One of the great joys of doing public history in the digital age is making connections that might never have been possible without online publishing and social media. A few weeks back, we ran a post on Women at the Center titled “Look for the Union Label: A History of the ILGWU’s Iconic Jingle” in conjunction with our exhibition Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism. The show explores women’s work and organizing in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). It features a video of the union’s classic advertisements from the 1970s, in which singing garment workers implore viewers to “look for the union label, when you are buying that coat, dress, or blouse.” As I wrote in the post, we included the advertisement because it features a working member of the union speaking directly to the viewer, and because the song resonates powerfully with people who remember seeing the ads on television. When we featured the ad on the blog, and shared it on our social media accounts on May Day, we knew it would catch people’s eyes. What we didn’t expect was that we would hear from the family of the worker herself.
Nancy Barker replied immediately when she saw the “union label” campaign featured on our Instagram account. “My mother, Lillian Armour, was the original Union Label woman who appeared on the first commercial in 1975 and whose photo graced full page ads around the country. Those ads are framed and are proudly hung in both my homes!!!” Nancy wrote. As the curator of the show, I had to know more, so I sent a direct message to Nancy, in the hope of hearing more about her mother’s experience as a garment worker and as one of the faces of the iconic campaign. Nancy replied and generously shared stories about her mother: her family, her work, and her starring role.
A Child of Immigrant Workers
Lillian Armour was born in 1928 in Waterbury, CT, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her father had come through Ellis Island at 15, making his way north to Waterbury to work in the brass and copper factories there. Her mother, Carmela Adamo Galasso, emigrated from Italy at an even younger age, arriving in Philadelphia at 13 to help an older sister who was expecting a child. She, too, eventually made her way to Waterbury, where she found work at Dibner’s Dress Shop and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Her granddaughter remembered that friends and family called Carmela “the zipper lady,” a nod to her technical prowess with zippers in the dress shop.
Lillian, as her daughter recalls, was “an artist all her life,” someone who could draw, paint, and design clothing as well as sew it. She excelled at her technical high school in Waterbury and dreamed of attending the Parsons School of Design in New York City, but her father didn’t see the value in it, and said no. In 1946, after graduating from high school, Lillian followed her mother into the garment industry. She worked in garment shops in Waterbury until her daughter was born in 1961, and then went back to work again in 1971, staying on until the early 1990s.
As Nancy Barker remembers, some of her parents’ best friends were fellow workers, and they vacationed together at Unity House, the ILGWU’s summertime resort for members in the Poconos. Founded by New York City Locals 22 and 25 in 1919, Unity House was one of many pioneering benefits that the ILGWU offered workers as part of its commitment to social unionism, including health care, educational programming, and recreational opportunities. The resort caught the eye of LIFE magazine in 1938, and photographer Hansel Mieth’s cover story about it, “Garment Workers at Play,” is featured in both Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism and our upcoming exhibit, LIFE: Six Women Photographers.
As Nancy Barker told me, her parents worked “really hard.” Her mother would come home from a full day’s work in the garment shops and “sew all night,” designing and making clothes for her family. She had a steady, unionized job, but the factory was still “hot as Hades in the summer,” and cold in the winter, something Lillian and her fellow workers pushed their local union to address. “I never made a lot of money,” Nancy recalls her mother saying. Still, “she thought it was a good career, honest work.”
An Open Call for Working Mothers
In the spring of 1975, Lillian Armour heard that her union was holding open auditions for a new publicity campaign in New York City. They were looking specifically for working mothers and retirees who could sing. Lillian had sung with the Sweet Adelines, so she and a retired friend who was also “very theatrical” made the trip. For the two women, it was mostly fun, “girls out on the town in New York City for a couple of days,” as Barker put it. Lillian returned home and didn’t think much more of it until she got a call a couple of months later offering her the part. She went down to New York City again to film the advertisements that summer.
The ILGWU’s new “union label” ads first aired on television in September of 1975, during an episode of The Jackie Gleason Show. Armour’s whole family gathered around the television to watch, and when the ad appeared, Lillian—a very humble person by nature—just said “I’m actually on TV.” Her co-workers threw her a party at work, and Lillian particularly enjoyed it when Saturday Night Live, of which she was an ardent fan, spoofed the spot in a skit about the “American Dope Growers Union.” Nancy Barker, who was in eighth grade at the time, told her, “Mother, you’re part of pop culture now.” Lillian’s image also appeared in print in newspapers and magazines around the country. The ads represented a new strategy for the ILGWU, putting the voices and faces of workers front and center. As Nancy recalls, it was exciting for her mother and her fellow workers to see one of their own “out from behind the scenes.”
“That’s My Mother Over My Shoulder”
Appearing in the ILGWU’s advertisements did not make Lillian Armour rich or famous, though she used to tell her daughter that she could collect residuals as a member of the Screen Actors Guild for her appearance. Lillian continued to work in Waterbury, and she continued making clothing for her children. When Nancy got married in 1990, her mother helped design and sew the dress and jacket she wore.
Framed copies of the print advertisements hung in Lillian’s home until she passed in 2015, and Nancy keeps them in her home today. While she does not work in the garment industry, Nancy still sews and crochets for her family. “She’s with me when I make things for my grandchildren,” Nancy says of her mother. “I do that, and I think, ‘That’s my mother over my shoulder.'”
— Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History. Many thanks to Nancy Barker for sharing these stories and images of her mother.
Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism is on view on the 4th floor of New-York Historical Society through July 21, 2019.
Top image credit: Quilted apron featuring ILGWU “union label” patches, designed and sewn by Lillian Armour. Photo courtesy of Nancy Barker.