job listings in an Allentown newspaper giving evidence to the types of jobs provided to men and women. Men were provided jobs with machinery, and in industry work, while women were provided jobs usually in the domestic sphere, cleaning, caretaking, or cooking.

Image 3: Clipping from The Allentown Leader (Situations…1915: 26)


More often than not, women and young girls were engaged in making the silk product which was then sold in a market. Men were their employers, paying less than $1.00 a day for female work. As shown in Table 1, in 1880, common laborers from Paterson, N.J. were paid half of what higher skilled workers were paid. The rates for skilled laborers also continuously increased while wages for the common laborer remained static. This provides evidence for a hierarchy within the silk factories of Paterson, N.J. which valued higher skilled workers, working with machinery, over those who were common laborers.

Table 1: Wage differences between skilled and unskilled laborers  (Census Office 1886: 168)

This table shows the difference in wages awarded to employees specifically engaged in silk manufacture in the factories of Paterson, New Jersey. This information for Allentown is not listed within the U.S. Census. However, the Phoenix Manufacturing Company owned both the Paterson and the Adelaide Silk Mills, and therefore, the treatment of skilled and unskilled laborers is likely similar, if not the same. In fact, the same job hierarchy existed within the silk industry of Allentown. The highest wage for silk manufacture in Allentown was $2.44 daily in the skilled occupation of steam pump making, and the lowest wage was $0.70 daily for silk workers, who were majority female (“Our Silk Industry” 1899: 1-2). Not only were the rate of wages affected by job hierarchy, they were also influenced by an individual’s gender. Men were paid at least $0.20 more than their female counterparts, and at most, men were paid almost $10.00 more than their female counterparts for the same work (see Table 2 below).


Table 2: Rates of average wages during 1882 across the United States for males and females in the same positions. Workers were paid per week, and males in the same position were almost always paid more than their female coworkers. (Census Office 1886: 168)


While the job and gender hierarchies were clearly evident within the factory, the investigation into settlement patterns of Allentown were able to show if the hierarchies existed outside of the factory. As shown through Image 4, the settlement of male and female textile workers and related occupations shows a trend which is not consistent with the other evidence provided. Rather, the settlement pattern is more likely based on country of origin than occupation or gender. Therefore, based on the evidence, proximity of family location in relation to the Adelaide Silk Mill is not affected by the gender nor job hierarchies present within the factory.


Image 4: Gender is distinguished within the map through two shapes; males as triangles and females as stars. Additionally, the shapes are color coded to distinguish the various jobs of each individual. A dressmaker is an individual who specializes in making clothes for women, while a tailor is an individual who specializes in making clothes for men.


Therefore, while outwardly women were thought to be essential to the production and boom of the silk industry within Allentown during 1880-1950, the gender and job hierarchies ingrained through patriarchal and capitalist treatment of female silk workers within the factories proved women were still not invited to engage within a male dominate public space.


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