A little respect can go a long way. Consider Samuel Riddle and John P. Crozer. In 1842, both owned cotton mills along Chester Creek in Aston Township—and both agreed to slash workers’ pay by 15 percent. A lingering financial slump had cut demand for the thread the mills produced from raw Southern cotton. Riddle, Crozer and other mill owners had to reduce costs or close.
The difference was how word went out. Riddle called a meeting of his workers and explained matters. Crozer simply announced the lower wages as a done deal. So, when the workers went on strike, they decided to target Crozer and not Riddle. “I cannot for a moment think of yielding,” Crozer wrote in his diary. “I do not know if all the employers will be firm, but for myself, I have not the remotest idea of yielding, and shall rather never start than be compelled to yield.”
Aston was designed to be a mill district. Just a few miles from the port at Chester—from which materials could be unloaded, and finished products shipped—the township is bordered by Chester Creek and blessed with steep hills, so its waters would move swiftly enough to turn the wheels. According to historian Anthony Wallace, the streambed fell 90 feet in one three-mile stretch.
Earlier, there had been sawmills and gristmills and paper mills. But in the 1820s, new entrepreneurs began converting the old ones and building new structures to house cotton spinning. In 1824, Congress passed a new tariff that raised the price of British cotton. Locally, the response was immediate. John S. Phillips, a skilled mechanic who co-owned a sugar refinery, took out a 10-year lease on the Old Sable Forge and Nail Works at Rockdale, filling it with 200 power looms. Machinist John Garsed saw an opportunity. Philadelphia merchants Richard Smith and Daniel Lammot also came—for both the investment opportunity and to be near their friends the DuPonts on the Brandywine, the next creek over.
The son of a cotton manufacturer, Samuel Riddle was born near Belfast, Ireland. According to G.T. Ridlon, author of an 1884 history of the “Ryedale” family (as it was originally called), he received a private-school education, but quit to work in the mills when he was 14. Nine years later, full of practical experience, he sailed for Philadelphia, arriving—thanks to a shipwreck—with just five Spanish dollars. “He carried his sea chest on his back to his boarding house, and immediately obtained employment in a cotton mill at Manayunk,” wrote Ridlon.
After a few years in local mills, he’d saved a small nest egg and went into business for himself, renting a mill at Avondale with 480 spindles and only 10 people to mind them. So Riddle was working his staff hard.
Three years later, he moved operations to Parkmount Mill (named for his family’s Irish estate) on Chester Creek. Additional mills followed; he would eventually have five. In the 1840s, he began building an estate of several hundred acres, which he named Glen Riddle. In the early 20th century, Sam Riddle Jr. would use the property to breed racehorses, including Man o’ War. “Beautiful hills surround the village on every side,” wrote Ridlon, describing a tour of Riddle’s “fine barouche” during an 1876 visit. “And nestling at their base, embowered in groves of luxuriant hardwood trees that grow along the margin of the creek, stand the mills and neat, white dwellings where home the families employed by Mr. Riddle.”
Ridlon described the mill owner as “short and quite corpulent.” According to Wallace, Riddle had “a salty tongue, was a genial raconteur and a cantankerous neighbor with a propensity for quarreling over fences.” Nominally a Presbyterian, Riddle was “not known for zealousness” in religious faith, nor overly concerned with appearances. (At age 60, he married a 23-year-old.) “Having been brought up as a lad in a spinning mill on the other side of the water, he could identify with his workers,” wrote Ridlon.
The Crozers also came from Ireland, but about a century earlier. John grew up on a farm now occupied by Swarthmore College. His education was limited, but hard labor was not. When John was 17, his disabled father put him in charge; at 21, he received a one-third interest in its profits. But the profits were never much, as his father didn’t believe in fertilizing the fields. After the elder Crozer died in 1816, that third turned out to be about $2,400, which his son used to start his first business.
In 1821, Crozer rented an old mill along Crum Creek from George Leiper, the man who’d bought his father’s farm. He was under-funded, had little mechanical aptitude and really should’ve failed. But Leiper—a quarry owner who would be elected to Congress in 1829—must have admired how hard the young man worked.
In 1825, following Leiper’s recommendation, the Bank of Delaware County added Crozer to its board of directors. It wasn’t quite like being handed the keys to the vault, but moving in such circles made money much more accessible. Things began to look up for him. In 1843, when a flood did $46,000 worth of damage to one of Crozer’s mills, it didn’t even affect his credit.
Crozer was also a committed evangelical Baptist who felt that, as a “saved” Christian, he had a duty to nudge others in the same direction. Accordingly, he built churches and a Sunday school (where he served as superintendent) for both his employees and the community. As early as 1829, he was a member of the Delaware County Bible Society.
Occasionally, Crozer used the stick. In 1832, testifying before a Pennsylvania Senate committee investigating children’s working conditions, Crozer said that “departures from chastity” were “not common” among his young women weavers. “Females of loose character, if known, or even suspected as such, would be immediately dismissed from my factory,” he added. Swearing was also cause for dismissal.
In 1842, the financial panic of five years earlier was officially over, but the recession it caused dragged into the mid-1840s. Profits, prices and wages went down, while unemployment rose.
On Chester Creek, the mills had continued operating, though sometimes at reduced hours. That spring, however, the owners decided that more austerity was needed. Meeting together, they agreed that all the Chester Creek mills would reduce wages 15 percent. Wages had been sliced almost in half over two years. Perhaps the owners were trying to increase thin profit margins, or perhaps they thought workers might prefer reduced wages to losing their jobs entirely.
In contrast to Riddle’s tactic of explaining the change in person and promising that it was temporary, Crozer posted what Wallace called a “military notice.”
The strike began at 9 a.m. on a Monday in mid-March at Burt & Kerlin’s Mill when it stopped for breakfast. (Work typically began before dawn.) A core of workers left the mill and joined a crowd outside the gates calling for all to leave. “Nobsticks” (scabs) who continued to work were threatened with a dunk in the creek. “Some of the leaders entered the mill and terrorized the female operatives,” wrote Wallace, “seizing them by the arms and attempting to drag them out.”
This continued for two months. The strikers laid siege to one mill after the other. At least one nobstick did go into the water. By May, roughly 400 people were out of work. Resolutions were passed demanding not only a restoration of wages, but an end to the practice of paying wages in the form of credit with storekeepers.
The Crozer mills, hit about three weeks into the affair, were “infested by columns of marching, shouting, fife-and-drum-playing men and women.” Riddle’s mills were not targeted.
The strike ended in late May, when one owner called the sheriff and had the ringleaders arrested for conspiracy and riot. After a colorful trial, three leaders were convicted of conspiracy and jailed when they refused (or were unable) to pay a $1,000 fine. The strike collapsed. The workers returned to the mills at reduced wages for the same 12- to 14-hour days.
Crozer had won, but he was offended that his people had turned against him. “A man at once shy, ambitious and devout, he repeatedly acknowledged that he had trouble balancing his intense drive toward worldly success with his need for assurances of salvation,” wrote Wallace. “His general solution of the dilemma was to believe, and claim, that he served as God’s steward, responsibly administering his profits for the general welfare.”
Riddle, by contrast, only wanted to make money—and respect was free.