Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Day of A Sweatshop Worker in New York circa 1911

At the moment, I have a wretched cold, which is why I didn't post anything yesterday. My apartment is a mess and I can't imagine how I am going to going to finish all my work for the day and yet, I am working from home, in my pajamas at my own pace, my son is in pre-school and if I want I can go back to bed. As l think about the women and men we are representing on Sunday, March 27th for The Triangle Fire: Their Final Walk Home, I am humbled as I contemplate the grind of their every day life, the monotonous work, the long hours, the bleeding fingers, the inability to go the bathroom whenever they wanted. The cutters, the machine operators, even the foremen worked six days a week, often 12 hours a day or more. Many would bring work home and work through the night or on their day off. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory happened on a Saturday at 4.45pm, just before closing, on what was a short eight hour workday. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who had their offices on the tenth floor escaped through the roof when someone called to tell them that the building was on fire. No one notified the machine operators on the floors below.

The workers supported their families with their earnings, even the young teenage girls handed their pay packets over to their parents for food, shelter and to send money to relatives in Europe. One widow with five children was a machine operator at the Triangle Factory. After she died in the fire, four of her children ended up in orphanages. Another worker who died in the fire, widow and mother of three, Julia Rosen of Clinton Street, had her entire life saving of $852 wadded up in her stocking. Harris and Blanck were later prosecuted for the fire but were found not guilty despite heart wrenching testimony from the survivors, because no one could prove they knew the doors to the factory floor were locked.

One sweatshop worker circa 1900, Sadie Frowne, describes her day like this: "I work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop. I am new at the work and the foreman scolds me a great deal. 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. 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 garment 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. 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."

These workers saw their job as a way forward to a better position in life. The factory owners preyed upon these immigrant dreams for a better life at all costs by offering them the lowest possible wages in the most cramped conditions. One of the many fantastic art-memorial-political projects happening this month to commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Fire is a mobile sound exhibit Terrible Karma: Reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This group will be riding around in a van on March 25th projecting images and audio from survivors of the fire mixed with testimony from Chinese sweatshop workers. You can hear Pauline Pepe, a machine operator from the Triangle and a survivor of the fire remember her life in a joyous way by scrolling down to the audio at bottom of their site.


  1. I just wanted to point out that the reason why the employees on the 9th floor were not notified in a timely manner was not due to malice. There was literally no way for them to be notified. It was too late for them by the time they found out.

  2. Thank you for honoring my Great-Great Grandmother Julia Rosen and her son Israel who both died in this fire.
    Liz Richards