Women on the line

A group of Grand Rapids factory workers stood up for labor rights.
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You may notice that the United States flag is shown backwards in the background of this image. The U.S. Flag Code was established in 1923, setting standards for displaying the flag. Before then, the flag could be displayed with the stars on either side. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

These women, captured on a glass plate negative, worked at the A.E. Brooks candy factory. Wearing smocks to keep their dresses clean, they posed with a package of Brooks’ Rainbow Kisses. The image is not dated but their hats advertising Zeno chewing gum provide a clue — the Chicago brand was acquired by Wrigley and discontinued in 1911.

Newspapers reported that 12 women in the chocolate dipping department at A.E. Brooks went on strike in 1906. The women were told they needed to work on Labor Day to fill orders. It seems that two women protested this and were fired, and then 12 others “threw off their working aprons and walked out too.” The company placed an ad looking for “fifteen girls, immediately,” and business seemed to go on as usual.

In 1906, women made up just 18% of factory workers in Grand Rapids, and they often worked long hours for less pay. From the scant information we have today it’s hard to know whether the actions of these women made an impact. Luella Burton, the state factory inspector charged with women, did not mention the incident in her yearly report. She did say, though, that “women are in the industrial world to stay, and we cannot but admire the spirit that sends them out in the world to fight their own battles.”

This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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