History of Sweatshops: 1880-1940
Women finishing pants, New York City, around 1900Photographer: Jacob Riis. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Emanating from crowded tenements, lofts, and row houses, the whir of sewing machines added to the din of urban life. In many cities, recent immigrants converted small apartments into contract shops that doubled as living quarters.
Fierce competition among contractors for work and immigrants’ desperate need for employment kept wages down and hours up. As miserable as this work was, however, it provided many new arrivals a transition into American society and a more prosperous future for themselves and their families. Some immigrants began working in small shops, eventually owning large clothing firms. Others succumbed to disease, malnutrition, and exhaustion, and never found the path from tenement sweatshop to a better life.
An unscrupulous contractor regards no basement as too dark, no stable loft too foul, no rear shanty too provisional, no tenement room too small for his workroom as these conditions imply low rental.” — Jane Addams, social reformer, 1910
The waves of immigrants who poured into American cities desperately needed work. Like the seamstresses they began to replace, these recent immigrants were often vulnerable to exploitation themselves.
Each garment center had its own character, greatly influenced by the groups that toiled within it. In New York, the Irish dominated from 1850 into the 1880s. After 1865, Swedes and Germans entered the industry, followed in the 1890s by Italians and Russian and Polish Jews. In Chicago, Germans, German Jews, Bohemians, and a few Americans and Poles established that city’s garment center. They were joined in the 1890s by Scandinavians, Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Lithuanians.
Tailors, seamstresses, and apprentices in a sewing workshop, Tarnow, Galicia (in present-day Poland), 1905Courtesy YIVO Archives
Although many garment workers came to the United States with some tailoring experience, most entered the industry unskilled or with only the sewing skills they had learned at home.
Eastern Europeans introduced the task system. Men and women worked as teams of sewing-machine operators, basters, and finishers, often augmented by pressers and helpers. Payment was for completion of a certain number of garments per day. Price cutting often led to the number of garments increasing over time and workdays extending far into the night. It was not uncommon for a team to work 15 to 18 hours a day for six days but be paid for four days’ work.
African Americans entered the industry after World War I, as many migrated from Southern farms to Northern cities. By 1930, approximately 32,000 African Americans were employed in the clothing industries, which had an overall work force of more than 400,000 . As in other fields, they were restricted to the poorer-paying occupations, though a number found work as pressers, one of the better-paid garment crafts.
They say a day has 24 hours. That’s a bluff. A day has 12 coats. . . . I have still two coats to make of the 12 that I got yesterday. So it’s still Monday, with me. My Tuesday won’t begin before about two o’clock this afternoon.”— From A Sweatshop Romance by Abraham Cahan, 1898
A Nation of Immigrants
Early in the 19th century, England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia supplied the majority of immigrants to the United States. By the 1880s, immigrants increasingly came from central and southern Europe. By 1907, immigrants from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary accounted for 75 percent of new arrivals.
From 1880 to 1924, more than 26 million people came to the United States seeking greater freedom and economic opportunity. Most arrived with little money and took whatever jobs they could find. By 1910, the majority of residents in America’s largest cities were foreign-born or children of immigrants. These massive waves of immigrants supplied much of the labor for the nation’s industrial growth.
Well, I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.” — Old Italian story
Contractor: Entrepreneur or Exploiter?
In 1900, a contractor could set up a shop for as little as $50. All it took was a couple of sewing machines, a few tables and chairs, a place to work, and brazen self-confidence. To compete against factories with modern equipment, contractors paid meager wages and located shops where rents were low. With profit margins often razor thin, most shops lasted only a few years.
Mostly recent immigrants themselves, contractors became organizers and employers of their fellow immigrants. Social pressure helped control how they treated their employees, linked as they were by language, religion, and kinship. Some contractors abused their position, squeezing as much profit from their workers as possible. Many others were themselves victims of a viciously competitive market but still shared what they could.
The Contracting System
In the garment industry, manufacturers provided contractors with bundles of cut cloth and paid them to assemble the pieces into clothing. From the 1890s to the late 1930s, about half of all manufactured clothing.was produced by contractors’ shops and home workers.
Contracting gave clothing manufacturers tremendous flexibility to quickly increase or reduce their output as the market required. It also let them constantly search out the cheapest means of production. With manufacturers and contractors all competing against their counterparts, wages stayed depressed and working conditions remained poor.
The committee here from the Clothing Manufacturers’ Association are not in a position to give evidence concerning the so-called ‘sweating system.’ We are manufacturers. We give our work out by contract. If any pernicious system exists, we do not know anything about it.” — Louis Hornthal, president, Clothing Manufacturers’ Association, testimony in front of U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Manufacturers, 1892
Rapid urban growth and few housing codes caused severe overcrowding in many American cities. New York City’s Lower East Side, for example, became one of the most densely populated districts in the world.
Three-room apartments consisting of a living room, kitchen, and bedroom often doubled as tenement shops. A turn-of-the-century shop might house an average of six people and employ anywhere from four to thirty workers. There was no privacy as every room served as living, working, and sleeping space. The kitchen table was used as a workbench, and people often slept in shifts. Outdoor privies and, later, indoor toilets located in hallways were shared by several families and workers.
Tenement Sweatshop, New York City, ca 1900Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University
The Expenses of a Typical Sweatshop — around 1900
|Prices received from manufacturer for 300 coats: $225|
|Thirteen Jewish shop workers|
|Three operators||$15 each|
|Three basters||$13.30 each|
|Three finishers||$10.00 each|
|Two pressers||$12.00 each|
|One trimmer and busheler (the boss himself)||$17.00|
|One button sewer||$9.00|
|Six Italian home workers to do felling (stitching flat seams)||$2.00 each|
|Rent and miscellaneous costs:||$9.00|
|Statistics courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum|
Expansion of the Garment Industry
Between the 1870s and 1900, the men’s and women’s garment industries rapidly grew into mature and important sectors of the American economy. Consumer demand for cheaper clothes rose dramatically, capital investment tripled, and the work force grew from about 120,000 to 206,000. New York City dominated the industry, producing more than 40 percent of all ready-to-wear clothes in the country.
In the early 20th century, many clothing makers moved out of New York City, seeking cheaper labor and production facilities. In the 1920s, Chicago and Rochester became centers of the men’s clothing industry. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati were busy production sites. By the 1930s, Los Angeles had developed a booming sportswear industry. Production in each of these cities had its own characteristics, but all relied on a mix of modern factories, contract shops, home workers, and sweatshops.
Cloaks were some of the earliest women’s ready-to-wear garments. They were easy to produce because an exact fit was un necessary. By the 1910s, women could purchase a complete ready-to-wear wardrobe.
Once established, the women’s clothing industry soon surpassed the men’s in size and work force. More than the men’s, it took advantage of the added flexibility of contract production to respond to constantly changing styles.
Technological change facilitated the trend towards centralized cutting and contract assembly. After the invention of the sewing machine, the development of cloth-cutting devices was the next important breakthrough in the mass production of clothing. Long knives, introduced in the 1870s, allowed several layers of material to be cut simultaneously. By the 1890s, cutters could slice through stacks of cloth using electrically driven blades, greatly increasing the speed of this operation.
From just a handful of large brand-name companies before the Civil War, national brands of men’s and women’s clothing became common in the early 20th century. These companies established large factories with modern machinery and efficient production practices.
Competing against these large firms was a second tier of small entrepreneurial shops, which relied on cheap labor and their greater flexibility to meet market demands. While national manufacturers often resented the price-cutting pressures of these small competitors, they often used them to augment their own production during busy seasons.
In the early 20th century, social reformers and labor activists began to believe that the right kind of pressure from unions, government, and reform groups could eventually eliminate sweatshops from the garment industry.
Following the lead of early women’s suffrage groups, the National Consumers’ League and the National Women’s Trade Union League were formed to promote alliances between “women who spend” and “women who work.” With increased public support, garment unions began to build lasting organizations.
From the 1900s into the 1930s, strikes, labor and community organizing, factory investigations, and local and state legislation all heightened public awareness about acceptable labor standards. These activities laid the groundwork for federal New Deal reforms in the 1930s designed to eliminate sweatshops and strengthen unions.
Women’s Trade Union League
Garment workers found allies in the women’s reform movements. As early as the 1860s, women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony took up the cause of seamstresses, exposing their working conditions in her publications.
Founded in 1903, the National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) gained national attention by bringing together women of all social classes to help organize working women. Although plagued by tensions and misunderstandings among women of different economic backgrounds, the WTUL provided crucially needed money and public support to the workers’ cause.
National Consumers’ League
Organized in 1899, the National Consumers’ League (NCL) used consumers’ purchasing power to improve the conditions of sweatshop workers and sales clerks. The group mobilized consumers by distributing lists of responsible retailers and creating a garment label program certifying that clothing was not made in sweatshops. It stressed not only the harsh working conditions but also the health risks of buying clothes made in unsanitary tenements. Under the leadership of Florence Kelly, the NCL became known for its social investigations, educational work, and legislative lobbying.
Although it drew attention to the plight of sweatshop workers, the NCL’s labeling program was largely ineffective. Consumer demand for labeled goods was limited, and few manufacturers participated. The NCL abandoned its own labeling program and instead encouraged consumers to look for the union label when purchasing clothes.
The Rise of the Needle Trade Unions
In the early 1900s, union organizers overcame the seemingly impossible task of uniting employees in factories and small scattered shops. Surmounting ethnic divisions and hostile owners, workers built lasting labor unions within the major divisions of the garment industry. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organized women’s and children’s apparel workers; the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America focused on men’s clothing employees; and the United Garment Workers of America centered primarily on makers of work clothing.
With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation granting unions legal protection to organize, membership in needle trade unions rose to more than 400,000 out of a garment industry work force of more than 600,000 in 1934. Through newly won union gains backed up by government support, the worst of sweatshop conditions began to disappear.
The New Deal
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and the subsequent New Deal legislation strengthened labor unions and social reform movements. Many within the Roosevelt Administration believed that the Depression resulted from under-consumption due to low wages. Through a number of programs — including the National Recovery Administration, the Wagner Labor Relations Act (which protected labor organizing), and the Fair Labor Standards Act — the government raised wages and improved working conditions to put the economy back on track.
The Consumers’ Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) mobilized consumers to support better working conditions for those who made and sold goods. The NRA’s Blue Eagle campaign identified businesses that complied with NRA standards and appealed to consumers to buy Blue Eagle products as their patriotic duty.
Under the auspices of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), representatives from labor, management, and government negotiated hours, wages, prices, and other business practices. Though the Supreme Court found the NRA unconstitutional in 1935, the codes’ higher wage and hour standards left a lasting impact throughout the industry.
[Consumers] want the lowest price which is consistent with conservation, with honest merchandising, with proper quality, and with decent wages, hours, and working conditions.” — General position statement of the Consumers Advisory Board, 1935
Supported by New Deal legislators and organized labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage of 25 cents an hour and a maximum work week of 44 hours (gradually reduced to 40 hours over three years). For the first time, the federal government was empowered to enforce labor standards throughout the country. Federal hour and wage regulation helped make outside contracting less cost-effective. Between 1936 and 1940, the number of contract shops decreased about 26 percent.
The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the principal federal law used to combat sweatshops.
Apparel factory reflecting ideal working conditions, late 1930sCourtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University
Not Just Clothing
Mother and children filling chocolate cigarettes, New York City, around 1911Photographer: Lewis Hine, Courtesy Library of Congress
At the turn-of-the-century, the garment industry used the largest number of sweatshops, but many other businesses also exploited immigrant labor to produce their wares. All shared a common denominator of extremely low start-up costs, easily transportable materials and finished goods, and large portions of work that could be done by unskilled workers.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in the heart of New York City’s garment district. It began in the cutting room and quickly spread throughout the factory. Locked doors and inadequate fire exits trapped workers inside, and the building’s sole fire escape collapsed. In all, 146 employees died, most of them young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, who either jumped to their deaths or perished in the flames.
The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory became a national symbol of business neglect and abuse. Although hazardous working conditions in the garment industry had been the focus of numerous investigations, labor strikes, and public demonstrations throughout the late 19th century, it took the fire to galvanize public resolve for workplace regulation and ongoing vigilance.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 143 of us are burned to death.” — Rose Schneiderman, labor organizer, at memorial gathering, 1911
Photo of memorial paradeCourtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University