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For many, life in America included sweatshop work

Published March 31. 2012 09:01AM

In a 1912 article titled "The Fight Against the Sweat Shop," a Tamaqua Courier writer talked about how conditions in America's factories and home workshops had changed over the previous decade, thanks to advocates to improve conditions in the workplace.

He said there was a time when "half of the country homes" took in work from the shoe, hat and clothing factories. In Brooklyn, he said there were 4,000 places licensed to do home manufacturing.

Piecing out work to homes proved economical at first but the increased number of workers brought other problems, such as the spread of contagious disease. In that case, the writer said, a company's bottom line profits could easily be erased by costs of medical care, including a doctor, nurse and having a quarantine in place.

The writer was also touched by the number of children in the inner city workforce.

"A frequent spectacle in the city sweat shop consists of little children 4 years old and upward, snipping away with their scissors, working with their pinched and feeble hands," he said.

Immigration flourished during the first decade of the 20th century as America's shores welcomed over 9-million new arrivals, almost three times the number of the previous decade. The majority came from Eastern and Southern Europe.

After being processed through screening centers such as Ellis Island, some immigrants made their way to the agricultural and mining lands of the West. The majority, however, remained in eastern urban centers like New York City where many found work in "sweatshops" in the garment districts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

While immigration flourished, about half of America's families did not own property. In 1900, 18 million of the 29 million made an annual wage of around $500, which was below the cost of living for an industrialized family of four.

The life expectancy for whites at the time was just 48 years and nonwhites was only 34. The work force included 1.75 million children under 15 and more than five million women, who toiled for wages as small as 10 cents for a 10-hour day.

The desperate conditions of many of these immigrant workers led to numerous revolts and uprisings. In 1909, an uprising over sweatshops in New York City involved over 20,000 workers.

Sadie Frowne was typical of the wave of immigrants. After the death of Sadie's father, who ran a small grocery store in Poland, Sadie arrived in America with her mother. Just 13, Sadie took a job as a seamstress at a dress factory in Manhattan's garment district while slowly working to improve her English writing and speaking skills.

After taking a new job in a factory in Brooklyn, making ladies underskirts, Sadie described her typical day in a 1905 article titled "Immigrating to America - EyeWitness to History."

"I get up at half-past five o'clock every morning and make myself a cup of coffee on the oil stove. I eat a bit of bread and perhaps some fruit and then go to work.

"Often I get there soon after six o'clock so as to be in good time, though the factory does not open till seven. I have heard that there is a sort of clock that calls you at the very time you want to get up, but I can't believe that because I don't see how the clock would know.

"At seven o'clock we all sit down to our machines and the boss brings to each one the pile of work that he or she is to finish during the day, what they call in English their 'stint.' This pile is put down beside the machine and as soon as a skirt is done it is laid on the other side of the machine.

"Sometimes the work is not all finished by six o'clock and then the one who is behind must work overtime. Sometimes one is finished ahead of time and gets away at four or five o'clock, but generally we are not done till six o'clock.

"The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get. Sometimes in my haste I get my finger caught and the needle goes right through it. It goes so quick, though, that it does not hurt much.

"I bind the finger up with a piece of cotton and go on working. We all have accidents like that. Where the needle goes through the nail it makes a sore finger, or where it splinters a bone it does much harm. Sometimes a finger has to come off. Generally, though, one can be cured by a salve.

"All the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right. So we have to be careful as well as swift. But I am getting so good at the work that within a year I will be making $7 a week, and then I can save at least $3.50 a week. I have over $200 saved now.

"The machines are all run by foot-power, and at the end of the day one feels so weak that there is a great temptation to lie right down and sleep. But you must go out and get air, and have some pleasure.

"So instead of lying down I go out, generally with Henry. Sometimes we go to Coney Island, where there are good dancing places, and sometimes we go to Ulmer Park to picnics..."

Next: What childhood?

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