By James H. Nottage
Near Midnight Pass
When we think of classic Western cowboy saddles, chaps, gun belts and holsters, cuffs, bridles, and other goods it is easy to picture independent business manufacturers scattered throughout the frontier. While small shops were common, there were also major factories and going concerns that might have large numbers of skilled leather workers. As early as the 1850s, union organizers became active. By the 1890s, the United Brotherhood of Leather Workers On Horse Goods could boast members in a large portion of the big shops. Among the rarest stamps to be found on some of cowboy goods, is that of this labor union.
As early as 1848, independent craft unions scattered across the country and tended to affiliate with the Knights of Labor. Craft unionism increased and in July of 1887 the National Association of Saddle and Harness Makers was organized. By 1893, depressed markets for leather goods were leading to the decline of this group. As local chapters failed, they were asked by the end of 1895 to apply for affiliation with the United Brotherhood of Harness and Saddle Makers of America. In December of 1896 the American Federation of Labor officially recognized the United Brotherhood of Leather Workers on Horse Goods and headquarters were established in Kansas City. The group began to publish The Leather Workers' Journal and held annual conventions.
In representing labor the organization opposed prison labor, Chinese labor, machinery for mass
production, and advocated for improved wages and an eight hour work day. Reading the group's journal you can trace their activities at many locations in the West. Information about strikes, efforts to unionize the Frank Meanea shop, movements to standardize apprentice programs, and many other topics can be found. Of course, it was the coming of gasoline powered tractors, cars, and trucks, along with the Great Depression and failure of many shops that led to the downfall of this union.
In the jargon of the day, a leather worker was often referred to as "packing his kit," meaning that he was moving from one location to another with the leather tools he was required to personally own. If you want another interesting area to collect, keep an eye out for union stamps on cowboy gear, for member badges and other items, and for the tools that sustained the industry. It is another colorful part of this history.
Individual union stamps, such as the one illustrated here, had numbers for the local union that represented the worker. The example shown is from a pair of white wooly chaps and the number 56 is for the union branch in Portland, Oregon. The chaps were made in the Clark Saddlery shop.
For collectors who might locate Western pieces, these are numbers for some of the locals:
1-Kansas City, MO
3-St. Joseph, MO
9-San Antonio, Texas
30-St. Louis, Missouri
57-San Francisco, CA
67-Oklahoma City, OK
72-Los Angeles, CA
78-Salt Lake City, Utah
98-Fargo, North Dakota
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage