Spotlight: Area women talk about their experiences working in local garment mills
Marlene Prutzman, Shirley Craig and Ann Bachert reminisce at an event to honor blouse factory workers from the Kunkletown area. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Betty (Smale) Shellhammer worked for 20 years in local blouse factories.
Mae Borger, left, and daughter Dora Tartar. Mae started working in the blouse factories in 1945.
Blouse factory workers reminisce about their former co-workers at a recent event in Kunkletown. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Pictures show former Kunkletown-area blouse factory workers.
Darlene Beers worked over 10 years in area blouse factories.
For 50 years, women from Carbon, Monroe and Northampton counties played a crucial part in the garment industry, sewing blouses for piece rate at small shops around the area.
Many were working mothers who balanced work with raising children, while others dropped out of school in search of a decent wage.
They were all loyal workers, some of whom racked up more than 40 years assembling blouses.
Companies such as Scotty’s, Lee’s and Sandridge were once some of the biggest employers in the area.
More than 200,000 women from Pennsylvania worked in the garment industry during the 20th century. Many of them are still living, but don’t necessarily get the same recognition as the men who toiled in the mines and steel mills of the state.
They fought to successfully organize unions inside their shops, earning benefits and more say in disputes with their bosses.
While the industry still exists, it is a far cry from its heyday in the area. Eldred Township resident Tony Giordano recently held what was one of the largest ever gatherings of workers.
Giordano, a New York transplant, had no idea that the garment industry, normally associated with big cities, employed so many women in rural Pennsylvania.
“I said, ‘what’s going on here? This is a secret. Somebody’s been not telling us the full truth,” he said.
Shirley Craig worked for over 53 years at blouse factories in Kresgeville, Palmerton and Lehighton.
It was not her original intent to work in the mill, because her mother and many others had worked there, and she wanted something different. But she developed a sense of pride in the work she and her fellow workers did.
“You were there working, and you built a home, you paid for the home, you raise a family, you do everything else with the money you earned from working in the mill,” Craig said.
She recalled how a normal 8-hour day could stretch much longer when there was work to be done.
It depended on how much the company needed that week in production. If your quota was high, you had to meet that quota,” she said.
Betty Shellhammer, formerly Smale, followed relatives into the blouse factories.
She was one of many women who left school to take a job in a blouse factory.
“I enjoyed working in the factory. I liked being around the people,” she said.
She would work for 20 years in the factories, first in Kunkletown at Lee’s, then later in Weissport and Lehighton. Her wages when she started out were meager by today’s standards — $1.75 per hour, but it was still enough to sustain herself when she was on her own.
“Maybe the wages weren’t high, but the cost of living wasn’t either,” she said.
Sandy Kresge worked 36 years off and on between 1958 and 2006. She took off for her kids, but there was always an opportunity to come back.
“My grandmother, my mother, my husband before we were married all worked there,” she recalled.
She said that in those days, unlike in the later years, there was plenty of work to do. And earning a check depended on how fast you completed it.
“If you wanted to make money, you had to work fast and get your work done. We had piece rates. You couldn’t loaf around. You had to work,” she said.
Marlene Prutzman sewed, served as union chairlady, and a forewoman during her 40 years in the blouse factories. There weren’t many blouse factories in the area that she didn’t work in, because she was practiced in a technique known as double-needle stitching.
She said there was a tight-knit community among the women who worked in the blouse factories. When there was a snow day or early dismissal, she would relay word to her workers. When her parents were ill, she was able to work and take care of them.
“When I walked in the shop, my girls sat down to get ready to sew. If anybody had a problem, it was corrected — if they had a home problem they knew they could call me at night,” she said.
When “work” — cut fabric ready to be assembled — arrived at the garment shop via tractor-trailer, Prutzman would help unload the fabric herself, because she didn’t want to tell her workers on Monday morning that there was no work available because it hadn’t been unloaded.
“You knew you needed your job, and the people who were there needed a job, because that was their income,” she said.
Prutzman’s daughter, Deb Schuler, said she needed just one summer of working in the blouse factory to realize that she wanted to go to college to seek a career. The life of a blouse factory worker often meant that children had to get themselves to the bus, and be responsible for siblings.
“They were very tired, but they came home, cooked our dinners, did our laundry. It was a nonstop day for these ladies,” Schuler said.
Darlene Beers, who worked for more than 10 years at Scotty’s, Lee’s and Franklin Fashions, said she joined many of her classmates in the blouse factories following graduation.
The work was monotonous, she said, and rewarded those who completed the most pieces in a day.
“You had to make your rate to get any kind of good money. Piece rate, it was called,” she said.
Sandy Borger worked 15 years at Lee’s fashions. She would find a baby sitter for her children, and make it to work no matter what.
“I even went to work on my snowmobile,” she said. “Not a lot of people showed up (that day), but I did.”
Mae Borger experienced much of the history of the blouse factories, starting after she graduated high school in 1945 and working until 1988.
Her daughter, Dora Tartar, recalled that the bosses were so impressed with Mae’s speed as a hemmer that they timed her and used her as an example for how fast the other women should be working.
“We always had to work to get it out, because they wanted production, and we wanted the money,” Borger said.
Mae had her daughters try their hand at the blouse factory, an experience that Tartar said inspired her to find another field of work.
“It was a good lesson for them,” Mae said, laughing.