Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 12, 2013

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Lockport telegrapher excelled at 'mens' work

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — In an era when women rarely worked outside the home, or only in professions considered to be “feminine,” Mary J. Macaulay proved that some ladies could hold men’s positions and do an exceptional job in the process.

Mary was born in LeRoy, N.Y., on Jan. 27, 1865. When she finished her formal schooling at age 14, she went to work as a telegrapher first for the New York Central Railroad and then for Western Union, moving from LeRoy to Lyons to Syracuse. In 1883, she joined the Brotherhood of Telegraphers and became treasurer of the local Syracuse union. When the Brotherhood struck against Western Union in 1883, Mary joined the picket line. She lost her job with Western Union but was soon hired by the United Press Association (UPA) as a telegrapher at a newspaper in Amsterdam, N.Y. 

After holding telegrapher positions in Rochester — where she also worked as Susan B. Anthony’s personal secretary —Utica, Auburn and Buffalo, in 1902, she returned to UPA and went to work at the Union-Sun in Lockport. 

The City of Lockport had a long history of using telegraphs to send messages. In 1845, only one year after Samuel Morse perfected his code, Lockport and Buffalo were connected by telegraph lines running along Transit Road to Williamsville and then down Main Street to Buffalo. This was the second telegraph line established in the United States (the first being Washington, D.C. to Baltimore). The Lockport telegraph office was on Canal Street.

During her tenure in Lockport, from 1902 to 1927, Mary lived at three different addresses in the city: 175 Chestnut, 66 Pine and 147 Washburn. She was a devout Catholic and would have worshipped at St. John’s or St. Patrick’s. 

While working in Lockport, Mary sent and/or received 15,000 words a day. In 1910, she and other women telegraphers were praised by Walter R. Phillips, general manager of the United Press Association.

“Of the women telegraphers,” he wrote, “I have known but few who had the endurance of men ... .The notable exceptions have been Mary J. Macaulay [and others] ... all in the service of the United Press, and did a man’s work each. I am proud also that they were paid men’s salaries.”

At that time Mary was the Vice President of Local 41, Commercial Telegraphers of America, Buffalo chapter. After another strike against Western Union in 1919, many of the union leaders were jailed or resigned. Mary was then elected vice president of the Commercial Telegraphers of America National Union. Her main concern was the union members who were arrested during the strike. Her first action was to set up a defense fund to assist strikers who had been jailed. 

That same year, Mary wrote a piece for the Commercial Telegraphers’ Journal titled “Labor and Capital.” In it she expounded on the difference between the two opposing sides.

“The real gist of the struggle between labor and capital throughout the world,” she wrote, “is that labor believes that the sole end and aim of capitalism is to exchange minimum mazuma (an old Yiddish slang word for money) for maximum efficiency, while capital nurses the idea that the sole end and aim of labor is to exchange minimum efficiency for maximum mazuma. ...

"There should be a way to handle the matter so that both labor and capital could get along as lovingly as two peas in a pod, but it can’t happen as long as they keep studying ways to put each other out of business.”

Mary J. Macaulay remained working in Lockport until her retirement in 1927, when she returned to her native village of LeRoy. She died there on July 20, 1944, at age 79. Having no heirs, she left her estate to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in LeRoy.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.