James J. Hurley papers  1885-1945 (bulk 1885-1910)
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Hurley papers document the life of a blue collar worker, an underrepresented figure in historical manuscript collections. James Hurley proudly defined himself as a father, husband, an Irish Catholic, and a member of the working class. In reply to a letter from a relative which he regarded as insulting, Hurley asserts that "a workingman has as much pride and spirit about him as any rich man." Referring to an Oneonta landlady who discovered that he was Catholic, he writes "I found she was liberal in her yankee views as such people are and you should have heard me trim those bigots. She found out after I got through that the Catholics are not people that have horns on them, she thinks I am a perfect gentleman, the mighty dollar catches those people out here."

Hurley wrote home frequently while away at work during 1904-1906, and the letters make it clear that he placed family above all else in his life, taking an active part in child-raising, worrying about Jennie's health, recognizing the stress and overwork she had to endure in caring for the children while he lived apart from them. He understood why she had no time to write, "as you are just about worked off your feet" having to be "both father and mother to them until this thing is settled..." In a February, 1904, letter he asks Leo to wait up for him on Saturday, to do as Mamma says, and to be "a perfect little gentleman," addressing the letter to him "to make him feel big and proud." In September, as Leo starts school, his father writes that "a great many things" are now expected of him, for he is not a baby anymore. He asks his son to keep this letter so that he will have it "to look at in after years and see if you have fulfilled the expectations of a loving Father and Mother."

The Delaware & Hudson workers hoped that the Oneonta move would be temporary, that the company would eventually decide not to build new shops in this "dismal hole," so different from urban, ethnic, and religiously diverse Troy. Hurley hated to bring his family to a place with such bad winter weather, questionable attitudes toward Catholics, and lack of school and work opportunities for the children. But the company stuck by its decision, and the Hurleys finally moved to Oneonta in the fall of 1906. The decision was probably prompted by the strain of the separation on Jennie Hurley, for her husband makes frequent references to his concern about her "nervousness" and ill health.

We learn little of Jennie's life except through her husband's letters. Her stressful life as a single parent evidently caused such depression and anxiety that her health deteriorated. Even after the family was reunited in Oneonta, Jennie seemingly did not do well, and James wrote to a cousin in May 1908 that his wife "does not enjoy good health at all I think that she is lonesome out here because it is not like good ol Troy." The one letter in the collection written by her seems to indicate that she was less well-educated and articulate than her husband, but the fact that it was written in a condition of extreme emotional distress should be taken into account. In 1906 a boarder renting part of their Troy house evidently made advances toward her, accused her of drinking and said the two of them would drink whiskey together. She ordered him out, he returned, she screamed, then threatened to break a bottle of whiskey in his face. "Jim I am not able too do my work I am all broke up and jest as nervis as I can be," she writes, signing her letter "from a hart broken wife." Hurley fumed at the "yellow cur of a loafer and scoundrel of a liar" who had abused her, telling her he is sure "the poor mean miserable God forsaken wretch" will end up in a poor house. The situation ended when the boarder and his family moved out -- Hurley expressing his hopes that they were relocating to the "wrong side of the tracks." This incident probably contributed to the final decision to move his family to Oneonta.

The papers document Hurley's work life to some extent, specifying piece-work rates for the jobs within the upholstery department, giving some sense of the kinds of materials which were routinely used, the range of tasks performed. They also reveal that Hurley took his responsibility as foreman seriously, while disliking the stress involved with that responsibility. Even though it was evidently not his nature to speak up to authority, in March 1905 he went to bat for his men concerning wage rates when he felt they were being unfairly treated. He argued against cutting piece-work rates, defending the workers as diligent and skilled tradesmen who had to work in "filth dirt and all kinds of diseases that is in this branch of business," and asking to see comparison with other companies' wages for the same sort of work.

The collection contains 16 letters to Hurley from men who formerly worked with him, thanking him for help in finding jobs elsewhere or telling him about their new circumstances. Included are 10 from John Carlon, dating from 1907-1910, which tell an interesting tale -- although in frustratingly little detail -- of a man who deserted his supposedly unfaithful wife and unsupportive family, moved to Boston to begin a new life, and managed to keep his location secret from them. Carlon repeatedly, in barely literate language, expresses his anger and resentment toward his wife, whom he insists he would not have back, "not if all the Priests in whole world and the Pope came with." A lengthy July 28, 1908, letter from W. J. Blake describes travel from New York City through Panama to the mines of Ecuador, and includes extensive commentary on construction of the Panama Canal and the startling amount of valuable machinery abandoned by the French.

The letters in the Hurley Papers hint at blue collar/white collar distinctions which are effectively portrayed in 9 fine photographs made of Delaware & Hudson employees ca. 1900-1905. Differences in setting, attire, and body language are striking, and these images, although not individually identified, bring the men and workplace depicted in letters to life. This small collection is not rich in detail on either home or shop, but it presents a rough sketch of working class life at the turn of the century, focusing on a segment of society which all too often remains historically anonymous.

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