The Labor Lyceum Movement in Philadelphia

Kensington Labor Lyceum Hall, Second Street North of Cambria Street, 1898 (PhillyHistory.org)

Of all the places where Mother Jones might have started her famous 1903 protest known as the March of the Mill Children, which did she find the most strategic? Philadelphia’s Kensington Labor Lyceum at 2nd and Cambria Streets.

Of all the halls where Mother Jones might have advised a thousand young seamstresses on the verge of the “the great Philadelphia shirtwaist strike of 1909” which did she visit? Philadelphia’s Labor Lyceum at Sixth and Brown Streets. (Become “independent workers who will assert their rights…get the spirit of revolt and be a woman.”)

When Eugene V. Debs came to Philadelphia in 1908 campaigning for the U.S. presidency, on what stages did he proclaim: “We are today upon the verge of the greatest organic change in all of history. … We are permeated with the spirit of the new social order and of the grander civilization…. Here in the United States we are very happily approaching the third revolution”? Debs’ advocated his “third revolution” on stages at both Labor Lyceums: Northern Liberties and Kensington.

At the Kensington Lyceum in January 1921, thousands of textile workers filled “every seat and windowsill” and “every inch of standing room” before marching up 2nd Street to support strikers at the textile mills. “Bright-eyed girls,” burly men and “careworn women” were stirred by the “silver tongued” labor leader Abraham Plotkin and his warnings. “The fellow who hasn’t a job and is cold, and whose stomach hurts all the time from hunger is dangerous. … Out of unemployed come the tramps, out of the tramps come the criminals, and out of the criminals, the jails. We’ve learned this from hard knocks.”

The Labor Lyceums were places were free speech reigned and where all ideas were welcome.

The idea of the Lyceum was first presented at a Labor Day picnic in 1889, the brainchild of Frederick Wilhelm Fritzsche, a self-described “labor agitator” from Germany. The city’s first Labor Lyceum thrived in rented quarters at 441 North 5th Street and served as a headquarters for unions and a home away from home for workers. Members would come for meetings, for votes, and for “mental and moral improvements” in the form of classes in typewriting, singing, drawing, cabinetmaking and English. When Lyceums had the space, they’d also offer libraries packed with books, in German and English.

Northern Liberties Labor Lyceum Hall, 6th Street, north of Brown Street  (Google Books)

Northern Liberties Labor Lyceum Hall, Sixth Street, North of Brown Street in 1899. (Google Books)

In 1893, the Congregation Keneseth Israel vacated their large (126 by 96 feet), ornate 1860s building at 809-817 North 6th Street (just north of Brown Street) for a larger synagogue on Broad Street where Temple University’s Law School stands today. The burgeoning Lyceum immediately stepped in and bought the building.

Labor’s New Home,” read the Inquirer headline describing the move to the new quarters. “Over three thousand men were in line with banners and brass bands…entered the new building…” The Fresco Painters’ Union led the procession “with their blood-red flag and badges;” followed by the Typographers, with their banners with Guttenberg and Franklin. There were the Metal Workers, the Carpenters, Cigar Makers’, Cigar Packers, Dyers, Leathers Workers, Blacksmiths Wheelwrights, Harness Makers, Barkeepers, Waiters and the Socialist Labor Union.  They arrived at the new building and “crowded into the big hall… decked with greens and flags.”

The idea of the Lyceum was so successful that, less than two years later, the city’s textile unions hired architect A. C. Wagner to design and build the Kensington Labor Lyceum in the heart of the city’s s textile district, on Second Street just north of Cambria.

When Fritzsche died in 1905, the Lyceum on 6th Street became his memorial. “Thousands Mourn Dead Socialist,” read the headline. Fritzsche’s body laid “in state in the hall” as “five thousand men and women trudged through the rain and icy streets” to pay last respects. “The auditorium was decorated with long streamers of red bunting, the symbol of socialism, kept in place by black rosettes. Over the catafalque hung the inscription: ‘Arbeiter Aller Lander Vereinigt Euch.’” Workers of the World Unite.

What’s left today? No buildings. Only faded memories, a handful of archived images and newspaper articles.

And a whole lot of history.

[Consulted newspaper articles include: “The Labor Lyceum,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 4, 1891; “Labor's New Home,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 23, 1893; “World of Labor,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 15, 1899; “Thousands Mourn Dead Socialist,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1905.]

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