*Featured artwork courtesy of Sandy Schuman.
Click to watch this Audio Visual Memoir by the author.
*Click the “Show More” button below for a transcript of this delightful storytelling performance.
It was in 1936, April 20th, it was a Monday, at 2:30 p.m., when Ferdinand A. Silcox, Chief Forester of the United States of America, handed down his decision.
Now, here I am, one sentence into the story, and already, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Sweet-Orr overall company started out in 1871 but, as the decades wore on, they became better known for the durability and comfort of their clothing. They made mostly work clothing for men. They had slogans like, “Clothes to Work In” and “Work Clothes for Men.” Their most famous, their best-known advertising was an image of three men on one side and three men on the other playing tug-of-war with a pair of pants, and the pair of pants was holding up. And the slogan on the sign said, “The Pants Six Men Can’t Rip Apart.”
Well in 1936 they decided they wanted a new advertising slogan, and so, they ran a contest. Now, my father was very fond of contests and he heard about this contest for Sweet-Orr overalls. Now, at the time, he was working as an electrician at 521 Fifth Avenue, a new skyscraper in Manhattan, 39 stories high. He was an electrician and also in charge of the maintenance crew. And they knew overalls. They all wore overalls and they relied on them. Overalls were where they put their tools. There were loops and pockets so you could put in screw drivers and hammers and pliers. And these were protective clothes, to resist a scape against rough concrete, to repel a splinter from unfinished lumber to provide protection against a spill of acid or some solvent.
I remember my son having flannel-lined overalls, my daughter had a pair of overall shorts, it was in pastels with flowers. They have designer overalls.
But not then. Then, overalls were tough, protective, course, utilitarian, work clothes for men. And these men knew overalls, my father knew overalls. And, as time went by – he kept a notebook in his shirt pocket and when he’d have some idea for the slogan, he would take notes and record little snippets of ideas so that, before the contest entry was due he’d be able to it all over and put together some possibilities for a slogan that would win the Grand Prize of $150. And when you’re making only $18 a week, that’s a lot of money.
Now, it was during that time when a new union was being formed, The Building Service Employees’ International. My father was a member of Local 32B. It was just about two years old in 1936. My father had been active in getting the guys in the maintenance crew to sign up and become members. The union was pushing for a “living wage.” The idea of a living wage was that a person should be able to make enough money, working a full-time job, so that they could support themselves and their families.
Well, the building owners would not agree to an increase in pay and so the union decided to go on strike. Now, you might think these building service workers, low-paid as they were, would not have a chance against the building owners – these are the owners of the most expensive real estate in the world in Manhattan, these skyscrapers – you would think they wouldn’t have a chance.
But, keep in mind, these were the janitors, the elevator operators, the carpenters, the plumbers, the electricians. Think about the first day of the strike. The business executives arrive in their suits and white shirts and ties. They’ve got an office on the 39th floor, and there’s no elevator. Elevators then weren’t automatic push-button operation, it took some skill to drive the elevator car. You didn’t want to slow down too fast, you’d have people throwing up in the elevator. When you slowed down the car you had to do it gently, and you had to match the floor of the elevator with the floor of the building without having to go up and down and up and down and up and down until you finally matched it and got it right. It took some skill!
And think too about the toilets that weren’t getting their daily cleaning, the trash baskets that weren’t being emptied, the light switch that broke that wasn’t fixed, the office that was dark, the toilet that overflowed and was still overflowing! So, these guys had some power. They carried some weight.
And to bring the strike to an end, the union and the real estate owners agreed to arbitration. That meant they had to agree on who should be the arbitrator. And who did they choose? Ferdinand A. Silcox, Chief Forester of the United States of America. Why would they pick the Chief Forester? What would he know about real estate in Manhattan? What would he know about this? Well, maybe that was the point. He didn’t have any vested interest in this area. He was seen by both parties as someone who could examine all the information, learn about the issues, listen to both parties, and reach a fair decision.
And then, on April 20th, 1936 it was a Monday, at 2:30 p.m., he called them all into his office and handed down his decision. He awarded minimum pay of $24 a week for a 48-hour week. For people who had been making 18 – now let’s do the arithmetic together – 24 is $6 more than 18; 18 divided by 3 is 6, 6 is one third of 18. They got a one-third increase in pay. Same job, same employer, a one-third increase.
This was outstanding! This was a triumph! This was a vindication! This was glory! This was the Ewoks after destroying the Death Star! But, according to the Building Service Review, the union newspaper – they published a special issue in April 1936, heralding The Silcox Decision. I know this because, after my father died, looking through his belongings, I found, carefully stored away, a pristine copy of that April 1936 special edition. And it says, the most important thing about this outcome, was that the arbitrator based his decision on the principle of the living wage.
Ah, but I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. It was during that strike when the contest entries became due. Well, my father had been working on this advertising slogan for the Sweet-Orr overalls for some time and he thought he had a winning slogan. He thought he could win the Grand Prize of $150 and so, he wanted to enter that contest. But this was right in the middle of the strike; he didn’t know how long the strike was going to go on. To enter the contest, you needed an official entry form and the only way you could get an official entry form was to buy a pair of Sweet-Orr overalls, and a pair of Sweet-Orr overalls cost $1.50, and that was all the money he had left.
Well he spent that $1.50 and entered that contest and he won the Grand Prize, $150 with this winning slogan: Sweet-Orr overalls: buttons hold on, seams hold in, pockets hold out.
Storyteller, musician, and educator, Sandy Schuman tells stories about songs and songwriters, personal adventures, historical sagas, folk tales, and stories in the Jewish storytelling tradition.
He has performed at Sharing the Fire—The Northeast Storytelling Conference, Limmud Boston, Caffè Lena, Tellabration, Word Plays at Proctor’s Theatre, Story Sundays at Glen Sanders Mansion, and many storytelling festivals, professional conferences, interfaith events, churches, synagogues, radio, and television programs. He was a winner of the Jewish Storytelling Contest at the St. Louis Jewish Mystic Jam 2015.
Written versions of his stories have been published in Tablet, Distressing Damsels, Stories We Tell, Story Club Magazine, New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, and in his book, Welcome to Chelm’s Pond, where the ridiculous stories of Chelm meet the preposterous tall tales of the Adirondacks.
Sandy is a member of the Story Circle of the Capital District, Northeast Storytelling, National Storytelling Network, and the Jewish Storytelling Coalition, and is listed on the Lifetime Arts’ Creative Aging Roster. His website is http://www.tothestory.com/
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