A history of the Collar Laundry Union – the first female union in the United States – set up by Kate Mullany, Esther Keegan and others in Troy, New York in 1864.
It was a cold snowy February morning when Kate Mullany left her
home at 34 North 2nd Street in Troy, New York, waved goodbye to her
widowed mother, Bridget, her older sister Mary, her two younger sisters
and her brother Frank to walk to her job at the laundry. Kate and Mary
had been born in Ireland and immigrated to America with their parents.
After the death of their father, and because of their mother’s ill
health they decided that Mary would stay home to care for the family and
Kate would become the breadwinner.
As she walked along River Street, the ice-cold wind off the
Hudson River swirled the snow around her 23-year-old body and chilled
her to the bone. Although she shivered from the cold she knew that after
a few minutes in the laundry she would welcome the cold wind and fresh
air. To take her mind off the cold she began to go over her plan to
organize her co-workers and form a union.
Kate considered herself lucky to be employed by one of the 14
commercial laundries in Troy. In 1864 working in the laundries was
considered a good job even though her peers labeled them sweatshops;
competition for the jobs were fierce.
Kate and the other girls would spend 12 to 14 hours every day
washing with soap; bleaching with chloride of soda; adding dilute of
sulfuric acid to bleach the collars; washing the collar once again with
suds; boiling; rubbing and rinsing; bluing and rolling; starching with
both thin and thick starch; drying; and ironing. The “girls” depended on
each other to do their part of the job properly and even though the
water was boiling hot, their hands were in the bleaches and soap all
day, and many were burned from the irons, they did their best to do it
properly. They only earned 3 to 4 dollars a week and if they damaged any
shirt or collar, their wages would be reduced.
This was all going through her mind as she walked along the
snowy streets. Kate knew that the collar laundresses had asked for
higher wages and they had not been listened to. She had heard her male
neighbors, who were members of the Iron Molders’ Union, talk about the
strength of the union and what could be accomplished if workers banded
together. And she had heard that the cigar makers and the printers
opened their membership to women. She viewed herself as man’s equal as a
worker and knew that the men would support their sisters in this
She also realized that 90% of the white starched shirts,
collars, and cuffs that had become the mainstay of the wardrobes of men
from middle-class families were manufactured in her hometown. And she
knew many of the women faced a health and safety hazard on the job.
Since the new starching machines were brought in, scores of them had
been badly burned.
Kate knew that over 3,000 women, almost half of Troy’s female
industrial workers were employed in the collar industry; and that the
laundry owners recognized the importance of the ironers by the wages
they paid the respective laundry workers. Washers earned the least,
starchers earned somewhat more, and the ironers were paid wages that
were considerably higher than that received by factory workers and
public laundry workers.1
Organizing would be a monumental task. They all worked 12 to
14 hours a day and many of the girls also had their household
responsibilities. There were no large meeting halls to get together and
discuss the union and it was dangerous in that so many were waiting to
take their jobs. Yet she was determined and on that snowy cold February
morning she knew what she had to do.
Kate was grateful that she did not have household
responsibilities in addition to being the wage earner, so she was able
to devote time to the creation and development of the Collar Laundry
Union. Due to her family circumstances she was accustomed to having
considerable authority with her younger siblings and the experience of
immigration had given her practice with guiding others. She was
conscious of the fact that as a woman she was considered subordinate to
men yet, at the same time, she would be man’s equal as a trade unionist.
She was concerned with women’s issues that were directly related to
working-class families’ daily life and economic goals. Her male allies
shared the view of the women primarily as workers. Male trade unionists
at that time did not refer to women trade unionists as women, that is,
as sisters, but instead referred to cooperation between women and men as
examples of brotherhood and referred to female allies as fellow working
Through sheer determination, hard work, and encouragement from
the Iron Molders’ Union, in February of 1864, Kate and her co-worker
Esther Keegan organized approximately 300 women into the first female
union in the country, the Collar Laundry Union.
Shortly after forming the union, at noon on Wednesday,
February 23, 1864, approximately 300 women went on strike from the 14
commercial laundry establishments. That afternoon Kate met with the
women to discuss their demands for a 20 to 25 percent wage increase and
their concerns with the introduction of the starching machines, which
were scalding hot to handle. At first the laundry proprietors would not
bend; they stated that they could not afford to pay the women more
unless they passed it on to collar manufacturers. For five and a half
days Kate, Esther and the others stayed away from their jobs, and then
on February 28th a few of the proprietors gave in to their workers’
demands and the following day other employers followed. The strike had
been a success.3
Kate, Esther, and the other members of the Collar Laundry
Union were grateful to the Iron Molders’ Union No. 2 for their guidance
and inspiration and realized that it was time to make a public statement
that the Collar Laundry Union had a legitimate and prominent place in
Troy’s labor movement. They decided to show that appreciation at the
July 18th 1864 picnic.
Approximately 4,000 working people watched as Kate presented
the elaborately embroidered full-color banner, with a picture of the
interior of a furnace on one side, and the picture of “Justice”
surmounted by an eagle on the other side, to Henry Rockefeller, the
president of the Troy Iron Molders. Ribbons bearing the inscription:
“Presented by the Collar Laundry Union of Troy, to the Iron Molders’
Association” were attached to the banner.
William H. Sylvis, the president of the Iron Molders’
International Union was present at the picnic. Mr. Sylvis had been the
president of the Philadelphia Iron Molders local which had helped to
establish the international union. In an article in the New York Sun
regarding Mr. Sylvis’ election as president the reporter wrote that his
name was as “familiar as a household word.” Kate made it a point to meet
Mr. Sylvis and to inform him of the activities of the Collar Laundry
Union. This was the beginning of a long friendship.
1866 was an important year for Kate and the Collar Laundry
Union. That was the year the Union, under Kate’s leadership, voted to
donate one thousand dollars to the molders’ Great Lock-Out. The
contribution received favorable attention in the press and the Troy
Trades’ Assembly invited the Collar Laundry Union to affiliate. The
Assembly also added a section of books relating to women to its Labor
Free Library and Reading room.
Also, in 1866, after a short strike, Collar Laundry Union members’ earnings increased from $8 to $14 per week.
Kate and her fellow union officers Ann Tellers, Secretary;
Sarah McQuillan, Treasurer; and Esther Keegan, Vice President,
demonstrated their leadership and good business sense by maintaining
higher wages for their members than most working women earned. They also
accumulated a larger treasury than those of many men’s locals, and were
able to offer benefits to their members, even during illness and family
In August of 1866 William Sylvis convened a congress of
national labor leaders in Baltimore. The National Labor Union grew out
of this congress and would represent all workers, including women.
President Sylvis acknowledged in his address that prejudices existed
against the employment of women. “It was natural that male workers had
objected to the introduction of female labor when used as a means to
depreciate the value of his own.” He ended his address to the assembly
by saying “We trust, therefore, that the workingmen of America will
protest against this iniquitous system, and lend their powerful
influence to effect a reform, and in no manner can they do so more
thoroughly than by aiding in the formation of those labor associations
in which experience has demonstrated their own safety lies.”4
Kate recognized the ability of her members and realized that
they were just as competent as gentlemen. She also realized that the
same level of competence did not exist with other women’s groups and she
offered to send her members to help women organize. The Collar Laundry
union would pay their expenses until such time as the women could
educate some of their own.5
In July 1868, Kate led the ironers in a walk out and shortly after going out on strike they received an increase.
In September 1868 Kate traveled to New York City to attend the
National Labor Congress meeting held in Germania Hall. Three other
women were delegates; Mary Kellogg Putnam, representing Working Women’s
Association No. 2 of New York City; Miss Susan B. Anthony representing
Working Women’s Association No. 1, New York City; and Mary A. MacDonald,
representing the Working Women’s Protective Labor Union of Mount
During the conference, Kate was nominated for the post of
second Vice President. The delegates praised her for showing great
ability in organizing, building up the treasury of the Collar Laundry
Union, and for her humanitarian work in support of her fellow union
Kate was elected but decided to relinquish the office because the first vice president was also from New York State.
On the last day of the Congress, William Sylvis appointed Kate
assistant secretary, the first time a woman had been appointed to a
national labor union office. Her responsibilities would include
corresponding with working women and coordinating national efforts to
form working women’s associations.
He said in his closing speech that: “We now have a recognized
officer from the female side of the house – one of the smartest and most
energetic women in America; and from the great work which she has
already done, I think it not unlikely that we may in the future have
delegates representing 300,000 working women.”7
During this period Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and others from the suffrage movement attempted to enlist working women
to their cause. Kate, like many from the working class, viewed
themselves as men’s equals as workers and trade unionists but not as
men’s political equals. Kate did establish a friendship with Susan
Anthony and the other suffrages and did seek their assistance in some
In September 1868, members of the Collar Laundry Union joined
with thousands of Troy’s trade unionists in processions, and at
meetings, and with a $500 contribution, all in support of the NYC
Bricklayers who had gone out on strike for the 8-hour day.
In 1869 Kate was able to move her family to a three-story
brick double row house located at 350 Eighth Street. It was a grand
house and Kate was proud to be able to provide such accommodations for
her family. Kate would remain in this house until 1875.
In March 1869 the starchers successfully struck for higher wages.
In May 1869 the Collar Laundry Union, approximately 450
strong, demanded raises of 1/2 cent, 1-1/2 cent, and 2 cents per dozen
piece raise. This time the laundry owners decided they had had enough.
They formed a coalition with the collar manufacturers and met the
Union’s demands with bitter opposition and the determination to kill the
Collar Laundry Union.
Only a few days after the strike began the molders announced,
“We will to a man support our fellow working women who are now
struggling for their just dues and independence. Our hand is in theirs
and the purse in it.” The molders opened their hall to the Collar
Laundry Union and donated $500 per week to them.8 A huge rally was held
and 7,000 people, even the merchants and professional people of Troy,
extended substantial sympathy and support.
The manufacturers pressured the laundry owners into holding
out indefinitely against the union by refusing to send new collars and
cuffs to any laundry employing union ironers. The collar makers also
helped laundry owners obtain a new non-union workforce by helping to
recruit and train new workers. 9
In early June Kate and her fellow officers decided that they
would beat the laundry owners at their own game by establishing a
cooperative laundry. Local manufacturers decided that they had to stop
the laundresses before they started by preventing out-of-town collar
makers from supplying the cooperative with new collars. The local
manufacturers were successful and the cooperative laundry failed.
In late July a picnic was held with 5,000 to 6,000 thousand
people in attendance. $1,200 was collected for the Collar Laundry Union.
Local Labor Leader Dugald Campbell read a letter from National Labor
Union President William Sylvis in which he praised “the Troy Girls for
working hard, doing what they could in a practical way to work out their
own salvation.” He noted “They have acted out the old saying, ‘Who
would be free must themselves strike the [first] blow.”10
The struck employers did not give up. They used the Troy
newspapers to malign and vilify the members of the Collar Laundry Union.
They offered to rehire the laundry women at slightly higher wages on
the condition they give up their union membership. One manufacture
established a laundry in New York City.
Undaunted, Kate and the members decided to form the Union Line
Collar and Cuff Manufactory. Kate was appointed President and began to
sell shares for $5 a piece. Kate stated, “The stock is only an
investment that will directly benefit working girls, not a charity.
Interest will be paid regularly.” 11
Mr. William Jessup, President of the New York Workingmen’s
Assembly, stated that the ironers’ strike was an effort for them to
maintain their right to protect themselves from employers and
manufacturers who were trying to destroy the union by starving its
members into subjection to accept the employers’ terms. He stated that
the Collar Laundry Union shared trade unionists’ goal of avoiding
coercive strategies like strikes in favor of producers’ cooperatives.
The collar laundresses were taking the “higher step” of attaining
self-sufficiency by establishing a producers’ cooperative. “The object
is feasible,” he said, so “let us all contribute with a willing heart
and an open hand.12
In December, 1869, the Workingman’s Advocate announced that
“the merchant prince of New York, A.T. Stewart” agreed to take all the
goods manufactured by the Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactory.13 Kate
and the other members of the Union were overjoyed and believed their
endeavor to be a success.
Sensing that the Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactory might
be successful, the manufacturers advertised that they were putting a new
paper collar on the market.
This move proved to be the last straw and sales of the
laundresses’ cooperative collars dropped precipitously. The molders’
union, weakened by the failure of their cooperative and the death of
President William H. Sylvis, had to stop contributing to the strikers.
In February 1870 Kate and the other officers decided to
dissolve the union. All members other than the leaders went back to work
at their old wages.
The union had lasted more than twice as long as other women’s
unions and was certainly a model for the creation of the Starchers Union
and the Joan of Arc Assembly of the Knights of Labor.
Kate and other laundresses continued to be part of a network
of women labor activists. They were authors of the Working Women’s State
Labor Union of New York’s resolution in support of cooperatives. They
believed that producers’ cooperatives were the “true way in which the
wealth of the country can be more evenly distributed, and that the
laboring classes may enjoy the full profits of their labor.” 14
Kate continued to work in the cooperative until 1870. She was a member of the Starchers Union and married John Fogarty.
Kate Mullany died on Friday, August 17, 1906 and was buried
from St. Peter’s Church on Monday August 20, 1906. Kate is buried in St.
1 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 45, 51.
2 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 128.
3 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 110-111.
4 Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. Page 127.
5 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 125.
6 J.B. Andrews & W.D.P. Bliss. History of Women In Trade Unions. Page 255.
7 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 112 – 113.
8 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 162.
9 Turbin. Working Women of the Collar City. Page 159.
10 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 162.
1 1 Foner, Women and The American Labor Movement From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. Page 155.
12 Turbin, Working Women of the Collar City. Page 121 – 122.
13 Foner. Women and The American Labor Movement From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. Page 156.
14 Turbin. Working Women of the Collar City. Page l64.
Andrews, John B. & Bliss, W.D.P. History Of Women In Trade Unions. New York: Arno Press, 1974.
Boone, Gladys. The Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Great Britain &
The United States of America. New York: Columbia University Press,
Foner, Philip S. Women and the American Labor Movement from Colonial
Times to the Eve of World War 1. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
Henry, Alice. The Trade Union Woman. New York: Burt Franklin.
Henry, Alice. Women and The Labor Movement. New York: Arno & The New York Times, 1971.
Kenneally, James J. Women and American Trade Unions. Eden Press.
Kennedy, Susan Estabrook. If All We Did Was To Weep At Home: A History of White Working-Class.
Women in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
Tubin, Carole. Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and
Community in Troy, New York, 1864-1886. Urbana and Chicago: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Special Thanks To . . .
Margaret Wexler, New York State Public Employees Federation
The staff at the George Meany Memorial Archives Library
The staff at the Troy Public Library
The staff at the Rensselaer Historical Society
The staff at St. Peters Church, Troy NY
Rachel B. Bliven, Historian
Taken from an article originally entitled “Kate Mullany: a trade union pioneer” by the New York State Public Employees Federation on the Kate Mullany National Historic Site website: http://www.katemullanynhs.org