Hatting was always an important industry in Norwalk. The first known hatter in Norwalk was Samuel Cluckston who established a business in 1709. Prior to the American Revolution, the hatting establishments were small, because Parliament’s Hat Act of 1732 limited the number of apprentices to two. After the Revolution, however, this was no longer a consideration, and Norwalk’s hatting businesses grew in size and number. By 1836, there were six hatting firms in Norwalk, and by 1845, it was the largest industry in the city, with eleven factories employing eighty-three people.
By 1885 the time of the strike, there were twelve hat manufacturers in Norwalk, employing over 2,000 people.
At this time, the working population of Norwalk was about 7,000 people, so the hatters comprised thirty-five percent of the population of South Norwalk. They comprised almost fifty-three percent of the population of South Norwalk, which is where all the hat manufacturers were located.
Thus they comprised a significant portion of the population and whatever affected them was bound to have significant impact on the whole town.
In 1860, Norwalk’s first hatters’ union, the Hat Finishers’ Association, was organized. In 1861, Hat Makers Union No. 15 was organized. The Ladies Hatters Union was informally organized at the beginning of the strike in November of 1884, but was not officially established until the strike was over in April of 1885. However, the women walked off the job with the men and remained out until the strike was settled.
The South Norwalk hatters’ strike began in November of 1884 and lasted into April of 1885. It involved four hat manufacturers and 1,250 hatters. The companies involved were the Crofut and Knapp Co., (the largest), Alden Solmans Co., Coffin, Hurlbutt, and Co., and the Adams Brothers Co. These four companies acted in concert during the strike. They claimed that severe competition had caused a drastic reduction in the price of hats. They felt that the only way to cut their losses was to cut wages, which they said were higher than those of hat workers elsewhere. Hatters in Norwalk received from $2.50 to $8.00 a day, depending upon the job they performed.
The workers claimed that the wage reduction was unfair since there had been no corresponding reduction in the price of hats. They also stated that they were asked to agree to this wage cut for the coming six months. The hatter’s unions forbid acceptance of this agreement, so the workers felt that they had no choice but to refuse. The manufacturers responded by declaring their shops independent (non-unionized). So the hatters walked out.
The manufacturers claimed that such wage reductions were necessary because wages ate up a disproportionate amount of their profits. They stated that they sought three aims by their actions. First, they acted together because they wanted to establish uniform wages in all their shops, and they wished to bring Norwalk wages down in line with those in other places. Their last aim was to bind the workers to wages fixed for a season, so that the manufacturers could stabilize their businesses. The manufacturers claimed that they had tried to negotiate with the unions in the past, but the unions had maintained an intractable position.
The employers issued a statement which said,
. . . finding, in short, that they (the hatters) were determined if we employed them at all it should be under conditions degrading to us and which rendered success impossible, we took the only steps really open to us, that of making our factories independent of all ‘trade’ rules and regulations. We wish our position in this matter to be clearly understood. We make no war upon any trade society or order. We refuse to employ no man because of his membership in any trade organization. We simply deny the right of any society to further control and injure our business. Our factories are open to any man or woman capable of doing our work and willing to do it at prices we can afford to pay and under the conditions and rules we choose to make.
Therefore, the real issue in the strike became, not wages, but the recognition of the right of the workers to organize. This is why this strike provides such a good case study for this unit. This issue becomes apparent, as, immediately after the walkout, the employers agreed to pay the usual wages, if the workers would agree to give up their association with the unions. This was not acceptable to the workers, so the walkout became a strike according to the employers and a lockout according to the workers.
The manufacturers attempted to keep their businesses running by importing non-union workers known as “foul” hatters from New York and New Jersey. However, committees of striking hatters would meet these fouls—known today as “scabs’;—at Grand Central Station in New York and persuade them to go back to their homes. The strikers were so successful that, by early December, only about fifty fouls actually made it to South Norwalk. There they were met by another committee of striking hatters who had been telegraphed by the committee from Grand Central. Many more fouls were persuaded to return home at this point, with the union paying their expenses.
The manufacturers, naturally, were upset by this, so they organized their own welcoming committee to meet the train in South Norwalk. On Friday, December 6, 1884, a train arrived in South Norwalk at 6:20 P.M., carrying ten foul hatters. Two representatives from Crofut and Knapp were there, as well as the mayor and five policemen, at the request of the manufacturers, to escort the fouls to the Crofut and Knapp factory on Water Street. About 400 to 500 striking hatters were also present. They followed the fouls to the factory, taunting and jeering at them. Just as the door to the factory closed, two stones were thrown. No one was injured, but the manufacturers were worried and angry, and sent the following telegram to the governor:
The manufacturers of South Norwalk would most respectfully call upon you for protection, the city is in the hands of a mob. Our lives and property being in danger. The mayor and sheriff are unable to give us the requisite assistance.
Governor Waller replied that he would send his representative to look into the matter. In the meantime, the strikers and the sheriff issued the following bulletin:
No riots, nor disorder, nor fires at South Norwalk. The city perfectly quiet and good order prevails.
The hatters and manufacturers each met with the governor’s representative and assured him that there would be no further violence. The whole incident blew over, but it aroused a considerable stir and was reported in the New York and New Haven newspapers. The pro-union Norwalk
attributed this violence to a rowdy and lowly element in the union and not to the union leaders. The union claimed that it was the work of outsiders who wished to discredit the union.
This issue of
(Dec. 9, 1884) also reports that the economy of the town was suffering as the workers had no money to spend. Since the workers comprised such a large proportion of the population, this seems to have been a natural by-product of the strike. Yet the retailers in town generally supported the hatters.
Another problem which the manufacturers faced, once they got the fouls to South Norwalk, was where to lodge them. The strikers called on the boardinghouse keepers and restaurant owners and threatened to withdraw their patronage from anyone who served the fouls. This must have been effective, because the manufacturers were forced to resort to boarding the fouls in the factories.
These tactics might have been effective, but they did serve to drive the employers and the workers farther apart. Alden Solmans, one of the owners, in an interview with
, said that the strike had become a question of “‘whether they (the manufacturers) were to be permitted to run their own shops or whether the union was to run them for them.’ For his part
proposed to run his.”
It was also reported that Mr. Austin Wilson, a foreman at the Adams Bros. shop, quit the strike and went back to work. That night all the windows in his house were broken by stones thrown at them. He also received an anonymous note, warning him not to go back to work. Although there was no proof, Mr. Wilson attributed the incident to the hatters. They again claimed that it was done by an outside element with the intent of arousing opposition toward the union.
Throughout the strike,
reported incidents of other unions in New England and New Jersey making donations to the hatters’ unions in South Norwalk. There were also reports of benefits being held by other unions to raise money for the striking hatters. This gave the impression that solid support existed for the hatters among union workers.
ln January, 1885, the workers organized a co-operative hat factory and soon after established a second one. The co-operatives sold shares at $100 each with members limited to five shares apiece. The co—operatives employed union members only.
On February 12, 1885, the pro-business
reported a fire which completely gutted Co-operative Hat Factory #1. However, the Co-operative had sufficient insurance to cover its losses and was able to re-locate in other quarters and resume production. By March, these co-operatives employed almost all of the striking workers and were turning out large numbers of hats. Later on, the striking hatters also organized a co-operative grocery store. So, to a great extent, through ingenuity, the workers were able to fend for themselves.
Journal of United Labor
,it was reported that the Knights of Labor decided to send out circulars to 150 cities, asking consumers not to buy any hats made by the four South Norwalk hat manufacturers involved in the strike. They also asked their members to call on the hat sellers in their districts and persuade them to discontinue selling the hats of the South Norwalk manufacturers until the strike was settled.
So, affiliation with the national organization of the Knights of Labor was of benefit to the striking hatters.
This boycott became a very important tool for the unions. Many of the retailers in Boston and New York, as well as those in Norwalk, refused to sell the hats of the four manufacturers until the strike was ended. It would seem that this boycott was effective, because, by March, the five shops, (two run by Crofut and Knapp), only shipped 100 dozen hats in a week, while their usual output was about 2100 dozen a week. However, the
took another view, saying, “Hat trade is very dull, and, in some respects the turnout has proved beneficial rather than detrimental to the employers.”
Another act of violence occurred on Friday, January 16, 1885. A cartridge of explosive that had been placed on a windowsill in the Crofut and Knapp plant exploded at 10:55 p.m. It startled the fouls and two supervisors who were sleeping there, but no one was hurt. However, windows were shattered and machinery was damaged. The manufacturers and the public blamed the hatters. The hatters accused the manufacturers of planting the charge to make the hatters look bad.
agreed with the hatters. A reward totalling $1400 was offered by the manufacturers, the hatters and the city, but no evidence was ever found.
Throughout February and March both sides continued to stand firm in their positions. The manufacturers continued to try to import fouls and the strikers continued to dissuade them. The union continued to receive money and support from other unions. Other unions,
editorialized “consider this not simply a local strike for wages, but a battle between labor and capital, the result of which will affect the workingman everywhere.”
A few weeks later, the editors continued:.
When the bosses formed their combination with the intention of breaking up the Union, they gave the challenge to every branch of organized labor in the country; and the result is that the whole system of organized labor is up in arms, and battling to maintain the very object of its existence.
Another interesting incident which reflects the support of the strike by other workers occurred in February. A woman who had been on strike got a job in the Davenport and Andrews Company which was not on strike. However, when she entered the factory, the other women put down their work and refused to resume as long as she was in the room. The company gave her a leave of absence. In this way, the workers reminded their employers that they would not tolerate any breach of the union shop agreement.
In March, the first glimpse of a possible settlement appeared. The owners requested a consultation with the strikers. Together they set up an arbitration committee, comprised of leaders from other unions not involved in the strike. This committee was unsuccessful.
Then a local committee of arbitration was appointed by the striking unions, and it met with the manufacturers. On April 14, 1885,
headline read, “The Strike Ended. The Bosses Recognize the Union and Turn Their Shops Fair.” The strike was over. The manufacturers agreed to recognize the unions, to pay the original wages, and to only employ union members in their shops. They also agreed to discharge all the fouls. The unions said that the deserters would have to rejoin the union in order to remain employed. The deserters would have to pay a penalty fee of $200 to $250 for men and $10 for women before they could renew their union membership.
“The contest has been long and bitter, and all honor is due the hatters—ladies and gentlemen—who have won an honorable victory in a good cause, by their perseverance and pluck,” cheered
The recognition of the union and the institution of the union shop represented clear victories for the hatters; unions and of the cause of organized labor everywhere. The Norwalk struggle exemplifies the struggle and goals of organized labor in the 19th century not only in Connecticut but in the United States as well.
It is not absolutely clear why the manufacturers settled at this point, but spring trade was always their busiest time of the year, and thus a settlement was to their advantage. With the settlement of the strike, the hat companies resumed production and maintained a good business for the next several years. The industry began to decline after World War I and some of the companies consolidated or went out of business. In 1932, Crofut and Knapp was bought out by the Hat Corporation of America. This company remained in Norwalk until business declines and labor problems forced them to remove their business to Tennessee in the 1960s. Today, that building is occupied by the Factory Outlets, but pictures of the Hat Corporation can be seen there.