Skip to content Skip to footer
The Original “Occupy”: Novel Was Written 100 Years Before Zuccotti Park
Zuccotti Park. (Photo: Dan Nguyen / Flickr)

The Original “Occupy”: Novel Was Written 100 Years Before Zuccotti Park

Zuccotti Park. (Photo: Dan Nguyen / Flickr)

Affluenza author John de Graaf investigates the origins of the slogan “Bread and Roses” and discovers a little-known American classic and a history that should repeat itself.

I still remember how inspired I was when I first took home folksinger Judy Collins’ 1976 album, Bread and Roses, and played the title song. It was a stirring anthem, a triumphal march almost, the words of an old poem set to music by another folksinger, Mimi Farina.

As we go marching, marching
In the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens
A thousand mill lofts grey
Are touched with all the radiance
That a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing
Bread and roses, bread and roses

As we go marching, marching
We battle too for men
For they are women’s children
And we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses

As we go marching, marching
Unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing
Their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty
Their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for
But we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching
We bring the greater days
The rising of the women
Means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler
Ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories
Bread and roses, bread and roses

For me, the message of Bread and Roses was that money is never enough. We need the non-material things of life – the “art and love and beauty,” friends and nature – and the time to appreciate them, smelling the roses, if you will. Hearts starve as well as bodies.

The Lawrence Textile Strike

I loved the traditional story [see, for example, Meredith Tax’s The Rising of the Women] connected with the poem, how it was written to honor the women of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who walked out of their textile mills on a wintry day in 1912, demanding higher pay and shorter hours. Thousands of mill workers, most of them immigrants speaking a babble of more than 20 languages, filled the streets of Lawrence in January and February of that winter, facing bayonet-carrying national guardsmen, trigger-hungry local police and even a contingent of Harvard students, given extra credit to come to Lawrence as strikebreakers.

One of the strikers, a young woman named Annie Lo Pizzo, was killed by a policeman’s bullets. Many were jailed and beaten for protesting. They sent their children away from Lawrence for safety’s sake. The odds against them were overwhelming, but they persisted, aided by labor organizers sent to Lawrence by the Industrial Workers of the World and eventually by an outpouring of national public concern over their treatment and living conditions. In March, the mill owners capitulated, granting the essence of the strikers’ demands.

It was an inspiring story, made even more so by the reports that some of the women carried a banner as they marched, inscribed with the words WE WANT BREAD, AND ROSES, TOO. As poor as they were, they knew that they did not live by bread alone. Hearts starve as well as bodies.

So the poem inspiring Collins’ song, I was told, honored these women and those banners they bore. It sounded so plausible, so natural. Hearing the song, and thinking about the noble women of Lawrence moved me deeply. I believed it, talked about it, wrote about it. It was a great story – art honoring courage and struggle.

There was just one problem. It couldn’t possibly have been true.

The main difficulty with the idea that the poem was written to honor the Lawrence strikers came in the fact that it was published in a New York magazine called The American Monthly in December 1911, a month before the Lawrence strike began. Then too, there was that reference to “a million darkened kitchens.” Lawrence only had about 80,000 residents at the time of the strike.

James Oppenheim’s Novels

Was the poem just a work of imagination, or was it based on a real event? No one seemed to know. I found the question on the Internet; plenty of people had pointed out that the poem was published before the strike. But there was no answer. Cryptically, the poet himself, James Oppenheim, referred to “bread and roses” as “a slogan of the women of the West.”

But which women? And where in the West? A couple of people weighing in on the web thought the reference was to the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in Chicago in 1903. But there seems to be no reference at all anywhere else to the slogan before Oppenheim’s 1911 verse. And there is no reference to it in the annals of the Lawrence strike. Not until about 1915 does the anecdote emerge about the “bread and roses” banner the strikers allegedly carried.

Just what really lay behind this story about phalanxes of marching women? I started by looking into the life of the author. Who was this James Oppenheim, and what had he done? What had he experienced that might have provided the basis for his poem? The surprising answer to my search came in a novel published precisely 100 years before “Occupy” protesters camped out in New York’s Zuccotti Park. And, luckily, since my research skills leave much to be desired, the answer actually came rather easily.

Born in St. Paul in 1882, Oppenheim was the son of the first Jewish member of the Minnesota Legislature. But his family moved to New York City in his childhood. He attended Columbia University at the turn of the century and soon after became a teacher and settlement house worker in Greenwich Village, where he came to sympathize with the plight of poor industrial workers.

Between 1909 and 1911, he wrote three novels whose themes all resonate in the present day. His first, Dr. Rast, is a collection of stories about a Jewish physician with a mission to provide health care for the poor, who often died because they could not pay for treatment. Remarkably, it was written almost exactly 100 before the passage of President Obama’s national health insurance plan. His second, Wild Oats (1910), took on venereal disease and the sexual double-standard for men and women.

But it was the title of the third novel, published in the fall of 1911, that caught my attention. It was called The Nine-Tenths. Hadn’t I been hearing a similar term being used widely since “Occupy” protesters took over Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in September 2011. Did the “Nine-Tenths” refer to roughly the same segment of America’s population that Occupy sought to represent exactly 100 years later?

The novel is readily obtained; free online versions are available, because its copyright ran out long ago. I ordered a print-on-demand copy, which arrived in two days. Unable to put the volume down once I started reading, I nearly inhaled its words. The Nine-Tenths, published by Harper Brothers, is the most compelling of Oppenheim’s novels. The reviews of the day acclaimed the book as a powerful portrait of the lives of the poor, despite some complaints about Oppenheim’s penchant for the sentimental.

Sentimental, yet Powerful

Indeed, Oppenheim writes with great passion, sometimes-overwrought emotion and an idealism that no longer plays well in our detached and cynical times. His characters wear their feelings on their sleeves, as a recent National Public Radio story (“Mining Books to Map Emotions Through a Century”) points out was far more common 100 years ago:

We think of modern culture – and often ourselves – as more emotionally open than people in the past. We live in a world of reality television and blogs and Facebook – it feels like feelings are everywhere, displayed to a degree that they never were before. But according to this research, that’s not so.

Generally speaking, the usage of these commonly known emotion words has been in decline over the 20th century. … We used words that expressed our emotions less in the year 2000 than we did 100 years earlier – words about sadness and joy and anger and disgust and surprise.

Although sentimental, Oppenheim’s novel does not oversimplify its characters and their emotions or the reality they seek to change. The Nine-Tenths is a fictionalization of two actual events, but with their chronological order reversed, an artistic device employed with great skill by Oppenheim. The first of these events was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a well-known disaster that resulted in the deaths of 146 young women on March 24, 1911.

Oppenheim must have written The Nine-Tenths in great haste, although that is not apparent to the reader. Indeed, the book was published only six months after the Triangle Fire actually occurred, surely unusual even today, and surely more so in an era of hand-set type.

The Transformation of Joe Blaine

In the novel, The Triangle Fire becomes “The East Eighty-First Street Fire.” It starts with a carelessly tossed cigarette in a print shop and results in the death of dozens of very young women, who work making hats one floor higher in the same building. When the fire occurs, the print shop owner (I envision him looking and sounding exactly like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life), a humble chap named Joe Blaine, is on a tryst with Myra, a teacher he has fallen in love with. In an instant, a moment of joy turns for Joe into one of horror.

Overcome with grief and guilt – because the fire began in his shop – Joe attends a memorial for the dead girls. Here, Oppenheim uses the exact words from a famous speech given by labor organizer Rose Schneiderman at the actual Triangle Fire memorial:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. … This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. …

Oppenheim changes her name to Sally Heffer, but the character, who appears throughout the novel, is clearly Schneiderman. It seems that Oppenheim wants to Americanize the Russian-born Schneiderman, a Jew like himself, to give his novel wider appeal at a time when anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments were still strong.

Triangle was a life-changing event for many, including Frances Perkins, later FDR’s secretary of labor but then a New York social worker, who was actually having tea across Washington Park Square from the factory when the fire broke out. As Kirstin Downey explains in her powerful biography of Perkins,The Woman Behind the New Deal, she rushed to the site only to watch helplessly as women plunged to their deaths.

In The Nine-Tenths, Heffer’s speech rocks Joe Blaine’s world. He has been tried and found wanting. The souls of the deceased call out for justice and solidarity through action, not charity. Joe knows that the only way to expiate his guilt is to join their fight.

From now on I belong to those dead girls – yes, and to their fellow workers.

A Newspaper in Greenwich Village

He sells his shop, bids adieu to a broken-hearted Myra during a tension-filled winter walk in Central Park, and moves, together with his mother, from his Upper East Side home to a flat in the Village, where he begins to immerse himself in the lives of working-class immigrants. He uses the money he has made from selling the printery, a heady $20,000, big cash in those times, to start a newspaper for the workers – the 90 percent of society slowly being ground up in the wheels of the industrial system.

Blaine calls his paper The Nine-Tenths. He signs up Sally Heffer and other workers to write its content and drum up an audience. While there are men and women on the team, it is the women who lead it; indeed, “the rising of the women,” is Joe’s new dream, as clearly it was for Oppenheim.

Sally was of the new breed; she represented the new emancipation; the exodus of woman from the home to the battle-fields of the world; the willingness to fight in the open, shoulder to shoulder with men; the advance of a sex that now demanded a broader, freer life, a new health, a home built up on comradeship and economic freedom. In all of these things she contrasted sharply with Myra, and Joe always thought of the two together.

The Nine-Tenths seems an honest appraisal of the social strata of those times. Ninety-nine percent is a great exaggeration today, when the upper-middle classes live as royalty did then. The use of the term “99%” seems more strategic than accurate, designed to isolate the biggest winners in new war of all against all, although the gap between rich and poor is even wider now than it was in 1911.

In one of the paper’s first issues, Joe writes a powerful editorial laying out the misery of the poor working women whose cause he has chosen to champion. He describes their sacrifices, the agony of seeing their children grow sick and die, of seeing their husbands show up daily to compete with other men for a bare minimum of jobs and, failing to maintain their incomes and their dignity, turn to the anesthesia of the barroom or domestic violence and crime.

Possibly then the husband will come home and beat his wife, drag her about the floor, blacken her eyes, break a rib. … Very often he ceases to be a wage-earner and loafs about saloons. From then on the woman wrestles with world of trouble – unimaginable difficulties. Truly, running a state may be easier than running a family. And yet the woman toils on. … She keeps her head; she takes charge; she toils late into the night; she goes without food, without sleep. Somehow she manages. …

He tells of how the mothers take in the laundry of the rich to survive, how the poor immigrant girls prematurely lose their beauty and laughter, how they are left only with love and, eventually, nothing at all.

It is a powerful section of the novel; reading the book takes one fully into the homes, factories and streets of industrial New York at the beginning of the last century. There is little black and white here; the laborers, particularly the men, have their own foibles. Some are bought off and turn traitor to their co-workers, while among the comfortable, there are those who come to the workers’ aid. A group of workers, egged on by their boss, turns angry mob, violently attacking Blaine and trashing his home and office.

The Uprising of the Thirty Thousand

The conversations Joe has with Sally and others are much the same as those we still must have: How do you reach people? How do you maintain democratic principles? How do win allies among the businesspeople? How do you avoid violence? What are the repercussions of courage?

In time, Joe’s Nine-Tenths newspaper has thousands of readers. Its stories embolden the women. They begin to walk away from their factories in protest. They rally at Cooper Union and vote for a general strike, raising the roof with their vows of solidarity, shouted in Yiddish. At this point, Oppenheim describes the other historical event on which the novel is based.

In the fall and winter of 1909 and 1910, in what was deemed “The Uprising of the Thirty Thousand,” masses of factory workers shut down their machines and took to the streets, supported by the Women’s Trade Union League. In this, they were joined by prominent women of the upper class, including banking magnate J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne. Their demands center on safe working conditions, shorter hours and an increase in pay. The fictional Nine-Tenths is the organ of solidarity that holds them together and publicizes their cause when the mainstream press will not.

Here, in the Uprising of the Thirty Thousand, we find the real events that inspired Bread and Roses, the women marching, the “million darkened kitchens” that actually existed in New York, then a city of 5 million people. Here in the novel is the meaning of that phrase from the poem, “Our lives shall not be sweated. … ” Sweating (in the “sweat shops”) was a practice of speeding up the line to increase production. Here also are the “ten that toil where one reposes,” the nine-tenths for which Joe Blaine published his paper.

And here, too, is the mass protest of the original Occupy.

In the midst of this, Joe’s girlfriend, Myra, returns home from a retreat in the country and is swept into the maelstrom of the strike. Originally unsympathetic to Joe (reminding him that the Bible says the poor will always be with us), she watches helplessly as Rhona, a teenage picket, is roughed up by police, taken to jail and sent to the “work-house” without reason.

After a few months, in the novel as in reality, the Uprising of the Thirty Thousand peters out, as many employers give in to the women’s key demands and, in places where they do not, the women slowly return to work. The most prominent of the real holdouts was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which refused to improve safety conditions. A year later, its belligerence produced tragedy.

Joe Blaine’s Vision – Time for Life

After the strike, a reunited Joe and Myra get married and go on a honeymoon. On their return to New York, it is full spring. Oppenheim describes the city reborn, in language reminiscent of Walt Whitman:

Over the city the spring cast its subtle spell. The skies had a more fleeting blue and softer clouds and more golden sun. Here and there on a window-sill a new red geranium plant was set out to touch the stone walls with the green earth’s glory. The salt breath of the sea, wandering up the dusty avenues, called the children of men to new adventures – hinted of far countries across the world, of men going down to the sea in ships, of traffic and merchandise in fairer climes, of dripping forest gloom and glittering peaks, of liquid-lisping brooks and the green scenery of the open earth.

There is a wild magic to Oppenheim’s words that stirs all but the most cynical and hardened of heart.

Restlessness seized the hearts of men and the works of men. From the almshouses and the jails emerged the vagrants, stopped overnight to meet their cronies in dives and saloons, and next day took the freight to the blooming West, or tramped by foot the dust of the roads that leave the city and go ribboning over the shoulder and horizon of the world. Windows were flung open, and the fresh sweet air came in to make the babies laugh and the women wistful and the men lazy. Factories droned with machines that seemed to grate against their iron fate. And of a night, now, the parks, the byways, and the waterside were the haunts of young lovers – stealing out together, arms round each other’s waists – the future of the world in their trembling hands.

From the green leaves, blossoms and buds of the new spring, Oppenheim draws lessons about the resilience of the human spirit.

Anything was possible. Did not earth set an example, showing how out of a hard dead crust and a forlorn and dry breast she could pour her new oceans of million-glorious life? If the dead tree could blossom and put forth green leaves, what dead soul need despair?

There is no mention of “bread and roses” in the novel at all, and no mention in the files of history about any of the women of the uprising using the term. Clearly, the idea that the women were “singing Bread and Roses,” came only from Oppenheim’s imagination; he put the words in their mouths. But while he refrains from using the phrase in his novel, there can be little doubt what he meant by it in the poem.

Bread, here, is a reference to higher pay, to money and the material needs of life. But Oppenheim understood that even as poor as these women were, they did not live on bread alone. They needed the non-material joys of life – art, beauty, nature, play, learning, friendship and love – and for all of these things, they needed time. The needed shorter hours of labor, time to smell the roses.

As they look upon the city from a ship in the East River, Joe tells Myra his vision for the future of New York, “the city of five million comrades.”

“They toil all day with one another; they create all of beauty and use that men may need; they exchange these things with each other; they go home at night to gardens and simple houses, they find happy women there and sunburnt, laughing children. Their evenings are given over to the best play – play with others, play with masses, or play at home. They have time for study, time for art, yet time for one another. Each loosens in himself and gives to the world his sublime possibilities. A city of toiling comrades, of sparkling homes, of wondrous art, and joyous festival. That is the city I see before me!” He paused. “And to the coming of that city I dedicate my life”

Oppenheim’s vision of the good life, while still infused by the gender bias of his day, is an enlightened one of modest homes, modest comfort and, most of all, time to appreciate the things that are not things, but are the best things in life.

A Novel Pregnant With Possibility

As I read The Nine-Tenths, I thought about how a novel like this one could be the basis of an entire semester’s course in a university. It starts with an original source rather than textbook commentary. It raises so many questions about values, takes readers into long-ago lives as nonfiction never can, and stirs heart as well as head.

For today’s students, mostly passive in the face of constantly rising costs, diminishing employment prospects, a society that seems to value only wealth and profit, art and media that wallows in hatred and ever-more-graphic and senseless violence, the story of Joe Blaine and his transformation contains enough subject matter to stir a hundred theses and even a hundred new outbreaks of Occupy.

It wasn’t surprising that the edition of The Nine-Tenths I now possess was the last one, a reissuing of the book in 1968, the high-water mark of student protests in the post-World War II era. That was a time when the idealism of Joe Blaine and the underlying optimism of the novel still held sway, just before the leading activists turned despairingly from the novel’s belief in nonviolent protest to the bombs of the Weather Underground.

The first recorded reference to the use of the phrase “bread and roses” in an actual historical event comes nearly a year after Oppenheim’s poem was published, when Rose Schneiderman used the term in a women’s suffrage rally – “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” On this the Wikipedia entry for Rose Schneiderman, has the events backward, suggesting that her 1912 speech inspired the poem!

But I think it more than likely that the story of the banners in Lawrence is true, despite the lack of documented evidence. The Lawrence strike came in January 1912, barely a month after Oppenheim’s poem was published in a popular magazine. And while it was undoubtedly still fresh in people’s minds. Many of the IWW leaders at Lawrence lived in New York City, including the fabled orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They were active in the broader labor and cultural circles of their day. It seems almost impossible that they were unaware of the poem Bread and Roses and highly unlikely that they wouldn’t have talked about it, at least privately, with the strikers. So I suspect there is truth to the anecdotal reports about the banners that surfaced a few years after the strike. But we will probably never know for sure.

What we do know for sure is that there was a “nine-tenths” 100 years before the 99%, and an original Occupy in lower Manhattan 100 years before Zuccotti Park.

In those turbulent days that began the 20th century, masses of people, led by liberals, socialists, and anarchists and joined even by a contingent of the ten percent, were challenging the privilege, greed and rampant inequality of the Gilded Age. They took to the streets as the Occupy protesters did. But they also took to the ballot box, armed with a political program of concrete demands for radical reform. They were not scornful of leadership as the Occupy protesters were, nor unwilling to draft a blueprint for change. Like the Occupy protesters, they mourned the power of the wealthy and the corporations and the lack of democracy. They had no Citizens United to challenge, but an even greater battle for influence; remember that women could not even vote then.

From the Uprising to Political Action

In August 1912, many of them came together to form the Progressive Party and to present a program they called A Contract with the People, calling for:

  • A National Health Service.

  • Social insurance to provide for the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled.

  • A federalsecurities commission.

  • Relief for small farmers.

  • Compensation for workplace injuries.

  • The vote for women.

  • Direct election of senators.

  • Recall, referendum and initiative.

  • Strict limits on political campaign contributions.

The issues that animated the original occupiers were much the same as those that challenge us today. Almost all of them were won in the quarter century following the founding of the Progressive Party, many in next few years, others in the early days of the New Deal. They reduced the gap between rich and poor, vastly increased the size of the middle class, and offered “bread, and roses, too.”

But in the past three decades many of these important gains that came at the cost of the original occupiers’ blood and tears, have been eroded by the forces of greed that carry out the bidding of the 1%. Occupy has risen up against the new priorities of dog eat dog. But unlike its predecessors of a century ago, today’s Occupy seems to me inchoate and without clear plans or focused vision. In the past three decades, our modern Nine-Tenths have lost both bread and roses. They have been quick to notice the loss of bread, although sadly unable to prevent it. But they seem to have forgotten the roses, whose watering seems most urgent.

The philosopher George Santayana once observed that failing to remember the past dooms us to repeat it. But the reverse is also true; sometimes it’s important to remember history so we can repeat it. This is surely one of those times.

Don’t miss your chance to give for #GivingTuesday!

Millions of people are supporting nonprofits like Truthout for #GivingTuesday. Will you join them?

As an independent newsroom, Truthout relies on reader donations to remain online. Your tax-deductible donation of any amount — even a few bucks! — helps make it possible for us to publish award-winning journalism that amplifies the voices of changemakers everywhere.