THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY
asks you to explore what working was like in a
Lower East Side Sweatshop
The former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York, New York
the Lower East Side of New York City
during the late nineteenth century, clothing was often manufactured in
districts that were filled with tenement houses. In these often
dilapidated buildings, one could find small
sweatshops--one or two rooms where men and women,
both young and old, would be hard at work, sewing, piecing together
parts of garments, in poor conditions, all under the
supervision of at least one taskmaster. These workers were most
slaving behind sewing machines for very long hours and receiving poor wages. Also,
they often worked under degrading conditions that were unsanitary and dangerous
to their health and well-being.
Often times work would be contracted out to different sweatshops; these businesses were often located in the same tenement building where the contractor lived. The workers would not create entire garments, but would receive pieces of a particular garment and assemble them into some sort of approved design and finished product. The contractors would then receive a set price for each completed garment. This gave an incentive to contractors, who wished for greater profits, to produce as many garments as possible. By doing so, this forced their seamstresses and others to work even harder.
The flood of immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island provided an abundance of workers for the sweatshops. Immigrants were plentiful then and jobs weren't, especially during hard economic times such as the Depression that occurred in the mid 1890s. Many immigrants were ignorant and knew little to nothing about American life. What they did learn was that it was often more expensive to live in America than it was back home. They had to provide for themselves and their family the necessities of life. The work for many was seasonal, putting even more pressure on the worker to earn enough of a wage to save enough to get by until the next season of work.
Often, contractors would be able to find workers from their own hometown in Europe to fill these demanding jobs. It also helped the contractor that he or she could speak the same language or dialect as the workers they sought to employ. There weren't a lot of jobs available for those who couldn't speak English. However, most anyone can learn how to sew. And sew they did, many for ten to fifteen hours a day without a break. In the dead of summer, the conditions inside the shop could be sweltering.
As the small sweatshop was often run out of the apartment of the contractor, the business was really family business. The husband supervised; the wife often cooked the food and fed the workers, though the workers were forced to pay for their own meals.
Near the turn of the twentieth century, the first subways opened in New York City. They connected the Lower East Side to the outlying areas as well as those areas uptown. Much of the garment production was then moved to more uptown locations. The business owner now had more room to create larger work spaces, so they began to build factories. Garment production no longer had to be done in parts and assembled elsewhere; all could be done in one location and shipped out from there to the customer or middle man. Of course, some of the small tenement sweatshops remained.
One of these new factories was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the top three floors of the ten story former Asch building located at 19 Washington Place. The speaking of this factory's name brings chills and sadness to many who are familiar with the terrible blaze in March of 1911 that occurred in this building, taking the lives of many men and women. Besides the awful conditions that existed in this factory, the long hours and low wages paid to their employees, those who managed the factory locked the doors to the stairways. This was done supposedly because the managers wanted to prevent theft and also to stop people from leaving work when they weren't supposed to. Having then nowhere to run when the fire began, many workers were forced to jump from the windows and fire escapes, in the vain hope of escaping the smoke and flames. At the end, at least 146 people died in this needless tragedy, most of whom were young Jewish and Italian women.
At the time of this devastating fire, a movement had already began among workers to unionize, as they sought to improve working conditions for all. This tragedy at the factory only spurred greater action on behalf of the worker, compelling many to protest and organize and to work even harder to have factory safety laws strengthened and enforced.
Below is a list of those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Note that a good percentage of the deceased were Jews:
Photograph courtesy of
Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Building (Brown Building)
Photograph by Andrew S. Dolkart.
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