Posts Tagged ‘Sweatshops New York City’

A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story

July 14, 2022

Amid the fortune making and social swirling of New York’s Gilded Age, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States. Seventy percent of those newcomers took their first steps on American soil via Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Gotham’s two immigration processing depots.

In the early 1900s, Sadie Frowne was one of these new arrivals. A few years later, this 16-year-old’s story of surviving in New York—”The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl”—made it into a fascinating 1906 book called The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

The broad strokes of Sadie’s story are not unlike those of other poor immigrants, left to find their way in a chaotic, unwelcoming city desperate for their labor. What sets her experience apart are the details she reveals: the smell of the steamship across the Atlantic, the budgeting she did on the Lower East Side to save her meager earnings, and the friendships and love she found to replace her family.

Immigrant women at Ellis Island, 1910

Sadie begins her tale in a Polish village in the late 19th century. Her parents operated a small grocery shop, and they also “worked in the fields,” using two back rooms of the store as their home.

When she was 10, she lost her father. “After he died troubles began, for the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were food and clothes to provide,” said Sadie. “We needed little, it is true, but even soup, black bread, and onion we could not always get.”

Sadie’s mother, who she describes as “a tall, handsome, dark-complexioned woman with red cheeks” and was “much looked up to by the people, who used to come and asked her for advice,” thought she and her daughter should try their luck in America, “where we heard it was much easier to make money.”

Arriving in New York Harbor

An aunt who lived in New York “took up a subscription” among friends and relatives so the two would have the money for passage.

“We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully,” said Sadie. Twelve harrowing days later, “at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.”

After being fetched by her aunt (likely at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and replaced Castle Garden), Sadie found a position as a servant. “I was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn, so I received $9 a month in board and lodging, which I thought was doing well.” Sadie’s mother started work at a factory “making white goods,” or undergarments, at $9 a week.

Mr. Goldstein’s sweatshop, 30 Suffolk Street in 1908

Sadie describes her mother as a lively woman who wanted to see the sights in New York. But that led her to contract “hasty consumption”—a virulent strain of tuberculosis. “Two doctors attended to her, but they could do nothing, and at last she died, and I was left alone,” stated Sadie.

This teenager’s survival instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” She sewed six days a week and pocketed $4 per payday.

Sadie and another sweatshop girl, Ella, shared a room on Allen Street, which cost them $1.50 a week. The arrangement worked, and by budgeting the cost of food carefully, they saved money. “It cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did not know much English.”

After two years in the Allen Street room—which had a dirty, noisy elevated train overhead—Sadie moved to Brownsville, which the book describes as “the Jewish sweatshop district of Brooklyn.” Her new job, at a factory that manufactured underskirts, paid her $4.50 a week, and then $5.50.

Her workday started at 7 in the morning and ran to 6 at night. “The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get,” she said. “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.”

Some male employees harassed her, touching her hair and making jokes. But one man, Henry, defended her, and he became her sweetheart. “Henry has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not 17 yet, and I think that is too young. He is only 19, so we can wait.”

At the end of the workday and on her Sundays off, Sadie believed that “you must go out and get air, have pleasure.” She and Henry go to Coney Island’s dance halls, or Ulmer Park—a Coney beer garden. She also enjoys theater and reading romance novels. “I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don’t go out with anyone except Henry.”

Toward the end of her story, Sadie stated that her workplace recently went on strike, with the backing of her union. “We struck for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight. We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the same pay as before….The next strike is going to be for a raise of wages, which we all ought to have.”

“So the union does good after all in spite of what some people say against it—that it just takes our money and does nothing. But though I belong to the union I am not a Socialist or Anarchist. I don’t know exactly what these things mean.”

Sadie’s story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had a rich, fulfilling American life.

Here’s another story of a young immigrant girl arriving in New York City in the Gilded Age, per The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

[Top photo: Lewis Hine/NYPL Digital Collections; second photo: Bain Collection/LOC; third image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; fourth photo: Lewis Hine/LOC; fifth image: The Lives of Undistinguished Americans; sixth image: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Bain Collection/LOC]

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.