Pauline Newman unpublished memoir
Excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir, in which she describes the monotony and hardships of garment work.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?’”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Pauline Newman unpublished memoir." (Viewed on March 20, 2023) <https://jwa.org/node/25232>.