The Gilded Age in Reading Pennsylvania

The Gilded Age in Reading Pennsylvania

A Time of Industrialists and the Paradoxial Rise of the Socialist Party in the Heart of Pennsylvania-Dutch Country


The Gilded Age in Reading, approximately 1877 through the early 20th century, came to intrigue me on several levels. Since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, Reading had been a hub of vigorous manufacturing activity especially in the areas of railroad transit and distribution, iron and steel production, and beginning around the start the 20th century, textile manufacturing. Great fortunes were made by the men who would grow the industrial firms of Reading and surrounding Berks County. Industrialist families such as the Thuns, Jannsens, Carpenters, Parrishes, Sullivans, Ludens, and Kraemers would rise to social prominence and build and inhabit the new great mansions along Centre Avenue in Reading and on Reading Boulevard in the neighboring suburb of Wyomissing. Their firms would include Berkshire Mills, Carpenter Steel, Parrish Pressed Steel, Fleetwood Metal Body, Reading Railroad, Luden’s Cough Drops, Kraemer Woolen Mills, and Narrow Fabric.

On a personal level, I was born in Reading. My ancestors, dating back to the late 1700s, emigrated from Germany and lived and worked in the Reading area as farmers and factory workers. My maternal (6x) great-grandfather arrived in Berks County in 1773 from Offenburg, Germany, eventually purchasing a 200-acre farm 60 miles north of Reading in Northumberland County for 30 pounds, 16 shillings in 1787. My paternal great-grandfather was a factory worker at several Reading plants; my grandfather was employed as a toolmaker at Parrish Pressed Steel; my grandmother, who was raised on a farm, worked at Narrow Fabric; and my father was an employee of Carpenter Steel before moving our family to Florida after receiving a degree in mathematics from Albright College and accepting a position with Lockheed Martin (nee Martin Marietta), the aerospace defense contractor.

But, ultimately, what is most intriguing about the Gilded Age in Reading, with its location in the midst of bucolic Pennsylvania-Dutch country, is the paradoxical rise and prominence of the Socialist party. Paradoxical because Reading was then populated by mostly Protestant, conservative, homogeneously white, and native-born Americans of German descent. The town had very little unemployment and the industrialists who lived in the area were generous in donating money for schools, social services, and cultural activities. Homeownership was clearly above the national norm; there were no tenement apartments teeming with polyglot immigrant masses as in other cities; and Reading had very little social unrest and crime. As such, none of these social and economic conditions could readily be associated with fermenting and supporting a radical political platform peculiar to the Socialist party.

However, it was the case that Reading for a number of years held the distinction of being one of only three cities in the U.S. to be run by a socialist administration. At one point Reading had a socialist mayor and several city council members, and was represented in the Pennsylvania State Assembly by socialists. How was it then that the Socialist party paradoxically grew and flourished in a city like Reading during the Gilded Age, and proceeded to be a major force in city politics well into the 1930s?

Reading’s early industry consisted of smaller enterprises in trades, crafts, and light manufacturing. Local factories produced beer, cigars, shoes and boots. Reading was also a thriving center for hat making; in 1806 there were 40 hat factories in the city, producing 56,000 hats per year. Because of its locus as a transportation hub, Reading developed rapidly between 1825 and 1850. With Reading’s proximity almost equidistant between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and on the Schuylkill River just southeast of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, transportation was largely responsible for the city’s early growth. Turnpikes and later canals along the Schuylkill served as the predominant modes of transportation in the early 1800s.

Though once the Industrial Revolution of the 1830s brought the invention of steam-powered machinery to Reading, new railroads were so successful that the stagecoach and canal systems were unable to compete and were eventually abandoned. The largest local railroad was the famous Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R). Incorporated in 1833, the P&R constructed the first line from Reading to Pottstown in 1837. This line was extended to Philadelphia in 1839. The company originally built the line to ship coal from Pennsylvania’s anthracite region to the markets and ports of the eastern seaboard, and passenger service began in 1840s. The P&R eventually became one of the largest railroad networks in the nation, and was briefly the largest industrial corporation in the world just prior to the Civil War. The P&R maintained its own railroad shops, where the first coal-burning engine was designed and built.

The Civil War brought greater demands for goods, causing Reading factories to increase in size as well as number, a trend that would continue even after the cessation of the conflict. Industries that were to grow and prosper in the post-Civil War era included the railroad, iron and steel foundries, hosiery and knitting mills, hardware production, machine works, and flour mills. Other factories produced a variety of goods as well, including bricks, furniture, combs and brushes, and pianos.

A sampling of successful industrialists of the Gilded Age in Reading would include James H. Carpenter, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, who in 1889 founded Carpenter Steel when he took over the site of a defunct iron foundry to produce a limited specialty line of steel (today known as CarTech, it specializes in high tech steel applications as well as stainless steel products). Reading-born William H. Luden, of Dutch ancestry, would invent the “cough drop” in Reading, subsequently forming the Luden’s Cough Drop Company (now a division of Hershey Foods).

German immigrants Ferdinand Thun and Henry Jannsen ironically, born a week apart in February 1866 in Barmen, Germany, they were not to meet until arriving in Reading pooled their talents to invent knitting machinery and form Berkshire Knitting Mill (purchased by Vanity Fair in 1968), which became the largest full fashioned stocking factory in the world, and Narrow Fabric, manufacturers of braiding for women’s dresses. As well, Neff Parish started Parish Pressed Steel to manufacture frames for carriages and automobiles. In some form or fashion most are still in operation today.

A Conservative Pennsylvania-German Workforce

Pennsylvania-Germans have been traditionally described as a very conservative people, said to have retained customs across the centuries that were first brought from the old world to America by their ancestors. At a time when William Penn was having trouble selling parcels of land to fellow Englishmen, Germans, seeking to escape religious persecution and wars, were ready buyers of Pennsylvania land. Starting in 1712, and continuing for the next 150 years, a steady stream of German immigrants would make their way to Berks County. With most coming from the Palatinate district of Germany, they quickly felt at home as the topography of the Rhine Valley and Berks County are strikingly similar. Sydney Fisher wrote in 1896 in The Making of Pennsylvania of the German influence in this region:

In the towns of Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Reading, Allentown, Easton, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Dutch is constantly heard, and in some of these towns there are comparatively few people who speak English exclusively. In the counties where the Germans have always lived in masses there is comparatively little change… They are generally a most thrifty and conservative people.

Author Cornelius Weygandt stated in 1929 that the “Pennsylvania Dutch are the most conservative people in America.” Local educator J.P. Lozo observed, “over 90 percent of Reading’s population” during the latter portion of the 19th century “were German or Pennsylvania German, a very conservative, self-sufficient, sturdy stock that vigorously resisted any kind of change. The persons were satisfied to do in the same old ways all the activities that comprised their lives… Hence, the Pennsylvania-Germans of Reading retained the basic elements of German culture that included Lutheran Protestantism, distinctive marriage customs, supernatural beliefs, and traditional food preparation.

These German customs, at one time almost solely peculiar to a rural peasant-folk, translated to a more urban setting in Reading as the Pennsylvania-German trait of conservative, self-sufficiency manifested itself in the form of an extraordinarily high level of home ownership. Census numbers from 1900 are telling in that approximately 60 percent of Reading’s families owned their homes, an unusually high percentage as compared to other American cities of the era. Furthermore, nearly half (47 percent) of Reading’s homeowners were free of any mortgage. The larger connotation of this trend of home-ownership is that a significant portion of the populace was gainfully employed and reasonably well paid. Reading’s industrial diversity required the services of many types of skilled and unskilled workers such as steam-fitters, textile workers, machinists, building trade workers, railroad workers, and cigar-makers.

In addition, other notable and uniquely distinguishing characteristics pertaining to Reading’s population during the latter part of the 19th century included the city’s large number of native-born citizens, which stood at 94 percent, whereas in most urban areas of the era the native-born percentage was around 72 percent. And, according to Henry Stetler in his Socialist Movement in Reading, PA, “Reading’s predominance as a Protestant city is striking when compared with… other socialist cities and textile centers. Milwaukee’s church population is 53 percent and Bridgeport [Conn.] 62 percent Roman Catholic.”

Enter the Socialists

In analyzing a broader movement, historians often can point to a single key occurrence or tipping event that served as a catalyst or portent of the larger phenomenon. Such is the case in the rise of the Socialist party in Reading, which involved a young boy witnessing a massacre of railroad strikers in 1877.

The national strike of the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers and Firemen of 1877 made its way to Reading during the summer of that year, pitting the management of the P&R Railroad against its workers. Hundreds of feet of tracks were ripped up, cars derailed, and scores of P&R facilities in Reading were torched, including the strategic Lebanon Valley Bridge that carried the railroad’s westward shipments over the Schuylkill River. This sabotage combined with the railroad’s already precarious financial condition, due to rapid overbuilding, caused management, in desperation, to request the Pennsylvania State Militia to quiet the city and restore order. On July 23, 11 persons – most of them bystanders watching efforts to free a passenger train blocked by strikers – were fatally wounded by soldiers who had been pelted by rocks and bottles thrown by the strikers. James H. Maurer, then a boy of 13, witnessed this affair. “I had looked on a tragic act in the real drama of class struggle,” Maurer later wrote in his autobiography, It Can Be Done, “which I was soon to enter.

This vivid, adolescent experience made an indelible impression on the youth who would, for the next 60 years, be identified as the leader of the socialist movement in Reading. Maurer joined the Knights of Labor in 1880 when he was 16, and before he was 20, was elected district master workman, and in his own words, never missed a meeting of my own organization nor of the District Assembly, which took in everything along the Schuylkill Valley between Reading and Philadelphia. Maurer’s socialist activities in Reading and neighboring communities ultimately led to his being blacklisted in the machinist’s trade.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Maurer and other social reformers, humanitarians, and free thinkers from diverse socio-economic strata in Reading formed a coalition, identifying themselves with proposals advanced by Henry George, Edward Bellamy, the Populists, Christian socialists, trade unionists, and religious freethinkers. Organic in nature, the socialist movement in Reading initially had no distinct class orientation but was united in its search for some new dogma that might provide a solution to the problems confronting an increasingly industrialized, centralized, and impersonal civilization. Socialists (including the Reading group), populists, and agrarian reformers effectively tapped into this angst amongst the working class and rural populace to further their programs. For Maurer and other Reading socialists the ultimate goal was to put socialist ideals and programs in practice by organizing an effective political machine to elect socialists to local public office. As such, a portion of the Berks County socialist party’s constitution read as follows:

[We] shall organize the working class, and all those who accept the principles of socialism, in to a political party for the purpose of securing all the powers of government, and using them solely in the interest of those who render useful service to society.

As part of a natural political and organizational progression, the Reading socialists made a decision to join the Socialist Labor party in the mid 1890s. Once aligned with the national party, the working class trade union element would become the dominant force in the movement, with little, if any, active support from middle or upper class humanitarians. With its almost exclusive alliance with organized labor, the movement would grow steadily. At its peak in 1935, after years of organizing, the Socialist party in Reading counted 6,774 registered voters. In that same year, in which it won the mayoralty and other offices in somewhat of a landslide, the socialist mayoral candidate received 20,575 votes. It is obvious a great number of democrats, republicans, and independents were taken by the socialists’ message and crossed party lines.

It is noteworthy that Reading socialists were largely impervious to the maneuverings of radical agitators from outside the area. This is attributed to the ethnically homogeneous nature of Reading, and, as such, “the hazard of having outsiders attempt to superimpose an alien ‘ism’ upon them was avoided.” Although, according to Maurer, occasionally “strangers” from national socialist organizations would drop in to rally the troops and “give them hell” before departing.

The role of leadership, particularly that of Maurer’s, is crucial to any account of socialism in Reading; it was the cornerstone of the unity, coherence, and ultimate success of the movement. Maurer and others astutely interpreted socialistic principles in the light of local conditions and in a manner designed to make them understandable to the average Pennsylvania-German workman. Maurer was Pennsylvania-German and was conversant with the prejudices, “stubbornness” (the Pennsylvania Dutch use the term dick kopjj), conservatism, virtues, and the weaknesses of this group.

Their conservative nature and attendant satisfaction with the ways of their ancestors meant that any attempt to introduce a novel idea such a socialism would have to be introduced by a person of their own kind. Maurer also reminded these Pennsylvania-Germans that socialism was a concept that was German in origin. True to their nature, once having accepted the principles of socialism, they embraced it with equal consistency. So, in an almost counter-intuitive fashion, it was the very homogeneous nature of the city that, ultimately, was a most useful tool in recruiting workers by the socialist leaders, who, as noted, were themselves part of this German ethnic stock. Further, the fact that these conservatives could be aroused to rethink their social and economic problems, in a socialist framework, is a tribute to the propaganda and educational programs (discussed below) provided by the local party’s leadership.

Though Maurer had little formal education, through his writings and activities he displayed a keen understanding of economic, political, and social problems. What men like Maurer lacked in formal education was more than compensated for by their innate people skills and motivational prowess. Maurer wrote in his autobiography:

I don’t speak like a polished scholar. I do, however, try to express my thoughts in a common sense way… Instead talk to each other about issues at hand in an understandable fashion and, above all, be tolerant. Corral every toiler whether he works with his hand or brain under one banner. That is power, and power means success.

In addition, the socialists skillfully adapted their program to the traditional culture of the Pennsylvania-Germans. The socialist leadership was keenly aware that they were dealing with a group of human beings who had inherited a set of cultural values that did not necessarily need to be destroyed at the expense of certain lofty socialist goals.

According to Henry Stetler, “The Pennsylvania-Germans are a sociable people and employ any pretext for getting together at picnics, suppers, and other socials.” Thus the gregarious proclivities of the Pennsylvania-Germans were utilized for winning converts to the socialist cause. Men, who ordinarily would have spent their evenings at the church, firecompany, or lodge, could find social equivalents at Socialist party headquarters or trade union halls. Women, too, reportedly found a wide variety of socialist “social” activities.

The Socialist party in Reading was an exceedingly close-knit organization. Part of its success was due to the fact that the working class of the town had an organization in many respects superior to that of either the Republican or Democratic parties in that the Socialist party successfully fused the political, social, and economic activities of the workers. Functioning continuously between election cycles and making good use of contemporaneous devices to develop esprit de corps, it was ever present in the lives of the working class. Notably, the Socialist party in Reading was successful in transferring power from one class group to the working class majority. It is important to note that the exertion of political power at the polls by the working class in Reading was, and is, seldom seen in most local and national American elections.

The socialists of Reading disseminated their views through a variety of media. At first, they resorted to oral propaganda through street corner meetings that were held frequently during the early years of the movement. Later, the socialists acquired their own printing plant and began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Labor Advocate. Local daily newspapers in Reading were slow to cover socialist activities until members of the party began getting elected, at such time, the papers had no choice but to provide coverage. Thereafter, the daily press had to adopt a more conciliatory attitude because of the serious threat to circulation if socialist supporters decided to boycott their publications.

As part of creating their own publications, the socialists of Reading appropriately geared the content to their followers’ level of understanding. As such, Maurer’s writings in particular reflected a bias against intellectualism. “You have got to present the socialist message in simple direct language,” Maurer noted, “so they know what you are talking about”. “Don’t forget that… the workers will be alright if they understand what you mean”. Further, Maurer noted that it was important to keep the messages simple and consistent “since eight out of ten Pennsylvania Dutchmen (Germans) do not read beyond the headlines,” it was better to print short, concise articles that avoided the “heavy stuff.”

However, the party did provide an extensive library for those members so inclined to read the “heavy stuff,” i.e., the works of Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, Morgan, Darwin and others. At one time there were several thousand volumes housed in the Socialist headquarters at Labor Lyceum in Reading. Later the party would support The Reading Labor College under the auspices of the Federated Trades Council. Courses at the college included Principles of Unionism, Social Science, Trade Union Organization, and Labor and Government. In an article for The Nation, Maurer wrote of his support for independent education for socialist students, in large part because of the “snobbishness of the average school teacher” towards working class learners. “Her male colleagues up in the high school, and the principals and superintendent are even worse snobs than she,” Maurer observed, “for they are trying to hobnob with members of the chamber of commerce, Rotary Clubs, and similar organizations. ”

The Role of the Reading Industrialists

The ownership of industry in Reading could not be classified as being “absentee.” As part of the great class struggles of the Gilded Age, workers were often agitated by union activists and politicians claiming that the companies employing them were owned by uncaring, greedy capitalists living outside of the community. This, however, was not the case in Reading, as the ownership of the chief industries was largely in the hands of the entrepreneurs (or later their families) who had established the firms. Most of them lived in the city of Reading or in the metropolitan area, several in mansions overlooking their factories. Indeed, the founders and owners of the great Wyomissing textile industries, the Thuns and Janssens, literally lived a few blocks from their plants. Moreover, these industrialists were credited for their sense of civic consciousness that was manifested in their philanthropic contributions to hospitals, libraries, art museums, the establishment of schools, the creation of educational foundations, the maintenance of model industrial plants, and their development of attractive housing communities for their workers.

For example, the Thun family, who owned the Berkshire and Narrow Fabric textile mills, donated land and money for the construction of the Reading Hospital and Reading Museum. Believing in the value of educating workers and their families, the Thuns also founded the Wyomissing Polytechnic School located on company property, which eventually became the Berks-Lehigh Valley campus of Penn State University. A 1997 article in the Historical Review of Berks County cited the Thun family as having possessed a “civic-conscious tradition… that challenged them.” And “whose quiet philanthropy and civic vision enriched the area’s public institutions and culture.” As well, James Carpenter, founder of Carpenter Steel, believed strongly in the safety and welfare of his employees. Photographs of the era depict employees receiving medical care at company sponsored health clinics, clean dormitory rooms provided to workers, employees engaged in spirited games of baseball on a Carpenter Steel-maintained field at lunch time, and happy workers participating in a local parade. Far from being entirely company propaganda, Carpenter Steel’s approach to employee relations is supported by the fact that five drives to unionize workers over the years all resulted in a rejection of union affiliation in favor of remaining a non-union shop. The company’s policy was to “stay one step ahead of the union benefits and offer Carpenter employees all the advantages of union membership without joining. ”

Considering the benevolent nature of certain industrialists of Reading, the overall lack of discontent among a homogenous, relatively well-educated populace, and the high home-ownership and attendant good salaries, how was it that the socialist leaders, even in light of their aforementioned formidable motivational and organizational skills, were still able to make such significant inroads with a seemingly content working class? Unlike the absentee ownership so characteristic of some corporately owned industries in other areas, the industrialists who lived in the same communities where their concerns were located served as living symbols of upper class domination to Reading’s class-conscious socialists and trade unionists. Despite their best efforts toward benevolence, the industrialists’ conspicuous presence in the community, with their mansions most could only dream of owning, and other displays of wealth, seemed to have further fueled class resentment.

And no matter what benefits Reading industrialists bestowed through their philanthropies to workers and their communities, they were still an enemy whose conservative capitalistic political and economic moorings were antithetical to the socialist cause.

Aftermath and Conclusions

James Maurer, after years of toiling to organize a viable political party, finally saw his efforts pay dividends with the election of socialists to public office, starting with his win of a seat in the Pennsylvania State Assembly in 1910. Maurer, the lone socialist in the state assembly, would be reelected to the state house in 1914 and 1916. But the major triumph for Maurer and the Socialist party in Reading would come in 1927 with socialists winning the mayoralty, two city council seats (one of which was won by Maurer), the city controller job, and two school board posts. Further, in 1935 the socialists reached the apex of their power in Reading, as the party would control almost all city offices (including an astounding 107 of the total 196 ward offices), and also elect three socialists to Berks County positions for the first time.

Through its amazing run of successes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is important to note that socialist leadership in Reading remained faithful to the interests of their class. Never forgetting his roots, Maurer remained constant and thereby provided an indispensable continuity for the aims and activities of the movement. Notably, as a testament to this one man’s force of personality, the decline of the Socialist party in Reading can be linked, to a certain degree, to Maurer’s retirement from public life. After the 1935 elections, concluding with the socialists’ almost complete takeover of all city positions, Maurer, then 76, officially resigned from the party on July 7, 1936. He subsequently issued a statement to the media that was even picked up by the New York Times, probably in recognition of his prominence in the party, which read in part:

“…I shall be ashamed if Berks County Socialists are not in the forefront fighting to hold high the ideals and principles of the International Socialist Movement.”

However, thereafter the party would slowly decline into near oblivion due to Maurer’s resignation, disunity at the local and national levels (causing an attendant loss of confidence among the voters who had supported the party) and the coming war. Nonetheless, while the ultimate goal of a “cooperative commonwealth” fell short, the socialists of Reading were vindicated through the eventual incorporation of a number of their ideas into Roosevelt’s New Deal social legislation of the 1930s, which also, one might argue (or maybe not), is indicative of the soundness of their proposals. Ultimately, the Reading socialists can be credited for demonstrating that class action, under working class leadership, is indeed possible within the American democratic framework.