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Working Conditions

Excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir, in which she describes the monotony and hardships of garment work.

… The job I found next was to sew buttons on shirtwaists. The shop was located in an old walk-up building on Jackson Street, near the East River and facing what was then called Jackson Street park. From where I sat I could see children playing there, hear them singing “all around the mulberry bush.” As I mentioned before, it was summer and the air in the shop [was] stuffy and hot. Often I longed to join the youngsters in the park and to breathe the cool fresh air. After all, I was not much older than they were! At the end of my first day’s work I was handed a slip of paper showing that I had earned thirty-five cents! I considered myself rich!...

One day a relative of mine who was employed by the now infamous Triangle Shirt Waist co., the largest manufacturers of shirt waists in New York City, got me a job with that firm. The day I left the Jackson Street shop the foreman told me that I was very lucky to have gotten a job with that concern because there is work all year.

As I said before, the job was not strenuous. It was tedious. Since our day began early we were often hungry for sleep. I remember a song we used to sing which began with “I would rather sleep than eat.” This song was very popular at that time. But there were conditions of work which in our ignorance we so patiently tolerated such as the deductions from our meager wages if and when you were five minutes late – so often due to transportation delays; there was the constant watching you, lest you pause for a moment from your work; (rubber heels had just come into use and you rarely heard the foreman or the employer sneak up behind you, watching.) You were watched when you went to the lavatory and if in the opinion of the forelady you stayed a minute or two longer than she thought you should have you were threatened with being fired; there was the searching of your purse or any package you happen to have lest you may have taken a bit of lace or thread. The deductions for being late was stricktly [sic] enforced because deductions even for a few minutes from several hundred people must have meant quite a sum of money. And since it was money the Triangle Waist Co. employers were after this was an easy way to get it. That these deductions meant less food for the worker’s children bothered the employers not at all. If they had a conscience it apparently did not function in that direction. As I look back to those years of actual slavery I am quite certain that the conditions under which we worked and which existed in the factory of the Triangle Waist Co. were the acme of exploitation perpetrated by humans upon defenceless [sic] men, women and children – a sort of punishment for being poor and docile…

Despite these inhuman working conditions the workers – including myself – continued to work for this firm. What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era? There were other reasons why we did not change jobs – call them psychological, if you will. One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established. These, among other factors made us stay put, as it were…

When I got home I sat down and wrote:

“In despair I ask – ‘dear God will it ever be different?’ And on my way home from work I see again those lonely men and women with hopeless faces, tired eyes; harassed by want and worry – I again ask ‘will it ever be different?’”

Details
Pauline Newman, Pauline Newman papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe. Box 1, folder 3, pp. 14-17, 20-21.

Letter from "A Shopgirl"

Dear Editor,

I am one of those unfortunate girls thrown by fate into a dark and dismal shop, and I need your counsel.

Along with my parents, sisters and brothers, I came from Russian Poland where I had been well educated. But because of the terrible things going on in Russia we were forced to emigrate to America. I am now seventeen years old, but I look younger and they say I am attractive.

A relative talked us into moving to Vineland, New Jersey, and here in this small town I went to work in a shop. In this shop there is a foreman who is an exploiter, and he sets prices on the work. He figures it out so that the wages are very low, he insults and reviles the workers, he fires them and then takes them back. And worse than all of this, in spite of the fact that he has a wife and several children, he often allows himself to “have fun” with some of the working girls. It was my bad luck to be one of the girls that he tried to make advances to. And woe to any girl who doesn’t willingly accept them.

Though my few hard-earned dollars mean a lot to my family of eight souls, I didn’t want to accept the foreman’s vulgar advances. He started to pick on me, said my work was no good, and when I proved to him he was wrong, he started to shout at me in the vilest language. He insulted me in Yiddish and then in English, so the American workers could understand too. Then, as if the Devil were after me, I ran home.

I am left without a job. Can you imagine my circumstances and that of my parents who depend on my earnings? The girls in the shop were very upset over the foreman’s vulgarity but they don’t want him to throw them out, so they are afraid to be witnesses against him. What can be done about this? I beg you to answer me.

Respectfully,

A Shopgirl

ANSWER:

Such a scoundrel should be taught a lesson that could be an example to others. The girl is advised to bring out into the open the whole story about the foreman, because there in the small town it shouldn’t be difficult to have him thrown out of the shop and for her to get her job back.

Details
From A Bintel Brief: Letters to the Jewish Daily Forward by Isaac Metzker, translated by Isaac Metzker, copyright 1971 by Isaac Metzker. Foreword and notes copyright 1971 by Doubleday, a division of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Publishing Group, Inc. p. 72.

The Factory Girl's Danger

On Friday evening, March 24, two young sisters walked down the stairways from the ninth floor where they were employed and joined the horde of workers that nightly surges homeward into New York's East Side. Since eight o'clock they had been bending over shirt-waists of silk and lace, tensely guiding the valuable fabrics through their swift machines, with hundreds of power driven machines whirring madly about them; and now the two were very weary, and were filled with that despondency which comes after a day of exhausting routine, when the next day, and the next week, and the next year, hold promise of nothing better than just this same monotonous strain.

They were moodily silent when they sat down to supper in the three-room tenement apartment where they boarded. At last their landlady (who told me of that evening's talk, indelibly stamped upon her mind) inquired if they were feeling unwell.

"Oh, I wish we could quit the shop!" burst out Becky, the younger sister, aged eighteen. "That place is going to kill us some day."

It's worse than it was before the strike, a year ago," bitterly said Gussie, the older. "The boss squeezes us at every point, and drives us to the limit. He carries us up in elevators of mornings, so we won't lose a second in getting started; but at night, when we're tired and the boss has got all out of us he wants for the day, he makes us walk down. At eight o'clock he shuts the doors, so that if you come even a minute late you can't get in till noon, and so lose half a day; he does that to make sure that every person gets there on time or ahead of time. He fines us for every little thing; he always holds back a week's wages to be sure that he can be able to collect for damages he says we do, and to keep us from leaving; and every evening he searches our pocketbooks and bags to see that we don't carry any goods or trimmings away. Oh, you would think you are in Russia again!"

That's all true; but what worries me more is a fire," said Becky, with a shiver. "Since that factory in Newark where so many girls where burnt up there's not a day when I don't wonder what would happen if a fire started in our shop."

"But you could get out, couldn't you?" asked the landlady.

"Some of us might," grimly said Gussie, who had been through last year's strike, and still felt the bitterness of that long struggle. "What chance would we have? Between me and the doors there are solid rows on rows of machines. Think of all of us hundreds of girls trying to get across those machines to the doors. You see what chance we have!"

"Girls, you must leave that place!" cried the landlady. "You must find new jobs!"

"How am I going to find a new job?" demanded Gussie. "If I take a day off to hunt a job, the boss will fire me. I might be out of work for weeks, and I can't afford that. Besides, if I found a new job, it wouldn't be any better. All the bosses drive you the same way, and our shop is as safe as any, and safer than some. No, we've got to keep on working, no matter what the danger. It's work or starve. That's all there is to it."

The next morning the two sisters joined their six hundred fellow-workers at the close-packed, swift machines. All day they bent over endless shirt-waists. Evening came; a few more minutes and they would have been dismissed, when there was a sudden frantic cry of "Fire!" - and what happened next all the country knows, for it was in the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory that Becky and Gussie Kappelman worked. The fire flashed through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the great building like a train of powder; girls were driven to leap wildly, their clothes afire, from the lofty windows; and in a few brief moments after the first cry one hundred and forty-three workers, the vast majority young girls, were charred bodies heaped up behind doors they had vainly tried to beat down, or were unrecognizable pulp upon the street far below.

And as for Gussie and Becky, who had gone to work that fatal day knowing their danger, as all the workers knew it, but helpless in their necessity what of them? Gussie was one of those who met a horrible death. Becky, in some way unknown to herself, was carried down an elevator, and to-day lies in a hospital, an arm and a leg broken and her head badly bruised. Frequently the young girl calls for her older sister, but her condition is too precarious for her to stand the shock of the awful truth, and the nurses have told her that Gussie is injured in another hospital. And so Becky lies in the white cot waiting until her wounds and Gussie's shall have healed and they can again be together.

Details
Miriam Finn Scott, “The Factory Girl's Danger,” The Outlook, April 15, 1911, p. 817.

Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission

Our system of industrial production has taken gigantic strides in the progressive utilization of natural resources and the exploitation of the inventive genius of the human mind, but has at the same time shown a terrible waste of human resources, of human health and life.

It is because of this neglect of the human factor that we have found so many preventable defects in industrial establishments, such a large number of workshops with inadequate light and illumination, with no provision for ventilation, without proper care for cleanliness, and without ordinary indispensable comforts such as washing facilities, water supply, toilet accommodations, dressing-rooms, etc. It is because of utter neglect on the part of many employers that so many dangerous elements are found in certain trades. These elements are not always necessary for the successful pursuit of the trade, and their elimination would mean a great improvement in the health of the workers, and would stop much of the misery caused by the occupational diseases incident to certain industries.

Details
Excerpt from the New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 1:128-130.

Discussion Questions

  1. What working conditions do the speakers/writers of these documents describe as being unjust? What conditions do you think were unjust but the speakers/writers don’t describe as such?
  2. What reasons do the speakers/writers give for putting up with the conditions about which they complain?
  3. How do the working conditions they describe make the speakers/writers feel about themselves and about their lives?
  4. How did the injustice they experience lead to change in working conditions?

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Working Conditions." (Viewed on September 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/node/15082/lightbox2>.

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