Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Spunky Senior Author, Richard Brawer, Shares Silk Mills and Paterson With Us

Richard Brawer writes mystery, suspense and historical fiction novels. When not writing, he spends his time sailing and growing roses.  He has two married daughters and lives in New Jersey with his wife.

Richard has some fascinating historical details to share about Paterson, the setting for his book, Silk Legacy.

Here's what Richard has to say:

Most of us Spunky Seniors on this list were probably born between the mid 1920s and 1960.  We’ve all heard stories about how our parents and grandparents struggled against the industrial barons to give us a better life.

The auto workers, steel workers and mine workers battles against their boss’ tyranny is prominently written about in the history books, but the battle between Paterson, NJ’s silk mill workers and the silk bosses is relegated to the back pages of history books, if it is mentioned at all.  However, that struggle in 1913 in the “Silk City” led to the formation of the only labor museum in the United States which is still in operation today in Haledon, NJ. 

A brief history of Paterson:

In 1791 Alexander Hamilton stood on the bluffs that overlooked the Passaic River’s great waterfall, and envisioned a mighty industrial city.  He prophesied that the only way his new country could be truly independent from England and Europe was to develop its own resources and industry.
Wary that democracy by the masses was not powerful enough to bring about the quick development of a strong industrial economy, Hamilton lobbied Congress to appropriate one million dollars to build a government-owned and operated industrial center.  Congress balked.  However, through the influence of his politically connected friends, Hamilton convinced the New Jersey Legislature to charter a corporation for the sole purpose of creating an industrial city.

The corporation was named “Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers.”  Its charter gave it extraordinary financial and governmental powers.  S.U.M. had exclusive control over the Passaic River and its great waterfall.  Its property and the corporation were tax exempt.  It had the right to create its own government within the bounds of its territory, and to condemn property bordering its lands for its own use, as well as hold lotteries to raise funds.  Among the original sixty-five stockholders were two Supreme Court justices, four senators, nine congressmen, a former governor of New Jersey, and the present governor, William Paterson—the namesake of the city S.U.M. built.  This obvious conflict of interest set the tone for the operation of Paterson for the next one hundred and twenty-five years.

S.U.M. set out immediately to build its own factories as well as to lease and sell land to other entrepreneurs.  Word spread rapidly.  The city became a Mecca for men with grandiose ideas such as Samuel Colt, whose six-shooter helped tame the west; Thomas Rogers whose Rogers Locomotive factory built not only one of the first locomotives in America, but Union Pacific’s Engine number 119 that bumped cow catchers with its counterpart from the west at Promontory, Utah to unite the country by rail; John Holland, developer of the first practical submarine which he tested in the Passaic River; and John Ryle, who in the eighteen-forties, built a silk mill and started an industry that would dwarf all others.  By 1900 there were three hundred mills in Paterson that were turning raw silk into a fabric of shimmering beauty to luxuriously adorn the bodies and homes of America’s rich.

Enticed by pictures of gold lying in the streets waiting to be scooped up, immigrants flocked to Paterson, carrying with them little more than their dreams for freedom, equality and riches.  A few realized those dreams and joined the ranks of the industrialists, but most soon found out they had traded their past oppression under the aristocrats of Europe for a new form of oppression, fostered on them by the powerful mill owners.  The industrialists ruled Paterson as a private kingdom.  They had no concern for the city or the people that inhabited it, treating Paterson and its immigrant laborers as expendable commodities needed only to create the one product that meant anything to them—money.

Nothing was built for the public without a bitter fight from the directors of S.U.M. and the other industrialists.  A cholera epidemic established an obvious need for sewers, but it took a special act of the state legislature to force S.U.M. to build them.  S.U.M., because of its tax exempt status, refused to pay its fair share for sidewalks, and it was not until 1907, despite numerous typhoid outbreaks, that S.U.M finally was forced to put proper filters on its system that supplied drinking water to the city.

Government became an industry of its own, earning its revenues from the industrialists who owned the politicians, the courts, the press and the ballot box.  The working class was disenfranchised from both politics and the social order of the city.  They became outcasts, treated no better than the products they produced with their labor.  However, there was one factor the autocratic industrialists could not control—the flow of ideas.

During the nineteenth century, the population of Paterson increased by fifty percent every decade.  The immigrants who crowded into the tenements were of the same stock as America’s founding fathers and the industrialists who tried to control them.  Their tongues were equally as sharp, their organizing abilities as keen, and their demands for “certain unalienable rights” as insistent.  With every avenue of legal protest shut to them, they hit out at their oppressors the only way left open to them: they withheld their labor from the mills.

Their first strike came in 1794, the only demand being schooling for their children.  Over the next one hundred and nineteen years, as the dictatorship of the industrialists grew stronger and their refusal to do anything for the welfare of the city became more adamant, Paterson’s laborers struck their bosses an additional one hundred and thirty-six times.

Through their ownership of the politicians and the police, the bosses easily put down every strike, but each defeat taught valuable lessons to the laborers.  The day was fast approaching when the masses would be heard and the power structure would shift.  That day arrived on February 25, 1913.  Twenty-four thousand workers walked out of Paterson’s three hundred silk mills, throwing the city into chaos for five months.

My family had been in the textile business since my grandfather started a silk company in Paterson in 1904, branching out into synthetic yarns by the mid 1930s.  My grandfather had six sons.  As the sons became of working age he set them up in various facets of the textile businessweaving mill, dye house, jobbers, converters, etc. My father’s business was a dye and print factory.

I was born in Paterson but my branch of the family moved to the Jersey Shore when I was twelve. After graduating the University of Florida I joined my father in his business.  The company dyed and printed fabric mostly for the women’s trades―inexpensive dresses and lingerie. I was sent out to solicit the curtain, drapery and linen trades.

Unfortunately my father died of a heart attack in 1968 and the executors sold the business to other family members. (It’s a long drawn out story as to why I didn’t get a chance to take over the business, but that’s for another time.)  I continued to work there for two more years then my uncles and their partners said point blank, “Richard, there’s no future for you here.”  I guess they didn’t like the fact that in the six years I worked there, I had built up my trade to the point where I was doing one third of the company’s business and they would have to keep paying me commission on those sales. (If there is a moral here it’s, don’t ever work for family.)

Since I knew the curtain, drapery and linen trade my wife and I started a retail store.  I was able to get credit for merchandise because I was now buying from the same people I had sold to and they knew me and trusted me. We ran the store successfully for thirty years.  

After I retired, I began writing mystery novels, my favorite genre to read. But I also read a lot of historical fiction.  When I read about an historian giving a lecture on the “Silk City” and a tour of the historic district, since I knew little about Paterson, I thought it would be nice to check out my roots.

As I listened to the lecturer a plot developed in my mindtwo brothers, one a silk industrialist the other a union leader, and their wives battling their husbands for voting rights and reproductive freedom. I took a lot of notes, but not enough to truly understand the era.  So I did research by going back to Paterson and reading old newspaper stories.  With that research and my knowledge of the textile industry, I wrote Silk Legacy.

About Silk Legacy:
In early twentieth century Paterson, New Jersey, dashing twenty-nine year old Abraham Bressler charms naïve nineteen year old Sarah Singer into marriage by making her believe he feels the same way she does about the new calling of a modern woman.  He then turns around and gives her little more respect than he would a servant, demanding she stay home to care for “his” house and “his” children.

Feeling betrayed Sarah defies him and joins women's groups, actively participating in rallies for woman suffrage, child welfare and reproductive freedom.  For a while she succeeds in treading delicately between the demands of her husband and her desire to be an independent woman.  Her balancing act falters when a strike shuts down Paterson’s 300 silk mills.  With many friends working in the mills, Sarah is forced to choose sides in the battle between her Capitalist husband and his Socialist brother, a union leader who happens to be her best friend’s husband.

Jealousy, infidelity, arrogance, greed—the characters’ titanic struggles will catapult you into the heights of their euphoria and the depths of their despair.  Who will triumph and who will be humbled is not certain until the last page.

Unfortunately the publisher of Silk Legacy has gone out of business.  But the book is available on Kindle and any e-reader that can access books. The link which will take you directly to the Silk Legacy page in is:

Read more about Silk Legacy and Richard’s latest novel, Keiretsu, due out the end of November, and his mystery novels at:


  1. Welcome to Spunky Senior Authors and Talents, Richard. Thanks for the fascinating history about silk mills and Paterson!

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Richard, I enjoyed this post. I was in Patterson just last weekend to see a film about Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a Patterson poet and founder of the Patterson Poetry Project.

    Your book sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Whoops! Forgive the misspelling of Paterson!

  4. Richard,

    What a wonderful book! People these days ignore NJ cities and it's a shame. My husband great uncle worked in Patterson until he was in his nineties. There is much to admire in the history of NJ.

  5. Richard, thanks for sharing this arm of history. It certainly made me want to read your new work.

  6. This book and your history sound absolutely fascinating. Wishing you the best.



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