Narratives of Work: Stories Told by Retired Workers and Their Children

During the summer of 1994, Center folklife specialist David Taylor led a team of researchers on a four-month study of occupational culture in Paterson, New Jersey. The study, "Working in Paterson," was sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service (Philadelphia), under a 1992 federal program, the New Jersey Urban History Initiative (see Folklife Center News, summer 1994).

Sam Balister, the resident textile expert at the Paterson Museum, demonstrates how to pull warp ends through the reed of a weaving apparatus called an "entering frame."...

Describing his hometown of Albany, New York, William Kennedy observes: "It is centered squarely in the American and human continuum, a magical place where the past becomes visible if one is willing to track the multiple incarnations of the city's soul."1 This description applies to Paterson, New Jersey — a rambunctious, inventive, mysterious place, also centered in the American experience. But how does one track the multiple incarnations of a city's soul?

Fieldworker David Taylor interviews Anne Murphy about c. 1918 photo of workers and managers at Newberger's Towel Factory, Paterson.

Since a substantial portion of Paterson's collective memory relates to the experience of blue-collar workers in local manufacturing industries, one way my colleagues and I approached this problem was through interviews with retired textile- and garment-industry workers.2 These interviews yielded a wealth of data about such topics as tools and processes used in making woven textiles and garments, occupational terminology, organization of work, strikes and other major events, and workers' values and traditions. The interviews contain many narratives that reflect similar themes and, therefore, provide insight into retired workers' collective occupational experience and the ways they reshape the past. A few of the narratives, representing four common themes, are presented here.

From Folklife Center News 17, No. 2 (Spring 1995)
ISSN 0149-6840 Catalog Card No. 77-649628

By David A. Taylor

1. William Kennedy, O Albany! (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), 7. ( Return to Text )

2. The other members of the "Working in Paterson" research team were: folklorists Tom Carroll, Susan Levitas, Tim Lloyd, and Bob McCarl, and documentary photographer Martha Cooper. ( Return to Text )