Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cut it out! The big scissors of Paterson

Paterson is known as Silk City for good reason: at one point, two-thirds of the nation's silk output came from the city's 175 silk mills, which employed over 20,000 people.

The giant scissors of Paterson have absolutely nothing to do with that. Well, except that they're now displayed in the Passaic County Museum at Lambert Castle, the former home of silk magnate Catholina Lambert. Ivan and I found them not long after we discovered the world's largest spoon collection.

The story goes like this: like many employees, teachers in Paterson's school system wanted to know when the 'big boss' might come by to check on their work. Given that they were assigned to their particular rooms, it wasn't easy for them to communicate when classes were in session. Children would go unsupervised if one teacher went to tell another that the superintendent of schools was in the building, and that certainly wouldn't reflect well on them if the principal (or, God forbid, the superintendent) happened to notice. Thus, they had to find a way of getting the message around quickly. AND they had to do it in a way that didn't sound like "Act busy... the boss is coming!"

The big scissors!
A brilliant teacher came up with the perfect idea. You probably had a teacher or two who'd always be borrowing things from his or her colleagues, using students as the messengers. I can remember being sent to the next classroom to ask the teacher if he had some extra oaktag because Mrs. So-and-so had come up one sheet short for the class project. It happened often enough (more with some teachers than with others) that seeing a kid go from one classroom to the next was unremarkable and wouldn't be questioned.

Of course, you couldn't send a student to the next classroom to tell the teacher that Superintendent Wilson was in the building, but you also didn't want to send her with a request for something the teacher might have had available. The requested item had to be unusual enough to warrant asking a few teachers, but not so odd that it would raise suspicion.

It's apparently not known who came upon them as the perfect request, but the teachers agreed that if one of them saw the superintendent in the building, she'd send a student to the next room for the big scissors. That next teacher would say she didn't have them and send the child on to another teacher in the 'hopes' he'd have them on hand. In this very innocent way, the whole faculty would be alerted, and the principal and students would be none the wiser.

We also don't know if Superintendent John Wilson ever got word of the big, constantly-missing scissors during his visits, but they made a special appearance at his retirement dinner in 1944. Teachers presented him with a large wooden pair of shears and let him in on the secret. He must have been amused by the gag; he kept the prop and later donated it to the Passaic County Historical Society as an example of life in Paterson's school system.


  1. Love this. What a terrific story. Thanks for unearthing it.

  2. Thanks, Daryl. Glad you enjoyed it!


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