History threads — Prison labor in 1883

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts about the history of the garment industry in Warren, Washington, Saratoga and Essex counties.

It was a big sale for Glens Falls sewing machine dealer C.H. Hitchcock of Glens Falls, who sold 300 Wheeler & Wilson industrial sewing machines to the New York Clothing Co, to set up a prison labor garment manufacturing operation at Clinton prison in Dannemora.

The start-up operation put about 450 idle convicts to work, and reversed a deficit in the state Department of Corrections budget stemming from a recent state law that shut down a previous operation manufacturing hats at the prison.

New York Clothing Co., the only bidder, entered a five-year contract with the state, beginning June 10, 1883, with the company paying the state 35 cents-per-worker-per day — the equivalent of $9.48 in 2021 dollars — for the lease of space inside the prison and the right to hire prison laborers.

The company paid prisoners it employed based on piece work.

The company, reportedly owned by two Plattsburgh business men, originally bid 30 cents, but state Superintendent of Prisons Isaac V. Baker of Fort Ann, in Washington County, negotiated an increase to 35 cents.

The hat maker that previously had a contract paid 40 cents.

The hat-making operation, however, required 17 guards, while the garment-making operation required only nine.

Baker said he personally invited a number of cigar, shoe and furniture-making manufacturers to bid on the contract, but none did.

“To have gone into the manufacturing business on our own account would have required the expenditure of $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.7 million in 2021 dollars) for the purchase of machinery, no matter what branch of manufacturing might have been agreed on,” Baker said.

The Plattsburgh Republican sent a reporter in to witness the operation about five months after it was up and running.

“Entering on the lower floor, a busy scene opens. A strong odor of new cloth, and the subdued clatter of sixty large sewing machines, driven by machinery, are the first noticeable features. There are about one-hundred-and-fifty operators: strong, health, keen-eyed men.”

Others worked as cutters and in other aspects of the operation.

Sources: The Morning Star of Glens Falls May 9, 1883; The Plattsburgh Sentinel May 18,25, June 1,1883; The Plattsburgh Republican Dec. 1, 1883

Click here to read the most recent previous post in this series.

Freelance history writer and documentary film producer from Ticonderoga, NY