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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Atkinson, Edward (10 February 1827–11 December 1905), businessman and reformer, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of Amos Atkinson II, a merchant, and Anna Greenleaf Sawyer. He was educated in private schools in both Brookline and Boston, but the family’s financial distress prevented him from attending Harvard as planned and propelled him instead at age fifteen into the world of business. After rising to the accounting department of a Boston dry goods firm, Atkinson in 1851 was appointed treasurer and agent of the textile company Ogden Mills....

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Bagley, Sarah George (29 April 1806–?), millworker, reformer, and physician, was born in Candia, New Hampshire, the daughter of Nathan Bagley and Rhoda Witham, farmers.

Bagley grew up in a family whose economic situation became increasingly precarious during the course of the nineteenth century. Nathan Bagley originally farmed land in Candia, which he had inherited from his father, but he later moved on to farming land in Gilford, New Hampshire. After losing litigation in 1822, he sold his land in Gilford and eventually moved to Meredith Bridge, New Hampshire (now Laconia), where he became an incorporator of the Strafford Cotton Mill Company in 1833. However, Nathan Bagley did not own a home after 1824; it was Sarah Bagley who made the down payment on a house for her family in Meredith Bridge in the 1840s. She probably used money she had saved during her stints as a factory worker in Lowell, Massachusetts....

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Barnum, Gertrude (29 September 1866–17 June 1948), settlement-house worker and labor reformer, was born in Chester, Illinois, the daughter of William Henry Barnum, a Cook County circuit court judge, and Clara Letitia Hyde. Growing up in suburban Chicago, Barnum had a privileged childhood. As a young adult, she appears to have rejected the dictates of her class when she refused to make her formal debut into Chicago society. At the age of twenty-five she went to the University of Wisconsin, majoring in English. However, after one year of study at which she excelled, Barnum left the university to become an activist for social change in the settlement-house movement....

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Bayne, Thomas (1824–1889), dentist and politician, was born into slavery in North Carolina and was known as Samuel Nixon before his escape from bondage in 1855. He was sold several times before being purchased by C. F. Martin, a dentist in Norfolk, Virginia. As the slave of Martin, Bayne learned sufficient dentistry to serve as the doctor’s assistant and to make dental house calls. Bayne also developed bookkeeping skills and monitored the doctor’s accounts....

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Brooks, John Graham (19 July 1846–08 February 1938), reformer and sociologist, was born in Acworth, New Hampshire, the son of Chapin Kidder Brooks, a merchant, and Pamelia Graham. During his youth he worked at the store owned by his father, who also represented the town of Acworth in the state legislature. After graduating from Kimball Union Academy in 1866, Brooks attended the University of Michigan Law School but soon changed his mind about studying law. He left after a year and taught the next year on Cape Cod. In 1868, after a summer in Quebec perfecting his French, he enrolled in Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. After graduating in 1872 Brooks returned to New England and enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School, where he graduated with a degree in sacred theology in 1875. He was soon ordained and served as a Unitarian minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In addition to his pastoral duties, he involved himself in labor reform and organized classes in history and economics for the workingmen of the neighborhood. His liberal sermons attracted listeners from Cambridge and Beacon Hill. He was soon addressing informal groups on social problems. In 1880 he married the widow of another Unitarian minister, Helen Lawrence Appleton Washburn, who shared his reform impulses; they had three children....

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Calloway, Ernest (01 January 1909–31 December 1989), African American labor and civil rights leader, journalist, and public intellectual, was born in Heberton, West Virginia. His father, also named Ernest, was a coal miner, and his mother, Mary Hayes, was the elder Calloway’s second wife. In 1913 the family moved to Jenkins, Kentucky, where Calloway spent his teenage years. A bright and restless youth, Calloway rebelled against the racial segregation and tight social control he experienced in a company-dominated southern coal town. After working in the mines with his father, he hoboed across the United States during the early years of the Great Depression. In March 1934 Calloway’s first published article appeared in a National Urban League magazine and led to his receiving a scholarship to attend Brookwood Labor College, an independent school that supported working-class insurgency. Calloway’s stint at Brookwood imbued him with commitments to industrial unionism, interracial organizing, and democratic socialism that endured throughout his long career....

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César Chávez Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111017).

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Chávez, César Estrada (31 March 1927–23 April 1993), labor leader and social activist, was born in North Gila Valley, near Yuma, Arizona, the son of Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada. In 1888 two-year-old Librado, his siblings, and his mother immigrated to the Arizona territory to join his father, who had fled the harshness of life at Hacienda del Carmen in Porfirian, Mexico. Juana Estrada, also a native of Chihuahua, married Librado in 1924, and soon after the couple purchased a small grocery/garage/pool hall not far from his parents’ 160-acre ranch and raised six children. After losing their property during the depression, the family soon joined the migrant harvest circuit....

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Cone, Moses Herman (29 June 1857–08 December 1908), textile entrepreneur, was born in Jonesboro, Tennessee, the son of Herman Kahn, a Jewish wholesale grocery merchant, and Helen Guggenheimer. Cone’s father was born in Bavaria, and his mother, though born in Virginia, was of German heritage. When Cone’s father moved to the United States, the family name was changed to Cone. Cone was the eldest of thirteen children and spent his formative years in Jonesboro, where his father owned a grocery store. The family moved in 1870 to Baltimore, Maryland, where Cone attended the public schools....

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Cook, George William (07 January 1855–20 August 1931), educator and civil rights leader, was born a slave in Winchester, Virginia. The names of his parents are unknown. In May 1862 the Cook family, which included seven children, became war refugees after the Union capture of Winchester. The family eventually settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where young George Cook’s most important early experience as a free person was working as a servant for David D. Mumma, a Pennsylvania state legislator. Permitted to use the Mumma family library, Cook developed the ambition to seek higher education, which would have remained beyond his grasp except for several fortunate events. After he moved to New York in 1871, Cook learned of Howard University from the Reverend ...

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Dennison, Henry Sturgis (04 March 1877–29 February 1952), manufacturer and social reformer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Henry B. Dennison, a manufacturer, and Emma J. Stanley. Educated at Roxbury Latin School and Harvard University, Dennison joined his family’s paper products company after his graduation from Harvard in 1899 and quickly demonstrated the combination of business ability and social activism that would make him one of the best-known executives of the twentieth century. As works manager after 1906 and as president after 1917, Dennison contributed substantially to the growth of Dennison Manufacturing. Under his stewardship the company embraced systematic organization and modern management and became a leading manufacturer of jewelers’ boxes, crepe paper, tags, and labels. Most of all, it became a private social laboratory where Dennison applied his theories of industrial and social reform....

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Frederick Douglass Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-19288).

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Douglass, Frederick ( February 1818–20 February 1895), abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unidentified white man. Although a slave, he spent the first six years of his life in the cabin of his maternal grandparents, with only a few stolen nighttime visits by his mother. His real introduction to bondage came in 1824, when he was brought to the nearby wheat plantation of Colonel ...

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Downing, George Thomas (30 December 1819–21 July 1903), abolitionist, businessman, and civil rights advocate, was born in New York City, the son of Thomas Downing, a restaurant owner, and Rebecca West. His father’s Oyster House was a gathering place for New York’s aristocracy and politicians. Young Downing attended Charles Smith’s school on Orange Street and, with future black abolitionists ...

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Dudley, Helena Stuart (31 August 1858–29 September 1932), settlement house worker and peace activist, was born in Florence, Nebraska, the daughter of Judson H. Dudley, a land developer, and Caroline Bates. Her early life was rather unsettled as the Dudley family moved about the West in pursuit of her father’s real estate ventures. Helena Dudley did not attend college until the age of twenty-six when she spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then went on to Bryn Mawr college, graduating with the first class in 1889 with a degree in biology. Like so many other college-educated women of her generation, she became a teacher, first at the Pratt Institute and, a year later, at the Packer Institute, both in Brooklyn, New York....

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Dugdale, Richard Louis (1841–23 July 1883), merchant and social scientist, was born in Paris, France, the son of Richard John Dugdale, a manufacturer and journalist, and Anna (maiden name unknown). After Dugdale’s father lost most of his fortune through the upheavals of 1848, the family returned to its native England, immigrated to New York City in 1851, and moved to Indiana in 1858. Richard Louis Dugdale returned to New York City in 1860 and enrolled in night classes at Cooper Union. Though he was first employed as a stenographer, he inherited a small sum of money that enabled him to enter the business of commerce and manufacturing. In turn, financial success freed him to devote his energies to sociological studies....

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Filene, Edward Albert (03 September 1860–26 September 1937), merchant, reformer, and philanthropist, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of William Filene, a merchant, and Clara Ballin. His father emigrated from Poznan, Prussia (now Poland), in 1848 and, upon arriving in the United States, worked as a tailor in Boston. In 1856 he set up a small retail shop for women’s goods in Salem, Massachusetts. Encouraged by the prosperity of the Civil War years, William Filene moved his family and business to New York City in 1863, but the postwar downturn forced him into bankruptcy by 1870. The family retraced their steps and returned to small shopkeeping in industrial Lynn, Massachusetts....

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Elizabeth G. Flynn Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-97791).

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Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (07 August 1890–05 September 1964), labor organizer and activist, was born in Concord, New Hampshire, the daughter of Thomas Flynn, a quarry worker and civil engineer, and Annie Gurley, a tailor. Both parents were descended from a long line of Irish rebels. During Elizabeth’s childhood, the family was poor due to the hard times and her father’s preference for political argumentation over earning a living. In 1900 the Flynns moved to a cold-water flat in the Bronx, which became a gathering place for Irish freedom fighters and prominent socialists. Impressed by Elizabeth’s intelligence and militancy, they encouraged her activism....