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A float for the Women's Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

The Birth of Labor Day

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

Back in the late nineteenth century  Labor Day meant something more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial end of summer.  This unique holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882. On that day  thousands of workers in New York City risked getting fired for taking an unauthorized day off to participate in festivities honoring honest toil and the rights of labor.  This first commemoration of Labor Day testified to labor’s rising power and unity in the Gilded Age and its sense that both were necessary to withstand the growing power of capital.

The Labor Day holiday originated with the Central Labor Union (CLU), a local labor federation formed in January 1882 to promote the interests of workers in the New York area.  The CLU immediately became a formidable force, staging protest rallies, lobbying state legislators, and organizing strikes and boycotts.  By August membership in the organization boomed to fifty-six unions representing 80,000 workers.

A float for the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

But CLU activists wanted to do more than simply increase membership and win strikes.  They wanted to build worker solidarity in the face of jarring changes being wrought by the industrial revolution.  Gilded Age workers were alarmed by the growing power of employers — from local building contractors to national corporations like Western Union — over their employees.  With political leaders wedded to laissez faire economics, employers were free to increase hours, slash wages, and fire workers at will.  Equally disconcerting was the growing gap between rich and poor, a disparity made shockingly clear by the emergence of millionaire industrialists and financiers with names like Gould, Stanford, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie.

These developments, noted labor leaders, called into question the future of the American republic.  “Economical servitude degrades political liberties to a farce,” announced the CLU constitution.  “Men who are bound to follow the dictates of factory lords, that they may earn a livelihood, are not free.  … [A]s the power of combined and centralized capital increases, the political liberties of the toiling masses become more and more illusory.”  CLU activists believed the establishment of a day celebrating the honest worker, the foundation of the republic, would open their eyes and compel them to reclaim their dissipating rights.  As John Swinton, editor of the city’s only labor paper wrote, “Whatever enlarges labor’s sense of its power hastens the day of its emancipation.”

The precise identity of the CLU leader who in May 1882 first proposed the idea of establishing Labor Day remains a mystery.  Some accounts say it was Peter “P. J.” McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and future co-founder of the AFL), who proposed the idea.  Others argue that it was another man with a similar last name, machinist Matthew Maguire.  Official bragging rights to the title of “Father of Labor Day” aside, both men played key roles in promoting and organizing the original holiday.

Labor Day in Detroit, 1942

After months of preparation the chosen day – Tuesday September 5, 1882 – finally arrived.   Optimism among the organizers ran high, but no one knew how many workers would turn out.  Few could expect their employers to grant them a day off and many feared getting fired and blacklisted for labor union activity.  When William G. McCabe, the parade’s first Grand Marshall and popular member of Local No. 6 of the International Typographers Union, arrived an hour before the parade’s start, the situation looked grim.  Only a few dozen workers stood milling about City Hall Park.

To the relief of McCabe and other organizers, some 400 men and a brass band had assembled by the time the parade touched off at 10:00 a.m.  Initially, the small group of marchers faced ridicule from bystanders and interruptions in the line of march because policemen refused to stop traffic at intersections.  As the parade continued north up Broadway, however, it swelled in size as union after union fell into line from side streets.  Soon the jeers turned into cheers as the spectacle of labor solidarity grew more impressive.

Marchers held aloft signs that spoke both to their pride as workers and the fear that they were losing political power and economic standing in the republic:

To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth

Labor Built this Republic. Labor Shall Rule It

Less Work and More Pay

Strike with the Ballot

Don’t Smoke Cigars without the Union Label

Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work

Many wore their traditional work uniforms and aprons and walked behind wagons displaying their handiwork.  Others dressed in their holiday best for the occasion.

Midway through the parade, the throng passed a reviewing stand at Union Square.  Among the many dignitaries was Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the most powerful labor organization in the nation.

After moving up Fifth Avenue, past the opulent homes of Vanderbilt, Morgan, Gould and other recently-minted tycoons, the grand procession of 5,000 or more terminated at 42nd Street and Sixth Ave.  There participants boarded elevated trains – extra cars had been added to handle the anticipated crowds – for a short ride to Wendel’s Elm Park at West 92nd Street for a massive picnic.  Tickets for the event were just 25 cents and by late afternoon upwards of 25,000 workers and their families jammed the park to participate in the festivities and consume copious amounts of food and beer.  Members of individual craft unions gathered under banners put up throughout the park.  Several bands provided music, while speaker after speaker held forth from various stages and soapboxes.

Thrilled with the success of their first effort, CLU leaders staged a second Labor Day the following year and drew an even larger number of participants.  In 1884 the CLU officially designated the first Monday in September as the annual Labor Day, calling upon workers to “Leave your benches, leave your shops, join in the parade and attend the picnic.  A day spent with us is not lost.”  Upwards of 20,000 marched that year, including a contingent of African American workers (the first women marchers debuted in 1885).

With such an impressive start, the tradition of an annual Labor Day holiday quickly gained popularity across the country.  By 1886 Labor Day had become a national event.  Some 20,000 workers marched in Manhattan, and another 10,000 in Brooklyn, while 25,000 turned out in Chicago, 15,000 in Boston, 5,000 in Buffalo, and 4,000 in Washington, D.C.   Politicians took notice and in 1887 five states, including New York, passed laws making Labor Day a state holiday.  Seven years later – just a dozen years after the first celebration in New York — President Grover Cleveland signed into law a measure establishing Labor Day as a holiday for all federal workers.

Labor Day caught on so quickly among Gilded Age workers because unlike the traditional forms of labor activism (i.e., striking and picketing) or civic holidays commemorating victories in war, it drew together workers for the purposes of celebration. As P. J. McGuire later wrote of the parade,

No festival of martial glory of warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of warlike conquest … attend this day.  … It is dedicated to Peace, Civilization and the triumphs of Industry.  It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age – a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.

In the twentieth century, Labor Day parades grew into massive spectacles of pride and power.  The highpoint came 1961 when 200,000 workers processed up Fifth Avenue behind Grand Marshall Mayor Robert Wagner, passing on the reviewing stand dignitaries that included Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob K. Javitts, and former President Harry S. Truman.  But the strength of organized labor demonstrated by that parade –union membership had just reached its historic highpoint with 39% of the American workforce – was already being eroded by the emergence of the service economy, globalization, and a political climate often hostile to unions.  By the late 1990s fewer than fifteen percent of American workers belonged to unions and Labor Day parades disappeared in many cities.  Or, as is the case in New York City, parades were moved to the weekend following Labor Day so as to avoid competing with the public’s desire for a final three-day weekend of recreation.

Still, it would be unwise to predict the Labor Day’s demotion to the status of Arbor Day or Flag Day.  Despite the fact that few Americans are even remotely aware of the struggle and spirit that laid the foundation of their current prosperity, comfort, and leisure, many of the issues that inspired the first Labor Day persist.  Public distrust of corporations has spiked in recent years as the result of scandals in accounting, campaign finance, and massive payouts to departing executives.  All the while, polls indicate that more and more Americans are worried about job security, health care costs, and pension funding.  Other workplace issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and family leave continue to attract attention.  Whether these concerns ultimately lead Americans to “Strike with the Ballot” remains to be seen.  In the meantime Labor Day will endure for the foreseeable future as an annual reminder of battles won and battles yet to be joined.


Tubman on the New $20 Bill – Move Over Jackson

[Note: a version of this piece originally ran in the Huffington Post on April 23, 2016; You can also hear this and related pieces in Episode 010 of my podcast, In The Past Lane]

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)The recent announcement by the United States Treasury Department that Harriet Tubman, escaped slave and abolitionist, would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill has garnered a lot of attention. Tubman will not only be the first African American to appear on U.S. currency, she also will be the first woman to do so in more than a century (Martha Washington and Pocahontas made cameos in the late-19th century). Meanwhile, Jackson will be demoted to the backside of the $20. Predictably, conservatives and traditionalists filled the Twittersphere and other forms of social media with outrage against what they see as the latest affront by the forces of so-called “political correctness.”

While this response is understandable – people often see change as a form of loss – it’s also misguided.  One of the central insights gained from the study of history is that, Nothing has always been. Nothing. Everything that we think of as traditional, has a point of origin that is probably not as far back in time as you think. For example, when did the United States decide it needed a massive peacetime military – you know, two million soldiers and 500 ships? The year was 1950 – less than 70 years ago. Before 1950, Americans agreed that a republic ought to have a small peacetime military. Then the Cold War happened and we changed our mind. There are countless other examples, but you get the point.

So how does this apply to the new $20 bill? First, we didn’t even have federal paper money until 1862 – that’s 74 years AFTER the ratification of the US Constitution. And second, in the coming years, many, many faces appeared on that paper money. Before Jackson, President Grover Cleveland’s face appeared on the $20 bill. Jackson bumped him in 1928 – a mere 88 years ago.  Let’s face it: the look of US paper money has changed many, many times and it wasn’t designed by God or George Washington.

President Grover Cleveland graced the front of the $20 bill until he was displaced by Andrew Jackson in 1928.

President Grover Cleveland graced the front of the $20 bill until he was displaced by Andrew Jackson in 1928.

But the negative reaction to the new $20 bill also reflects more than mere nostalgia. It indicates a shallow understanding of the purpose of civic symbols. Choosing names for public schools, establishing holidays, and building monuments to people or events are ways a society proclaims and affirms certain values. The selection of particular people to adorn U.S. currency performs a similar function. It says, in so many words, these people and what they stood for and what they did are worthy of our admiration. Their examples from the past should inspire us as we go about living our present and building our future.

Jackson was known popularly as "Old Hickory" and enjoyed a reputation as a defender of the "common man."

Jackson was known popularly as “Old Hickory” and enjoyed a reputation as a defender of the “common man.”

This understanding explains the decision to demote Andrew Jackson from his place of honor on the $20 bill. Simply put, American values have changed a lot since his presidency (1829-1837) and since his placement on the $20 bill in 1928. In his day and for decades thereafter, Jackson was hailed as a man who expanded American democracy and defended the rights of the “common man” against the predations of the rich and politically connected.

These are very important accomplishments and this aspect of Jackson’s reputation is largely accurate. But it’s also incomplete.  It obscures the fact that in Jackson’s understanding, democracy and equal rights only applied to white men. And it ignores the fact that Jackson advanced the cause of white men by promoting the expansion of slavery. Key to this policy was the opening of vast stretches of the American southeast to whites for cotton cultivation by enslaved labor. Jackson achieved this goal by forcibly expelling – in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court – tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the American southeast. Their deadly march to Oklahoma killed thousands and became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Jackson's expulsion of Native Americans from the US southeast became known as the "Trail of Tears" because thousands dies on the forced march to Oklahoma.

Jackson’s expulsion of Native Americans from the US southeast became known as the “Trail of Tears” because thousands dies on the forced march to Oklahoma.

These disturbing facts regarding Jackson’s presidency are not politically correct; they are simply correct and worthy of our attention. Jackson’s heroic status in the nineteenth century reflected the values of an antebellum America that was committed to territorial expansion and slavery. Similarly, the placement of Jackson on the $20 bill likewise reflected the values of a 1920s America that was dedicated to upholding a Jim Crow system of segregation and racial oppression.

A lot of history has unfolded since 1928 and with it has come an expansive notion of American citizenship that includes women, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. This transformation has been accompanied by an increased willingness to confront the darker chapters of American history like slavery and Japanese internment.

In light of this development, the choice of Harriet Tubman to replace Jackson is a laudable one. Symbolically, as a woman, an African American, and a former slave, Tubman stands for the Americans left out of Jackson’s vaunted “common man” constituency.

This 1850s woodcut image of Harriet Tubman depicts her as a defiant radical willing to break the law to end slavery.

This 1850s woodcut image of Harriet Tubman depicts her as a defiant radical willing to break the law to end slavery.

What’s more, Tubman embodied an essential and often undervalued American tradition of civil disobedience. Every chapter in the unfolding story of American freedom, democracy, and justice has been written by people who were willing to defy unjust laws, despite the attendant risks to their lives, reputations, and property. Tubman escaped slavery and then willingly risked her life innumerable times by returning to the South to guide others to freedom in the North along the Underground Railroad. Like later activists fighting for labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights (just to name a few), she broke laws to expose their unjust character and gain their repeal. What could be more American than that?

Placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill reflects an broadened notion of what sort of Americans and what kinds of actions are worthy of our collective admiration and commemoration. It’s no mere coincidence that this has occurred at a time when public sentiment has demanded the removal of pro-Confederate symbols from the public square. And this fact should caution us against reading too much into the new $20 bill. Symbols are important. But they are not ends in themselves. The best ones call to our attention what we value and why.

In 2016 the United States is beset by serious problems concerning poverty, inequality, and racism. Harriet Tubman’s arrival on the $20 bill will not solve these problems. Its purpose is to stand as a vivid and powerful symbol of freedom, equality, and inclusion. It’s up to us citizens to make use of it.

Hercules mulligan title card

Hercules Mulligan, Patriot Mentor and Spymaster

Who wITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)as Hercules Mulligan? Well, he certainly was a man with one of the great names in American history. Hercules Mulligan – you can’t make up a name like that. But beyond that great name, Hercules Mulligan has existed as a mere footnote for the last 200+ years of American history. That is, until about a year ago when, “Hamilton, The Musical,” opened on Broadway. The show, which has gone on to become one of the biggest hits in recent Broadway history, chronicles the life of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It features well-known figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but also people lost to history like Hercules Mulligan. He played a key role in the life of Hamilton, and served as one of Washington’s most important spies during the American Revolution.

Mulligan was born in County Antrim, in northern Ireland in 1740. Six years later, he emigrated with his family to colonial New York City. His father was a wealthy merchant, so Hercules enjoyed a comfortable life and received a very good education. By the mid 1760s, he was himself a prosperous businessman, operating a shop that sold cloth and custom tailored suits.

By the mid 1760s, Hercules Mulligan had also joined the Sons of Liberty. This early Patriot group had formed in 1765 to resist the Stamp Act—you know, the whole, “No taxation without representation” thing. The year 1765 was just the beginning of a decade of turmoil over British policies and Mulligan remained active member of the Sons of Liberty.

In 1773, the same year as the Bostonhamilton logo Tea Party, Mulligan met a 16-year-old orphan from the British West Indies. His name was Alexander Hamilton. Mulligan offered to rent him a room while he studied at Kings College (the forerunner to Columbia University). When Hamilton wasn’t studying, he hung around Mulligan’s store and listened to him talk with his friends, many of them fellow Sons of Liberty, about British abuses and the need to resist them. Not surprisingly, Hamilton soon joined the Sons of Liberty.

In 1775 Hamilton penned a widely read article highly critical of Great Britain’s increasingly harsh treatment of the colonies. Two months later, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. Sixteen months after that, the British invaded New York with a massive army and armada of 300 ships. In the ensuing Battle of Long Island in August 1776, George Washington and his Continental Army barely escaped capture and destruction. From that point until the end of the war, New York City remained under British occupation and it became a key center of military planning for the British.

As the war progressed, George Washington recognized the importance of establishing an intelligence network in New York to acquire information on British military plans. Accordingly, he put in place a network of spies that came to be known as the Culper Ring. And one of its most important members was Hercules Mulligan. In all likelihood, it was Hamilton—now an officer in Washington’s army—who recommended him.

Now, it’s important to point out that spying was dangerous business. In September 1776, the British caught Nathan Hale spying in the New York area and hanged him in Manhattan, not far from Mulligan’s home. So Mulligan and the other Culper Ring spies had to be very careful.

Fortunately for Hercules Mulligan, his business put him in an ideal position to gather information without arousing suspicion. His shop had to become very popular among colonial elites before the war, and during the military occupation it proved equally popular among British officers who were convinced that Mulligan was a Loyalist. In those days, tailoring shops were kind of like barbershops or coffee shops where customers hung out and talked freely about news and gossip. So while Mulligan went about his business of selling cloth and measuring, tailoring, and fitting British officers into their new suits, he listened for loose talk of military plans. Whenever he obtained important information about troop movements or changes in overall strategy, he passed it on to George Washington.

Hercules mulligan in hamilton copy

Hercules Mulligan (second from left) in “Hamilton, The Musical”

As Hercules Mulligan in “Hamilton” puts it:

A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it…
To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
See, that’s what happens when you up against the ruffians
We in the shit now, somebody gotta shovel it!
Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction
When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!

In one crucial instance, Mulligan heard of a British plot to capture George Washington. He passed on the information, allowing Washington to change his plans and foil the plot. Needless to say, had Washington been captured, the Patriot cause would have been doomed.

Mulligan played his role of tailor/spy perfectly for the whole war. But as the conflict came to an end, he had a big problem. He had performed so convincingly as a Loyalist, that most New Yorkers were convinced that he WAS a Loyalist. This was not a good position in which to be in the early 1780s. Loyalists were being driven from the colonies by angry Patriots. Some were tarred and feathered and a few were even killed.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

Fortunately for Mulligan, none other than George Washington came to his aid. On November 26, 1783, General Washington triumphantly processed into New York City as the last British ships departed. As he reached Lower Manhattan, he stopped at the home of Hercules Mulligan. The two enjoyed a breakfast together after which Washington publicly praised Mulligan as, “A true friend of liberty.” No one threatened Hercules Mulligan again after that!

Mulligan, unlike the ill-fated Hamilton, went on to enjoy a long and prosperous life in the years that followed. He died in New York in 1825 at the age of 85. Then he faded into historical obscurity—but not permanently.

Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

In 2004, Ron Chernow published a best-selling biography of Alexander Hamilton. In it, he related the role Mulligan played in Hamilton’s early life and his role as a spy in the Revolutionary War. And this is the book Lin-Manuel Miranda read that inspired him to create, “Hamilton, the Musical.” Miranda has said in interviews that he was drawn to Mulligan both for his unique name and for the important role he played in Hamilton’s life.

So there you have it. The incredible story of the great Irish spy helped win the American Revolution. Who knew?




Further reading:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Michael O’Brien, Hercules Mulligan: Confidential Correspondent of General Washington (1937)


N. Calyo's painting, "Ice Wagon," depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

America’s Last Ice Age (more recent than you think)

Headlines warning of an impending “ice famine” were common in the 19th and early 20th century during warm winters (NYT Feb 2, 1906)

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)What on earth is an “ice famine”? Well, if you were alive in the nineteenth century and the U.S. was experiencing winter as mild as this one in 2012-2013, the newspapers would be full of stories about a potential “ice famine.” The problem was not a shortage of ice in January and February, but rather in the coming summer because Americans, especially city dwellers, had come to depend on massive winter harvests of natural ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers to cope with summer heat and preserve their food. The creation of this ice industry is one of the more fascinating stories of American entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of a remarkable transformation of the American diet.

In an age of ubiquitous air-conditioning and refrigeration, it’s hard to comprehend just how much 19th-century Americans depended on ice. By the 18th century, icehouses were standard features on most estates in Europe and even Colonial America, but for the common man and woman, especially in cities, ice in warm weather was as rare and expensive a commodity as caviar.

Frederic Tudor, the man known as the “Ice King” for his role in creating the American commercial ice industry.

That began to change in 1806, when an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s commercial ice industry. After a trip to the tropics he became convinced that people in warm climates, whether Charleston, SC or the Caribbean, would pay good money for New England ice. And New England had a lot of ice. And it was free. The only costs – and the biggest challenges for this would-be business – was harvesting, transporting, and storing it.

Tudor was the charismatic son of a wealthy family. He was 23 years old and possessed an almost evangelical commitment to the enterprise. “People believe me not when I tell them I am going to carry ice to the West Indies,” he confided in his diary.

Actually, people greeted the idea not only with incredulity, but also laughter. As Tudor wrote, his plan “excited the derision of the whole town as a mad project.” Even his father called the scheme “wild and ruinous.”

But Tudor remained undaunted. He bought a ship, filled its hold with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond, set sail for the Caribbean island of Martinique.  The snickering now spread from his home town to Boston. The Boston Gazette reported with glee: “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

Tudor’s first foray into the ice industry brought mixed results.  The good news was that most of the ice survived the voyage. The bad news was that there were no ice houses in Martinique. So Tudor lost more than $4000 – a huge sum at the time.

But the next year he was back at it, sending in 240 tons of ice to Havana, Cuba in 1807. He managed to break even on this venture, but he would have to find a way to earn a profit – and soon.

The next few years saw more voyages and some success. But then bad luck and a theft by a corrupt business partner plunged Tudor into poverty and two stints in debtor’s prison in 1812 and 1813.

As soon as Tudor was released, however, he was back at his ice venture. He convinced partners in southern US cities and the tropics to build icehouses. This ensured that his cargo would not melt upon arrival.  Tudor also experimented with different forms of insulation to reduce melting in icehouses and on board ships. He eventually discovered sawdust from saw mills. Sawdust was plentiful and practically free – and it was a terrific insulator for ice.

By the early 1820s, Tudor was enjoying modest success. But the market for ice remained small.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Then in 1825 he teamed up with Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his ice suppliers, who had invented dual blade ice cutter pulled by horses across ponds, lakes, and rivers. This device – a kind of mechanical reaper for the ice industry — cut a grid of uniform grooves in the ice. Then workers using iron bars pried loose identical blocks of ice. This method proved far more efficient than the traditional method of cutting irregular ice blocks with saws. And the harvested blocks could be stacked neatly for more efficient transportation and far less melting. Soon Tudor had tripled his production and profits rose accordingly.

In 1833 Tudor sent 180 tons of ice 16,000 miles from Boston to Calcutta, India. Very little ice melted en route and the ship’s arrival touched off a frenzy for ice. Soon a group of investors constructed an icehouse to receive future shipments of Tudor’s ice. In the coming years Tudor – now known as “The Ice King” – sold ice harvested in Massachusetts all over the world. By 1856 ships leaving Boston carried 150,000 tons of ice to US ports and 43 nations around the world.

Here’s an amazing statistic that you can use to win a bar bet:  What product (by weight) was the #2 US export in the 1850s? Cotton was #1 and ice was #2!

But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.  The tonnage of ice sold by Tudor and a growing number of competitors soared in the 1840s and 1850s. The greatest demand came from American cities. English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope toured the US in the early 1830s and later wrote in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americas, “I do not imagine there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” Demand for ice grew so rapidly that by 1855 residents of New York City were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Where did this ice come from? By the 1850s the ice industry in New England and New York employed thousands of men – many of them farm hands and

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.

lumberjacks looking for work in the winter months – to harvest vast quantities of ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Some ice was floated on barges to big icehouses in cities, but by the 1850s more and more ice was moved in railroad cars.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

Frederick Tudor, “The Ice King,” died a very wealthy man in 1864. By this time it was clear that his efforts to make ice cheap and plentiful meant more than simply providing Americans with cool drinks in the summer. Ice had begun to change Americans’ basic diet. Whereas before 1830 much of the typical Americans’ diet consisted mainly of bread and dried or salted meat, after 1830 it included increasing amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products. This improvement in the variety and quality of food benefited public health and extended life expectancy. Ice also led to the popularity of products like ice cream. Once the rarest of treats, ice cream became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity of life.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

The availability of cheap and plentiful ice meant more than cool drinks in the summer; it changed Americans’ basic diet. Butchers, fishmongers and dairymen began to use ice to preserve their stocks, leading to significant improvement in food quality and public health. Ice also greatly increased the diversity of culinary offerings available to Americans as importers found ways to preserve previously exotic delights like freshwater fish. Ice cream, once the rarest of treats, became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity. Ice likewise made possible cold beer and other alcoholic drinks. Temperance advocates, however, countered with “Moderation Fountains” during heat waves that provided free ice water as an alternative to the offerings of a city’s countless saloons.

Ice also delivered an impressive array of medical benefits. Doctors at hospitals soon discovered that ice could save lives and began prescribing it as a means of lowering the body temperature of fever victims, especially the young. During the summer, city hospitals issued free ice tickets to the poor, and crowds often grew so anxious outside free ice depots during heat waves that free-for-alls known as ice riots erupted. According to an account in The New York Times of one incident in July 1906, “a woman pulled a man’s mustache and another woman hit a man with a dishpan,” and within minutes, “the ice was scattered on the sidewalk and hundreds were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight.”

N. Calyo’s painting, “Ice Wagon,” depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

By the 1880’s, about 1,500 ice wagons plied the streets of New York City every day. The burly, typically Italian iceman, a huge block of ice slung over his back and gripped with a pair of tongs, became as familiar a fixture on the urban landscape as the Irish beat cop.

During a typical week in the 1880’s, an iceman might deliver as much as 80 tons of ice, much of it carted up multiple flights of narrow and rickety stairs. The iceman’s daily interactions with housewives gave rise to countless bawdy jokes, an occurrence immortalized in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1912.

While urban Americans clearly loved their ice—Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879 (more than a quarter of the national market)—they often loathed the companies that provided it, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s, a rising chorus of critics charged firms with price gouging and monopolistic practices. Ice companies tried to blamed summer price increases on mild winters that produced insufficient stocks–the aforementioned “ice famines.”

That claim didn’t work in 1896 when in New York City the city’s ice firms were absorbed into a massive national ice trust called the Consolidated Ice Company. Prices jumped 33 percent that spring, and more than doubled by midsummer. Hardest hit were the poor, who could afford to buy their ice, like their winter coal, only in small quantities.

Anger against ice companies persisted after 1901. Here an ice baron sits in an ice house wearing a hat labeled “Ice Trust” and writing, “Owing to the mild winter, we regret to say that ice next summer will be dearer than ever.”

Popular outrage reached new heights four years later in 1901 when investigative journalists revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and other city officials had conspired to create a virtual monopoly for Consolidated. As the price of ice doubled, new revelations showed that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in Consolidated stock. The investigations produced no convictions, but the mayor, hounded by catcalls of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” whenever he appeared in public, was soundly defeated by a reform ticket in the election of 1901.

America’s ice age, however, was brought to a close not by reformers but by inventors who developed refrigeration and ice-making machinery. As early as the 1870s large brewers had begun to rely on mechanical refrigeration. Soon the meatpacking industry joined them. By 1900 refrigeration machinery was widely available. So, too, was ice making machinery. The final step came with the introduction of electric home refrigerators. By 1950 the iceman had been become as much a relic of a long-ago age as the blacksmith and the lamplighter.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, The Cold Chain: A History of Ice and Refrigeration in America and the World, forthcoming, John Hopkins University Press.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)




O'Donovan Rossa Gorilla Warfare Puck 1884 - crop

When Americans Saw Irish Immigrants as Terrorists

[NOTE – this piece accompanies a similar feature in my podcast, In The Past Lane]

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of talk about immigration and terrorism these days. Specifically, many Americans are worried about the alleged threat posed by Muslim immigrants and refugees. They fear that some of these people may be motivated by Islamic extremism to commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, much like we saw in the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Most Americans see this problem as a relatively new one – one that emerged in the wake of the terror attacks on September 11.  But the association of immigrant groups with terrorism has a long history in this country.

In the late 19th century, for eNY Post San Bernadino shooting copyxample, many Americans feared German immigrants because a small percentage of them were avowed radicals. These fears exploded in the wake of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in May 1886, an act of violence that killed 7 policemen and was blamed — albeit on sketchy evidence — on German anarchists.  A few decades later, Americans shifted their fears from Germans to Italian immigrants because a small percentage of them likewise subscribed to anarchism, as well as other radicalisms like socialism. A number of murders and bombings in the early 20th century were attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, including a massive bomb explosion on Wall Street in 1920 that killed thirty people.

But in this piece, let’s look at the connection between Irish immigration and terrorism in late 19th-century. It’s safe to say that the Irish were more closely associated with terrorism in the American mind than any other immigrant group and for a very long period of time. That’s right – the immigrant group that today most Americans associate with leprechauns, JFK, Riverdance, partying, and parading – was in the late 19th-century associated with terrorism.

Before going any further, it’s essential to point out that there are significant differences between San Bernardino-style terrorism that’s aimed at killing American citizens on US soil, and the terrorism that the Irish engaged in which was aimed at soldiers, policeman, and politicians in Ireland and Great Britain for the purposes of achieving Irish independence. These differences will become apparent as the details of this story unfold.

Let’s start with a quick Irish history 101. Our story begins in the mid 1860s, so what was the situation in Ireland at that time.  For hundreds of years up to that point, Ireland had been ruled by England. This colonial rule had become particularly onerous by the mid-17th century. That’s when the seizing of land from the Irish and transferring it to English landlords began in earnest, along with the suppression of the Catholic Church.

A starving mother and her children, victims of the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

A starving mother and her children, victims of the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

Periodically, the Irish rose up against British colonial rule, most notably in 1798 and 1848. But these insurrections were all crushed. Then in the mid-1840s, the Great Famine struck Ireland, killing more than 1 million people – about 1/8 of the population — and forcing another 1,000,000+ to flee, most of them to America.

Among these many immigrants were ardent Irish nationalists, many of whom had participated in the 1848 uprising. They were determined to launch another uprising that would gain Ireland’s independence. And they would take advantage of the freedoms in America to plot, recruit, and fundraise for this effort.  In the mid 1850s, these Irish nationalists, along with their brethren in Ireland, founded a nationalist organization that came to be known as the Fenians. For simplicity’s sake, we will use the term Fenians throughout this story. But it should be noted that Fenians was a broad term used to describe Irish nationalists who belonged to several different organizations like the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood.  The name Fenian comes from ancient Irish mythology. It’s an adaptation of the Fianna, the name of a legendary band of Irish warriors.

More than 100,000 Irish Americans turned out for a Fenian rally in New york City in 1866.

More than 100,000 Irish Americans turned out for a Fenian rally in New york City in 1866.

By 1860, these Fenians had recruited thousands of members from among the Irish immigrant masses in America. And they’d raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund an uprising in Ireland to gain Irish independence.  And when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Fenians came to see it as enormously beneficial to their efforts. That’s because nearly 200,000 Irish and Irish-American men joined the Union Army. When the war ended, the Fenians reasoned, these battle hardened Irishman would make an ideal military force to help gain Ireland’s independence.

In 1866, a year after the Civil War concluded, the Fenians were ready to strike. But they had come to see that sending a force of 30,000 Irish-American Fenians across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland wasn’t practical. So, they opted for what appeared to be the next best thing: invade British North America, or what we know today as Canada. The goal was to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain – something easy to imagine, since Americans were still furious with Great Britain for its support of the Confederacy. As soon as war broke out between America and Great Britain, Irish nationalists in Ireland would launch their uprising. Great Britain, they believed, would be so consumed with waging war on the United States, that it would be powerless to stop the Fenians from establishing an independent Ireland.

Now, if you think this sounds crazy, it’s important to point out that many Fenians also thought it was crazy. But they couldn’t stop a more militant faction within the movement from attempting the invasion.

The Battle of Ridgeway, 1866, as depicted in a popular painting

In the spring of 1866 – 150 years ago – thousands of Fenian soldiers, many of them veterans of the Union Army, gathered in encampments along the Canadian-US border, from Vermont to upstate New York. This was surely an impressive start.  But disorganization, poor communication, and sketchy logistics resulted in only one significant invasion effort. On June 1, 1866, a force of 1,000 Fenian soldiers, led by Civil War veteran Lieut. John O’Neill, crossed Lake Erie aboard a flotilla of boats, and landed on the Canadian side. The next day, after encountering no resistance, they attacked the small town of Ridgeway which was defended by about 850 poorly trained militia. The Irish invaders won the ensuing battle that saw eight Fenians and 12 Canadians killed. O’Neill called for 3,000 more soldiers massed in Buffalo, New York to join them in Canada, but by then the US military had moved in to stop the invasion. Frustrated, O’Neill had no choice but to retreat. After a brief skirmish with Canadian militia, his men boarded boats and headed for the United States’ side. But they were intercepted and arrested by American officials.

Now, stop here for a moment to consider this incident. A group of Irish-Americans, some of them still on active duty in the US Army, had conspired to invade a neighboring country to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain. They killed 12 Canadians in the process. And had they succeeded in starting that war, thousands would have died. And who knows what the result would have been for the US.

Can you imagine a modern equivalent to this story?  What if 1,000 Pakistani-Americans – all of them Muslim – gathered secretly in the desert in Arizona, formed a heavily armed force, and then invaded Mexico? And, after killing 12 Mexican soldiers, they retreated back to the United States whereupon they were arrested.  What would be the reaction in this country? Fear? Rage? Talk of internment camps? Or worse?

While you think this over, let’s return to our story. What happened to the arrested Irishman? What became the Fenian invaders?  Incredibly, all were released and all charges eventually dropped. This occurred for two reasons. One, American politicians did not want to alienate the Irish American vote by prosecuting men who many Irish-Americans saw as heroes. Second, this was a deeply embarrassing event and many US officials simply wanted it to go away.

By the way, the Fenian invasion did not simply go away in minds of the British living in the various colonies that made up British North America. Rather, it helped convince them of the need to unite into a single political entity to protect themselves from the United States. This “confederation,” as it was known, became official – one year later in 1867. So the Fenians failed to liberate Ireland from British rule, but they did help put Canada on the road to independence. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!

OK, let’s get back to the Fenians. Not surprisingly, the Fenian movement fell into disarray in the aftermath of the invasion fiasco. But various factions and other Irish nationalist organizations in the US continued to raise money for future operations aimed at gaining Irish independence. And some of these operations were explicitly terrorist in nature – bombings and assassinations.

Fenian diehard Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa is ridiculed in this cartoon for his open support for bombing British targets as a way to gain Ireland's independence.

Fenian diehard Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa is ridiculed in this cartoon for his open support for bombing British targets as a way to gain Ireland’s independence.

In the 1870s, one Fenian living in New York named Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (depicted in the adjacent political cartoon) established what he euphemistically called a “Skirmishing Fund.” Each week in a newspaper he edited, O’Donovan Rossa reported the success of his efforts to raise money to fund operations against the British. Other Irishmen also raised money for similar purposes. Beginning in 1881, Fenians in the US and Ireland began to put this money to use. From 1881 to 1885 a dozen Fenian bombings rocked Great Britain.  In 1882, radical Irish nationalists assassinated the two top British officials in Ireland, stabbing them to death in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

At the same time, Irish nationalists in New York City hatched another truly outlandish scheme. They commissioned the building of a submarine that would be used to sink British ships. Now keep in mind, while there had been many attempts, including a recent one by the Confederate navy, no navy in the world had managed to construct a successful military submarine. But these diehard Irish Americans were undaunted.

Fenian Ram designer John P. Holland exits the submarine after a test run

Fenian Ram designer John P. Holland exits the submarine after a test run

And amazingly, they succeeded. Well, sort of. It’s a remarkable story. The Fenians hired an Irish-born self-taught marine engineer named John Holland to build the submarine. He’d been studying submarine design and tinkering with scale models for years and now he had the funding to actually build one.  The craft, dubbed the Fenian Ram, was completed in the spring of 1881. It was cigar-shaped, thirty-one feet long and six feet wide, with room for two to three crewmen. Torpedoes intended for British ships would be shot by compressed air through a tube at the bow.  Holland completed a number of successful test runs in New York harbor.

But by July of 1881 the “secret” submarine plot was uncovered by the New York Times. In the end, the Fenian Ram was never put into action. But interestingly, John Holland went on to build the first submarines for the US Navy. In fact, he’s often referred to as “the father of the American submarine fleet.” That’s a pretty amazing turn of events for a man linked to a Fenian terrorist plot. You can still see the Fenian Ram on display at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ.

Puck magazine depicts this Irishman as both violent and unwilling to assimilate into American culture, despite the efforts of Lady Liberty (aka Columbia).

Puck magazine depicts this Irishman as both violent and unwilling to assimilate into American culture, despite the efforts of Lady Liberty (aka Columbia).

This submarine plot, along with the bombings, assassinations, and invasions of Canada (yes, invasions – there were additional ones not discussed here), brought a lot of harsh criticism on the Irish in the United States. It added to the stereotype of the Irish as inherently violent people. This sentiment is revealed in the political cartoons that accompany this piece that depict the Irish as terroristic bombers. Fenianism also perpetuated the claim that the Irish would never make good Americans, because their actions showed them to be disloyal to the United States and obsessed with Ireland. At least that’s what their critics claimed.

So, what became of this Fenian movement and the association of the Irish with terrorism? To begin with, it’s important to point out that not all Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans supported Fenian violence. A great majority of the Irish in America did support efforts to gain Ireland’s independence from Great Britain, but not necessarily by means of violence. The Catholic Church in America promoted this position. It denounced Fenians and threatened Catholics with excommunication if they joined the movement.  As a result, as more and more Irish-Americans began to experience upward economic mobility in the late-nineteenth century, they tended to avoid any association with Fenian-style Irish nationalism. These Irish-Americans wanted a free Ireland, but they also wanted respect. They wanted to be seen as intelligent, hard-working, sober, and patriotic Americans. As a consequence, they worked very hard to eradicate the association of the Irish with crime, poverty, disease, drunkenness, and – yes – nationalist violence. They supported efforts to liberate Ireland, but only peaceful and constitutional efforts. They rejected violence and terrorism as misguided and harmful to the Irish reputation.  By 1900 the image of the Fenian bomber and assassin had faded in the United States. At that point, Americans were fixated on more recently arrived immigrant radicals from Southern and Eastern Europe.

This political cartoon shows an anarchist of southern or eastern European background threatening America. By 1919 the image of the Irish immigrant terrorist had faded.

This political cartoon shows an anarchist of southern or eastern European background threatening America. By 1919 the image of the Irish immigrant terrorist had faded.

Over the coming decades, continued rising economic status, as well as military service and staunch support for the Cold War, earned Irish Americans a reputation as some of the nation’s most loyal, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens. That remained the case even in the late 1960s and 1970s when Northern Ireland was plunged into sectarian violence that often involved bombings and assassinations funded in part by Irish Americans.

These days, no one seems to remember a time not that long ago when Americans looked at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and saw Irish terrorists.

We should keep this in mind as we listen to the vitriolic rhetoric about immigration and terrorism in this election year. And you might keep it in mind should you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

As always, the past has much to teach us. But we have to be willing to listen.

Puck magazine shows buffooonish Irish nationalists carrying bombs to their meetings.











Punch, the British equivalent of Puck, likewise portrayed the Irish as dangerous terrorists.

Punch, the British equivalent of Puck, likewise portrayed the Irish as dangerous terrorists.