The Battle of the Scissors – Union Strife in Baltimore’s Garment Industry


Archaeological work done in advance of the Federal Reserve Bank construction in Baltimore in 1980 yielded the usual array of filled privies, wells and cellar holes. But under Barre Street, archaeologists discovered a twenty-foot long section of drainpipe containing thousands of early twentieth-century artifacts concreted into a solid mass filling the bottom half the pipe (McCarthy and Basalik 1980). A little documentary research revealed that the contents of the pipe were associated with a Chinese-owned commercial laundry located nearby.

Figure 1.  Tool check or worker identification tag from the Baltimore Clothing and Furnishing Company.

Figure 1. Tool check or worker identification tag from the Baltimore Clothing and Furnishing Company.

In addition to thousands of straight pins, buttons, safety pins, coins, pieces of jewelry and other clothing-related items from the pipe, the pipe contained an oval copper alloy disk stamped “B.C. & F. Co. 2050”. This item served as a worker identification tag or as a tool check tag. Tool checks were used by factory workers to requisition tools; each tag bore the worker’s identification number. If the tool had not been returned at the end of the day, the number would be used to track down the missing tool to the employee who had checked it out. A New Jersey newspaper advertisement from 1908 revealed that “B. C. & F.” were the initials of The Baltimore Clothing and Furnishing Company (Red Bank Register 1908), a firm that, in accordance with garment trade industry standards, produced men’s suits, trousers, sport coats, and overcoats, as well as men’s pajamas, hosiery, ties, underwear and shirts (Kahn 1989:xiii).

This small item is a very tangible reminder of Baltimore’s prominent position in the nation’s garment industry. The manufacture of clothing was in its Baltimore heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ranking fourth in the nation in 1900 (Stanger 1999). Large clothing production companies began to replace smaller sweatshops in the early 20th century to satisfy the demand for ready-made clothing. The mechanization and assembly-line nature of these larger operations maximized efficiency and profits, but resulted in a workforce that was less skilled overall (Argersinger 1991:86).

Figure 2.  1914 advertisement for L. Greif & Brothers, a leading Baltimore clothing firm.  Photograph from Kahn 1989.

Figure 2. 1914 advertisement for L. Greif & Brothers, a leading Baltimore clothing firm. Photograph from Kahn 1989.

The industry provided jobs for recent immigrants to the city; with well over half of the employed being adult and teenaged females working in low-skill and low wage positions. Skilled positions—cutting, trimming and pressing—were reserved for men. Worker discontent over long hours, deplorable working conditions and low wages sparked a number of strikes, the first of which occurred in 1890 (Kahn 1989:80). Attempts to unionize the workforce were not long in coming and two competing unions, the United Garment Workers (UGW) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), struggled for control in Baltimore’s men’s clothing industry during the early twentieth century (Argersinger 1991:90).Although the garment industry was plagued by a number of walkouts during this period, I am intrigued by one incident in particular. In August of 1916, a violent altercation that came to be known as “The Battle of the Scissors” occurred at one of the largest of Baltimore’s garment manufactories, Henry Sonneborn and Company. When four ACWA workers attempted to join the ninth floor cutting room, UGW workers physically resisted them. The fight soon escalated, spilling out onto the streets in front of the building, where clothing shears, iron knuckle and blackjacks were wielded as weapons in the fracas (Argersinger 1991:94). The hour-long altercation, which had to be brought under control by riot police, sent a number of workers to the hospital, some with serious injuries. Perhaps a tool tag similar to the one from the Baltimore Clothing and Furnishing Company was used to check out the shears that played such a prominent role in The Battle of the Scissors.

Figure 3. The Sonneborn Building, located at 110 South Paca Street, once housed the Henry Sonneborn and Company, where the Battle of the Scissors took place.

Figure 3. The Sonneborn Building, located at 110 South Paca Street, once housed the Henry Sonneborn and Company, where the Battle of the Scissors took place.

Ultimately, the ACW reigned supreme in Baltimore’s men’s garment industry, organizing every major firm in the city. As a result, strikes occurred less frequently, although neither the garment workers nor the owners were entirely satisfied with the established grievance procedures. The garment industry suffered a decline after the end of World War I and during the Great Depression, with the city never recovering its national standing among clothing manufacturing centers (Argersinger 1991:86-87). 

References Cited

Argersinger, Jo Ann E.
1991 The City that Tries to Suit Everybody: Baltimore’s Clothing Industry. In The Baltimore Book; New Views of Local History. Edited by Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes and Linda Zeidman. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, pp 80-101.

Kahn, Philip, Jr.
1989 A Stitch in Time; The Four Seasons of Baltimore’s Needle Trades. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.

McCarthy, John P. and Kenneth J. Basalik
1980 Summary Report of Archaeological Investigations Federal Reserve Bank Site, Baltimore, Maryland. Report prepared for the Maryland Historical Trust by Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research, Inc., Newark, Delaware.

Red Bank Register
1908 Advertisement for A. Salz & Co. Red Bank Register, Red Bank, New Jersey. Volume XXXI, No. 5, p. 11 (July 22, 1908).

Stanger, Howard R.
1999 Review of Making Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899-1939. Jo Ann Argersinger. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Reviewed on EH.Net in November 1999. Website http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=3567 accessed October 30, 2013.

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