Think your job is a grind? Before you get too verklempt, consider the plight of South Lake Union's early 20th century laundry workers. These women toiled with hot, steamy work environments, long hours, heavy lifting and a paycheck averaging a whopping $5.87 per week. Most workers were young girls or widows with no other means of support, and those who lobbied for better conditions or joined unions were fired.
Resentment and fervent union organizing simmered for years until, on June 14, 1917, a Seattle Union Record headline read, "900 Laundry Workers Out: Girls at Last Revolt at Starvation Wages." Soon those 900 were joined by engineers and laundry drivers, who swelled the ranks of the strikers to 1,500. They gathered the support of the city's laundry customers, who began boycotting non-union laundries. This swiftly brought laundry leadership to its knees, and on July 11, a deal was struck between the laundries and unions guaranteeing workers $10 a week, an eight-hour work day, and the right to unionize.
No Starbucks gift cards or gym memberships, but as jobs went in those days, it was progress.
Art Inspired by History
Those events of nearly a century ago significantly moved the dial for labor in the Northwest, and they've not been forgotten. At the corner of Yale Avenue N and Republican Street, a new public sculpture entitled The Laundry Strike was installed on May 29 near the site of the historic Supply Laundry facility (now restored and re-adapted as the Stack House Apartments).
Commissioned by Vulcan Real Estate and created by artist Whiting Tennis, The Laundry Strike recalls the struggle of those plucky laundresses of 1917. Tennis said, "In spite of the highly industrialized laundry process of the early 20th century, the women at that time were still moving clothes around the factory in wicker baskets and hampers."
In creating the piece, he gave a nod to that laborious practice by weaving the piece in rattan and wicker like actual hampers, then making a wax replica to fashion molds. Those were coated with a plaster material and placed in a kiln to melt the wax. What remained afterward were empty vessels that were filled with molten bronze at an Oregon foundry, then solidified, brazed together, and given a patina and texture.
The resulting 12-foot bronze sculpture is located near the original Supply Laundry smoke stack, which also inspired the brand of the Stack House Apartments. The Laundry Strike resembles an entire neighborhood made of basketry – a fitting tribute to the multitude of women who fought for justice. Both the smoke stack and the artistic tribute have become beloved neighborhood landmarks.
The Laundry Strike joins the growing collection of public art in the South Lake Union area. Want to see more? Check out the next South Lake Union Art Walk on August 1.
Posted by DiscoverSLU on Jul. 15
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