Socialism is a political term that describes an economic system of public ownership of the means of production and allocation of resources. Individuals in positions of authority make decisions in the name of the collective group. The term “socialism” wasn’t always met with the fears that it provokes in some U.S. citizens today. The colonial era settlement of Moravian Bethlehem was a socialist community. The members worked, not for their personal gain, but to support missionary efforts. At one time, 33 city mayors, many seats in state legislatures, and two members of the US House of Representatives were members of the Socialist Party.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Reading, Pennsylvania was an unlikely place to support socialist political candidates. Reading developed from a typical Pennsylvanian village. German immigrants settled the land in Berks County and survived by farming. Reading came into existence as a farm market town. By the late 1700s the iron industry had developed in the area. The Philadelphia and Reading (P&R) Railroad began laying tracks in 1833, which brought other industries to Reading such as mills, Luden’s Cough Drops and car manufacturing.
The factory jobs for the most part were filled by the descendents of Pennsylvania German pioneers. The workers were described as conservative, religious and hard-working. Reading was different from other industrial towns in that the workers owned their homes. The 1900 federal census reported that sixty percent of the Reading population lived in family owned homes. Another difference was that 94 percent of the population was native-born. As Reading industry grew, the workers left their farms to work in factories and mills to earn a decent living.
In 1877, a change in the average workers’ political leanings was provoked by a tragedy. The Brotherhood of Railway Engineers and Firemen called a national strike that year after railroad workers suffered massive pay cuts. On a hot July day, strikers in Reading blocked a passenger train from leaving for Philadelphia and destroyed a railroad bridge. Management requested the assistance from the Pennsylvania State Militia to protect their property. On July 23, three hundred state troopers arrived in Reading and without warning killed ten people, most of them innocent by-standers. The troopers were reacting to stones that were thrown at them by the strikers. The militia fired into a panicked, scattering crowd also wounding twenty people, some of them children. None of the strikers or people in the crowd were armed. The victims were carried to neighborhood drug stores to receive medical care. That night a mob of thousands became enraged at the militia’s actions. Several men broke into the Reading armory and a gun store to arm themselves. A crowd began tearing up sections of the railroad track. The rioting was ended by the next day when Federal troops arrived to restore order.
A thirteen-year-old boy in the crowd witnessed the confrontations and later said, ” I had looked on a tragic act in the real drama of class struggle.” The boy, James H. Maurer, would later become the leader of the socialist movement in Reading. After this confrontation a small group of socialists formed a coalition with other groups who were seeking to improve workers’ lives. Maurer often reminded his fellow Pennsylvania-Germans that socialism was a concept that was German in origin. Through their newspaper, The Labor Advocate, they addressed the issues most important to the citizens of Reading such as the ever-increasing government debt and unfairly high property assessments. The large industry owners in Reading attempted to discredit the group but these socialists were not outsiders. They were descendants from several generations of Reading area property owners. The group, unusual at the time, also included women in their organization and encouraged them to run for office. One of the members, Mary B. Nelson, created the first birth-control organization in the state.
In 1927, the whole country took notice of the results of the elections in Reading. Their leader, James Maurer, had previously won a seat in the Pennsylvania State Assembly in 1910, 1914 and 1916. In 1927 the socialist party won the positions of mayor, two city council seats, the city controller job, and two school board posts. In 1935 the socialists won 107 of the total 196 ward offices. Lilith Martin Wilson was elected as the first socialist woman to be elected to any legislative body. She represented Reading in the state assembly in 1929, 1932 and 1934. Hazelette Hoopes was elected to the Reading school board in 1927 and 1935. Gertrude Hiller was elected in 1935 as a prison inspector. Bernice Hoverter was elected city treasurer in 1939. After Maurer resigned in 1936, infighting occurred in the party and the last socialist ran for office in 1958.
The group had many successes. In 1915 Pennsylvania adopted its first workmen’s compensation law, pushed through by Maurer. Property assessments were adjusted to be more equitable. Instead of financing a new city hall the socialists renovated an old high school. This building continues to serve as city hall today. They improved the city infrastructure, created parks, eliminated unnecessary contracts, and improved services to the elderly and children.
Karen Samuels writes a weekly local history column for The Bethlehem Press. She writes for several blogs including www.lehighvalleyhistory.com and http://lehighvalleyhistory.