September 13, 2023 — In the 1860s, just around the end of the Civil War, Troy, N.Y., was a big producer of a new fashion trend in the nation: detachable shirt collar. About 3,700 women, mostly Irish immigrants, worked in the Troy collar industry, including a woman named Kate Mullany.
Mullany was born in 1845. She and her family emigrated from Ireland to America in 1850, eventually landing in New York. While living in Troy, Kate was a teenager working in one of the 14 commercial laundries in the area.
Women in these laundries regularly toiled 12 to 14 hours a day in hazardous conditions. Mullany, likely inspired by those active in the Iron Molders Union, helped organize the Collar Laundry Union in 1864 and led 300 women on an almost weeklong strike. The strike helped the union secure a 25% pay increase as it became the first continuously organized women’s union in the country.
Mullany would go on to organize several strikes and win pay increases for both her union and others within the industry. But despite her work for the union and for the larger labor movement, Mullany’s name and deeds faded over time.
It wasn’t until more than a century later that Mullany’s name and work resurfaced when her old apartment building in Troy was purchased by the executive director of the American Labor Study Center, Paul Cole.
Cole acquired the home in 1988 and worked hard to restore it in an effort to keep Kate Mullany’s legacy alive. Over the years, he has raised more than half a million dollars to bring the place up to code. Cole, who has worked for several unions, including NYSUT and AFT, lobbied politicians like Hillary Clinton and former New York State Senator Joseph L. Bruno, to raise the money and help build the site into what it is today.
In 1998, Hillary Clinton, then first lady, dedicated the Kate Mullany House as a National Historic Landmark. Later, in 2004 Congress designated it a National Historic Site.
PEF has also contributed to the Mullany House’s restoration. In order to help raise awareness about the work Mullany did for the Labor movement, PEF published a booklet titled “Kate Mullany: A True Labor Pioneer.” Additionally in 2020, PEF President Wayne Spence received the Kate Mullany Medal, in recognition of PEF’s efforts to help restore the site and the union’s support of the American Labor Studies Center.
The Kate Mullany House officially opened on June 10, 2023. The first floor serves now as a gallery of art and information detailing Mullany’s life. The second floor is the office of the American Labor Studies Center, and the third floor is decorated as Mullany would have had it decorated during her lifetime.
For those interested in visiting, the house is located at 350 8th St. in Troy. It does not have regular visiting hours, but members are welcome to coordinate tours by calling the American Labor Studies Center at (518) 331-4474.