Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Socialist candidates were often elected to local public office in the early twentieth century. and it was not unusual for members of the party to serve as mayors and councilmen in some towns and cities. In I 912, it was estimated that approximately 1,200 Socialists held offices across the country. Though many held very minor posts, Socialists often believed that their movement would continue to grow and that a socialist society, or what they often called a “Cooperative Commonwealth,” would soon be established in the United States. By the end of World War I, however, such optimism proved unwarranted, for the socialist movement underwent a serious decline from which it never truly recovered.

Nevertheless, in a few places the Socialist Party (SP) con­tinued to be a factor in local politics. One of the strongest outposts for socialism in this country was Reading, where long after the alleged “golden age of American socialism,” Socialist mayors were elected on three separate occasions. It was not until the late 1940s that the socialist movement declined as an important force in local politics. Few cities or towns witnessed as persistent a socialist effort.

Part of the explanation for Reading socialism’s longevity after World War I can be found in the way in which the Socialists built their movement and responded to their political environment. A review of their methods should also contribute to an understanding of the impact of a third party on local politics.

Socialism did not suddenly emerge in this Pennsylvania Dutch city. In the late nineteenth century, a number of the town’s citizens participated in the labor and reform move­ments. Some were members of the Knights of Labor. a reform-oriented union which welcomed both skilled and unskilled workers into its ranks. The Knights held a national convention in Reading in 1878 and Terence Powderly, longtime Knights leader, later spoke there. Years afterward, a former participant claimed that the local Knights had had a membership “of at least 5,000” in the 1880s. Though this union declined, AFL unions were organized in the Reading area and some of their members became active in third party politics. In 1890, an independent party was formed to elect two state legislators. When this effort failed, the group eventually evolved into a local People’s party and affiliated nationally with the Populists. Although the Populist movement was essentially a farmers’ movement, it had backing from some urban labor groups as well.

With its strength concentrated in the South and West, the Populist party lacked force in the East and activity in Pennsylvania was limited. The Reading wing was further weakened when it split in 1896 after the national conven­tion endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Some stuck by the convention choice, while others, apparently dissatisfied with this development, dropped out of the party. These ex-Populists, along with at least one Prohibitionist, may have become the first local socialists.

Reading’s socialist movement dates back to the late 1890s, a time when charters from national socialist groups were being issued. Socialist circles in the United States were wracked by controversy and factionalism du ring this period, and such dissension descended upon Reading as well. Perhaps the most important division, both nationally and locally, flared up between the followers of Daniel Deleon and others who sought a less doctrinaire line, particularly in regard to trade unions. Locally, the more moderate element eventually prevailed; but in the 1899-1902 era, both groups competed with each other at the ballot box.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of the local members were more likely to be Christian socialists than Marxians. Said one, years later: “[I]t might be said that, down to 1905, many of us were primarily Christian socialists. In the earlier years, we did not agree with the materialistic interpretation of history. In fact, some of us didn’t like the idea of holding meetings and picnics on Sundays.” Another local socialist, nominated as one of the party’s legislative candidates in 1900 and who later served as state party secretary, was quoted in the Reading Eagle as saying: “I have become convinced of the righteousness of the Socialist movement, and believe that the Kingdom of Christ will be advanced by it.” Some active socialists were in fact members of mainstream Protestant churches. While many local comrades did not attend church. those who did clearly did not deem it incompatible with their socialist beliefs. (It should be noted, however, that the Reading clergy generally were not sympathetic to the socialist cause and eventually a socialist Sunday school was organized.) Other non-Marxian socialist influences were also present within the local movement, including the folksy socialist weekly, the Appeal to Reason, which was published in Girard, Kansas and Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward.

Whatever their brand of socialism, the number of active socialists probably remained small. In 1930, J. Henry Stump, then Socialist mayor of the city, reflected: “When I became a member there were only about 20 of us in Reading.” James H. Maurer, who became the local move­ment’s most influential figure, claimed in his autobiography that there were “less than fifty who admitted being Social­ists” in 1901 and that “our meetings were generally at­tended by from six to ten members …. ” Although such estimates may be too low, clearly the movement was nu­merically weak in the early years of the twentieth century. Yet, the Socialists were able to gamer a vote at elections many times their paid membership.

In 1903, Reading Socialists altered the basis of their organization, shifting from a simple city-wide structure called the Local, to one that included ward units as well. Earlier, the party’s strength had centered in the Thirteenth Ward where a Socialist had been elected a precinct inspec­tor of elections as early as 1898. As time progressed, party members felt they could organize branches or clubs in the various wards throughout the city. Late in 1903 the Women’s Socialist Educational League was established. Clearly an auxiliary group, the League would become an important institution. Socialists supported women’s suf­frage in the state, but women usually had a limited part to play within the movement at this time.

Increased party activity and membership led to the assumption of greater financial responsibilities for the local membership. Initially, the comrades met “in each other’s homes,” but as James Maurer relates, eventually the party began to rent rooms for their meetings. In 1904, for ex­ample, it had “its headquarters in a little room on Penn Street. …” Later that same year, the local movement bought a run-down factory building in the downtown area and converted it into the “Labor Lyceum.” Considering the financial resources of the group, it was a risky venture which required over a decade for the party to pay off the mortgage. When purchased, the building was in a bad state of repair, but after five months of extensive remodeling and renovation undertaken by the membership, the Labor Lyceum was ready for its new tenants.

This structure would play a major part in the subsequent history of Reading socialism and was frequently “used by lodges, unions and other organizations.” Newspaper ac­counts of the 1911-12 era indicate that the Labor Lyceum was a hub of activity. Here could be found the party organ­izer, the state executive committee, a library, a pool hall and a lecture hall, where talks “on scientific, philosophical and other subjects” were given. The building also housed a small cooperative cigar factory on the first floor, which was first organized in the late 1890s and later incorporated in 1905. Although it remained a small operation, its profits from the sale of the “Karl Marx,” “Bouquet” and “Co-op” cigars went toward party expenses.

The first real electoral opportunity for the local party appeared in 1910. That year the city would elect two state legislators and vote for a congressman, governor and lieu­tenant governor. During the spring, the Milwaukee Social­ists had captured their city hall for the first time and the breakthrough received widespread publicity. The Reading Eagle ran an article on the new Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, as he was a native of nearby Schuylkill County, and the local Socialists now sometimes cited their Milwaukee comrades’ success in their public remarks.

While this victory encouraged the Reading party to be­lieve that it too could best the old parties, the Milwaukee movement may have made another contribution to the local cause. There, the party had developed a very effective literature distribution team (called the “bundle brigade”), which quickly delivered political propaganda to virtually every house in the city. Some observers felt that this distri­bution arrangement had played a major role in Milwaukee campaigns and was of real significance in the 1910 spring election. Even prior to that success, the Reading party established a similar system. According to a Reading Eagle account:

It was decided to inaugurate a literature campaign. Pamphlets and papers will be distributed semi-monthly until within six weeks of election, when speakers will be sent out. A canvass will be made of all wards to get the names of members of the party and secure volunteers to distribute literature.

The Reading SP distribution team was named the “Flying Squadron” and was a valuable component of the local Socialist political machine for several decades. Getting up early on Sunday mornings, the party’s numerous “Jimmie Higginses” were able to cover the entire city within an hour or two.

Local Socialist chances in 1910 were enhanced when the gubernatorial campaign became a three-way race across the state. The Democratic party split after the nomination of William Grim over William Berry, a popular state treasurer who had earlier uncovered a multi-million dollar scandal in state government. Pro-Berry Democrats defected, estab­lished the “Keystone Party” with Berry as its candidate for governor and organized local Keystone groups across the state which ran candidates for other offices as well. This new third party effort had important repercussions in Read­ing politics, as it further divided the old party vote. Now Democrats and Republicans had to share the vote with yet another contender at the very time the local Socialists were mounting their strongest campaign to date. Berry’s Key­stone insurgency provided the local comrades with a splen­did opportunity.

On November 8, 1910, Reading voters elected James H. Maurer, the Socialists’ most forceful candidate, to the state assembly. “One of the greatest surprises of the election,” asserted the Eagle, “was the victory of James H. Maurer, of the Thirteenth ward …. ” He had attracted 4,120 votes and his running mate finished only 30 I votes behind him. The SP legislative vote had increased markedly over the approx­imately 1,200 votes that the party had drawn in 1908. That the Keystone bolt contributed to the Socialists’ 1910 show­ing is suggested by the fact that each of the Keystone legis­lative nominees attracted more than 2,100 votes.

Other Socialist candidates, although not winning or carrying the city, made a good showing. Maurer’s running mate finished third in the eight-way contest; the SP Con­gressional candidate, while trailing his Democratic oppon­ent, ran ahead of the Republican nominee in the city and actually carried two suburbs; and the SP gubernatorial candidate received over 3,300 votes in Reading. Local party members clearly had something to celebrate. One Eagle headline should have made them particularly happy. It read: “READING REPUBLICANS ARE NOW THE THIRD PARTY.” While this claim was premature, local Socialists had at least temporarily made some substantial inroads. The Republicans continued to control the state, thanks in large part to Berry’s defection, but locally had lost ground to the Socialists. Ironically, what had helped the GOP at the state level, seemingly injured its cause in Reading.

The following year, the local Socialists demonstrated that Maurer’s victory had not been a fluke. They made an impressive showing in the 1911 municipal election, finish­ing second in the mayoralty race while electing five coun­cilmen and thirty-nine ward officials. This time, the SP really gave the old parties a scare. The Eagle characterized the heated contest as “the hardest fought municipal cam­paign ever waged in this city …. ” As the polls closed, local comrades were confident that they had elected the mayor; when the final returns indicated differently, many of them felt that their candidate “was counted out.” While their showing was not “A GLORIOUS VICTORY” as the Socialist weekly newspaper claimed, it certainly was noteworthy. Reading clearly had become one of a growing num­ber of cities in which the SP was a serious political con­tender.

For the first time in their history, Reading Socialists were about to participate in governing their city. The de­centralized makeup of the local governmental structure, wherein each ward elected two councilmen, made it pos­sible for minority voices to be represented. By 1911, the Socialists were strong enough to take advantage of the situation, although they would play only a minor role. Reading’s government continued to be directed by the old parties, but the local SP had made great strides, holding two of the sixteen seats on the Select Council and three of the six teen on the Common Council. After Maurer’s 1910 victory, the local SP attracted more attention not only from old party people but also from the daily press where Socialist nominating caucuses were covered in detail. We learn from the Eagle, for example, that “fully 800 mem­bers of the party participated” in the 1911 caucus. Another asset gained by the local party in this era was the support of a weekly newspaper, the Reading Labor Advocate. James Maurer’s older brother, Charles, purchased it and developed it into a Socialist paper. Later, in 1917, the party would acquire it.

During the 1910-11 period, the Socialists proved to be true contenders in local politics and were optimistic about their prospects for greater political success in the near future. But, in actuality, the Reading movement had al­ready reached its peak in the pre-World War I era.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose candidacy helped upset Socialist hopes in 1912. Roosevelt was very popular in Reading and his strong showing that year contributed to Maurer’s defeat in the legislative race. One of the winners was endorsed by both the Republicans and the Bull Moosers, and the other Bull Mooser received over 1,000 votes more than Maurer. The 1912 election demonstrated that a split in one of the old parties did not necessarily mean an advantage for the SP. Berry’s defection from the Democrats had helped open the way for Maurer’s election in 1910, but Roosevelt’s third party effort played a role in his defeat two years later. Yet the local comrades may have taken some solace from the results of the presidential con­test. Eugene Debs, the SP nominee, had finished third in Reading, ahead of the incumbent, President William Howard Taft. (Debs had attracted 16 percent of the vote to Taft’s 9.5 percent.)

In 1913, the local movement suffered additional set­backs. Two of its city councilmen were expelled from the SP at different times that year for violating party policies. These expulsions received widespread coverage in the daily press and may have helped discredit the local movement. A more important political development in 1913 was the passage of the “Clark Bill.” This measure provided for the commission form of government, elected on a non-partisan basis, for Pennsylvania’s third class cities. (Reading was then the state’s largest city in this category.) The Reading Eagle described the legislation as “providing for a revolu­tionary change in municipal government. … ” Now, the old ward system of representation was replaced by four coun­cilmen elected at large for four year terms. This new politi­cal structure proved a serious obstacle for the Reading SP. It had a fighting chance for some city posts in a three-way contest, but the Clark Act now guaranteed a two-way race for the most important municipal offices. Not until the non-partisan feature of this legislation was repealed after World War I did the SP again seriously challenge old party rule in Reading. (The Socialists best showing in municipal elections in this era was in 1917. That year, their candi­dates for city council had led in the primary, but lost ap­proximately two-to-one in the general election.)

But the Clark Act applied only to municipal government and the Socialists were able to return Maurer to Harrisburg in 1914 and 1916. His presence in the legislature was an important asset to the local party. Much of the legislation that Maurer supported was similar to that introduced by Socialist legislators in other states. He fought for work­men’s compensation; pensions for the aged, blind, orphans and widows; as well as legislation for factory inspections and health measures. In addition, he also introduced some “good government” measures, such as home rule for third class cities and constitutional amendments that would have allowed for initiative, referendum and recall. Later, local Socialists referred to Maurer as “the Father of Work­men’s Compensation, of Old Age Pensions and Mothers’ Pensions.” He served a total of three terms in Harrisburg (1911-12, 1915-16, 1917-18), and then was defeated in a bid for reelection in November of 1918. No other Reading Socialist had held public office more than one term during the Progressive Era and Maurer was the last Socialist to be elected locally until the late 1920s.

By the time the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, the Reading Socialist movement was approx­imately twenty years old and appeared to be a permanent fixture in local politics. Many of its adherents were active in the labor movement. Socialists often assumed leadership posts in local unions and it was not unusual for them to serve as officers in the local central labor body, the Feder­ated Trades Council. At least three different Socialists served as president of this body prior to 1912 and J. Henry Stump, who later would be elected mayor on the SP ticket, served in that capacity from 1915 until 1928. Maurer was a long-time activist (beginning in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s), and he held the presidency of the State Federation of Labor for sixteen years (1912-1928). Not all local Socialists were in the labor movement – some were even small businessmen – but the local movement’s ties with organized labor were a real asset in this predom­inantly working-class city. To their advantage, many Read­ing Socialists appeared to be native-born Pennsylvania Dutch, a real asset due to the fact that Reading’s popula­tion was overwhelmingly native-born and of Germanic and English stock. Though some local Socialists were foreign-born and even of “New Immigrant” backgrounds, names such as Maurer, Leffler and Stump sounded, and were, indigenous to the area, helping to dispel the “for­eign” image that socialism often acquired elsewhere.

The Reading Socialists also were fortunate in their leadership. Men like Maurer and others were often able, hardworking and committed to the goal of socialism. Here, a cadre of capable individuals with previous experience in other social movements came together and were willing to work over the long haul. The rank-and-file also deserve attention, for they were important in their own right. First, it should be noted that some of the leaders later emerged from the ranks of the “Jimmie Higginses,” working their way up from the membership. The numerous tasks that the “Jimmie” and “Jennie Higginses” performed-delivering literature, setting up chairs, baking cakes, persuading individual voters to register and vote for the “right” candi­dates-were absolutely essential, and the Reading Socialist movement was fortunate in that it had a sufficient number of workers to handle such chores. The SP, unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, was a dues-paying membership organization, thus often requiring a stronger degree of commitment. The movement included social and educational activities which helped to sustain that commit­ment; picnics, card parties and Socialist speakers all con­tributed to the sense of camaraderie despite repeated elec­toral defeat.

World War I obviously hurt the local Socialist movement and it was further weakened in the post-war period. Mem­bership declined greatly and new and younger members were not recruited. Stump later said that ” the [local] movement was pretty well shot” by 1927. But a committed nucleus of middle-aged (and older) Socialists stuck it out. When the Democrats gave them an opening by mishandling a property assessment, the Reading comrades took full ad­vantage of the situation as they had in 1910 when Berry’s bolt helped them elect Maurer. This time, however, in 1928, the Socialists took over city hall. The most important era in local Socialist history was about to begin.


William C. Pratt, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has long been interested in Reading socialism. Most recently, he has contributed a chapter entitled “Women Socialists and Their Male Com­rades: The Reading Experience, 1927-1936” to Flawed Liberation: Socialism and Feminism edited by Sally M. Miller, and presented a paper on the Reading Socialist movement at the Internationale Tagung der Arbeiter Bewegung (ITH) conference in Linz, Austria.