Immigrants needed work, large numbers entered the garment industryIn America the immigrant clothing workers landed in New York and crowded into the slums, mostly on the East side, though eventually they were instrumental in establishing the great garment-making centre of Seventh Avenue. …As they were poor and their draft was wholly unorganized, the immigrants were open to exploitation by those for whom they worked and ruthless exploitation was still prevalent…in the early years of [the twentieth] century an 84-hour week for an average wage of between six and ten dollars a week was a commonplace…
…The long tradition of craftsmanship in clothing led to a clinging to the small workshop or the out-worker system which made united protest difficult. The seasonal nature of fashion and the vagaries in demand for this or that type of garment made it difficult for stability to be achieved even in factory production, especially where women’s clothes were concerned. …It was the spirit of the times to pay the worker as little as possible.
History of 20th Century Fashion, Elizabeth Ewing, revised by Alice Mackrell, ISBN 0 7134 8932 4, Pg 52-53
Finding work became the primary goal for most newly arrived immigrants, but what kind of work did America offer? The right job made the difference between subsistence and disaster for immigrants perched on the edge of economic survival. Some found work as unskilled laborers. Others sold goods from pushcarts or storefronts. Large numbers entered the garment industry, slaving away for the Jewish owners who dominated the business. A few of the most educated and well trained entered the professions, while rabbis and Jewish scholars struggled to eke out a living.
Jacob Goldberg Factory, Baltimore, ca. 1910 The Jewish Museum of Maryland
Long hours of work, minimum pay
The Task System
Nineteenth-century social reformers despised the garment industry’s piecework system, in which owners paid workers by the piece rather than by the hour. Piecework promoted speed and competition, but owners typically lowered their payments as workers became more efficient. This forced workers to sew faster or work longer in order to maintain steady wages. While grueling, the piecework system did permit workers to choose their own hours and provided women with the opportunity to work at home while caring for their children. Reformers, however, argued that piecework isolated workers and prevented them from unionizing. Despite repeated protests, it remained prevalent until the early 1900s. National Museum of American Jewish History
The boss of the shop lived there with his entire family. The sewing machines for the operators were near the windows of the front room. The basters would sit on stools near the walls, and in the center of the room, amid the dirt and dust were heaped great piles of materials.
Bernard Weinstein, United Hebrew Trades National Museum of American Jewish History
Garment factories and sweatshops bustled with activity in immigrant Jewish neighborhoods. Workers, including significant numbers of women, stitched furiously until their fingers bled to satisfy America’s rapidly growing ready-to-wear clothing market. Despite its long hours, poor wages, and miserable working conditions, garment work nevertheless provided jobs, camaraderie, and access to American fashions. Max Levy & Co. factory, New York, National Museum of American Jewish History
The most famous of the “sweatshop poets,” Rosenfeld composed powerful and heart-wrenching poems in Yiddish about the difficulties of working in the garment trades. Morris Rosenfeld, VIVO Institute for Jewish Research, National Museum of American Jewish History
The International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union is established
In 1900, delegates representing East Coast workers voted to establish the international Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. The ILGWU, under Jewish leadership and with a largely female Jewish constituency, developed into a powerful voice for American laborers in negotiating higher wages, benefits, and safer working conditions.
Handbook, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, New York, 1903
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, National Museum of American Jewish History
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
NEAR CLOSING TIME ON MARCH 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were dead as a result
of the fire. https://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/
Firefighters’ ladders and water hoses could not reach high enough to effectively battle the blaze, which began on the factory’s eighth floor. Trampolines and blankets used to catch victims jumping from the factory’s windows collapsed when too many women leapt simultaneously.
New York Historical Society
The funeral for seven unidentified victims of the Triangle shirtwaist fire served as the backdrop for a march sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that drew a crowd of several hundred thousand mourners and onlookers.
International Ladies Garment Workers Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University, National Museum of American Jewish History
The Forgotten Textile Mill Fire in Philadelphia
There’s the long forgotten fire at the North Philadelphia textile mill without fire escapes, where working teenage girls jumped to their deaths. “Our changing understanding of the city’s past”, by Kenneth Finkel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, August 12, 2018, page C4.
Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1916
In 1914 Bessie Abramowitz (Hillman), pictured here, organized a breakaway group from the United Garment Workers as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Hillman became the first woman appointed ot the union’s executive board. Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University, National Museum of American Jewish History
Fashion manufacturing moves off-shore
E. F. Schumacher, in his book, Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered, © 1973, predicted, …there is an unsurmountable bias in favour of large-scale projects on the level of the most modern technology. …far more serious is the dependence created when a poor country falls for the production and consumption patterns of the rich. Small is Beautiful, pages 203, 206.
History repeats itself. Unfortunately what Mr. Schumacher predicted has come true. Clothing manufacturing has moved off shore where poor wages and conditions continue. Unfortunately the fashion/ textile industry is now the second largest industrial polluter on the planet. Only the oil industry pollutes the planet more.
Learn more at:
106: The development of modern manufacturing methods.
102: Sustainable Fashion – Small is Beautiful
109: Home Sewing Instructions – why they lag behind industrial methods
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© Laurel Hoffmann, 2019.