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.

References:

  • 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)

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