The New Industrial Worker

As a 15-year-old girl growing up in America, I had the typical teenager’s life. I went to school every day, was involved in extra curricular activities, and on the weekends worked part time at a video rental store. My mother stayed at home and took care of my brother and me when we were little, and continued to be a house mom long after we were old enough to be in high school. It is hard to imagine what life must have been like for women and children who live just one hundred years ago in the industrial cities of the United States.

Sweatshops were their place of employment and the working conditions were awful. Children started working full time at the age of fourteen and even smaller children were forced to work at home after school to help their impoverished families make extra money. These conditions made living day to day a struggle for women and children at the turn of the century. In Hilda Satt Polacheck’s I Came a Stranger, the world is given one of many first hand accounts of what it was like to grow up as an immigrant child during what is now thought of as the Industrial Revolution.

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When Hilda turned fourteen years old, she was forced to leave school and join the workforce with her older sister. It was at this time that a young fourteen-year-old “became an adult and a worker” (Polacheck 56). Hilda, like so many other young immigrants, went from enjoying her days as a schoolgirl to working “from seven thirty in the morning till six in the evening, six days a week” (57). From these sixty hour work weeks, Hilda took home only four dollars a week. Many children worked similar hours in a week and made the same wages as Hilda.

In fact, it was estimated in this time that one out of five children at the age of fourteen dropped out of school and began working in the factories and sweatshops. There are many documented tales of the working conditions in sweatshops. The wages of workers in the sweatshops varied from nothing to around 10 dollars a week (Kelley 1). Florence Kelley testified before the Illinois investigation committee in 1983 after researching the sweatshops and tenement workshops. She found many instances where workers were paid nothing and worked for up to six weeks without pay to earn their place at the sweatshop.

Kelley also found many instances where the person who ran the sweatshop would rent out a place for a few weeks, and leave before paying any of his employees. She told of finding “a debt of $40 to a single family, on the part of a sweater who had left…and moved to Brooklyn” (Kelley 4). Along with the instability and bad working conditions of the sweatshops came the large factories that women and children were employed in. In 1906, it was estimated that more than 130,000 women were working in more than 39,000 factories in New York City alone (Kleeck 13). Cheap labor of these poor immigrant women made it easy for the industries to make money.

Men had long been employed under these conditions, but the fact that many of these women also were mothers, brought new light to the issue. One common place of employment that bore the hardest working hours and conditions was the magazine bindery. At these factories, women often worked seventy-eight hours a week. The following is an example of the reports given to labor organizations – “They begin work at eight in the morning. They do not stop until 10 o’clock at night. Wages – $6. 00 a week” (Kleeck 14). These women said that they would probably be fired if they refused to work the overtime.

Work in the factories was also very dangerous. There were no safety laws during these times and women and children were injured without receiving any compensation from their employers. Hilda Polacheck told of one incident at her first job when she had only been working for about two weeks and “a girl had caught her hand in the machine” (Polachack 57). Many factory accidents lead to lost hands and even death in some instances. One of the major labor laws that was taken more seriously than others was the child labor law stating that a child must be fourteen years old to get a worker’s permit.

However, this did not mean than children waited until they were fourteen to begin work. Child labor in tenement homes had no age restrictions. Many children were often seen “on the streets carrying large bundles of unfinished garments” (Kleeck 18) to their homes to continue to work on until late at night. Many children did not attend school regularly so that they could assist their families with extra income by working out of their homes all day. There were no laws that would regulate the lives of these children once they were at home.

While many children assisted their mothers in sewing buttons and making flowers for a few cents a day, others were given the responsibility of caring for the smaller children and doing housework. One investigation was made into the home of a family where their two daughters, ages eleven and eight, spent all afternoon until eight o’clock in the evening making flowers. The two girls made an extra eight cents a day for the family after “making, counting and bunching 1440 small roses” (Kleeck 18). When the teacher of the younger girl was interviewed, she claimed that the child was very sleepy during school hours and had very low marks.

The only good thing that was found about this particular case was that the home was clean and spacious, with few health risks other than fatigue for these young girls. Health risks were often found in many other tenements were work was brought home. These conditions were not only bad for those who worked in the tenements, but those who eventually bought the products that were made there. Florence Kelley’s testimony furthered revealed that there were many instances where ill people were found in the same room as work being done by their families (Kelley 364).

One example would be a sixteen-year-old girl that was dying of tuberculosis as her family sewed pant legs in the room with her. Such instances spread diseases such as diphtheria, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases throughout the cities quickly. These events at the turn of the century did much to help shape the labor laws that we have in effect today. The overtime laws, child labor laws, health inspections, and many other provisions to the work force have made today’s America a safer more profitable place to live and work.