Working in Paterson

American Folklife Center Documents Occupational Culture in Paterson, NJ

Folklife Center News 16, No. 3 (Summer 1994)

A team of researchers from the American Folklife Center has begun a four-month study of occupational culture in Paterson, New Jersey, the nation's first planned industrial area.

The center is conducting the study, called "Working in Paterson," in conjunction with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service (Philadelphia). It is one of several projects underway in Paterson, Perth Amboy, and Trenton, New Jersey, that derive from the 1992 federal Urban History Initiative (UHI). These projects are concerned primarily with assessing, stabilizing, and restoring historic buildings and other structures in order to revitalize deteriorating business districts and provide an enriched sense of local historic and cultural resources for residents and visitors. But "Working in Paterson" will consider living culture, and particularly the ways community life and values are shaped by work.

The Urban History Initiative was sponsored in Congress by U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), a native of Paterson. Senator Lautenberg wrote the UHI legislation "to spark interest in New Jersey's rich urban history that can help spur the economic revitalization of our cities today." The senator says that he is delighted that the American Folklife Center will be lending its considerable resources and expertise to illuminating Paterson's past through an examination of labor and industry's contribution to community life and family values. This will be an essential part of the UHI legislation, to help make New Jersey's cities the economic and cultural jewels they were in the past."

Paterson's historic district includes the site of the first attempt in the United States to harness the power of a major river, the Passaic, for industrial purposes. Well-known figures in the nation's history were involved in that endeavor, including Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, who was the leading advocate; and Pierre L'Enfant, the engineer-architect of Washington, D.C., who was commissioned to lay out the town and design the hydraulic system that powered the mills (although he did not carry out the commission). Paterson came into prominence as a manufacturing center in the nineteenth century, when its mills produced textiles, machinery, Colt revolvers, and locomotives. By 1870, Paterson was the leading producer of silk in the United States. Today, many of the mill buildings, where silk and other products were manufactured, still stand.

The American Folklife Center, which has engaged in many studies of regional, ethnic, and occupational culture throughout the nation, began field research in Paterson in June 1994. Four cultural specialists have been engaged to work on the project, under the direction of center folklorist David Taylor, to discover the meaning of work as seen through the eyes of active and retired Paterson workers: folklorist and Paterson native Tom Carroll; documentary photographer Martha Cooper; folklorist Susan Levitas; and folklorist Bob McCarl. The researchers will interview retired workers who labored in the textile and other important local industries, interview contemporary workers in a number of occupations, document continuity and change in selected places of work in the city, assess the form and function of various occupational traditions, and photograph a variety of workers and work-related events.

Four principal products of the study are planned: a report for the National Park Service that will discuss field research findings and make recommendations for specific publications, exhibitions, curriculum materials, and other programs and products the Park Service and cultural institutions in Paterson can use to enhance knowledge of the city's history and culture; a public event, in Paterson, that will be organized in order to inform members of the community about the conclusions of the project; an illustrated booklet, written for a general audience, that will illuminate central issues concerning work in Paterson; and an archival collection consisting of taped interviews, photographs, researchers' fieldnotes, and other documentary material collected. The collection will be preserved at the Library of Congress (a duplicate will be created for the Park Service which will, in turn, transfer it to a repository in Paterson).

About the Author

David A. Taylor is a folklife specialist and head of acquisitions at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


Four fieldworkers posing in front of a church
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Project fieldworkers, left to right: David Taylor, Robert McCarl, Tom Carroll, Susan Levitas. Italian flag, float, and front of St. Anthony's church are behind them.

Cooper photographing a man standing on the sidewalk
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Fieldworker Martha Cooper photographs a man holding cash donated to San Rocco during the annual festival honoring the saint.

descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  View of Great Falls on the Passaic River.

Man working at a dye tank
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Machine operator Martino Cardone working at dye tank; dye is absorbed by the silk as rollers are rotated.


descriptive record icon Sidney and Sarah Carroll: "Heating lunch in dye vats"

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