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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Giving URI's Labor History collection the boot

Scott Molloy’s latest acquisition is boot made by Irish industrialist
By Olivia Ross
Scott Molloy and Mark Dionne
Scott Molloy, left, and Mark Dionne each holding Rhode
Island labor memorabilia. URI photo by Mike Salerno.
Images of Providence at the dawn of public transportation, personal notes exchanged by Rhode Island labor leaders, and information about any number of labor strikes can be found in the Special Collections room at the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons on the University of Rhode Island Kingston campus.

Scott Molloy, URI professor emeritus and Rhode Island labor and Irish history expert, donated most of his own collection, which contains thousands of documents and resources pertaining to Rhode Island’s labor union and public transportation history, to URI.
One of his quests for historic materials was particularly challenging as it related to his book, “Irish Titan; Irish Toilers: Joseph Banigan and Nineteenth Century New England Labor.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Scott has been a friend for decades. He and Cathy went to Rhode Island College during the turbulent 1960s. - Will Collette

Banigan boots
An original pair of Banigan boots that Molloy
purchased online in impeccable
condition. URI photo by Mike Salerno.
“The paper trail left by Banigan was slim. It wasn’t until recently that I stumbled across the find of my life because of a suggestion made by my wife, Marsha,” said Molloy, whose book is among the collection in the URI library.
“Marsha was poking around on EBay and found a pair of Banigan boots made in the 1890s on sale for $99,” explained Molloy. “I stopped collecting and downsized after retiring in 2016, but I made an exception when I realized the rarity of this exquisite pair of footwear, which was in such remarkable condition and adorned with a Banigan trademark. I guess you could say that the Banigan boot has come home.”
Molloy has several other Banigan artifacts in addition to the shoe and will likely put them on display at the Woonsocket Museum of Work and Culture, which he helped decorate with many union items more than a generation ago.
Banigan hired a predominantly immigrant Irish workforce and taught workers rubber boot and shoe manufacturing skills, which transformed them into skilled tradesmen who earned greater salaries. In 1885, about half of his 1,000 employees owned their own homes in Woonsocket, a feat Molloy said was unprecedented at the time.
Beyond information about Banigan, Molloy’s library includes goods made by Rhode Island union workers. “There is a certain thrill in holding a pair of boots manufactured by union members. These are tangible pieces of history, and the craftsmanship is evident,” said Molloy.
According to Molloy, who was the 1995 URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award winner, the materials at URI took long and varied routes to get to Kingston.
The expansive collection started when Molloy purchased a stack of half-century old transit union contracts for just a couple of dollars.
“My search allowed me to learn how to read between the newspaper lines and the company reports,” explained the Exeter resident. 
“Eventually, I advertised nationally for pertinent materials and hundreds of items came my way. The first collection of 10,000 items went to The Smithsonian Institution in 1991. The next hoarding of local ephemera got deposited at URI and out-of-state materials went to auction.”
As a former Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus driver and head of its union, Molloy was fascinated by labor history and began his collection. Soon after starting, he realized that his co-workers were uninformed about the origin of their good wages, benefits and working conditions.
To preserve their history, Molloy began interviewing almost every transit retiree, many of whom were in their eighties and nineties. He scoured union records, company files, frequented the Rhode Island Historical Society Library and visited countless flea markets, antique shows, bookstores and personal contacts for additions to the collection.
Within the vast URI collection, researchers and history buffs can find documents pertaining to several different aspects of Rhode Island history. From tickets to the Narragansett Pier Railroad to newspaper clippings covering a trolley derailment in Providence, the collection captures critical moments and the quirky elements of labor history.
“Like any historical pieces, you can usually see the evolution of all kinds of things by a careful examination of both the good and the bad,” said Molloy.
Olivia Ross, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations major, wrote this press release