Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
South Brooklyn isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of perq-filled employment in the early parts of the last century. If you happened to be working for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company, however, it would be a whole different story. Beyond the regular, often brutal work at the shipyard there would have been a constant whir of activities: dancing, games of tug of war, concerts, and team sports to name just a few. The four albums in the City Museum’s collection from the Morse Dry Dock’s Employee Association paint a (probably highly idealized) picture of what it was like to be an employee of one of the largest ship repair/dry docks in the country at that time.
Founded in the 1880’s by Edward P. Morse, the company soon became known as the leader in steamship construction and the go-to company for maintaining the luxurious yachts of the fabulously wealthy. It also was the largest floating dry dock in the world in the World War I era (a dry dock raises the hulls of boats above water so they can be repaired, as seen below).Located in what is now considered Sunset Park, but then was considered Bay Ridge, the shipyard was between 55th and 57th Streets from First Avenue to the water. The complex had nearly 4,000 employees, ranging from welders to office clerks, who kept the whole shipyard sailing smoothly along.
The Morse Dry Dock was a pioneer in company culture and offered progressive benefits to their employees, including health insurance (good perq in a place where fingers routinely got separated from hands), paid sick time, and night classes so employees could improve their job skills.
The Employee Association was the main instigator for all these benefits. Comprised of annually elected employees, its aim was to make the shipyard the best possible place to work. The Employee Association formed committees devoted to everything from putting on regular concerts and other entertainments to the Conference Board, which dealt with solving employee complaints. The elections for positions within the Employee Association were shipyard-wide, hotly contested, and included fiery rhetoric and even parades.(And just in case you were wondering, Smith sadly did not win a place on the Employee Association.) On another progressive note, women were allowed to vote in these elections, a whole year before the 19th Amendment was ratified. But the most loved, or at least most documented, aspect of the Employee Association was sports. Above is the semi-pro, championship-winning soccer team, the Brooklyn Morse Dry Dock. Members of the dry dock staff f0rmed a baseball team, multiple bowling teams, and participated in really just about every team sport out there. The photographs reveal the company’s deep investment in these teams: in 1919 the baseball team hired Bill Dahlen, a well-known baseball player for the Brooklyn Superbas (a precursor to the Dodgers), as the manager. He can be seen at the far left of the group shot of the 1919 baseball team. By far the most amusing sport represented in these albums are the tug o’ war competitions staged between departments. (If anyone could tell me why they’re sitting on wooden boards, I’ll be eternally grateful.) The Morse Dry Dock employees also enjoyed boating excursions. And women-only noontime dancing. However, it wasn’t all fun and games. Morse Dry Dock played an important part in World War I. They were the head contractor for the Navy and were considered a temporary government site; a company of soldiers was stationed there to protect the shipyard from any possible attack. Thankfully none came. But like most interesting tales, there was a subplot–all of these benefits and perqs were part of a fight against the postwar influence of organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and other unions. The Morse Dry Dock was highly successful at this: in a 1919 walk-out only 600 men, about 15% of the workforce, left, the lowest percentage of any other local shipbuilding company. This loyalty to the company wouldn’t have happened without the Morse Dry Dock Dial, a publication the New York Times called one of the best “internal house organ” publications and one that helped curb the flow of “Bolshevist propaganda.”
As a companion to the photo albums held in the City Museum’s collection, the Morse Dry Dock Dial (digitized issues are found at the Hagley Digital Archives here) is an interesting, and actually quite amusing, look inside the company. Headed by Bert E. Barnes, formerly of the New York Sun, with other reporters from papers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Philadelphia Record, and covers occasionally drawn by Edward Hopper, the monthly newspaper furthered the idea that the Dry Dock community was a family. As Barnes wrote in the January 1919 issue, “If any reader has taken a vacation, married, returned an umbrella, paid back a borrowed dollar, bought a horse, automobile or baby carriage, planted a war garden, built a chicken house, robbed a baby’s bank, made a speech, been reduced, promoted, received a raise, won anything, done anything, been in a fight, we’re glad of it, because that’s news.” And the paper followed that edict literally–the detailed gossip raised the collective eyebrows of the Museum’s entire digital team even in this age of online over-sharing. Celebrations of shipyard goals and sports victories, shared baby pictures, and a small but obvious thread of propaganda run throughout the publication’s pages.World War I was the highpoint for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. It went out of business in 1963 after merging with other shipyards and changing its name a few times. While Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company itself may be slowly fading into distant memory, the company culture they championed has taken on new life in this century in companies like Google and Pixar.