Like all great mysteries, it started with an unexpected clue. In this case, a photograph that caught the eye of Joe D’Agostino, Historic Interpreter at Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, NY.
It was a March 3, 1935 Acme News Service photograph showing workers picketing outside the 5th Avenue, Manhattan mansion formerly owned by Ruth Livingston Mills (1855-1920) and her husband Ogden Mills (1856-1929), who had also owned the Staatsburgh Mansion.
Designed by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt and built between 1885 and 1887, 2 East 69th Street sat on the corner of 5th Avenue and 69th Street – an area known as Millionaire’s Row in New York City‘s fashionable Upper East Side.
Number 2 East 69th Street was called “one of the best adapted houses for entertaining in the city” by the New York Times. It was the site of Ruth Livingston Mills’ lavish galas and formal banquets during the winter social season in Manhattan.
The living room was designed “in French walnut and after designs of the renaissance” according to the Pittsburgh Dispatch while the second floor ballroom was richly decorated in gold and white overlooking Central Park to the west. It was noted by the local Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier that one of Mrs. Mills’ balls hosted 250 guests (plus a full Hungarian band) and was described as “the smartest private affair of the season.”
When Ruth and Ogden Mills passed away in the 1920s, the Manhattan mansion went to their son, Ogden Livingston “O.L” Mills.
Ogden L. Mills had recently left a decades-long career in public service. Fresh from military service during the First World War, O.L. was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1920, representing a large portion of the Hudson Valley.
In 1927, he was selected as the U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury, a position that lasted through both Calvin Coolidge’s and Herbert Hoover’s administrations. For the final year of Hoover’s term, Mills was elevated to Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.With the incoming administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, Mills retired from public service yet remained politically and socially active.
In 1935, he published What of Tomorrow?, a collection of his speeches delivered in 1934 attacking the New Deal and other Roosevelt programs designed to ease the sufferings of the Great Depression (1929–1939).
(A New York Times review said What of Tomorrow? was “a fine presentation of right-wing doctrines, and as such will serve as a valuable counter-check against ill-considered advances toward the opposite extreme.”)
Mills was an active member of clubs in New York befitting his social and political status. He was also active on the boards of companies varied as the Virginia & Truckee Railroad and the Shredded Wheat Company. In 1935, he was a director and stockholder of the National Biscuit Company, Nabisco, the same folks behind Oreo, Animal Crackers and Fig Newtons.
At the turn of the 20th century, Nabisco was the largest bakery in the world. Founders Adolphus Green and William Moore oversaw the merger of over 100 bakeries across the United States to create the National Biscuit Company in 1898. (Learn about their New York roots here).
When their headquarters moved to New York City in 1906, Nabisco employed 6,000 workers. Their operation – located in the modern-day Chelsea Market – was so massive (covering one city block) that deliveries of flour and sugar came on their own special train platform right into the factory.
Workers felt they were not seeing their fair share of the profits. Time magazine reported the issue of “equal pay for equal work” led to a walk out of Nabisco bakers in Philadelphia in January, 1935. Soon, Nabisco bakers and truck drivers from Manhattan to Atlanta walked out. In response, the company began locking them out and replacing them with scabs.
The 1935 Nabisco strike brings us back to the mystery photograph. After some further research in newspaper archives, articles around the country started to pop up about striking bakers picketing Ogden L. Mills’ mansion in 1935.
“Shouting ‘Ogden Mills locked us out,” a group of about 100 bakery employees demonstrated today before the large red brick mansion of the former Secretary of the treasury” a brief Reading [PA] Times article reported. “The demonstrators, members of the Inside Bakery Workers’ Federal Labor Union, , charge they were discharged from the National Biscuit company last January 12.”
A dozen NYC policemen were on the scene – most of them just out of sight of the press camera.
Nearly two weeks later, Time magazine reported on the meeting between Mills and labor-leader William Aloysius Galvin. As the founder of the Bakery Workers Local No. 19585, the “stocky, blue-eyed” 27-year-old Galvin asked Mills and other leaders to “consider the loss of business and good will the strike was causing.”
Nabisco wouldn’t listen and Time concluded that “both sides are accusing each other of thuggery, intimidation and general foul play.”
In April, after a 95-day strike, a settlement was reached. Before the month was over however, Galvin announced plans to “re-strike” in protest of contract violations by National Biscuit. Galvin argued the company was “discriminating against its employees for their union activities” and “using coercive tactics against the said employees in an attempt to destroy the… Labor Union.”
Ultimately, the strike failed. Kevin Bruce, labor writer and author of “We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years: New York City Food Worker Organizing, 1912-1937,” argues that Galvin’s “top-down, undemocratic organizational structure” ultimately failed the workers.
While the Bakery Workers Union no longer exists, today the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) carries on he labor struggle. The BCTGM and Nabisco were at odds again in 2021. After concerns about outsourcing and changes to the employees’ schedules and healthcare plans, workers in a Portland, Oregon Nabisco plant walked out on August 10, 2021. Soon, every Nabisco operation was affected by the strike.
In a reversal of 1935, the 2021 BCTGM strike worked, and employees were guaranteed annual pay raises, increased 401(k) contributions and a $5,000 bonus.
Following Ogden L. Mills’ death, the contents of the mansion were auctioned off in 1938 and the building was soon demolished. Modern apartment buildings stand at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 69th Street today.
The photo is now in the safe-keeping of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, a reminder of the struggle for equal protection and equal pay that has been hard-fought for generations.
Illustrations, from above: Bakery workers picketing the Mills’ mansion in Manhattan in 1935; the Mills mansion at 2 East 69th Street and 5th Avenue (Millionaire’s Row); Ogden Livingston Mills on the cover of Time magazine of October 6, 1926; logo of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM); and 2 East 69th Street and Fifth Avenue (5th Avenue) today.
Zachary Veith is Historic Site Assistant at Staatsburgh State Historic Site. A version of this essay was first published in the Staatsburgh State Historic Site blog. You can learn more about Staatsburgh here.