Working Conditions in Shirtwaist Factories (Sweatshops)

This blog aims to take a look into the hazardous conditions faced by workers in the shirtwaist factories of New York. Dating back to the early 1900’s, the conditions and environment of shirtwaist factories were notorious for being harmful towards the well being of workers. The purpose of this blog is analyze the work environment of the shirtwaist factory while also answering the questions concerned with why and how their environment came to the way it was. The lasting impact of these working conditions will additionally be supplemented and addressed.

Background and History of Shirtwaist Factories

By most definitions, shirtwaist factories are indeed known as sweatshops. Long hours accompanied by cramp quarters and dim lighting make more a very dismal work environment. The majority of the workers in these factories were immigrants, most notably, young women and children. Much like the majority of the industries during this time period, the well being and safety of the workers was not of an immediate concern in the eyes of owners. Cutting corners through the hiring of cheap immigrant labor made profits grow exponentially. In addition to hiring immigrants, long days and crowded, dark environments made working for shirtwaist factories a living hell.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900’s, National Archives (1911)

Clara Lemlich, a former shirtwaist worker, detailed her testimony of the working conditions of the factory. In terms of the work and the conditions, she described in great detail how severe they were. “Well, there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to – that is the front row, nearest the window. The girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to work by gaslight, by day as well as by night.” She later went on to describe the strictness of the work itself. “Whenever we tear or damage any of the goods we sew on, or whenever it is found damaged after we are through with it, whether we have done it or not, we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of the material.”

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Disaster

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the top floors a business building,  caught on fire in the heart of New York City, killing over 100 people in the process. This was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City.  Started accidentally from a match or cigarette butt, the roaring fire claimed the lives of garment and fabric workers through asphyxiation and jumping from the building. Since the building was not adequately equipped with safety and fire escape measures, workers were subject to their demise. Workers tried to extinguish the fire through the use of a fire hose, but it was not up to code and was not functional. Additionally, the owners of the factory commonly would lock the doors to the stairs and the exits, in order to prevent workers from taking unnecessary breaks and theft. Broken down elevators along with rusted a fire escape that collapsed could have been the lifesavers for these innocent workers.

Waist Factory Fire, New York Times (1911)

This disaster was a direct result of the harsh working conditions  experienced by the workers. Due to the inadequate factory conditions, lives were lost. By maintaining the building codes and practicing safety measures, the fire, along with the massive casualties could have been avoided.

Impact of Factory Working Conditions

Days after the fire, a massive funeral was held for the victims of the fire. As a direct result of the factory fire, legislation was put in place requiring significant improvement in factory safety standards. Additionally, the emergence of workers’ unions served as a catalyst for better working conditions for sweatshop employees. As a result of such a travesty, the company owners were indicted on charges of manslaughter. However, they were found to be not guilty and were simply required to pay reparations for victims. This incident served as a cautionary tale which ultimately redefined the industrial workplace. The Sullivan – Hoey fire prevention law was eventually enacted in order to make sprinkler and fire control units mandatory for all factories.

Aftermath of Fire, National Archives (1911)

Link to Environmental History

The environment is always changing due to a gamut of factors. The most notable driving forces for these changes comes from socioeconomic as well as cultural influences. The immigrants working in the shop had no choice but to accept the circumstances and description of the job because of how poor and desperate they were. By answering the questions stated at the beginning of this blog, of how and why these conditions came to be, we can gain insight into how this can be prevented in the future. Additionally, the regulations that came from the shirtwaist fire also lead to a paradigm shift within the industrial workplace. Even though the legislation and policies put in place came at the expense of the victims of the fire, it served as a lesson learned in order to prevent future loss of life. The lasting impact of the policies can still be shown in today’s society, which shows the value of knowing the environmental history of such a time period as this.


  • New York Times (1911), 141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside. Newspaper. (December 12, 2017).
  • Literary Digest (1912), 147 Dead, Nobody Guilty. Magazine. (December 12, 2017).
  • Lemlich, Clara (1909), Life in the Shop. Testimonial. (December 12, 2017)

Working Conditions in the Coal Mines

The purpose of this blog is to take a deeper look into the harsh working conditions of coal miners, more specifically in West Virginia during the 1800’s. One of the earlier blogs took a broad look at industrialization as a whole and briefly touched on the occupational hazards of working in the coal mines. This blog will hope to provide additional insight into the specific reasons why this environment changed and as well as how it was fixed, along with its lasting impact on the laborers. On the surface, basic economic, social and political factors created an environment that served as unfavorable for these people. However, this is a shallow observation and in order to gain insight into the environment, we have to dig much deeper, more specifically into the mindsets and cultural changes surrounding the coal mining environment. A journalist for the New York Journal stated in a newspaper that “An ordinary coaldigger can mine from two and one-half to three tons of coal per day, and with thousands of the men the advance will be about 30 cents per day.” (New York Journal, 1897)

Exposition of Coal Mining

From the 18th century until the mid 20th century, coal was the primary source of energy for industry and transportation. Originally, anthracite coal was the main coal source for fuel in cities. However, over time bituminous coal became the main source of fuel for locomotives and steam engines in the 1800’s. As the demand for coal as a primary source of fuel for industry, businesses and corporations began to commercially mine coal. Additionally, skilled labor was of high demand but along with it came a slew of problems. However, even though skilled labor was desired, the wage at which they would work at would not be ideal.

Aside from the economic reasons for the environment surrounding the coal miners, there are cultural implications as well. Throughout the history of the United States, men have been expected to assume the role of the  patriarch. Working in such hazardous and life threatening conditions come with a sense of pride and respect for the miners. Acquiescing to cultural tendencies in terms of the coal miners, resulted in a need to work in these conditions and provide for their families. This is part of the reason why the environment went untouched for so long, as the hard labor and treacherous landscape was a part of the cultural identity associated with working as a coal miner. this next paragraph will provide further details on the specific risks assumed by these men.

Coal Miners – Bain News Service (1910)

Hazards of the Workplace

Working in coal mines during the 19th century was extremely treacherous and full of hardships. Coal miners would have to, in some cases, trek miles down dark and cramped mine shafts to get to where the coal was being mined. Workers would spend 10 hour days hunched over and crawling, without a single opportunity to stand up or stretch. Additionally, the underground mines were hot and damp. The musty coal infested air had the potential hazard of being flammable. This gas, also mixed with methane, had serious health effects associated with it. Some of these effects include numbness, violent headaches, partial deafness, and of course the risk of choking on the thick dust. The most notable health effect associated with the inhalation of the coal dust is known as black lung. Aside from chronic health issues, the risk of injury also of concern while working in the mine shafts. Falling equipment and the collapsing of shafts are common occurrences that make these hazards an obvious concern.

Group of coal miners, Williamson, West Virginia (1935)

Solutions to Hazardous Conditions

One example of an early solution put in place in order to alleviate some of the harsh conditions associated with working in the coal mines included the installation of furnace and air intake system at the bottom of the shaft. The furnace acted in the same manner as a chimney, sucking up the warm air and blowing it out of the top of the system while the air intake system continually brought fresh air into the shaft to replace the warm air.  This was only a minor fix that would not solve the immediate health issues associated with working in the coal mines. Congress would not implement health regulations for another century. In 1947 Congress authorized the creation of federal regulations for mine safety. Five years later, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act was enacted and provided the need for annual inspections. Years later the Coal Act of 1969 required additional inspections for coal mines as well as the enforcement of penalties for violating safety protocol. From this, stricter safety standards were created and also led to monetary compensation for miners diagnosed with black lung from years of prolonged exposure.

Although steps have been taken in order to alleviate the adverse health effects and risk associated with coal mining, there are still issues and hazards in today’s society that have not changed. Most notably (although not specifically coal mining), miners in Chile were trapped a half mile down in a mine shaft for a total of 69 days.  Although the environment and mentality surrounding coal mining and the hazards associated with those responsible for the mining of it has been altered, the risks are still very apparent and still pose threats to those working in these mines. These risks will always be prevalent, but knowing the history of how dangerous this line of work is can help to prevent future incidents of this magnitude.


  • New York Journal. Army Returns to Work. New York Journal (1896). Newspaper (December 8th, 2017)
  • Bain News Service. Coal miners. Library of Congress (1910). Image (December 8th, 2017)
  • Shahn, Ben. Group of coal miners, Williamson, West Virginia. Library of Congress (1935). Image (December 8th, 2017)
  • Mine Safety and Health Administration, History of Mine Safety and Health Legislation. United State Department of Labor. Website (December 8th, 2017)
  • Stover, Gracie. Coal Mining, The Early DaysWest Virginia Genealogy Project. Website (December 8th, 2017)

Working Conditions for Railroad Workers in the 1800’s

This blog will take a look into the working conditions experienced by railroad workers. In order to provide a more concise and accurate analysis, immigrant workers will be the main topic of discussion in this blog. Set in the 1800’s, immigrants were not granted the same respect and rights as their American counterparts. This post is going to dive into why they were not granted these same rights as well as how their environment affected the nature of the work, as well as their conditions. In addition to analyzing the nature of their work and how harsh it was, an analysis of how this effected the environment around them should also be taken into consideration.

The Need for Railroad Expansion

Due to high tourism demand, railroad expansion was of immediate need. Travel by railroad was the most popular mode of transportation during the mid 1800’s. In order to make transportation all the way to the western United States possible, a continental railroad needed to be built. What would follow would lead groups of immigrants to work in life threatening conditions in order to accomplish a goal that would make country wide travel a dream come true.

Chinese Immigrants and the Transcontinental Railroad

One of the most notable examples of harsh working conditions stems from the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Dating back to the early 1860’s, the transcontinental railroad was a railway that would eventually connect the west to the rest of the United States. The project took approximately six years to complete, while relying predominantly on the help of Irish and Chinese immigrants. The majority of these ethnic groups emigrated into America in order to escape poverty and social inequality that plagued their home countries. During this time period, the gold rush in California lead to a massive influx of immigrants with the hope of wealth. Once the rush had ended, many of these immigrants performed other jobs in order to survive. One of those jobs was working on the transcontinental railroad under the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

During this time there was widespread prejudice over hiring ethnic groups. What enticed these companies to hire these immigrants was the fact that they were willing to work in harmful and dangerous areas for extremely low pay. Much like the motives behind during the Industrial Revolution, businesses wanted to achieve maximum profit and minimum cost. This idea came to fruition from the implementation of immigrant labor. Below is a payroll record sheet from Union Pacific. Although it may be hard to see, upon further analysis it was determined that their pay was significantly less than their counterparts.

Payroll Records for Chinese Immigrants

Aside  from the political, social and economic reasons why these laborers were faced with hardship, their mistreatment stems from years of existing prejudice and marginalization. Much like in today’s society, the issue over immigration is still widely disputed. Whenever a group of individuals immigrate into a country, they are immediately faced with adversity. In terms of the Chinese railroad workers, they came to the states in search of work, and found it in the mines of California. Once the gold rush had concluded, the immigrants went in search of work. Americans felt that the Chinese, among other ethnic groups, were taking jobs from other Americans. This created widespread aggression among the Chinese. Even though these railroad companies would eventually hire these immigrants, a lot of prejudice was projected onto these them as a result of the public’s growing annoyance and intolerance for immigrants.

Life on the Tracks

Life for laborers working for the Union Pacific Line was extremely treacherous. Daily work consisted of the use of explosives to break through boulders and mountains. In a first hand account, a Chinese laborer discussed the sheer horror associated with working for the Union Pacific Line: “Twenty charges were placed and ignited, but only eighteen blasts went off. However, the white foreman, thinking that all of the dynamite had gone off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment the remaining two charges suddenly exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. On this occasion about ten or twenty workers were killed.” Incidents such as this were daily occurrences on the railroad construction sites. Immigrants continued to work despite the low pay and devastating working conditions.

Additionally, racial prejudice and suspicion lingered among the Chinese. Their white colleagues were entitled to certain company policies that did not apply to their counterparts. Caucasian railway workers were entitled to higher wages as well as meals and shelter. The Chinese were not compensated for any of these basic human needs. Workers had to find their own food and tents and in some cases, slept in the underground tunnels they were working on.

Chinese immigrant working in the Sierra Nevada

Without the work of these immigrants on the Transcontinental Railroad, it would cease to exist. The discrimination and marginalization of the Chinese would only get worse in the coming years. Laws prohibiting them from voting and becoming citizens only heightened the already existing prejudice in the United States. Luckily, our environment has changed in such a way that has decreased the marginalization of minorities in the United States.


  • Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 40-41 (December 1, 2017).
  • United States Citizenship, Chinese Immigration and the Transcontinental Railroad. Website. (December 1, 2017).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, Transcontinental Railroad History. Website. (December 1, 2017).
  • California State Railroad Museum. Central Pacific Railroad Payroll Records. Letter. (December 1, 2017).