Sewn in Coal Country, edited by Robert P. Wolensky

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Sewn in Coal Country
An Oral History of the Ladies’ Garment Industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1945-1995
edited by Robert P. Wolensky
Pennsylvania State University Press, 416 pp., hardcover $99.95, paperback $39.95

This edited collection of oral histories provides an important ground-level perspective on the story of the ladies’ garment industry in northeastern Pennsylvania and the role played by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in that region. It builds on a previous book, Fighting for the Union Label: The Women’s Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania (2002), which Robert Wolensky coauthored with Kenneth Wolensky and Nicole Wolensky. Fighting for the Union Label drew on oral histories that Robert Wolensky had begun collecting in the early 1980s as he researched the Wilkes-Barre region’s long-term response to Hurricane Agnes. He found that the core group of community activists in the response to the flood had ties to earlier ILGWU organizing efforts and so began conducting interviews with a range of people involved in that history. Fighting for the Union Label combined those interviews with more traditional archival sources to provide an account focused on the union as an institution and its struggles against organized crime in the 1940s and 1950s. Wolensky uses this new edited collection to shift the focus away from the union as an institution and to highlight the roles of individuals in this story. The book’s 15 oral histories include a full array of participants in the industry and the union, including women sewing machine operators, union organizers and union officials, as well as a couple of garment manufacturers who eventually succumbed to the union’s efforts. Readers without a strong background on this subject will be aided by Wolensky’s well-written introduction, which offers an overview of the industry and the ILGWU in this region. The book concludes with a thoughtful reflection on how these oral histories connect to larger historiographic debates about labor and gender history in this era.

David Scott Witwer
Penn State Harrisburg