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October 24, 2014

Uncovering Isolation in the Archive: Women Workers in Bicycle Factories

October 24, 2014 | By | No Comments

I have begun diving to a variety of sources for my project “Wheelwomen at Work,” in which I am digitizing women’s involvement in the bicycle industry from the 1880s to the 1910s. One of my most striking findings so far has come from factory inspection records. Starting in the 1880s, many states established departments in which state officials visited factories to document the working conditions and ensure the factories were meeting the relatively new safety requirements mandated by law. These visits  were part of larger efforts from Progressive reformers and labor activists of the period. They believed that they needed physical access to the factories to truly understand the working conditions, and they used these visits to collect extensive amounts of data on each factory. They documented demographic data on the workers as well as detailed information on their working conditions, wages, hours, and tasks. They believed that collecting, cataloging, and reporting this data was the foundation for all of their reform efforts.
These reports provide valuable information on workers’ lives, especially given that so many working-class historical actors can easily get lost in the archives. This is particularly true for women workers. Much of what we know about women’s factory work in the nineteenth and early twentieth century centers on factories in which women made up the majority of workers, such as garment factories. Inspection reports of bicycle factories, as well as factories which made bicycle parts and components like wheels and saddles, present a different view of women workers. Strikingly, many of the women working in these factories made up less than half of the workers as a whole. For example, in 1896 inspectors reported that the North American Rubber Company of New York employed 239 men and 92 women in their bicycle tire division. Often there were only a few women workers in small factories and workshops. In the 1898 report of the Lindsay Bicycle Company in Indiana, the inspector documented that the factory employed 25 male workers and only one female worker. Such accounts suggest a few interesting themes that warrant further investigation. First, the documents imply that women were engaging in many of their tasks along side men, and perhaps even completing the same tasks as men. I am interested in trying to uncover their specific tasks and how their responsibilities compared to male workers. Second, it suggests a sense of isolation; I imagine that the single female worker at the Lindsay Bicycle Company had a very different work experience compared to women working in factories surrounded by fellow women. I have yet to find evidence of formal labor organizing among women workers in bicycle factories, and perhaps this isolation was a factor. Both findings provide a glimpse of women’s factory work in this period that I plan to explore further in my project.

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