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Stitchers, Topmakers, and Eyeleters: Boston’s Women Shoe Workers in the 1920 Voter Registers

By Anna Boyles

Shoe maker, shoe stitcher, shoe worker, shoe inspector, machine operator, topmaker, and eyeleter  these are some of the shoe industry-related occupations that women reported when they registered to vote in Boston following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Just a few years earlier, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union researched the economic and working conditions of women shoe workers in Massachusetts, publishing their findings in 1916. They found that more Massachusetts women worked in the manufacturing of shoes and boots than in any other industrial trade beside textile manufacturing. Shoemaking had been important to the state’s history since colonial days, and it had retained its importance to Boston women seeking a semi-skilled job. The Mary Eliza Project has identified two major shoe factories that employed new women voters: the Thomas G. Plant Co. and the Hood Rubber Company.

Voter registration record of Florence L. Garrity, Ward 10, Volume 4, Boston City Archives
Voter registration record of Florence L. Garrity, Ward 10, Volume 4, Boston City Archives

The Thomas G. Plant Co. was located at Bickford and Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. The large factory was just half a mile away from the home of Florence L. Garrity on Evergreen Street. Garrity was 33 years old, born in Roxbury, employed in the Plant Company factory as a stitcher, and registered to vote in August of 1920. The WEIU observed that women shoe makers, if not “pushed out by the high cost of living,” enjoyed living and working in Boston: “All the city opportunities for recreation and education are open to these shoe workers of Boston; this, with other attractions of city life, makes them reluctant to move away.” Census records reveal that Florence L. Garrity, for example, was employed as a shoe stitcher in Boston for over 30 years!

Thomas G. Plant shoe factory, circa 1920, Boston Public Library
Thomas G. Plant shoe factory, circa 1920, Boston Public Library

Her employer undertook tremendous efforts to attract and retain its roughly 5,000 workers, creating worker rest and recreation rooms, a lending library, restaurant, park, bowling alley, and park, in addition to installing modern heat, lighting, and ventilation systems. The T.G. Plant Co. also began a nursery at the factory during World War I, when an increasing number of its workforce was working mothers. Despite these amenities, around 3,000 workers at the Plant factory went on strike in 1919 for the right to organize, supported by the United Shoe Workers’ Union, the Allied Shoe Workers’ Union, Boston city councilors, and state representatives. It is unknown how many of the strikers may have been women employed in the various departments of the shoe factory, but women comprised fifty percent of the factory’s labor force.

 Shoe conveyer starting at Hood Rubber, circa 1900-1930, Watertown Public Library
Shoe conveyer starting at Hood Rubber, circa 1900-1930, Watertown Public Library

According to the WEIU, most women in shoe factories were, like Florence Garrity, employed as stitchers. Some women in towns such as Lynn and Brockton were able to attend shoe schools, which instructed pupils on various shoe-making processes in preparation for employment. Boston women, however, likely learned their trade on the job and by observing others. Women found employment in the stitching and packing rooms of the factory, as well as in the factory offices as clerks and typists. The WEIU felt in 1916 that historic gender roles in shoe factories were being disrupted by the introduction of immigrant workers willing to work for smaller wages. In fact, the Hood Rubber Factory in Watertown, Massachusetts, was attracting many immigrant workers at this time, many of them refugees from the Armenian genocide. While the Mary Eliza team has yet to have transcribed the voter registration of an Armenian woman employed at the Hood Rubber Company, we have found some Armenian immigrants registering to vote throughout the city. Despite its distance, Hood Rubber was able to entice women from throughout Boston to travel to Watertown to work at the shoe factory.

Help wanted advertisement for Hood Rubber Company, 1920, Boston Globe
Help wanted advertisement for Hood Rubber Company, 1920, Boston Globe

Two sisters, Margaret T. Barrett and Elizabeth A. Barrett, registered to vote together in October of 1920. They both lived on Morris Street in East Boston, and they both were employed by the Hood Rubber Company as tennis shoe makers. They were born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to Irish immigrants before becoming employed by Hood Rubber. They worked alongside more than 9,000 factory employees in 1920  nearly twice the number working at the T.G. Plant shoe factory! Hood Rubber employees could take advantage of the services offered by the Abraham Lincoln House, a settlement house at the factory offering medical services and English-language tutoring. The factory manufactured rubber boots for British, French, and American troops during World War I, but their principal product was sneakers.

Discover more shoe workers who registered to vote in 1920 in our Women's Voter Register Dataset. 

Further Reading: 

Anna Boyles is a dual-degree student in History and Archives Management at Simmons University.

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