Catherine Ehrmann's Story of Work and Marriage
By Amy Oberholtzer
Catherine Ehrmann was born in 1902, in a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would become Hungary after World War I. In 1904, when Catherine was two years old, her family came to the United States.
"[My parents] came over for a better life. My father was a wagon builder, and he came here and got a job immediately, because he was really educated on that line of work... He right away made 13 [dollars a week] because he was really good." – Catherine Ehrmann, 1982
Once in Philadelphia, the family moved into a three-room “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” row house in North Philadelphia, just a block away from the Stetson Hat Company's factory. Like many immigrant children, she started to work in her early teens, even though her father made good money.
"Because I...just wanted to get out... I started my first job, a few months, at a photo folding—where they make the fringe for the pictures. And at the time I had two and a half dollars a week. And we had to go to continuation school for two hours, I believe...once a week. And we passed Stetson's going to continuation school, and found out they were paying three dollars a week. So we stopped in and got a form to fill out for an application, you know, for the job, and got it. So we quit the other job and went to Stetson’s... in 1916. I was 14."
– Catherine Ehrmann, 1982
Catherine's first job at Stetson was trimming threads and cutting ribbons for the hats. In the early 1900s, child workers in Pennsylvania were required by law to go to “continuation school” until they were 16. Stetson ran its own school, which she attended once a week. Like other working children, Catherine and her sister turned over their salaries to their parents.
"You didn’t keep it like the girls and fellows do today... We had to turn it over to my mother. First, I got a quarter spending money for the week... I only made $3 [at Stetson’s]... When I retired and got married, I made $15. Then I only got 50 cents a week to spend. The rest went to the family.” – Catherine Ehrmann, 1982
Catherine lived well within the large Stetson community. The Stetson Hat Company provided a broad range of benefits, services, and activities to cement worker loyalty and to keep out unwanted unionization.
"Stetson's was a nice place to work. They were very considerate and at one time we were taking exercises every morning for ten minutes, threw the windows up, so we would be healthy. Then when the slack season came we did any thing we wanted to. We used to crochet....And every Christmas the women got a box of candy and a certificate from Strawbridge's for a pair of leather gloves. You went and picked them out... And the men, they got a turkey." – Catherine Ehrmann, 1982
"They were very concerned about the people in the neighborhood.... I went [Stetson Sunday School] as a kid.... My father said, 'Any church don’t teach you nothing bad. You’re better there than on the street.' So... I was raised in that Sunday school and then I brought my own children there... We had movies on Germantown Avenue and Columbia Avenue for two cents. Stetsons gave it. Westerns, you went in the evening, around five o’clock... And it was an old church that they made into a movie house out of, and that was run by Stetson... And then, in another building right next to it, they taught you how to sew... I went there before I was married and learned how to sew. They had machines there, and ladies who taught you how to sew."
– Catherine Ehrmann, 1982
When Catherine was 18, the factory moved her to a "stitch and cross" machine that hid where stitches started and stopped on a hat rim. Even with the excitement of receiving more pay for during the wartime, her time as a Stetson employee was coming to a close. Catherine had fallen in love with a young man who lived around the corner. After his father died, he had gone to work at the age of fourteen to support his mother and five sisters. Taking night school classes he worked his way up from a machinist to a tool & die maker, but Catharine’s strict Old World father did not approve.
"You marry your own kind, according to him, somebody he can talk with, with his opinions... He chose it [a husband] for my sister and they never got along, and she blamed my father all the time. But I said 'You’re living in America, so why don't you marry whom you want?' …I had different ideas. The same household you wouldn't think we were from the same family...He wouldn’t even talk to the young man... But I married him anyway." – Catherine Ehrmann, 1982