Sullivan, The Curious Case of the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative, 1886-1931

Abstract: The curious case of the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative (a.k.a., Solidarity Watch Case Company) offers both an enigma to historians and hope to unionists. Why, precisely, was this particular organization able to escape, avoid or transcend the seemingly inevitable obstacles that derailed other nineteenth-century worker cooperatives, especially those associated with the Knights of Labor? Certainly, the post-strike relocation of the original business outside the city of Brooklyn helped immeasurably. However, another two-dozen competitors remained in Brooklyn and nearby New York City, manufacturing watchcases of varying quality from 1886-1931. All were organized according to traditional labor-management rules. A remarkable single-mindedness and sense of purpose among the union leadership was key. D.E.D. McMurray, Harry C. Balley, Louis J. Montagnin, were the original officers elected according to Jewelers Union by-laws. Each served for over a decade. All workers were paid the standard rate, plus dividends based on their shares in the company. There were dissenters among the rank and file, to be sure. Workshop skill was to be expected, but from whence did management, accounting, and sales expertise arise? The majority of company sales derived from “West of the Mississippi, strange as it may seem, particularly on the Pacific coast" Was this a self-conscious plan designed to sidestep direct competition or a happy accident? How did a relatively small Brooklyn watchcase manufacturer, an industry that required a relatively high level of skill among many, if not most employees, maintain its cooperative structure for decades – even as its parent organization struggled nationally and locally? This essay will examine factors that saw the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative survive its growing pains during the very years sandwiched between the false accusations of Knights of Labor complicity in the Haymarket bombing (Chicago, 1886) and the heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle for fair wages and work rules by Brooklyn’s District 75, K of L-organized trolley workers in 1895. It was only in the midst of the Great Depression after pocket watches themselves had gone out of fashion, that the SWCC was dissolved. What can we learn from this singular achievement? How and why was this particular cooperative formed, and why did Brooklyn's Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative last so long when others never got off the ground?

Keywords: Worker cooperatives, Brooklyn, Labor unions, Urban history


“The president [D. E. McMurray] superintends the work, with his coat off, and his sleeves rolled up, just like any man inside the factory… Everyone is a workman in this factory from the president down – but there is no down in this concern. The only difference between the president and the others is that he has been elected to that office is that he understands the business better than anyone else. If President McMurray desires to give instructions, he does so through the foreman. There are no shirkers in the factory; there is no need for a driving ‘boss.’ All the employees, or stockholders, or whatever they may be called, are members of the Jewelers Union.”[1]

The curious case of the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative Company (a.k.a., Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative, or Solidarity Watch Case Company) offers both an enigma to historians and hope to unionists. Why, precisely, was this particular organization able to escape, avoid or transcend the seemingly inevitable obstacles that derailed other nineteenth century worker cooperatives, especially those associated with the Knights of Labor? Certainly, the gradual post-strike reallocation (1883-1890) of much of the “parent company” to outside the city of Brooklyn helped immeasurably. However, another eight competitors in addition to Solidarity remained in Brooklyn alone, manufacturing watchcases of varying quality.[2] All competitors were organized according to traditional labor management rules. A remarkable single-mindedness and sense of purpose among the union leadership was key. D.E.D. McMurray, Harry C. Balley, Louis J. Montagnin, were the original officers elected according to Jewelers Union by-laws. Each served for over a decade; leadership tenure in producer cooperatives was typically less than two years.[3]

Fig. 1. Workings – 14kt gold watch by American Waltham Watch Company (1889).

Moreover, no record can be found of why a majority of company sales derived from “West of the Mississippi, strange as it may seem, particularly on the Pacific coast.[4] However, the marketing decision seems intentional, as it was referenced positively in several BDE and NYT articles. How did a relatively small Brooklyn watchcase manufacturer, an industry that required a relatively high level of skill among many if not most employees, maintain its cooperative structure for decades – even as its parent organization struggled nationally and locally? Consider that the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative flowered as a Knights of Labor affiliate through one of the most turbulent periods of American labor history during the very years spanning the false accusations of Knights of Labor complicity in the Haymarket bombing (Chicago, 1886) and the heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle for fair wages and work rules by Brooklyn trolley workers in 1895.

Somehow amidst all the Knights of Labor drama, “The Little Engine that Could” chugged away. As early as 1891, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle looked to the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative as an organization respectable enough to be viewed as a likely contributor to fix a city sewer problem “plaguing the poor.” The Eagle commonly reached out to respectable businesses to encourage civic-minded behavior. For a moderate Democratic Party-affiliated mainstream newspaper to recognize a K of L producer cooperative in this way is really quite remarkable.[5] The SWCC’s unique labor management structure was consistently praised as “strike proof.”[6] Significantly, dozens of notices for team bowling scores were posted in the Eagle’s “Jewelers League” over a five-year span. Clearly, the cooperative structure did not provoke ostracism between 1908 and 1912.[7] Moreover, obituaries for Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative officers (actually officer-workmen) and their wives were featured prominently from 1909 to 1939 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It is hard to distinguish them from other deceased former company presidents, vice presidents, state senators, etc. Remarkably, Jeremiah McGrevey’s death notice – an obituary worthy of a multi-term alderman or state senator – appears eight years after the dissolution of the company.[8]

Stark differences existed in both labor-management relations and public perception between the Brooklyn Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative and Brooklyn’s transit workers – formally known as the “Empire Protective Association of the State of New York”, but commonly called “District 75 of the Knights of Labor.” Although both were Knights of Labor locals, their structure and their tasks were worlds apart. District 75 was something of an anomaly among K of L locals. Generally, the Knights favored “mixed” assemblies as opposed to those organized along strict trade lines.[9] However, there were a few trade districts scattered throughout the Order. District 75 was, in fact, the first trade district of streetcar workers formed under the Knights of Labor. While the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative quietly reorganized its labor force to fill a void left by a fleeing manufacturer, District 75’s trolley workers were forced to confront head-on not only well-heeled railroad and banking interests, but also state and municipal governments. Their strike, one was very public, arguably one of the most well-known labor disputes in New York State history. So was their eventual capitulation, after militia was brought in to both quell the strikers and run the streetcars.[10] “Inevitable” is perhaps too strong a term, but the odds were certainly long. That said, was the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative a good bet when it was formed in 1885? What sort of history did cooperatives have at that point? Although the national Knights of Labor preferred cooperatives to strikes, local “wildcat” work stoppages had generally proven more effective for the most part. How and why was this particular cooperative formed, and why did Brooklyn’s Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative last so long when other cooperatives and other more traditional labor unions failed?

According to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives:

A worker cooperative is a values-driven business that puts worker and community benefit at the core of its purpose. The two central characteristics of worker cooperatives are: 1) workers own the business and they participate in its financial success on the basis of their labor contribution to the cooperative 2) workers have representation on and vote for the board of directors, adhering to the principle of one worker, one vote.

Cooperation first appeared on the American stage during the 1830s. Labor historian Bruce Laurie described it as “a major tactical departure” for the early labor movement. Locked in an endless labor battle with employers over wages and working conditions, The National Trades Union recommended cooperation in 1836 as a long-term solution to strikes and the ‘bastardization of craft’. Soon thereafter, The Working Man’s Protective Union was established in Boston. Founded in 1845, this network of cooperative stores soon spread to Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire – eventually numbering 40 outlets.  By the late 1850s the Protective Union had over 800 “divisions” throughout New York, New England and Canada.[11]

Early producer cooperatives included skilled workers from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, Ohio to West Virginia. Typical crafts included shirtmakers, hat finisher, bakers, molders and cordwainers. The Protective Union did not survive the economic and political turmoil of the antebellum years; the Panic of 1837, internal discord, stiff competition from other firms and the Civil War doomed the movement. Cooperative ideals, however, resonated with American workers as the labor movement reemerged in the 1860’s. In Philadelphia, cooperative stores attracted the attention of labor leaders such as editor John Fincher, Knights of Labor executive John Samuel and iron molders union president William Silvis. All three would promote cooperation among their constituencies.[12]

American cooperators learned a great deal from the success of England’s Rockdale movement. A key to Rockdale’s success was its ability to adapt to the market system. Rockdale members accumulated capital by selling shares to individual members. An individual shareholder could only hold a limited number of shares. These shares allowed the owner one vote, and earned a fixed dividend of no more than 5% on one’s investment. Stores sold all goods for cash at market prices, with the profits returned to members in proportion to their purchases.  Rochdale stores, and American stores following these principles, were considered quite democratic. They tended to be much better capitalized then early cooperation efforts. Moreover, they coexisted well alongside neighborhood shopkeepers, without directly antagonizing them. George Holyoake’s Self-help by the People: History of Cooperation in Rockdale was reproduced in summary form by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, suggesting its broad appeal.[13]

Very few American cooperatives ever paid a dividend on labor. Some associations required equal stock ownership among workers and paid dividends on that investment. Others simply paid a dividend on shares owned. These sorts of variations did not necessarily violate underlying cooperative principles.  They did underscore a remarkable degree of variation and vagueness among cooperative visions. The extent to which this doomed cooperation as a viable American reform is debatable.

Most Americans who experimented with Rockdale cooperation were skilled workers: molders, carpenters, machinists, cigar makers and printers.  Most often, but not exclusively skilled craftsmen or factory artisans organized cooperative ventures. The decision to cooperate often emerged in response to a direct threat to artisan skill. In larger factories, production still required skilled labor at least through the 1870s. For example, lasting remained a handcraft in shoe factories throughout the 19th century; meanwhile, heelers, trimmers and finishers typically relied on machinery and retained old time shoemakers’ skills. Conversely, iron molders may have worked in a factory setting but they remained highly skilled craftsmen. Their craft was not threatened by machinery until the turn of the century. Their concern was the reorganization of their labor and a breakdown of the apprentice system.[14]

Founded in 1869, the Knights of Labor was organized as a labor union at the workplace, but in the wider community it promoted a vision of a cooperative republic through an ever-growing presence beyond the shop. Knight of Labor founder, Uriah Stephens, self-consciously designed the organization to function as both a reform society and a trade union. Workers were organized into trade assemblies, but they also participated in the eight-hour movement, and whole-heartedly endorsed cooperation.[15]

By 1887, Knights like Master Workman T.W. Brosnan of Minnesota K of L District Assembly 79 routinely argued that that cooperation was more than just a strategy to reform working conditions. Rather it offered an alternative to the prevailing system of “competition.” Brosnan based his argument on the working-class notion of citizenship, democracy and producerism to construct what he considered an alternative cooperative vision of a gentler, freer industrial America.  Cooperation emerged from a merging of craft experience, trade union activism and antebellum reform impulses.[16]

John Samuel, K of L Secretary of the Cooperation Board, contended that “the principles of cooperation are more in harmony with the principles of our form of government than our present social system. Our social system in many things is at variance with our political institutions. The relation of employer and employee is not the normal condition of Freeman. Superiority and inferiority is [sic] implied in the relation… Cooperation supersedes this relation and places man just where the Declaration of Independence was designed to place him – equal – and with equal rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”[17]

Samuel categorically opposed labor’s subordination to capital, a condition that he and other labor reformers deemed “wage slavery.” Samuel continued, arguing that factories operated on cooperative principles could remove the inequalities of wage labor, eliminate dependency and guarantee equal rights.  He consistently advocated for a widespread introduction of this principle. Cooperation, Samuel insisted, would fulfill the egalitarian promise of the democratic republic that our founders created for us in 1776 and reaffirmed in 1787.[18]

Supporters of cooperation steadfastly invoked the founding fathers’ republican legacy in promoting their own version of our national creation myth. They sought to “revive the republic” and to perfect a “social order which guarantees equality of rights, privileges and opportunities to all.”[19]  Most historians acknowledge significant debate the over the meaning of our republican legacy throughout the nineteenth century. Manifest Destiny, the expansion of slavery, imperialism, the removal of Native American tribes, women’s rights – all provoked contemporary debate over the nature and extent of our rights and citizenship. By mid-century, it was clear that a distinct working-class version had also emerged within the labor movement.[20] Advocates of cooperation believed that legitimate republican rights ought to acknowledge or include the right to set the price of one’s own labor. Extending that logic, only through cooperation could workers exercise power over their lives, the kind of power and independence that would give American democracy meaning.[21]

Ironically, the rhetoric employed by laborers and labor reformers in the 1860s involved a very narrow band of skilled white male labors. When they spoke of “slavery” they described the level of servile dependence to which wage labor reduced producers. At the same time, it underscored the racial nature of the producer as American workers understood both race and power relations in the 19th century. Irish workers in particular excluded black laborers from certain jobs, not simply for economic reasons, but in order to legitimize themselves racially by defining themselves and those specific jobs as “White.”  When 19th century workers discussed “emancipation of the White slaves,” they equated degradation of White labor with slavery, and with Blacks. Although White skilled workers excluded Blacks from the category of oppressed producers, Black laborers saw themselves as producers. Consequently, they often formed their own cooperatives to advance their interests as black producers in the midst of a racist society.[22]

When women were admitted into cooperatives as workers or as members, male workers often limited their involvement with the convenient logic of the day – separate spheres.  The Knights of Eastport, Maine openly stated a policy many others covertly applied: “We will employ no married women unless she can give positive proof that her husband is physically unable to support her. The husband is the natural and legal breadwinner and we consider that we should be doing injustice to the large army of single women who are bravely fighting the battle of life, should we give employment to their married sisters, who could be as well employed at home, their natural sphere.”[23]

Another obstacle to implementing cooperation was the labor theory of value, the commonly held assumption that labor produced all wealth. This led to practical and ethical difficulties in accurately determining “cooperation’s claim upon profits of a business enterprise.” Guidelines for cooperatives to follow were ambiguous at best.  To what extent was shareholding as the basis for profit distribution “all together wrong” [sic]? To whom could cooperative leaders – or workers – turn for guidance?[24]

Cooperative workers in Nyack, New York wrote to John Samuel in 1885 for advice after they disagreed regarding profit distribution. “Who is it that after a cooperator receives his wages at the end of the year say he earns $800.00 in the year and he has $200.00 capital invested in the company at the end of the year a five cent dividend is declared now? [I]s it fair or not for the cooperator to receive a dividend on $200.00 or $1000.00?”  Essentially the question of whether to assign priority to capital or to consider labor as its equivalent was up for debate in virtually every situation. In the absence of Central Committee guidance by the Knights of Labor at the national level, local questions persisted. Such decisions had significant impact on which members benefited most from the success of the shoe factory, the watch company, or the provisions store.[25]

“I suppose I am like hundred’s [sic] of others who a few years ago could look ahead and see nothing but misery [sic], hard work,  and starvation,  but what a change, when I first heard of the K’s of L, I immediately subscribed for a daily paper so as to learn all I could of the K’s. It seemed as if the Cloudy Heavens had opened and I could faintly see a little bright clear sky. Finally I became interested and with about 40 others we were organized into an Assembly. We now number over 300 and a good field before us. I have taken more interest in Cooperation than in strikes and if this whole country could be managed on that plan how much better it would be for all. Bro. Powderly says that the next five years will see the emancipation of the white slaves. I do not believe that strikes will do it, but think they will assist. Legislation will also be a great help but cooperation must after all do the whole business.” Leonard Wheeler, Gilbertsville, MA to J.P. McGaughey, Secretary of the Cooperative Board of the Knights of Labor (May 1886).[26]

Wheeler’s praise for the Knights of Labor was based largely on his belief that their promotion of cooperation would lead American workers to permanent “emancipation from wage labor.” Wheeler advocated a mixture of strikes, political activism and cooperation. However, he preferred cooperation because, unlike other union strategies, it offered a final solution to the labor problem. Corporate cooperation, as Wheeler suggested, might “do the whole business.”

However, the very utopian nature of the Knights’ cooperative approach complicated its use as an effective policy. Persistent debate over both means and ends became a regular feature of the organization’s annual General Assembly meetings. K of L leadership failed to promote and support cooperation in any consistent or meaningful way. Initiative was left to statewide, and ultimately, to local assemblies. These locals established hundreds of cooperative stores and factories. Local organizations were left to develop “centralized” approaches to cooperation – grass roots style.  Part of the problem was that the Knights could only agree on a very general definition of cooperation as a democratic approach to self-help. In 1887, John Samuel, the recently-appointed Secretary of the K of L Cooperative Board, expressed disbelief that cooperation “has so broad a meaning that it designates nothing more than working together.”  He pleaded with the General Assembly to “decide what kind of cooperation it desires to establish.”[27]

In their first national constitution, adopted in 1878, the Knights endorsed “the establishment of cooperative institutions, productive and distributive.” Founder Uriah Stephens thought of the Knights of Labor as the great emancipator of wage labor, and considered cooperation to be an important tool. Significantly, Stephens described the district assembly as “the strong right arm and the intelligent head of the institution through which in time financial and industrial emancipation of the world’s workers from Corporate Tyranny and Wages Slavery is to be achieved. [sic]” Did he envision a quasi-feudal, decentralized system from the outset?[28]

Stephens’ successor, Terrence Powderly, also endorsed cooperation. In his view, problems related to wage labor could be overcome only when workers challenged the very nature of their relationship to capital. “So long as a pernicious system leaves one man at the mercy of another, so long will labor and capital be at war, and no strike can hit a blow sufficiently hard to break the hold with which unproductive capital today grasps labor by the throat.”[29]

The “suicidal strike” could not solve labor’s problems. Only “thorough, effective organization” could remedy labors ills; only organization that put itself:

“…to some practical use by embarking on a system of cooperation, which will eventually make every man his own master – everyman his own employer; system which will give the laborer of their proportion of the products of his toil. It is to cooperation, then, as the lever of labor’s emancipation that the eyes of the working man and women of the world are directed, upon cooperation their hopes are centred [sic], and to it do I now direct your attention… The laboring man needs education in this great social question, and the best minds of the order must give their precious thought to the system. There is no good reason why labor cannot, through cooperation own and operate mines, factories, and railroads.”[30]

Properly guided and educated, laboring men and women could emancipate themselves. However, this guidance and education was sorely lacking. The “best minds of the Order” failed to introduce anything approaching a consistent strategy for cooperative support. The Knights’ fund to support cooperatives, established in 1880, was insufficient to plant the seeds of industrial self-management. Leaders spent seven years arguing over the logistics of how to collect the assessment. When the Knights finally created a central cooperative board, they failed to endow it with sufficient power. In 1880 the General Assembly earmarked 60% of the Order’s per capita assessment for cooperatives, 30% for strikes, and 10% for education.  The cooperative fund assessment was $.10 per capita per month. However, enforcement was sporadic and the following year the tax was converted to a voluntary contribution. In 1884 the total Cooperative Fund was listed at $974.52, clearly insufficient to have any real effect.[31]

Meanwhile, the state and local districts were busy forming cooperatives. Models varied widely, as did levels of success. New York’s District Assembly 49 was one of the more successful Knights of Labor local organizations in terms of establishing multiple cooperative business operations. They sold shares in an organization of their own design called The Solidarity Cooperative Association. Each local was controlled by the District Assembly (#49). The association raised and invested over $6000 in several enterprises in Manhattan and the still-independent city of Brooklyn. From its founding, the most successful of these was the Solidarity Watch-case Cooperative Company of Brooklyn. No interest was paid to the shareholders. Nor did shareholders have control over the management of individual firms. The association planned in time to buy back all shares, to reinvest 50% of its profits in cooperation, and to deposit the rest in land and insurance funds.[32]

District Assembly 49 sought to organize production and distribution along the lines of an urban cooperative guild. For several years this plan succeeded. In 1887 eight cooperative businesses were thriving under the umbrella of Solidarity.  The Solidarity Watch-case Cooperative Company of Brooklyn, then in its second year of existence had working capital of $67,000. At that point SWCCC employed over 100 workers, all members of the jeweler’s union. Meanwhile, the association also ran a store on Canal Street that sold only cooperatively produced good from up and down the East Coast. On the same site, they ran a Knights of Labor restaurant and a Solidarity Cooperative Clothing Company factory. Significantly, the Watch-Case cooperative was formed before District 49 established the association. This allowed a modicum of legal independence, and a significant degree of assumed independence from regional or national K of L authority. The Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative Company (SWCC) –  alternatively and inconsistently referred to as the Solidarity Watch-case Company or Solidarity Watch-case Cooperative (both abbreviated as SWCC)  – operated outside of the district’s authority, but how far outside its influence was always unclear. Nor were modern accounting or stockholding principles consistently followed. Nineteenth century models of equity were applied. As in most nineteenth century cooperatives, the company allowed shareholders a single vote no matter the individual’s economic stake. However, interest was paid annually on one’s stock by share. Horner points to “incentives to stockholders” as a key ingredient in long-term success.[33]

Fig. 2. “Clamshell” case (exterior) – 22k gold watch by Solidarity Watch Case Company (c. 1900).

Even among the well-run District 49 cooperatives, only SWCC survived the hard times of the 1890’s. Since few records remain even for the survivors, it is difficult to ascertain precisely why. However, it seems fair to suggest that advocates of cooperatives established institutions expecting to meet specific needs, in particular to achieve economic and political independence. However, many soon faced failure in the American market place. Few nineteenth century workers, skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled, possessed the level of business acumen or experience required to run a successful mid- to large-scale enterprise. Few energized by the clarion call of liberty and cooperation sought to hire “capitalists” to help them with tasks or skills they lacked.  Most cooperatives shed their egalitarian features, went out of business – or perhaps both. By late 1880s the Knights of Labor, as a national organization, no longer held unquestioning faith in cooperation as a viable industrial alternative. They disbanded the Cooperative Board in 1890, although many local assemblies continued to found production or distribution cooperatives.  Even more continued to operate cooperative businesses founded in earlier times. If cooperation was the quintessential expression of self-help how could cooperators reconcile the dream with such a poor record, one of generalized failure? Most did so in terms of their own deficiencies, and the deficiencies of their Brother Knights. Lacking proper knowledge of cooperative and/or business principles, organizers often allowed businesses to fail or to devolve into traditional corporations. Perhaps individual workers were selfish, or interested in quick profits. Perhaps individuals had been unable to select the best man to lead them. For the most part, advocates of the cooperation movement found it difficult to blame the concept of cooperation itself.[34]

Fig. 3. “Clamshell” case (interior) – 22k gold watch by Solidarity Watch Case Company (c. 1900).

Yet specific problems – the same problems – appeared, again and again, to undermine cooperatives. The problem of inadequate capital, members’ meager resources, and economic mismanagement were consistent refrains.  Economic hard times often laid low even the most well-intentioned cooperative endeavor. Others faced stiff opposition from more experienced, better-run or better-financed competitors. With some justification, cooperators often found fault with state laws of incorporation that offered inadequate protection again against predatory stockholders. To a certain extent these complaints resonated. Undercapitalization, mismanagement, and ignorance could pose formidable obstacles to a cooperative success, just as they could to the survival of any new business. While it is also true that individual worker-owned stores and factories had frequently failed in the past, as long as the labor movement continued to grow, the Knights remained optimistic. By the late 1880s this optimism had waned. Conditions had changed dramatically for organized labor in the wake of the Haymarket Bombing. The Knights exponential growth during the first half of the decade stalled, then just as quickly, waned like a retreating tide.  If the K of L’s mercurial progress had generated great hope, the organization’s sudden collapse must have created a crater of despair.[35]

Terrance Powderly himself lost faith in the ability of cooperative enterprises to succeed under the prevailing conditions of the late 1890s. In his 1888 address to the General Assembly he announced the following:

“So long as the entire control and management of the public highways of the country – the railways – remains in the hands of private individuals while doing the work of the nation, just so long will the operation of cooperative enterprises be attended with failure. We may manufacture of the best quality of goods and be prepared to sell at the most reasonable rates, but we cannot depend on having these goods transported to market so long as the transportation facilities of the nation are controlled by monopoly. Here we see Terrence Powderly blaming a third party – the railroads – for cooperation’s inability to take the nation by storm. Powderly, like many other advocates of cooperation, cannot bring himself to acknowledge a simple truth: that either a) cooperation is fraught with difficulty as a business model, or b) the Knights of Labor failed to sufficiently support their own key reform element at the very moment it might have made a real difference.”[36]

Ultimately the failure of the Knights of Labor to develop a successful cooperative policy precluded any systematic use of the Order’s resources for cooperation. It is unlikely, given workers’ local orientation, that such a policy could ever have been implemented. Certainly, the Knights did attempt to improve their prospects as workers in an industrial republic, but what kind of future would, or could, they have created? Opinions reflected both the era’s ill-defined belief in a more benign industrial society and the Knights decentralized structure. Members experimented with cooperative production and distribution in their local and district assemblies, with varying degrees of success. Local leaders and rank-and-file Knights of Labor made cooperation a reality.

Let us return to our case study of the Solidarity Watch-Case Cooperative. To their great credit, the SWCC leadership team are pragmatists, doers, not dreamers. At no point did they quote Jon Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy as does Johns Hopkins professor and Knights of Labor supporter Richard Ely in his introduction to Herbert Adams’ 1888 The History of Cooperation in the United States. Ely points to a passage in which Mill looks forward to the day “…that the relation of masters and workpeople will be gradually superseded by partnership in one of two forms: in some cases association of laborers with the capitalist; in others, and perhaps and perhaps finally in all, association among laborers themselves.”[37] Ely argues for immediate establishment of the latter form of cooperation throughout the United States: “…a thoroughgoing reconstruction of industrial society, and while they adhered to Christian principles and deprecated violence, [they] rejected the message of the trade unionist as not sufficiently radical. It is this…industrial revolution which renders the following interesting and instructive.”[38]

However, it is also clear that D.E. McMurray, the jeweler, was no less a believer or a visionary than R.T. Ely, the academic. Taking on Joseph Fahys, the most powerful watchcase manufacturer in the New York region, took enormous courage, conviction and solidarity. Fahys’ New York City firm had recently absorbed the Alvin Watch Case Company of New Jersey, and the Brooklyn Watch Case Company. He would move his Jersey operations to Sag Harbor, taking advantage of a tragic fire in the North Shore town. Fahys was not a man to be trifled with; he had founded the Jewelers’ Board of Trade in 1884, and was the first president of the Watchcase Manufacturers Association. His connections with Tammany politicians were apparent by the 1890s: “Recruiters from the factory went directly to Ellis Island…and offered the immigrants jobs. Whole families would transfer to the steamer going directly to Sag Harbor without ever setting foot in New York.”  The Solidarity leaders held firm. According to The Jewelers’ Circular, a decade before Fahys’ New York City facility recognized a union, D. E. McMurray and Louis Montagnin were identified as leaders of an unsuccessful movement to gain recognition at the Brooklyn Watch Case factory. Apparently when this failed, several dozen workers followed the leaders to a new building several blocks away. It is also worth noting that the Solidarity Watch-case Cooperative produced a generally higher grade of watch case (22k gold) than did the Brooklyn Watch Case Company (14k).  Both the New York Times, in 1886, and Niebling’s definitive 1971 History of the American Watch Case use the same term to characterize Fahys’ work – “standard grade.” Subsequently, the Brooklyn Watch Case Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of “Jos. Fahys & Co,” stayed afloat in attenuated form through 1890. However, most remaining skilled and unskilled workers were transferred to Fahys’ expanding production facility on Long Island. Professional and sales staff were increasingly concentrated in New York City.[39] Fahys’ Sag Harbor operation, like the SWCC’s Brooklyn factory, remained prolific and profitable until wristwatches and the Great Depression intervened.

Fig. 4. Solidarity Watch Case Company trademark (1908).

In the end, the Solidarity men differed from brother Knights in the Empire Protective Association in several important ways. Against the counsel of K of L leadership, transportation workers had organized trade union-style to protect the job security, work rules and wage rates of streetcar and trolley workers. In direct defiance of Knights custom and belief, the EPA voted to authorize a strike against oppressive transit companies.  Solidarity Watch Case organizers, on the other hand, tended towards quieter, yet according to Professor Ely, more radical unionism. The roots of cooperation lie in the radical republicanism of Thomas Paine, a cordwainer and labor activist in his own right before his emigration to the colonies. Cooperation differed in style, but not necessarily substance, from the directly confrontation favored by the transit workers. Cooperation was enrobed in a mantle of 18th and 19th century artisan republican rhetoric. Such notions as a virtue, manliness and community underscored the cause of Solidarity’s Knights. However, few grand pronouncements were made. No public challenges to the capitalist status quo were issued. By nature, worker cooperatives represented a stealthier challenge to unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism. Like any cooperative, the SWCC members voted with their feet. They put their money – and their livelihoods – where others might have put their mouths. They invested (and reinvested) what little they had into company stock. They were paid in jewelers’ wages, plus end-of-year dividends. In this specific case, the surprise was twofold – 1) leadership’s general competence, and 2) Brooklynites’, especially middle-class citizens’ positive reaction. Mainstream papers consistently expressed admiration for SWCC leaders’ manliness and work ethic in glowing terms that echoed the artisan republicanism of earlier worker movements. Humility was a much-admired virtue in 19th-century America, no matter one’s social stratum. It is especially an especially powerful tool when others who might normally oppose ones’ ends, use it to sing ones’ praises.


[1]“No strike in this shop; Men their own bosses.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 4 June 1905: 51. Print.

[2]“Industries of the City: The co-operative system in watch case making.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 30 September 1888: 10. Print; “New corporations in which Brooklynites are interested.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 27 August 1895: 5. Print; 4 June 1905: 51. [Note: Solidarity’s root company, Joseph Fahys’ Brooklyn Watch Case Company, remained in town for a few years, but most workers were transferred to subsidiaries in Manhattan or Sag Harbor between 1885 and 1890, when the Brooklyn location was shuttered for good.] Lain’s Brooklyn Directory for the Year Ending May 1, 1889. New York: Lain & Co.: 1889, 20, 125, 242, 314, 602, 1031, 1230, 1289, & 1354, listed eight watchcase manufacturers in addition to Solidarity. In that same year, no less than 19 New York City firms produced watches, according to Trow’s New York City Directory for the Year Ending May 1, 1989. New York: Trow’s City Directory Company.: 1889.

[3]BDE 30 September 1888: 10; BDE 27 August 1895: 5; 4 June 1905: 51.

[4]BDE 4 June 1905: 51

[5]“Edward F. Linton on the defective sewer plank of the city platform.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 12 October 1891: 6. Print.

[6]BDE 4 June 1905: 51.

[7]“Bowling Games Tonight.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 29 January 1909: 8-28.

[8]“Obituary: Jeremiah M’Grevy Rites Tomorrow.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 9 June 1939: 15. Print; “Obituary: Frank Edward Harmer.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 2 June 1909: 3. Print; “Obituary: Emil Mettetal.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 8 September 1912: 5. Print; “Obituary: Henry C. Ballay.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 27 June 1914: 2. Print; “Obituary: Daniel E. D. MacMurray.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 17 September 1911: 62. Print; “E.J. Slandorff Dies after Long Illness.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn] 29 July 1929: 2. Print. 80% of SWCC officer obituaries listed a Roman Catholic church for funeral services; 40% of randomly selected company officers and 60% of politicians listed Catholic churches. 90% of SWCC officers, 100% of traditional company officers and 60% of politicians listed a prominent social of athletic club membership. Only 20% of SWCC officers listed officer status in another firm; 60% of traditional company officers did so.

[9]Grob, Gerald. Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961, 101-118; Grob, Gerald. “The Knights of Labor and the Trade Unions, 1878-1886.” Journal of Economic History, 18 (June, 1958), 180.

[10]Kotlick, Ronald Howard. “Fixed bayonets: The New York State National Guard during the era of industrial unrest, 1877-1898.” Ph.D. Diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2005, 138-183.

[11]Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Noonday Press, 1989), 89-91; Joseph G. Knapp, The Rise of American Cooperative Enterprise: 1620-1920 (Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1969), 10; John R. Commons, ed., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society (Cleveland: A. H. Clark Co., 1910-11), 5:58-59, 328, 368; Horner, “Producers’ Co-operatives,” 22-26; Edwin Charles Rozwenc, “Cooperatives Come to America: The History of the Protective Union Store Movement, 1845-67” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1941), 27-29, 33, 39, 116; Norman Ware, The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860: The Reaction of American Industrial Society to the Advance of the Industrial Revolution (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1964), 187-92; George McNeill, ed., The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-day (New York: M. W. Hazen Co., 1887), 99-101; Rob Witherell (2013), “An Emerging Solidarity: Worker Cooperatives, Unions, and the New Union Cooperative Model in the United States,” International Journal of Labour Research, 5(2), 251-268; U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (n.d.), “What is a Worker Cooperative?”

[12]Clare Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives in the United States, 1865-1890” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1978), 22, 26; Ware, Industrial Worker, 194; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 366-69. Laurie, Artisans into Workers, 89-91; Horner, “Producers’ Co-operatives,” Rozwenc, “Cooperatives Come to America,” 98-104; “Good News from Delaware,” Fincher’s Trades’ Review, January 27, 1866, 68.

[13]See George Jacob Holyoake, Self-Help by the People: History of the Co-operation in Rochdale (London: Holyoake & Co.), 16, 46; G. D. H. Cole, A Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789-1947 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 156; Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The Consumer’s Cooperative Movement (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1921), 4-16; and Johnston Birchall, Co-Op: The People’s Business (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994). See, H.L. to Editor, Fincher’s Trades’ Review, December 2, 1865, 3, and, “Co-operation. Massachusetts Co-operative Stores,” January 18, 1870, John Samuel Papers, newspaper clippings, Box 4, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison (hereafter cited as John Samuel Papers); manuscript headed, “Written while in Fincher’s office between 1865-6,” notebooks, vols. 13-16, “Notes on Cooperation,” John Samuel Papers, microfilm reel no. 3, p.848; Massachusetts Bureau of the Statistics of Labor, “Cooperation,” Annual Report of 1875, part 5, 5-61, microfiche; “Statements of Co-operative Associations, Certified to Secretary of Commonwealth as Organized under Chapter 290, Acts of 1866,” Pamphlets in American History, Cooperative Societies #134 (Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1979-84), microfiche; Edward Bemis, “Cooperation in New England,” in History of Cooperation in the United States, ed., Herbert Adams. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, vol. 6 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1888), 26-32, 53, 66, 78-79, 127, 128; John Commons et al., History of Labor in the United States [New York: Macmillan Company, 1918], 2-39); New York Tribune, October 11, 1858; Stephen Yeo, “George Jacob Holyoake: Socialism, Association and Co-operation in Nineteenth-Century England” in New Views of Co-operation, (London: Routledge, 1988), 52-72.

[14]History of Labor in the United States, 2; Joseph Grant Knapp, The Advance of American Cooperative Enterprise, (Illinois: Interstate Printers & Publishers, 1969), 32; Steve Leikin, The Practical Utopians, (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 229-242; Steven J. Ross, Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati: 1788-1890, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 97-100; Ross, Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati: 1788-1890, 112-113, 116-120; Victor Clark, History of Manufacturers in the United States, (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1929), 468-471; Jonathan Grossman, William Sylvis, Pioneer of American Labor, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), 132-142.

[15]Joseph P. Goldberg, Knights of Labor, (United States: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1985), Chapters 2 and 3; Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), Chapter 5; “Laws of the Pennsylvania Co-operative General Trading and Manufacturing Association, Incorporated March 1st, 1876) in Pamphlets in American History, (Cooperative Societies No. 168, 1876), 2; Goldberg, Knights of Labor, 47, 68, 90-92.

[16]Record of Proceedings of the Twentieth Meeting Regular Meeting of D.A 79, K. of L. held at St. Paul, Minnesota, July 17, 1887, (John P. McGaughey Papers).

[17]John Samuel, Untitled Cooperative Address, (Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1866), reel 3, microform.

[18]Leon Fink, Workingman’s Democracy, (Illinois: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1983), 6-7; Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America, (New York: Noonday Press, 1989), 87, 151-153; Lawrence Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 17-29. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, (New York: Verso, 1991).

[19]Hugh Cameron “Co-operation” in Journal of United Labor, (1886); Cameron, “The Quaker City Co-operative Carpet Company” in Journal of United Labor, (1886).

[20]Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Fink, “Looking Backward” in Workingman’s Democracy; Fink, “The New Labor History” in Workingman’s Democracy; Richard Oestreicher, “Terence V. Powderly, the Knights of Labor, and Artisanal Republicanism” in Labor Leaders in America, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); William E. Forbath, “The Ambiguities of Free Labor: Labor and the Law in the Gilded Age” in Wisconsin Law Review, (1985); Voss, American Exceptionalism (1864); Voss, “Prospectus of the Daily Evening Voice” in Daily Evening Voice, (1864).

[21]William Sylvis, “Address delivered by William Sylvis President Iron Molders’ International Union of North America, before the convention now in session in Buffalo, N.Y.,” Fincher’s Trade’s Review, January 16, 1864, 25; Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy, 18-35.

[22]Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, chapters 3, 4, 7; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), preface; Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), xix-xliv; Leikin, The Practical Utopians, 32; Montgomery, “William H. Sylvis,” 22-24; Craig Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000), 151-54; Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, (New York: International Publishers, 1947), vol. 1: 398-406, vol. 2: 58-60; Robert Weir, Knights Unborsed: Internal Conflict in a Gilded Age Social Movement (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 37; Laurie, Artisans into Workers, 159.

[23]“To the Officers and Members of Local Assembly,” Members of Hancock Assembly no. 6272, John Samuel Papers. Box 2, Folder 1, Correspondence, 1887; Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-1886 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 163-64; Horner, “Producers’ Co-operatives,” 91-91; “Our Girls’ Co-operative Clothing Mfg. Co. of Chicago Illinois, Pamphlets in American History, Cooperative Societies #161 (Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1979-84), microform; “Rules and Regulations of the Jewel Co-operative Knitting Co, of St. Louis, Mo.,: Pamphlets in Ameri-can History, Cooperative Societies #111 (Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corp.of America, 1979-84), microform; “By-Laws of M.W.C.A.,” Pamphlets in American History, Cooperative Societies #140 (Sanford, N.C.: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1979-84), microform; Albert Shaw, “Cooperation in the Northwest,” in History of Cooperation in the United States, ed. Herbert Adams (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1888), 269.

[24]Hugh Cameron, “What Co-operation Is,” Journal of United Labor, October 10, 1884, 814; Leikin, The Practical Utopians, 32-33; C. J. C. to Editor, Louisville, Ky., Iron Molders’ International Journal, August 1867, 134.

[25]George S. Blauvelt, Nyack, N.Y., December 13, 1885, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, folder 5, Correspondence, June-Dec. 1885; Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives,” 151.

[26]Leonard Wheeler to J. P. McGaughey, Gilbertville, Mass., May 24, 1886, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Correspondence, Jan.-May 1886, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison.

[27]Knights of Labor, Record of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor of America. Eleventh regular Session, Held at Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 4 to 19, 187, 1594, Terence Powderly Papers, Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., microfilm, reel 67.

[28]Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859-1889 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1967), 230; Knights of Labor, Record of the Proceedings of the Third Regular Session of the General Assembly held at Chicago, Ill., Sept. 2-6, 1879, Terence V. Powderly Papers, 149, reel 67.

[29]Knights of Labor, Record of the Proceedings of the Fourth Regular Session of the General Assembly Held at Pittsburgh, Pa., Sept. 7-11, 1880, Terence Powderly Papers, 169-72, reel 67.

[30]Phelan, Grand Master Workman, 138; Leikin, The Practical Utopians, 56-57.

[31]Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives in the United States, 1865-1890,”188-90; Knights of Labor, Record of the Proceedings of the Eighth Regular Session of the General Assembly, Held at Philadelphia, PA, Sept, 1-10, 1884, 679-80, Terence Powderly Papers, reel 67.

[32]Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives,” 216-217.

[33]Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives,” 217-218; Leikin, The Practical Utopians, Chapter 81-83; District Assembly Forty Nine, Knights of Labor. New York and Vicinity (New York: Concord Co-operative Printing Company, 1888), Knights of Labor, Miscellaneous, Catherwood Library Cornell Labor Documentation Center, Ithaca, N.Y.

[34]Horner, “Producers’ Cooperatives,” 215, Appendix 1; Leikin, The Practical Utopians, chapter 83; Knights of Labor, Proceedings of Sixth Regular Session, 291; Ralph Beaumont to Editor, Journal of United Labor, January 1883, 383-84; “To Whom it May Concern!”, April 13, 1883, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder 3, Correspondence, 1882-84; Journal of United Labor: “Causes of the Failure of Co-operative Enterprises,” February 1884, 640-41; Hugh Cameron, “Cameron on Cooperation,” October 25, 1884, 826-27; Knights of Labor, Proceedings of the Eleventh Regular Session, 1558-59.

[35]“To the members of the K. of L., wherever found,” P.F. Gannon, J. Janley, Jos. Normandy, John O’Keefe, Providence, R.I., September 21, 1885, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder 5, Correspondence, June-Dec. 1885; John Samuel to Henry Mente, February 8, 1886, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder, Correspondence, Jan.-May 1886; George C. Kuechler, Sec. Fair Committee on Co-operation Fannie Allyn Assembly, to John Samuel, February 26, 1886, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Correspondence, Jan.-May 1886; John Samuel to Louis Werner, Bonne Terre, Mo., May 17, 1886, John Samuel Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Correspondence, Jan.-May 1886; Knights of Labor, Proceedings of the Ninth Regular Session, 36.

[36]Knights of Labor, “Report of the General Master Workman,” in Record of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor of America Twelfth Session, Held in Indianapolis, Indiana, November 13 to 27, 1889, 8-9, Terence Powderly Papers, reel 67.

[37]John Stuart Mill, quoted in R.T. Ely, “Cooperation in the Middle States,” in History of Cooperation in the United States, ed., Herbert Adams. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, vol. 6 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1888), 5.

[38]Ely, 6.

[39]“The manufacture of watch cases.” New York Times [New York] 1 January 1886: 18. Print; “The Trade of New York.” The Jewelers Circular & Horological Review, (New York) 6 February 1884: 5. Print; “New York notes.” The Jewelers Circular & Horological Review, (New York) 15 March 1893: 26. Print; Niebling, Warren, History of the American Watch Case (Pittsburgh: Whitmore Publishing Co., 1971), 230.

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