“The Chivalry of Modern Knights”

April 24, 1886

Thomas Nast

“The Chivalry of Modern Knights”

Business, Women; Labor; New York City, Business; Women, Labor;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast criticizes the large labor union, the Knights of Labor, for boycotting a small business establishment, Mrs. Gray's Bakery.

The Knights of Labor were founded in 1869 as a secret craft union for garment workers in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.  Although many unions collapsed during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, the Knights survived and went public in 1878, with a transformed agenda.  They promoted themselves as a national union for the working class regardless of occupation, religion, race, nationality, or sex, and called for a more equitable industrial system.  

Among the reforms they urged were an eight-hour workday, worker-run cooperatives, abolition of convict and child labor (for those under 14), equal opportunities and wages for women, and a government agency to collect labor statistics (established in 1884).  Contrary to the mission statement, Knights of Labor in the West refused to allow Chinese workers to join their unions and lobbied for the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and other discriminatory measures.

Under the leadership of Terence V. Powderly, the Knights of Labor experienced tremendous growth from 1879-1886, ultimately reaching 700,000 members.  The Knights, however, did not attract much attention until the period of labor unrest in 1885-1886, often termed "the Great Upheaval of 1886" by labor historians.  In late 1885, the union won a victory for railroad workers in the Southwest against Jay Gould.  It was at this time that the Knights gained their biggest boost in membership, the rapidity and extent of which brought internal dissension.  

Local leaders were primarily responsible for organizing a massive series of strikes in 1886 to agitate for an eight-hour workday, which culminated in the Haymarket Riot of May 1.  Powderly objected to the strikes and denounced the rioters.  The public frenzy in the wake of the Haymarket Riot, and defeat by Jay Gould during a second railroad strike, led to a sharp decline in the membership of the Knights of Labor.  They were quickly replaced as the dominant voice of organized labor by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a group of craft unions headed by Samuel Gompers, which was committed to working within the existing economic system.  The weakened Knights hobbled along until 1917, when the union formally dissolved itself.

Harper's Weekly stood opposed to what they saw as the bullying tactics of both organized labor and organized capital, although editor George William Curtis considered the latter to be a more serious threat to the American way of life.  Nast's cartoon depicts a boycott which a local unit of the Knights of Labor called in 1886 against Mrs. Gray's Bakery in New York City.  The union claimed she refused to allow her workers to organize; Mrs. Gray insisted that the workers freely chose not to join.  The cartoonist presents the Knights as disheveled rubes engaging in conduct contrary to the chivalrous code of their medieval namesakes.  The boycott is made to seem more ludicrously inappropriate by the protester's comparison of the kindly-looking woman to Jay Gould, the railroad mogul.  

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Chivalry of Modern Knights”
December 5, 2023

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