When the New Jersey Legislature decided to engage the state’s glass manufacturers in a battle over the financial enslavement of workers through company-owned stores, it wasn’t so much a war as a series of skirmishes.
The 19th century witnessed the evolution of company stores as a means of retaining employees by supplying them with necessary provisions to a system in which company currency was paid as wages to be reinvested in the store; nearly unlimited credit was offered to encourage additional purchasing. Many workers found themselves in debt to the company with little hope of paying it off or leaving that employer for another job.
According to the 1981-1982 South Jersey Magazine series “Millville’s First Glasshouse,” “the common law was the only existing one …that held the manufacturer in any kind of check in the dealings with their men. Everything possible was done by the owners in an effort to limit the flow of cash from their coffers.” Because manufactured products were “often sold on long-term rates with many extensions of pay requested and granted…obtaining cash on a weekly or even monthly basis to settle with workers was a very difficult and serious matter.”
In 1864, New Jersey charged into battle to curb the practice. The first volley was a bill introduced by Senator Providence Ludlam from Cumberland County, a region ripe with glass manufacturing in Millville and Bridgeton that provided the State Assembly and Senate with staunch advocates of this cause over the next 35 years. Documents of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Legislature of the State of New Jersey acknowledged the county’s role by stating, “It is a rather remarkable fact, that nearly all the legislation effected in this direction has been the work of Cumberland County representatives.”
A resident of Bridgeton, Ludlam had risen to become the leader of the Republican Party in Cumberland County during the late 1850s. According to Historic Days in Cumberland County, New Jersey, 1855-1865, “Ludlam was a born leader, a man of fine personal appearance, with agreeable manners.” When he served as county clerk, he “exercised a large influence in the shaping of political affairs” in the area.
Historic Days in Cumberland County offers this assessment of Ludlam’s political career: “With the advent of Providence Ludlam to a seat in the Senate of New Jersey, a great force was given to the leadership of the Republican Party in the Southern section of the State. He rose rapidly, and by the end of his first session was more influential than any member of the State Senate previously sent from Cumberland County.” Ludlam died in the last year of a second term, but not before trying to secure appropriate wages for New Jersey glassblowers.
Ludlam’s bill, according to Documents of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Legislature, “provided that it should not be lawful to pay workmen or laborers by orders upon storekeepers,” but “this bill in no degree secured the results aimed at; its constitutionality was doubtful and no attempt was ever made to enforce it.”
The next attempt was undertaken by George W. Payne, a former glassblower and future mayor of Millville who was in his first year as a member of the State Assembly in 1875 when he introduced a bill to better secure workers’ wages without interference from employers who might divert payment to other means.
Documents of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Legislature details the tortuous path of the bill: “it was defeated in the Assembly in 1875, again introduced in 1876, and passed the Assembly, but was defeated in the Senate. Payne introduced his bill again in 1877; it passed both Houses, after being radically amended in the Senate.”
The bill’s significance, according to Documents of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Legislature, lies in the fact that “this was the first act of at least partially effective character which became a law… The act was far from perfect, but… it applied to all branches of industry, and its violation was made a misdemeanor.”
Next Week: The Cash Bill