My Day in the Sweatshop
by marianne mccomb
The story "My Day in the Sweatshop" takes place in the late 1800s. Sweatshops were an outgrowth of a contracting system in Britain. Employers reduced their overhead by distributing materials to workers in their homes. They paid the workers for each piece they produced.
As the Industrial Revolution rapidly mechanized various processes, including sewing, the small shops and residences gave way to large, mechanized factories. Immigration and the mechanization of farming increased urban populations, providing cheap labor. By 1850, more than 200,000 women worked in factories in the United States, making everything from clothing to cigars. By the 1890s sweatshops were the mainstay of the garment industry.
Because many people were desperate for work, employers were able to keep wages low and hours up. The conditions described in "My Day in the Sweatshop" accurately depict life for many of the women and children employed in the sewing industry.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a typical sweatshop. It occupied a ten-story factory building in New York, just off Washington Square, called the Asch Building. Hundreds of women and girls worked in the building. Near closing time on a Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the building. The ladders erected by the firemen were several floors too short. Only a few safety nets were available and they soon broke under the weight of falling bodies. The fire escapes were all but worthless and many women and girls jumped from eighth and ninth floor windows, preferring that to being burned alive. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died.
Two young law students from a nearby building were credited with saving over a hundred lives. The roof of their building was a story higher than the Asch Building. They used two short ladders to span the gap and one of the young men climbed onto the roof of the burning building to guide the girls to the ladder. He reported that at the other end of the roof, some 50 men and women were trying to escape to an adjoining roof. The men bit and kicked women and girls as they tried to escape.
Most of the Triangle workers were women, some as young as 15. Many of them were recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to America to seek a better life. They were ready victims for the factory owners and were willing to endure the conditions because they desperately needed the work.
The fire left a lasting impression on the city, particularly among those who had witnessed the rain of bodies. Eight months after the fire a jury acquitted the factory owners of any wrongdoing. However, over the next 20 years, there was an increased effort to eliminate the most dangerous aspects of the sweatshops. Within a month of the fire, the governor of New York State appointed the Factory Investigation Commission. Frances Perkins had watched the Asch Building burn and it influenced her decision to become a lifelong advocate for workers. She became Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Preteaching the Story
Use the story title as a starting point for students. Ask students what they think a sweatshop might be. Have students look at the picture on page 104. Does this help them figure out what a sweatshop might be? What do they think the story might be about? What do students expect to learn from the story? Record students predictions and expectations.
Fact or Fiction?
The family in this story is fictional, but the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a real factory. The working conditions described are historically accurate.
Students will find sources for this story at the back of their book, on page 199.
Tie-in to History and Geography
Factory workers were not without their advocates. By the late 1800s, a few garment workers belonged to unions. These groups were small and had little power to bargain with companies for better working conditions. At that time, many women were working ten hour days six days a week for as little as 30 cents a day. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a non-union factory.
In June 1900, delegates from seven local unions, representing about 2,000 workers, established the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York City. The new union received a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At the time, this was the nations largest federation of labor unions, with about 1 million members in different industries.
The ILGWU led a strike by shirtwaist makers that began in New York City in November 1909.
Recent publicity has focused on the use of child labor, poor working conditions, and unfair labor practices in the foreign production of clothing and shoes sold in America. However, the practice is not limited to foreign countries. In December 2000, garment shops in Los Angeles were fined more than a quarter of a million dollars for "repeated and willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act." Although many of the violations were of the minimum wage and/or overtime provisions of the FLSA rather than of working conditions, "sweatshops" still exist both in America and abroad.
People and Terms to Know
shirtwaistwomans or girls blouse that usually has a collar and cuffs.
sweatshopname for a place where workers are employed at low pay for long hours under bad conditions.
pieceworkwork that is paid for by the amount of work done, not by the time it takes.
(Tested vocabulary words used in the online vocabulary quiz are underlined.)
Use the Study Guide on the next page to help you understand and enjoy the story and recognize its importance in history.
Answer the Questions to Consider in the book as a way to deepen your interpretation of the selection.
1. What is your opinion of the working conditions in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company?
2. Why do you suppose sweatshop workers rarely complained about the work or quit to find better jobs?
3. If you had been a reformer in the 1900s, what recommendations would you have made to improve the lives of sweatshop workers?
Joan Dash. We Shall Not Be Moved: The Womens Factory Strike of 1909 (1999). Describes the conditions that gave rise to efforts to secure better working conditions for the women in the garment industry in early twentieth-century New York. These efforts led to the formation of the Womens Trade Union League and the first womens strike in 1909.
Barry Denenberg. So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl (1997). This historical novel presents the experiences of an immigrant worker. In 1847, Mary Driscoll flees hunger in Ireland to work in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. (Fiction.)
John J. Flagler. The Labor Movement in the United States (1990). The author traces the history of the United States labor movement from the birth of the factory system to the present and describes its influences on society.
Joan C. Hawxhurst. Mother Jones: Labor Crusader (1993). Describes the life of the American labor organizer Mary Harris Jones.
Betsey Harvey Kraft. Mother Jones: One Womans Fight for Labor (1995). This is a biography of union organizer Mary Harris Jones, more popularly known as Mother Jones. It tells about Joness childhood in Ireland, the death of her husband and children from yellow fever in Memphis, and her commitment to bringing about changes in the way laborers were treated in the U.S.
Marilyn Sachs. Call Me Ruth (1995). The daughter of Russian immigrants, newly arrived in Manhattan in 1908, has conflicting feelings about her mothers increasingly radical union involvement.
Patricia Simonds. The Founding of the AFL and the Rise of Organized Labor (1991). Recounts the story of the efforts of the American Federation of Labor and other early unions to organize labor to secure shorter workdays and better wages and working conditions.
The Industrial Revolution
Jerry Stanley. Big Annie of Calumet: A True Story of the Industrial Revolution (1996). The book describes the central role played by women in the 1913 Michigan copper miners strike. One of the most notable of these women was six-foot-tall Annie Clemenc, who led daily marches down the streets of Calumet while carrying a massive American flag, thereby helping bring the attention of the press and the world to the plight of the miners.