Reclaiming a Reclaimed Mortice Lock
"Chris Bohner electronically latches sound to antique locks to recount the history of a pioneering union that represented the devices’ makers. If the apparatus is a bit clunky, it’s art, not engineering." Washington Post, 11/16/2017
An experiment, a dive into the rabbit hole of American labor radicalism and reactionaryism, a reluctant mixing of art and politics, a maddening tutorial in DIY electronics. You turn a lock, and you get one of these longish sound clips (below), lose attention, and look at the next thing.
Mortise locks for doors, originally invented in the Victorian era, were at the heart of the birth of American manufacturing in the 19th Century. The 19th Century was the “Age of Invention” (with 100s of patents filed for Mortise locks) but also the Gilded Era, in which inequality and anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant.
In the mid-19th century, Mortise lock manufacturing (and other hardware) was centered in company towns like New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and New Britain. Companies like Russell and Erwin, Sargent, P&F Corbin, and Yale & Towne dominated Mortise lock manufacturing.
Many of these companies were organized by the Iron Molders Union in the 19th Century, a union that advocated worker ownership and cooperatives, and universal suffrage regardless of sex or race. In 1904, the Iron Molders Union struck an association of lock companies, eventually leading to the lockout and defeat of the union.
During the radicalism and militancy of the 1940s, many of the lock manufacturers were organized again by unions, led by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (or UE) Local 243. The UE fought for "equal pay for equal work" for women during WWII, and advocated equality for African American workers.
After refusing to sign "non-communist affidavits" during the McCarthy era, the AFL-CIO expelled the UE from the labor federation, setting up a rival union to raid the UE. The UE still represents worker at the Sargent lock company in New Haven.
The recordings embedded in these discarded (and reclaimed) Mortise locks (casualties of development and gentrification) provide a small window into the radical political debates raging during the Gilded Era and WWII era. Many voices – including the skilled workers that made these Mortise locks -- questioned the fundamental basis of capitalism, which was met with a vehement campaign to divide Americans by national origin, race, gender, and class.
1934 Speech by Huey Long: “Share the Wealth”
1919 Speech by Miles Poindexter, U.S. Senator from Washington: “The Propaganda of Anarchy: Criminal Elements of Social Order”
1946 Encyclopedia Britannica Films: “Immigration”
1918 Speech given by Ambassador James Watson Gerard: “Loyalty”
1915 Song by Irving Kaufman: “Don’t Bite the Hand that is Feeding You”
1966 Interview with John Valmis, union member in the 1946 strike at Yale & Town Lock, New Haven.
2017 This Day in Labor History Podcast, account of the 1946 Stamford General Strike in support of Yale & Towne workers.
1969: Labor Comes of Age, AFL-CIO.