BMI Audio Guide: Garment Sweatshops

BMI Audio Guide: Garment Sweatshops


Sweatshops in Baltimore relied on several factors immigrant labor exploitation of women a demand for clothing and the location of Baltimore far inland, close to farms in the Midwest As well as its location in a busy seaport. Let’s explore each briefly Baltimore’s location as a seaport meant a ready and continuous demand for clothes and a ready supply of labor Sailors were in need of clothes when they came ashore rural workers from nearby farms flooded the city during wartime when there was demand for workers to make uniforms for men who were serving in war Rural workers returned to the farms when work declined. During peacetime, waves of immigrants came from Europe, who spoke little or no English, but who needed jobs and could quickly learn to thread a needle or operate a sewing machine. Jews arrived as experienced sewers, as laws in Europe dictated that the only jobs Jews could have was tailoring. This kept Jewish people out of sight and away from the Christian world. In America Jewish workers quickly became bosses. In 1910, over 70% of the owners and workers in sewing factories were Jewish. Sewing jobs were gender specific. Men traced and cut the patterns, cut the layers of cloth, and women sewed the parts of a garment. Fancy dresses were not sewn in Baltimore sweatshops. Work clothes, overalls, men’s shirts union suits, house dresses, all were made in Baltimore The work was 12 hours a day in 6 days a week. The job was dull, repetitive and boring, as each worker made one part of a garment- a collar or a sleeve all day long. This made it unnecessary to learn new skills, so there was no chance of advancing in the company. Woman’s hands were smaller than men’s, so they could do these jobs better than men. Since women could only do one job, this justified paying them low wages. Wherever there were women working long hours, there were children who went with their mothers into sweatshops and often did menial jobs, like cutting off little threads. There were no child labor laws in the 19th century. Sewing was done in dirty, crowded tenements and factories. Summers were blazing hot with few windows and little ventilation. When workers began organizing and demanding better pay, bosses began locking the exit doors to keep union agitators out and keep workers from leaving before quitting time piles of cloth littered the floors. On Saturday March 25th, 1911, a match or a cigarette butt, tossed into a pile of scrap material was the cause of the Triangle Shirt factory fire in a New York sweatshop that killed 123 women in 23 men. Workers trying to escape via fire escape on the 9th floor fell to their deaths, as the fire escape tore from the wall The factory owners were tried for manslaughter and acquitted. Outraged immigrants who could not strike in the old country joined unions in America in droves. The International Ladies Garment Workers went on strike and demanded their rights

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