Letters to Michael and Hugh

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Letters to Michael and Hugh

Excerpt from Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from

P. M. Newman

By P. M. Newman

Written in May 1951

Located in the International Ladies' Garment Workers'

Union Archives, Kheel Center for Labor-Management

Documentation and Archives

Available online at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/texts/letters/newman_letter.html

Labor organizer Pauline M. Newman (c. 1888–1986) and her family immigrated to New York in 1901 from Lithuania. Although she was only thirteen years old and did not speak English, Newman immediately began to look for work so she could help with the family's expenses. She held temporary jobs for a couple of months before getting hired at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she worked until 1909. Labor conditions at the factory were dangerous and unhealthy, which was typical of the garment industry during this period. After she left the Triangle factory, Newman spent the rest of her life fighting so that others would not be forced to work in similarly poor environments.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, an estimated eighteen thousand immigrants arrived in New York City each month. Newman's family was among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who settled in about one square mile of the city's Lower East Side. This area was one of the most densely populated districts in the world, packed with tenements (urban dwellings rented by impoverished families that barely meet or fail to meet the minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort), factories, banks, synagogues, and shops of all kinds.

Many of the new immigrants who lived in the Lower East Side, especially the women and girls, went to work in the garment industry. There were about six hundred garment factories in New York City during the early 1900s. Most were small, consisting of an attic or a floor or two of a commercial building, and had been rapidly established to fill the growing national demand for inexpensive ready-made clothes. Enterprising immigrants could start up one of these shops without much investment cash. Unlike other industries, clothing manufacturing did not require expensive or bulky machinery, but it did require a lot of human labor. To keep costs down, workers in the garment industry were paid as little as possible and almost no money went into making the workplace safe, healthy, or comfortable. Many shop owners set up their businesses in basements or tiny, airless tenement apartments, crowding in as many sewing machines as would fit. The result was a sweatshop, a place where women and children were employed to work long hours in crowded, dangerous conditions. Infectious diseases spread rapidly among workers, even sometimes passing to customers on the clothing they purchased. Poor lighting hurt workers' eyes, and sitting in cramped positions for long hours was physically damaging, particularly to children. Few employers gave much thought to fire prevention or safe exits in case of fire.

About 75 percent of the garment workers in New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Jewish immigrant women and children. It is estimated that in 1880 there were between 60,000 and 100,000 children ranging in age from eight to sixteen working in the city's factories. The exact number was unknown because the city's laws against child labor were poorly enforced and commonly ignored, and few factories kept records of the underage laborers they hired.

Although labor unions were rising in other industries to help people negotiate for better working conditions with their employers, most of them would not organize women or unskilled labor, partly because they did not like the extra competition for their jobs and partly because many of the labor leaders did not approve of women working at all. Few public agencies or government regulations existed to provide protection and fair treatment for the garment workers. Employers were not required to pay a minimum wage, offer health insurance, provide pensions for old age or illness, help widows and orphans, or meet many safety or health requirements. The conduct of the factory owners angered the laborers, who did not like receiving wages that were not enough to live on and working long hours every day of the week. The garment workers also had no guarantee that their jobs would not suddenly disappear. As unpleasant as their work was, most dreaded the frequent slow periods in the business, when they could be out of a job for four or five months.

The women and children who worked in the sweatshops of New York at the turn of the century were uneducated. Many did not speak English. They were unlikely to leave behind them records of their experience, like memoirs, art, or letters. For the most part, their experiences have been lost to later generations. Pauline Newman was one of the few who went on to other things after her early years at the Triangle factory, and fortunately, many years later, she chose to write about it. Her letters to friends Michael and Hugh Owens, in which she looks back to her teenage days at the factory, provide a personal view of life in the sweatshops.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P. M. Newman:

  • Hundreds of the clothing shops produced the popular shirtwaist. This was a form-fitting, long-sleeved, high-necked blouse designed to be worn with an ankle-length skirt. Both working women and middle-class women appreciated this new style, which was more comfortable than earlier women's garments.
  • The nation's largest shirtwaist factory was the Triangle Company, owned by two wealthy men named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. In 1906 the company moved to the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the new Asch Building in New York City's Greenwich Village. The company had between five hundred and six hundred employees, almost all immigrant women and girls, and was able to produce about two thousand garments each day to ship to markets all over the United States. This amounted to about $1 million in business each year.
  • In 1900 a group of male cloak makers formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The term "ladies" referred to the kind of clothes being made—as opposed to men's garments—rather than the gender of the group members. But since about 70 percent of the women's clothing industry workforce was made up of immigrant women, the union did have a female majority.
  • By 1909 about 150 Triangle employees had joined the ILGWU against the wishes of Blanck and Harris. In September the owners labeled the union members troublemakers and fired them. Workers from Triangle went on strike in protest. In November, ILGWU joined Triangle, calling a general strike involving laborers from hundreds of garment factories who demanded better wages and more predictable working hours. The strike became known as the Uprising of 20,000, with the number representing the estimated turnout of garment industry workers. It lasted until February 1910, when 339 of the companies agreed to some of the improvements called for by the workers. Triangle was one of the thirteen companies that refused to negotiate.
  • Pauline Newman was one of the speakers at the Triangle strikes. Her participation impressed the ranking members of ILGWU, and in 1910 she left Triangle to become the nation's first female full-time labor organizer. In letters to her acquaintances forty years after her time at Triangle, Newman recounted what it was like to work at the factory. Like most of the women and children who worked in the garment industry, Pauline Newman left few records behind and little is known about her life. Her letters have been printed in many history collections because they provide a voice for the thousands who worked in the infamous sweatshops of New York in the first years of the twentieth century.

Excerpt from Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P. M. Newman

One day a relative of mine who was employed by the now infamous Triangle Shirt Waist Co., the largest manufacturers of shirt waists in New York City, got me a job with that firm. The day I left the Jackson street shop the foreman told me that I was very lucky to have gotten a job with thatconcern because there is work all year round and that I will no longer have to look for another job. I found later that workers were actually eager to work for this company because there was steady employment. For me this job differed in many respects from the previous ones. The Triangle Waist Co. was located at Green Street and Washington Place. This was quite a distance from my home. Since the day's work began at seven thirty it meant that I had to leave home at six forty, catch the horse car—yes, boys, there were horse cars in those days, then change for the electric trolley at Duane and Broadway and get off at Washington Place. You will be interested to know that both rides cost only a nickel and if I remember a-right the service was much better than it is to-day when we pay fifteen ["fifteen" is crossed out and hand written above it is "20"] cents for a single ride!

The day's work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 pm every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. At this point it is worth recording the generocity (sic) of the Triangle Waist Co. by giving us a piece of apple pie for supper instead of additional pay! Working men and women of today who receivetime and one half and at times double time for overtime will find it difficult to understand and to believe that the workers of those days were evidently willing to accept such conditions of labor without protest. However, the answer is quite simple—we were not organized and we knew that individual protest amounted to the loss of one's job. No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs—there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had. Therefore, we were, due to our ignorance and poverty, helpless against the power of the exploiters.

As you will note, the days were long and the wages low—my starting wage was just one dollar and a half a week—a long week—consisting more often than not, of seven days. Especially was this true during theseason , which in those days were longer than they are now. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating—"if you don't come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday"!… We did not like it. As a matter of fact we looked forward to the one day on which we could sleep a little longer, go to the park and get to see one's friends and relatives. It was a bitter disappointment.

My job, like that of the other kids was notstrenous (sic). It consisted of trimming off the threads left on the shirt waists by theoperators . We were called "cleaners." Hundreds of dozens of shirt waists were carried from the machines to the "children's corner" and put into huge cases. When these were trimmed they were put in similar empty case ready for the examiners to finish the job. By the way, these cases were used for another purpose which served the employers very well indeed. You see, boys, these cases were high enough and deep enough for us kids to hide in, so that when a factory inspector came to inspect the factory he found no violation of the child labor law, because he did not see any children at work—we were all hidden in the cases and covered with shirt waists! Clever of them, was it not? Somehow the employers seemed to have known when the inspector would come and had time enough to arrange for our hiding place.

As I said before, the job was not strenous (sic). It wastedious . Since our day began early we were often hungry for sleep. I remember a song we used to sing which began with "I would rather sleep than eat." This song was very popular at that time. But there were conditions of work which in our ignorance we so patiently tolerated such asdeductions from yourmeager wages if and when you were five minutes late—so often due to transportation delays; there was the constant watching you lest you pause for a moment from your work; (rubber heels had just come into use and you rarely heard the foreman or the employer sneak up behind you, watching.) You were watched when you went to the lavatory and if in the opinion of the forelady you stayed a minute or two longer than she thought you should have you were threatened with being fired; there was the searching of your purse or any package you happen to have lest you may have taken a bit of lace or thread. The deductions for being late was stricktly (sic) enforced because deductions even for a few minutes from several hundred people must have meant quite a sum of money. And since it was money the Triangle Waist Co. employers were after this was an easy way to get it. That these deductions meant less food for the worker's children bothered the employers not at all. If they had a conscience it apparently did not function in that direction. As I look back to those years of actual slavery I am quite certain that the conditions under which we worked and which existed in the factory of the Triangle Waist Co. were theacme of exploitation perpetrated by humans upon defenceless (sic) men women and children—a sort of punishment for being poor anddocile .

Despite these inhuman working conditions the workers—including myself—continued to work for this firm. What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era? There were other reasons why we did not change jobs—call them psychological, if you will. One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established. These among other factors made us stay put, as it were.

Concern: Business.

Time and one half: An increased rate of pay for overtime equaling one and a half times the full hourly pay.

Season: Period in the year when business is at its peak.

Strenous: Strenuous; difficult.

Operators: The people who handled the sewing machines.

Tedious: Boring.

Deductions: Amounts taken out of one's pay.

Meager: Small.

Acme: Highest point.

Docile: Easily led or managed.

What happened next …

On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, the Triangle factory workers were shutting down operations for the night when a fire broke out near a corner of the eighth floor. Its cause has never been determined. Although the Asch building itself was believed to be fireproof, the interior of the Triangle Company on the upper three floors was packed with flammable objects such as clothing products, bolts of cloth, and linen and cotton cuttings littering the floors. Gas was used in some of the machines. Company management had a policy of locking most exits from the outside so that their workers could not take unnoticed breaks or steal lace or cloth. Additionally, the exits were only twenty inches wide, designed to restrict access to one person at a time.

Within minutes the fire spread to the two higher floors. The company's one shaky fire escape led nowhere and collapsed when several workers climbed onto it. When fire crews arrived they discovered their ladders were several stories too short to reach the top three floors of the Asch building and the water pressure was insufficient for the hoses to reach that height. As the fire engulfed the upper portion of the building, forty-seven of the trapped workers jumped to their deaths, some already on fire. In total 146 workers died and 70 were seriously injured.

Triangle owners Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter for locking the exit doors in their factory, but they were cleared of all charges within eight months. Families of some of the Triangle victims brought civil suits against the two owners but ended up receiving only about $75 for each of their loved ones who died in the fire.

By 1900 industrial accidents in the United States killed thirty-five thousand workers each year and maimed five hundred thousand others. Most of the accidents failed to attract the attention of the American public. The Triangle fire, however, was regarded as one of the worst industrial tragedies in the country's history, and it motivated citizens to take action and demand reform. The New York state legislature appointed investigative commissions to examine factories statewide, and thirty laws in New York City were passed to enforce fire prevention measures.

Though Pauline Newman had left the company the year before the fire, many among the dead had been her friends. She knew that if she had not taken a position with ILGWU, she could easily have died that day as well. She worked for the improvement of labor conditions, particularly those relating to health and safety, for the rest of her life. One of her many accomplishments was the founding of the ILGWU's Health Center, where she served as director of health education from 1918 to 1980. She was also an adviser to the United States Department of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s and served on the board of directors for the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers.

Did you know …

  • Frances Perkins (1880–1965), later secretary of labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1888–1945; served 1933–45), stood by helplessly and watched the Triangle fire on March 25, 1911. Viewing the Triangle workers leaping to their deaths from the burning building influenced her to become a lifelong advocate for industrial workers.
  • American sweatshops continued to exist after Newman's time, although garment factories in the country in the early twenty-first century employed mainly Hispanic and Asian immigrants rather than the Eastern Europeans and Italians of previous decades. U.S. Department of Labor studies in 2000 revealed that 67 percent of Los Angeles garment factories and 63 percent of New York garment factories violated minimum wage and overtime laws. Seventy-five percent of Los Angeles factories also violated health and safety regulations.

Consider the following …

  • Pauline Newman's tone when she described the working conditions at Triangle and her employers there was angry, even forty years after she had worked there. What was it about working there that made her so displeased?
  • If you were forced to work in Newman's job at Triangle, name the five things that would bother you most about the job as she describes it.

For More Information


Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995.

Schofield, Ann. To Do and To Be: Portraits of Four Women Activists, 1893–1986: Gertrude Barnum, Mary Dreier, Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Web Sites

Newman, Pauline M. "Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P. M. Newman," May 1951. Document Number 6036/008, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Ithaca, NY. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/texts/letters/newman_letter.html (accessed on July 6, 2005).

Sachar, Howard M. "The International Ladies Garment Worker's Union and the Great Revolt of 1909." My Jewish Learning.com. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history_community/Modern/Overview_The_Story_17001914/Socialism/Socialism_in_America/GreatRevolt.htm (accessed on July 6, 2005).

Sherman, Pat. "If Not Now When: The Strike of 1909." No Sweat Apparel. http://nosweatapparel.com/news/article2.html (accessed on July 6, 2005).

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