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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

About this Collection

This collection presents 470 interview excerpts and 3882 photographs from the Working in Paterson Folklife Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The four-month study of occupational culture in Paterson, New Jersey, was conducted in 1994. The documentary materials presented in this online collection explore how Paterson's industrial heritage expresses itself in Paterson: in its work sites, work processes, and memories of workers. Included are interpretive essays exploring such topics as work in the African American community, local foodways, the ethnography of a single work place (Watson Machine International), business life along a single street in Paterson (21st Avenue), and narratives told by retired workers.

Paterson, New Jersey, was founded in 1791 by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.), a group that had U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as an advocate. The basis for Paterson's manufacturing potential was the Great Falls on the Passaic River. Paterson went on to become the largest silk manufacturing center in the nation as well as a leader in the manufacture of many other products, from railroad locomotives to firearms.

The Paterson Folklife Project resulted in approximately 97 hours of recorded interviews (90 cassette and digital audio tapes) with people in their homes and places of work; 6,192 still photographs (3,420 35-mm color slides and 2,772 black-and-white images) documenting informants, work processes, work sites, industrial and commercial architecture, and other visible elements of occupational culture, including historic photos, documents, and memorabilia; and 1,004 manuscript pages of documentation, including 700 pages of audio and photo logs, and 314 pages of fieldnotes, in addition to administrative correspondence, maps, publications, and ephemera. These materials constitute the primary archival collection, the Working in Paterson Folklife Project collection (AFC 1995/028) which is available to researchers in the American Folklife Center's Folklife Reading Room. A duplicate copy of many of these materials is held by the National Park Service, which co-sponsored the project.

David A. Taylor from the American Folklife Center directed the Paterson Folklife Project. He and members of his research team interviewed active and retired workers in the textile and other important local industries, photographed workers and work-related events, and documented other aspects of Paterson's occupational heritage. In addition to Taylor, the research team consisted of documentary photographer Martha Cooper and folklorists Tom Carroll (a native of Paterson), Susan Levitas, Timothy Lloyd, and Robert McCarl.

The study was part of the federal Urban History Initiative (UHI) program sponsored in Congress by U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and administered by the National Park Service Mid-Atlantic Regional Office. The study focused on the ways in which community life and values are shaped by work and how the theme of work intersects with other themes, namely family, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and change over time. Senator Lautenberg and Representative William J. Pascrell, Jr., (the Mayor of Paterson when field research for the project was conducted), kindly agreed to be interviewed about Paterson, their home town. Mia Dell, Representative Pascrell's legislative director, provided support.