The story of Kate Mullany, an 19-year-old Irish immigrant who founded the nation’s first women’s labor union in Troy.
In the 1860s, a young Irish immigrant became the unsung patron saint of the “Collar City”
By A. J. Loftin
Mullany’s Eighth Street house
This St. Patrick’s Day, if drinking Guinness and wearing kelly green are your M.O., you might want to clink a mug in honor of Kate Mullany. You may not know her name, but perhaps you should. This Irish lass was just 19 years old in 1864 when she organized the nation’s first women’s union among collar launderers in
It’s hard to imagine a time when men’s shirt collars played an important role in the nation’s economy, but they did. And Troy, nicknamed “the Collar City,” supplied nearly all of them. From the 1840s to the 1920s, detachable collars were the working man’s ticket into an expanding American middle class. (Hence the term “white-collar” jobs.) Troy manufacturer Cluett, Peabody and Company made advertising history with its suave “Arrow Man,” who first appeared in the company’s print ads in 1907. Arrow collars became synonymous with detachable collars, preserved for posterity in a 1934 Cole Porter song lyric: “You’re the Top! You’re an Arrow Collar.”
But why did Troy become the hub of the collar universe? Not because it had the manufacturing base of unskilled Irish laborers who had fled that country’s potato famine — although it did. And not just because of Troy’s strategic location on a major waterway (the Hudson River). Rather, you might say Troy became Collar City because of one lazy (yet enterprising) housewife, Hannah Lord Montague. Laundry was an arduous chore in the early 19th century, and no doubt Mrs. Montague got fed up. Her aha moment came one day while washing her husband’s shirts, only the collars of which were dirty. Why not just cut the collars off, clean them separately, and reattach them to the shirts by a few threads? Hannah Montague grabbed a pair of scissors and did just that. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Hannah’s husband Orlando set up a detachable collar-making business, and other entrepreneurial types followed suit. Dozens of styles were produced by Troy’s collar manufacturers, and sold to gentlemen locally and throughout the nation. All of them had to be cleaned, which is where Kate Mullany comes in.
Historians are still trying to piece together Mullany’s whole story. What is known is that — like many other young, unmarried Irish women — Mullany spent 14 hours a day laundering shirt collars. It wasn’t easy work: the girls had their hands in boiling soapy water and strong chemicals all day, and often got burned by the unwieldy irons used to
press the collars. They earned $3 to $4 dollars a week, less if they damaged any fabric.
They were glad to have the work, but they knew they were being exploited.
Luckily, Mullany — and her family — had a few advantages that enabled her to do something about it. First, unlike many of the Irish in Troy at that time (who spoke only Gaelic), Kate Mullany spoke English. Second, the Mullanys likely had working relatives in the Troy area, who could be counted on as a source of emergency funds. Third, resourcefulness was the Mullany way. Kate’s widowed mother peddled clothing door-to-door; shortly thereafter, she and her three girls bought land and built a double-row house on Eighth Street that included several apartments that would produce rental income. Last but not least, accounts from the period suggest that Kate Mullany was simply more clever, more ambitious, and more confident than many of her coworkers. William Sylvis, president of the Iron Molders’ International Union, called her “one of the smartest and most energetic women in America.”
So in February 1864, this teenager and a coworker organized 200 women into the Collar Laundry Union, and promptly went on strike for higher wages and safer starching machines. For five days, Kate and her colleagues stayed away from their jobs; eventually a few companies caved in, and the others acquiesced a day later. Mullany’s efforts had secured a 25 percent wage increase.
But what really set Mullany apart was her commitment to retaining and strengthening her union over the next five years. Other women’s unions formed and then quickly dissolved once their immediate demands had been met. But Mullany continued to enlist support and generate funds for the Collar Laundry Union, and to strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The union treasury not only provided for women injured on the job and floated strikers’ families, but at one point gave the staggering sum of $1,000 to Sylvis’s Iron Molders’ Union to support a strike. This contribution won the attention and respect of the all-male press; Mullany was soon giving interviews to the New York newspapers and accepting union positions at the national level to help organize other working women. Most remarkably, Mullany and her union eventually started a worker-owned collar manufacturing factory after the big guys organized against them. Although it didn’t succeed in the long term, the initiative deserves huge credit.
But alas, the next thing we learn about Kate Mullany is that she got married, albeit to a union man. From what the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission’s Rachel Bliven can figure out from census records and other documents, the marriage didn’t last long. Mullany moved back in with her sister, Mary, at the house on Eighth Street. She died of an ulcer in 1906. All three of Troy’s newspapers ran notices of her death (her occupation was listed as “starcher”) and gave accounts of her funeral (there was a hearse and four carriages, and she was buried in a solid oak casket).
In 1998, the Eighth Street house was declared a National Historic Landmark in a ceremony attended by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not long after, the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Mullany into its ranks, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dorothy Day, Amelia Earhart, and other better-known pioneers. “A great country is measured not just by its heroes, or well-known people,” Clinton said. “Thanks to Kate Mullany and other brave men and women who led the labor movement... we have examples to follow even today.” Cheers to that.