The American Labor Museum/Botto House Museum National Landmark
83 Norwood Avenue
Haledon, NJ 07508
Phone: (973) 595-7953/7291
Open: Wednesday-Saturday-1:00pm-4:00pm/Sunday-Tuesday-Closed/All other times are by appointment. Closed major holidays but Open on Labor Day.
I recently visited The American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark for the afternoon and learned a lot about the American Labor Union formations and the rights we now take for granted.
A group of us took the tour of the Botto House and learned of its history and its place in the Paterson Silk Strikes of 1913. The first floor which serves as the meeting room has pictures of the Paterson Silk Strike which lasted just over five months and since the Mayor of Paterson at the time would not let the strikers meet, the Botto’s agreed to let the strikers meet at their home which at the time was in a isolated section of Haledon. The Mayor of Haledon was sympathetic to the Union cause and let them meet in the town. Their house was situated in the middle of a field so that the strikers could gather around the home and listen to speakers.
From their balcony, speakers could talk to the strikers and keep everyone abreast of the situation. Here people gathered and picnicked together and worked together to get their rights heard.
From the main display room, you will tour the home of Pietro and Maria Botto. First stop is the kitchen where Mrs. Botto ran her household. She made extra money selling food to the strikers and arranging meals for Mr. Botto’s co-workers. Here she made meals for her family, did her jarring and preserving and the washing was done. Then a tour of the dining room, bedroom and the palour area where the family met and greeted people. The upstairs was formerly two apartments that were built to help ‘pay the bills’.
The upstairs is now the display space where a display on the Dock Workers Union is currently being shown. We got to stand on the second floor balcony where so many speeches were made.
We took the back stairs to the backyard where the family had the grape arbor, root cellar where the preserves were kept and the bocci ball court. It seemed the family was very social at the time and self-sufficient.
Things turned bad for the family when both Mr. And Mrs. Botto both passed away two years after the strike. The strike could have taken its toll on the family or the fact that Mr. Botto could not find a job after the strike was over. No one knows.
It is an interesting tour of how one family opened their home to an important cause and it made a difference in the success of the strike and getting it resolved.
The history of the Botto’s:
The museum headquarters was the home of an immigrant family of industrial workers whose story is a fascinating one. In many ways, the telling of their saga is a doorway for museum visitors to step through and make connections with their own ethnic backgrounds.
The European Heritage:
Pietro and Maria Botto hailed from the region of Biella, Piedmonte, Italy. This area, at the foothills of the Alps, was a leading textile producer of linen and wool. The mountainous area was home to a fiercely independent people who, for centuries, wove cloth in their homes on looms which they owned.
The Industrial Revolution forced weavers to give upon cottage-based production to seek employment in large shops or mills. the displacement of workers by mechanized looms and weavers’ lack of economic independence caused people in Biella (as in other European textile areas where Paterson’s workforce originated) to embrace new ideas about worker rights and to be a vocal workforce wherever they roamed.
Pietro decided to leave Italy because he was made eligible for a second draft into the army at the recently united Kingdom of Italy (Italy had quadrupled its army at that time to strengthen unification and to acquire African colonies). A skilled weaver who also painted church interiors, Pietro brought his wife, Maria and daughter, Albina (born 1889) on the long voyage to America in 1892.
The Botto’s settled in crowded West Hoboken, New Jersey (today’s Union City), where they worked in silk mills for 15 years until they had saved enough money to afford a home for their growing family. The family now included three more daughters, Adelia (born 1894), Eva (born 1895) and Olga (born 1899). In 1908, the Botto’s moved to Haledon, a tiny community, growing up along the streetcar line from Paterson, where many other country folk from Biella had already settled.
The Botto’s home became a focal point for a dramatic slice of history in 1913 when the epic Paterson Silk Strike broke out. Pietro was on strike with 24,000 fellow silk workers when massive and constant arrests forced the workers to consider the independent borough of Haledon as a location for great outdoor rallies. Mayor William-Brueckmann guaranteed the safety of the workers and Pietro offered his home as a meeting place for the strikers.
The Botto’s courageous stand allowing their home to be so closely identified with the strike stemmed from a belief in the rights of the common man. During the strike, Pietro and his family played host to the social and labor leaders who were the idols of the working person at that time. After the strike, the family had to very circumspect about employment in the mills, with one of the daughters denying her family name to avoid blacklisting by an employer.
The large house and spacious hillside gardens are a tribute to the family’s combined labor. Pietro and his daughters worked 10-12 hour days, 5 1/2 days a week in the mills. The eldest daughter began mill work at age 11 and the youngest at age 13. On Sundays, the usual day of rest, the girls helped their mother serve patrons of the resort aspect of the property. Maria ran a large household, feed boarders during the week and the scores of people on Sunday and did piecework from mills; she died in 1915 at the age of 45.
Pietro lived until 1945, a beloved father and grandfather to a growing clan.
History of the House and Land:
The total environment of the Botto House National Historic Landmark reflects the ethic origin of this family of silk workers from the Piedmonte (Biella) area of Italy and the development of housing in early streetcar suburbs. It is representative of the sensitive use of small landholdings in American urban areas by various European immigrant groups.
The Botto family purchased Block X, Lots 38, 39 and 40 in 1907 from Alexander King, a real estate speculator. King himself purchased a large parcel of land from the Cedar Cliff Land Company, a group of Paterson industrialist and business leaders who were quick to see the advantages of selling cheap land to workers in Haledon. The completion of a horse-drawn trolley line in 1872 allowed for expansion of residential and recreational areas outside of the City of Paterson, a major American industrial center.
(Information from American Labor Museum: Botto House National Landmark, a Brief History)
The Period Rooms:
The Front Hall
The front entrance hall light fixture is original to the house. One of the restoration tasks yet to be carried out is the replacement of embossed wallpaper on the walls which was made to look like the carved leather coverings in the homes of the rich.
The kitchen was a major center of activity in the household. The large coal and gas range dominates the room. It was used as a heating source as well as for cooking foods. A table provided the space for food preparation; a cupboard stored pots, pans and dishes; an icebox kept food items cold (the root cellar, located in the garden was also used for cold food storage) and a sink for dishes and a tub for laundry utilities indoor plumbing-certainly a recent innovation for working class households.
Even with the convenience of indoor plumbing and the gas range, the kitchen was the scene of virtual non-stop labor for Maria Botto and her daughters. In addition to meals prepared for the family, the Botto’s fed a noon meal to extra people during the week, there were workmen without families, who rented rooms and come from the mills for a hot dinner. On Sundays, the Botto women prepared food for as many as 100 people who came to recreate on the property. This, of course, provided on additional income for the family.
The Botto family’s foodways reflected their home region of Biella, Piedmonte, Italy. Piedmontese cooked scorned tomato sauce, preferring wine and chicken broth to accompany such staple foods as polenta (corn meal), risotto (rice) and tortellini, a pasta. Generally, rosemary, sage, and other herbs were used in cooking and grown outside in the garden. The herbs also had medicinal uses.
Some of the artifacts placed around the kitchen are the copper put used to cook polenta (purur), meat grinder, fish scale, orange juice squeezer, coffee grinder (from a German immigrant household), rug beater, mousetrap and wall calendars which were used by working people as decorations.
The Botto women were generally charged with kitchen duties. Maria Botto hired a German woman to do the wash. One special job was reserved for Pietro, stirring the polenta and cutting it with a string.
The Dining Room:
The dining room was another work area for the family. Here the family and the ‘boarders’ dined. Here Maria ‘picked’ silk on a frame, located in the corner of the room under the window, examining the bolts of broadsilk brought from the mill for imperfections. This was another task to bring income to the household. Maria used the sewing machine to make clothes. The table reflects a setting for the family and ‘boarders’, placed with dishes, silver-plated utensils and a condiment set. The sideboard, table chairs and sewing machine are family pieces. The lighting fixtures in this room as in the rest of the house were powered by gas. As is typical in the area, paintings were hung by string from a picture rail as the walls were made of plaster. The small painting shows sheep, which provide the wool upon which textile manufacture was based, against the backdrop of the Alps. The large sketched portrait of Pietro Botto in later years was produced by his grandson and professional artist, Richard Botto. On the side of the room hang pictures of the Botto daughters in their wedding attire.
This room, which was actually the girls bedroom has been recreated to resemble where Maria and Pietro slept. The dresser is set with brushes, combs and mirrors that are from the period. The Botto’s slept in a brass bed. Swimsuits and other clothing hang in the wardrobe. A travelling trunk rests on the floor next to the wardrobe. Next to the window hangs a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Guala of Biella, Italy. Next to the wardrobe hangs the elaborately framed photograph of Adalgiso Valle of Paterson, NJ, a jacquard card cutter.
The most formal room in the house, the parlor was used for guests, weddings and wakes. Dominating is the oak mantle with its columns and mirror top. It surrounds a fireplace where, in the winter, a gas heater was attached to a pipe behind the hearth. The clock had to be wound every day and chimes on the half-hour. The photographs on the shelf are Maria’s sisters in Italy (right) and the three eldest Botto daughters (left). Members of the Bocchio family of Biello, Italy are pictured in the photograph to the left of the mantle.
The Other Rooms:
The area making up the library on the first floor was a sitting room and bedroom for the family. The Botto daughters rented the two apartments upstairs when they first married and started their families and other non-family members served as renters through the years. The bathroom on the first floor is the approximate size of the original but today has modern fixtures and is not meant to be part of the restoration.
(From the American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark)
History of Paterson:
The City of Paterson was founded in 1792 as America’s first planned industrial city. Alexander Hamilton, Elias Boudinot and other members of The Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures chose the Great Falls of the Passaic River as the ideal site for a manufacturing center. The Falls provided water power, while the river provided transportation upstream and down.
During the 19th Century, Paterson flourished. It became known as “Silk City” and “The City” with an Arm of Iron in a Sleeve of Silk for the silk mills and locomotive works that made their homes here. Immigrants flocked to the city at first from England, Switzerland. Germany and France and later from Southern and Eastern Europe. Many found jobs in the mills and a few took their place among the captions of industry.
(Mill Worker…Mill Owner-Botto House Museum)
Disclaimer: This information was taken directly from The American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark pamphlets. This museum is one of the few historical sites dealing with the Labor Unions in the United States and plays a huge role in workers rights today.