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Wobblies' Artifacts Go to Chicago Library

The Newberry acquires ephemera from the colorful history of the union, formally known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

October 15, 2006|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Known for using humor and music to attract their members, a labor movement known as the Wobblies that was founded in Chicago in 1905 created one of the most important and colorful chapters in American union history.

The Newberry Library has announced its acquisition of "an outstanding archive" of extremely rare publications and ephemera that record the history of the Wobblies, more formally known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

The collection had taken a Chicago couple more than 40 years to amass. Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, the collectors, are members of the Illinois Labor History Society.

"Wobbly organizers were often very funny people who used humor as a tactic," said Franklin Rosemont, a labor historian and author who has written extensively on the IWW. "They were stand-up improv comedians ahead of their time.

"There was one guy, for instance, who would be at labor gatherings and start shouting desperately, 'I'm being robbed! I'm being robbed!' When people rushed to see what was going on, he'd start his pitch by telling them, 'I'm being robbed by the capitalist system.' "

A famous Wobbly phrase, "Sit down and watch your pay go up," was used in the early days of the ultimately successful effort to organize Detroit auto workers.

IWW print shops in Chicago published hundreds of thousands of copies of the union's "Little Red Song Book," a compendium of labor anthems such as "Solidarity Forever," sung by Wobbly musician/organizers who wrote much of the music.

Among the more than 600 items in the collection is the 1915 Chicago funeral program for Wobbly martyr Joe Hill, an organizer who was killed in a Utah jail.

Among hundreds of Wobbly books, pamphlets, magazines and newspapers are rare editions of "The Little Red Song Book." The collection also includes IWW membership records, dues stamps, stickpins, buttons and stickers.

"It is an extraordinarily rich compendium of materials," Newberry curator Martha Briggs said. "It is really fortuitous that it landed at the Newberry, because it relates so well with our existing labor, free speech and Chicago history collections."

The Newberry is an independent research library that concentrates on the humanities. It sits across the street from Bug House Square, the public park that was a center for the oratory and music of early Wobbly organizers and troubadours.

The Newberry neighborhood, now an upscale area of condos and town houses, for most of the first half of the 20th century was a rundown slum populated by laborers and hobos. Bug House Square was a rallying spot where the poor would gather, entertained by a parade of impromptu speakers and performers, most of them bearing a political message.

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