Philadelphia Firestorms

Week 33: #52 Ancestors – Troublemaker

By Eilene Lyon

Henry Z. Jenkins rose before dawn one morning in June 1827 in his single room in north Philadelphia’s Penn Township. His workday normally began at sunrise and ended at sundown – just like that of every other journeyman in the city. The master tradesmen dictated the hours, and the pay. He wouldn’t be going to work this day, though. Or for many, many days afterward.

The journeymen house carpenters were going on strike to demand a more humane work day: “6 to 6!” was their rallying cry. Ten hours of labor with an hour off each for breakfast and dinner. Though a sunrise-to-sundown work day in winter would be much shorter than in summer, in reality, journeymen often got laid off over winter – many ending up in debtors’ prison as a result.

The carpenters’ cause had been embraced by the recently formed Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), the world’s first labor union (as opposed to a trade society). This broad umbrella organization brought together fifteen of the city’s trade groups in a dues-paying union that would provide financial assistance for striking workers.

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia (Public domain)

This approach was not only novel, but helped overturn common law that declared organized labor demanding fair wages to be illegal conspiracies. Monopolistic trade guilds, like the masters down at Carpenters’ Hall, were perfectly acceptable, of course. Working conditions brought about by industrialization only exacerbated the chasm between labor and management.

Labor agitators usually received only fines as a penalty for walk-outs. Most prosecutions came about because of the aggressive tactics of strikers against scabs and employers. The tailors working for Robb & Winebrener went on trial later in the year for “conspiracy to injure” their employers, for example.

Details of the indictment against the striking tailors in Commonwealth vs. James M. Moore and 24 other Journeymen Taylors.

The bricklayers and the painters/glaziers in the city went on strike in support of the carpenters’ platform. Among these were probably some of the Bedford brothers. Henry likely knew them from various construction jobs. He’d fallen in love with their sister, Abigail, a petite but feisty and cheerful young woman.

As the sweltering summer wore on, the happy couple came to the realization that their ardor had consequence. Henry had probably planned to propose to Abby all along, but the swelling of new life inside her sealed their fate. The $2 a week he received from the Mechanics’ Union would hardly be enough to support a family. They turned to Abigail’s family for assistance.

The Bedfords had struggles of their own to deal with in that turbulent year, along with Henry’s widowed mother, for that matter. The Society of Friends in Philadelphia were about to have a showdown. Henry, not a member, did not bother asking the Society for permission to marry Abigail Bedford. In late October, they went to a justice of the peace and made their vows.

Many urban Quakers had begun abandoning the plain speaking and plain clothing that they’d long been known for. The more traditional members (though quite liberal in their religious views) gravitated to the teachings of Elias Hicks, a New York minister who focused his beliefs on the internal spiritual spark, rather than the divinity of externals, such as Jesus and the Bible. He felt he hewed more closely to founder George Fox’s vision.

Thomas and Jane Bedford, along with their daughters (and eventually their sons) followed Hicks’s teachings. Henry’s mother, Ann Zane Jenkins, also leaned his way. The factions’ quarrel manifested as a disagreement over selecting a clerk for the yearly meeting. By the end of the year, the schism had been formalized with the “Hicksites” being removed from the more “mainstream” group, that chose to call itself the Orthodox branch. This, despite the fact the Hicksites outnumbered the Orthodox two-to-one.

Interior of the Archer Street Friends Meeting in Philadelphia, where the controversy over the clerk took place. (Wikimedia Commons)

The carpenters’ strike continued into 1828. Henry became the secretary of the Penn Township group of Mechanics and Working Men when they met in August that year. Ultimately, their efforts were unsuccessful. Collective bargaining had not yet been invented. Even though they walked out together, the laborers negotiated with employers individually. Some may have won a few concessions, but the masters still had control. It wasn’t until 1837 that Philadelphia enacted a 10-hour workday.

Meeting of the Mechanics and Working Men of Penn Township with Henry Z. Jenkins serving as secretary. By this time, the MUTA had become more of a political organization, which ultimately became its downfall. The United States Gazette (Philadelphia), August 26, 1828, p. 2 – via Newspapers.com

All this turmoil in a short span of time likely had the effect of driving the Bedford and Jenkins families from the City of Brotherly Love. By 1830, they had moved to southwestern Ohio, leaving only a couple of the Bedford offspring behind. Thomas and Jane Bedford appear to have returned for some years, but except for a brief visit by Henry on his way home from California, the Jenkinses never saw their home city again.

Feature image: Arch Street Friends Meeting, where the Hicksite-Orthodox split took place. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sources:

Arky, Louis H. “The Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations and the Formation of the Philadelphia Workingmen’s Movement.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 76, no. 2 (1952): 142-76. Accessed August 19, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20088351

Bernstein, Leonard “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835”

Bunting, K.R. “Notices of marriages & deaths in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 1791-1839” in 7 volumes. Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, 1899-1907, Philadelphia – via FamilySearch.org.

Commons, John R. “Labor Organization and Labor Politics, 1827-37.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 21, no. 2 (1907): 323-29. Accessed August 20, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1883436

Doherty, Robert W. “Religion and Society: The Hicksite Separation of 1827.” American Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1965): 63-80. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2711337

“Mayor’s Court” The United States Gazette (Philadelphia, PA), Sept. 28, 1827, p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.

http://downingtownfriendsmeeting.org/separationof1827.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elias_Hicks

https://quakerinfo.org/quakerism/branches/history

https://web.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/speccoll/quakersandslavery/resources/glossary.php

9 thoughts on “Philadelphia Firestorms

Add yours

  1. So much for brotherly love! It’s odd to contemplate a world in which collective bargaining did not exist. I mean, I get that the home comforts we have now weren’t available then, but I’ve never thought about the implications of the lack of social justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was kind of a mean society, in a way. It’s no wonder that strikers were so aggressive when they felt incredibly oppressed. They saw that the American Revolution was really beneficial for men of power and property, not for everyone else. It took a long time and a lot of social agitation to make this a fairer country (still a work in progress).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re comment above…still a work in progress…was what I was thinking about most western societies. I’m thankful for unions on many levels, but the leadership is often key on the direction they take.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this post! My husband is a labor artbitrator, so the labor history was fascinating to me. And I never knew about Hicks and the schism among Quakers. And, of course, Philadelphia is where many if not most of my direct paternal ancestors lived in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

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