Rudolph: A Life at Stetson
by Leonard Lederman
Born on July 12, 1901, John Rudolph grew up just four blocks from the John B. Stetson Hat factory in north Philadelphia. Employing more than 4,000 people, many of whom lived within walking distance of the factory, Stetson provided a broad range of entertainment and social services.
“Even before I worked there, I used to go up on Saturday afternoon, that was a big day Saturday. See the baseball game, get in for fifteen cents, 25 cents for the grandstand…Brooklyn Royal Giants, that was a Black team…they always drew a big attendance…. A Black team in those days was sort of a rarity. People from all over came to see the game…. They were a good team.” – John Rudolph, 1982
In 1917, Rudolph, then 16, went to the local employment office and got his first job at Stetson.
“If you went in at the right time when they needed somebody, you got in right away. But very often they were filled up…There were so many people in the neighborhood, they all wanted to get into Stetson.” – John Rudolph, 1982
During World War I, Rudolph took part in the Stetson Field Corps program for young workers, which taught first aid skills.
In his first job at Stetson, Rudolph took finished hats from an elevator and placed them on a line for the packers to dust and box them for shipment. After gaining more experience he became a hat packer and then learned enough to become a hat inspector.
“It got to the point where they felt that I was capable of doing inspection work prior to packaging for shipping. See to it that everything was in good order; color, sizes were proper, styles were properly trimmed, letters were properly printed... We had to inspect the sewing, make sure all the stitches were good...This was the process before being put into a box.” – John Rudolph, 1982
In the early 1900s Stetson employed thousands of workers, many of them immigrants who spoke no English when hired. To "Americanize" and prepare them for citizenship, Stetson offered English language and naturalization classes.
Stetson also offered rewards and benefits to its workers rare in Philadelphia industries at the time. Most famous of these was the annual Christmas party. Rudolph remembered how before the factory-wide gathering each department initiated new workers by having them bring a pie for everyone to share. Others brought milk and beer.
"At nine o'clock we were all assembled in the auditorium…and they would have some financial reports…a speech by the president…and they did give out net profits…. Then they would go into distribution of the gifts…so many people got building and loan shares, other people got stocks. Watches and chains were given out…. They would have the paymaster's station at each exit…you were seating according to your pay line position so that when you did walk out, your name was right there…. You got your Christmas bonus…." – John Rudolph, 1982
To modernize production and reduce costs, Stetson in 1929 implemented the "Bedaux" speed-up system, which based pay on the tickets a worker received for completing different tasks. The company also introduced elevator restrictions, clock-in times, and other new regulations. The Bedaux system and its new efficiency agents quickly angered workers, but not Rudolph.
"A lot of people felt that the efficiency experts were there to do them a lot of harm. But all that harm just didn't happen. It was simply a monitoring system to allow you a certain length of time to do a certain job…. Previous to that, [production] would fluctuate because of the lack of a quota...I don't think it really materialized as bad as what everyone thought it would be."
– John Rudolph, 1982
Many workers, however, felt that Stetson had lost its personal attachment to its employees. Workers became more suspicious of the company. Others found ways to "cheat the system" by taking undeserved extra tickets for more pay.
A chronic problem that Rudolph and others encountered at Stetson was the seasonal nature of the hat business. During each year's two slow seasons, which typically lasted six to eight weeks, Stetson had little work for many of its factory workers. To pay his bills, Rudolph first worked in the furniture business, then taught himself how to paint advertising signs, which he sold to local breweries and tap houses.
"It was real rough. Most of the old-timers that I can recall had two jobs. Many of them maintained their own hat renovating shop in their own home. Many of them used to have another job at another hat factory…There were many different things that people had to do to make out…I knew many guys that went in there [to Stetson] and they only stayed short times. I was one of the dummies, shall I say, that stayed there. I had always wanted to get out because I had other abilities but there were certain home conditions that influenced me otherwise." – John Rudolph, 1982.
During the Great Depression, Stetson, like so many other companies, suffered greatly. It laid off workers without warning as hat sales plummeted.
"Some years were better than others…There were a few years where things were so bad to the extent that you'd wonder where the next meal is coming from… [This was] around the 30s."
– John Rudolph, 1982
In response to the worsening conditions, Stetson workers in 1934 formed their own union, then merged with the United Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers International Union. By 1945, the Union had won raises, worker insurance and vacations, and other benefits.
Stetson, however, still suffered from falling hat sales in the 1950s. In response, the company introduced new methods to minimize manufacturing costs, streamlined production, and continued to lay off workers.