Digital History>Voices>Social History>The Story of a Sweatshop Girl
Story of a Sweatshop Girl: Sadie Frowne
Independent, LIV (Sept 25, 1902), 2279 82.
mother was a tall, handsome, dark complexioned woman with red
cheeks, large brown eyes and a great quantity of jet black, wavy
hair. She was well educated, being able to talk in Russian, German,
Polish and French, and even to read English print, tho, of course,
she did not know what it meant. She kept a little grocer's shop
in the little village where we lived at first. That was in Poland,
somewhere on the frontier, and mother had charge of a gate between
the countries, so that everyody who came through the gate had
to show her a pass. She was much looked up to by the people, who
used to come and ask her for advice. Her word was like law among
had a wagon in which she used to drive about the country, selling
her groceries, and sometimes she worked in the fields with my
grocer's shop was only one story high, and had one window, with
very small panes of glass. We had two rooms behind it, and were
happy while my father lived, altho we had to work very hard. By
the time I was six years of age I was able to wash dishes and
scrub floors, and by the time I was eight I attended to the shop
while my mother was away driving her wagon or working in the fields
with my father. She was strong and could work like a man.
I was a little more than ten years of age my father died He was
a good man and a steady worker, and we never knew what it was
to be hungry while he lived After he died troubles began, for
the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were
food and clothes to provide. We needed little, it is true, but
even soup, black bread and onions we could not always get.
struggled along till I was nearly thirteen years of age and quite
handy at housework and shop keeping, so far as I could learn them
there. But we fell behind in the rent and mother kept thinking
more and more that we should have to leave Poland and go across
the sea to America where we heard it was much easier to make money.
Mother wrote to Aunt Fanny, who lived in New York, and told her
how hard it was to live in Poland, and Aunt Fanny advised her
to come and bring me. I was out at service at this time and mother
thought she would leave me as I had a good place and come to this
country alone, sending for me afterward But Aunt Fanny would not
hear of this. She said we should both come at once, and she went
around among our relatives in New York and took up a subscription
for our passage.
came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt
dreadfully. There were hundreds of other people packed in with
us, men, women and children, and almost all of them were sick
It took us twelve days to cross the sea, and we thought we should
die, but at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the
beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and
the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand (Goddess of Liberty).
Fanny and her husband met us at the gate of this country and were
very good to us, and soon I had a place to live out (domestic
servant), while my mother got work in a factory making white goods.
was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn,
so I received $9 a month and board and lodging, which I thought
was doing well. Mother, who, as I have said, was very clever,
made $9 a week on white goods, which means all sorts of underclothing,
and is high class work
mother had a very gay disposition. She liked to go around and
see everything, and friends took her about New York at night and
she caught a bad cold and coughed and coughed She really had hasty
consumption, but she didn't know it, and I didn't know it, and
she tried to keep on working, but it was no use. She had not the
strength Two doctors attended her, but they could do nothing,
and at last she died and I was left alone. I had saved money while
out at service, but mother's sickness and funeral swept it all
away and now I had to begin all over again.
Fanny had always been anxious for me to get an education, as I
did not know how to read or write, and she thought that was wrong.
Schools are different in Poland from what they are in this country,
and I was always too busy to learn to read and write. So when
mother died I thought I would try to learn a trade and then I
could go to school at night and learn to speak the English language
I went to work in Allen street (Manhattan) in what they call a
sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and
the foreman scolded me a great deal.
then," he would say, "this place is not for you to be
looking around in. Attend to your work. That is what you have
did not know at first that you must not look around and talk,
and I made many mistakes with the sewing, so that I was often
called a "stupid animal." But I made $4 a week by working
six days in the week For there are two Sabbaths here our own Sabbath,
that comes on a Saturday, and the Christian Sabbath that comes
on Sunday. It is against our law to work on our own Sabbath, so
we work on their Sabbath.
Poland I and my father and mother used to go to the synagogue
on the Sabbath, but here the women don't go to the synagogue much,
tho the men do. They are shut up working hard all the week long
and when the Sabbath comes they like to sleep long in bed and
afterward they must go out where they can breathe the air. The
rabbis are strict here, but not so strict as in the old country.
I lived at this time with a girl named Ella, who worked in the
same factory and made $5 a week. We had the room all to ourselves,
paying $1.50 a week for it, and doing light housekeeping. It was
in Allen street, and the window looked out of the back, which
was good, because there was an elevated railroad in front, and
in summer time a great deal of dust and dirt came in at the front
windows. We were on the fourth story and could see all that was
going on in the back rooms of the houses behind us, and early
in the morning the sun used to come in our window.
did our cooking on an oil stove, and lived well, as this list
of our expenses for one week will show:
AND SADIE FOR FOOD (ONE WEEK)
Bread and rolls .40
Canned vegatables .20
course, we could have lived cheaper, but we are both fond of good
things and felt that we could afford them.
paid 18 cents for a half pound of tea so as to get it good, and
it lasted us three weeks, because we had cocoa for breakfast.
We paid 5 cents for six rolls and 5 cents a loaf for bread, which
was the best quality. Oatmeal cost us 10 cents for three and one
half pounds, and we often had it in the morning, or Indian meal
porridge in the place of it, costing about the same. Half a dozen
eggs cost about 13 cents on average, and we could get all the
meat we wanted for a good hearty meal for 20 cents two pounds
of chops, or a steak, or a bit of veal, or a neck of lamb something
like that. Fish included butter fish, porgies, codfish and smelts,
averaging about 8 cents a pound.
people who buy at the last of the market, when the men with the
carts want to go home, can get things very cheap, but they are
likely to be stale, and we did not often do that with fish, fresh
vegetables, fruit, milk or meat Things that kept well we did buy
that way and got good bargains. I got thirty potatoes for 10 cents
one time, tho generally I could not get more than 15 of them for
that amount. Tomatoes, onions and cabbages, too, we bought that
way and did well, and we found a factory where we could buy the
finest broken crackers for 3 cents a pound, and another place
where we got broken candy for 10 cents a pound. Our cooking was
done on an oil stove, and the oil for the stove and the lamp cost
us 10 cents a week.
cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend
on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to
night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did
not know much English.
years ago I came to this place, Brownsville, where so many of
my people are, and where I have friends. I got work in a factory
making underskirts all sorts of cheap underskirts, like cotton
and calico for the summer and woolen for the winter, but never
the silk, satin or velvet underskirts. I earned $4.50 a week and
lived on $2 a week, the same as before.
got a room in the house of some friends who lived near the factory.
I pay $1 a week for the room and am allowed to do light housekeepingthat
is, cook my meals in it. I get my own breakfast in the morning,
just a cup of coffee and a roll, and at noon time I come home
to dinner and take a plate of soup and a slice of bread with the
lady of the house. My food for a week costs a dollar, just as
it did in Allen street, and I have the rest of my money to do
as I like with. I am earning $5.50 a week now, and will probably
get another increase soon.
isn't piecework in our factory, but one is paid by the amount
of work done just the same. So it is like piecework. All the hands
get different amounts, some as low as $3.50 and some of the men
as high as $16 a week. The factory is in the third story of a
brick building. It is in a room twenty feet long and fourteen
broad There are fourteen machines in it. I and the daughter of
the people with whom I live work two of these machines. The other
operators are all men, some young and some old.
first a few of the young men were rude. When they passed me they
would touch my hair and talk about my eyes and my red cheeks,
and make jokes. I cried and said that if they did not stop I would
leave the place. The boss said that that should not be, that no
one must annoy me. Some of the other men stood up for me, too,
especially Henry, who said two or three times that he wanted to
fight Now the men all treat me very nicely. It was just that some
of them did not know better, not being educated.
is tall and dark, and he has a small mustache. His eyes are brown
and large. He is pale and much educated, having been to school.
He knows a great many things and has some money saved I think
nearly $400. He is not going to be in a sweatshop all the time,
but will soon be in the real estate business, for a lawyer that
knows him well has promised to open an office and pay him to manage
has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to
me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not seventeen yet, and
I think that is too young. He is only nineteen, so we can wait.
have been to the fortune teller's three or four times, and she
always tells me that tho I have had such a lot of trouble I am
to be very rich and happy. I believe her because she has told
so many things that have come true. So I will keep on working
in the factory for a time. Of course it is hard, but I would have
to work hard even if I was married.
get up at half past five o'clock every morning and make myself
a cup of coffee on the oil stove. I eat a bit of bread and perhaps
some fruit and then go to work Often I get there soon after six
o'clock so as to be in good time, tho the factory does not open
till seven I have heard that there is a sort of clock that calls
you at the very time you want to get up, but I can't believe that
because I don't see how the clock would know.
seven o' clock we all sit down to our machines and the boss brings
to each one the pile of work that he or she is to finish during
the day, what they call in English their" stint" This
pile is put down beside the machine and as soon as a skirt is
done it is laid on the other side of the machine. Sometimes the
work is not all finished by six o'clock and then the one who is
behind must work overtime. Sometimes one is finished ahead of
time and gets away at four or five o'clock, but generally we are
not done till six o'clock.
machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the
more money you get Sometimes in my haste I get my finger caught
and the needle goes right through it It goes so quick tho, that
it does not hurt much. I bind the finger up with a piece of cotton
and go on working. We all have accidents like that Where the needle
goes through the nail it makes a sore finger, or where it splinters
a bone it does much harm. Sometimes a finger has to come off.
Generally, tho, one can be cured by a salve.
the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished
garments and making us do them over again if they are not just
right So we have to be careful as well as swift But I am getting
so good at the work that within a year I will be making $7 a week,
and then I can save at least $3.50 a week. I have over $200 saved
machines are all run by foot power, and at the end of the day
one feels so weak that there is a great temptation to lie right
down and sleep. But you must go out and get air, and have some
pleasure. So instead of lying down I go out, generally with Henry.
Sometimes we go to Coney Island, where there are good dancing
places, and sometimes we go to Ulmer Park to picnics. I am very
fond of dancing, and, in fact, all sorts of pleasure. I go to
the theater quite often, and like those plays that make you cry
a great deal "The Two Orphans" is good. Last time I
saw it I cried all night because of the hard times that the children
had in the play. I am going to see it again when it comes here.
the last two winters I have been going to night school at Public
School 84 on Glenmore avenue. I have learned reading, writing
and arithmetic. I can read quite well in English now and I look
at the newspapers every day. I read English books, too, sometimes.
The last one that I read was"A Mad Marriage," by Charlotte
Braeme. She's a grand writer and makes things just like real to
you. You feel as if you were the poor girl yourself going to get
married to a rich duke.
am going back to night school again this winter. Plenty of my
friends go there. Some of the women in my class are more than
forty years of age. Like me, they did not have a chance to learn
anything in the old country. It is good to have an education;
it makes you feel higher. Ignorant peole are all low. People say
now that I am clever and fine in conversation.
have just finished a strike in our business. It spread all over
and the United Brotherhood of Garment Workers was in it That takes
in the cloakmakers, coatmakers, and all the others. We struck
for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight
We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the
same pay as before. So the union does good after all in spite
of what some people say against it that it just takes our money
and does nothing.
pay 25 cents a month to the union, but I do not begrudge that
because it is for our benefit The next strike is going to be for
a raise of wages, which we all ought to have. But tho I belong
to the union I am not a Socialist or an Anarchist I don't know
exactly what those things mean There is a little expense for charity,
too. If any worker is injured or sick we all give money to help.
of the women blame me very much because I spend so much money
on clothes. They say that instead of a dollar a week I ought not
to spend more than twenty five cents a week on clothes, and that
I should save the rest But a girl must have clothes if she is
to go into high society at Ulmer Park or Coney Island or the theatre.
Those who blame me are the old country people who have old fashioned
notions, but the people who have been here a long time know better.
A girl who does not dress well is stuck in a corner, even if she
is pretty, and Aunt Fanny says that I do just right to put on
plenty of style.
have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the
young men like to talk to me, but I don't go out with any except
he has been urging me more and more to get married -but I think