MOOC WHAW2.2x | 8.3 The Garment Industry | New Meanings for Women’s Citizenship


– By the turn of the century, New York City was the center of the garment industry
in the United States, though the industry had spread, as we’ve said, to every major city. Women in New York, after
all, had stitched clothes for slave owners long
before the civil war. Generation after generation
of immigrant women had participated in home
sowing for contractors and earned scanty wages
in the city’s work shops. They had experienced the
introduction of the sowing machine and watched as it pulled
small children into workshops. We saw these in the tenement housing. By the 1880s, the industry
had taken on the character that it would have thereafter and that we see in the early 1900s. Family workshops called outside shops were diminishing in number. Employers who preferred
to pull workers inside into factories where the
contracting system persisted and were the race to the bottom continued. The less a garment manufacturer
paid his subcontractors, the more the subcontractor
reduced the wages of the sowing machine operator and speeded up the work, as well. As the sowing machine
operator earned less, so the manufacturer’s profits rose and the greater his chances
for bidding successfully on the bundles of clothing
being distributed. By the early 20th century,
the horrible conditions in the industry were public knowledge. Low wages that attracted
the newest immigrants. In New York Jews and Italians
dominated the industry with a few Slavic workers thrown in. Six day work weeks and
endless hours during each of four seasons and then unemployment during six or eight-week-long,
between-season stints. 60% of New York’s immigrant women in 1900 worked in the garment industry. These women operated sowing machines. They sowed buttons. They basted, cut garments,
bound, and finished clothing. The men, in contrast, worked at what we might call heavier jobs and were known in the
industry as more skilled. They were the cutters, the pressers who handled the hot, heavy irons, and the supervisors. Men, as well as women, might
have resonated in those days to Thomas Hood’s Song of the
Shirt, a poem written in 1843 about horrendous British
working conditions. That was the lot of garment workers. Where would they go for help? How would they improve their conditions? Unionization seemed to be the answer for both men and women. And, though the law
discouraged organizing, and did not support collective bargaining, garment workers turned repeatedly, and with limited success to trade unions. But, there was another answer too. Let’s remember that were moving now into what historians call the progressive period
of American History, a period that began sometime around 1897 after the end of the depression of 1893 and ended with The First World War. This is a moment, in which
men and women of good will, sometimes called reformers,
recognized that the conditions under which poor people lived and worked undermined the efforts of poor families to produce healthy and
productive children. These conditions therefore
prevented mothers from exercising their natural jobs of creating the next generation of labor and producing an educated citizenry. Many reformers also feared that harsh and unremitting poverty might negate the American
dream of getting ahead, that it could eliminate the possibility of social mobility
through individual effort. Reformers believed that if such
poverty continued to exist, it could deny new
Americans the opportunity to live in ways that were consistent with American values of
fair and open competition. Even poor mothers could, they thought, and should perpetuate and enrich the home. Discontented people, reformers feared, might begin to rebel.

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