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Immigrant Jews continued [around the turn of the 20th century] to pour into the Lower East Side and, to a lesser degree, into Chicago’s West End and Jewish ghettos in Philadelphia and Boston; few of the smaller cities and towns of the American interior offered so great a possibility of Jewish communalism and Yiddish-based culture as the great cities. Equally important, the ghettos, particularly the largest one in New York’s Lower East Side, offered the possibility of employment for Jews. At the time that masses of Eastern European Jews were coming to America, the garment industry was undergoing rapid expansion, and New York City was central to this development.
Many immigrant Jews worked
in New York garment factories.
By 1910 the city was producing 70 percent of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40 percent of its men’s clothing, creating jobs for newly arriving Jews. Even if we discount their exaggerations (only 10 percent of Eastern European immigrant labor force were actually trained tailors), these Jews brought with them from the old countries significant skills in garment work, one of the few occupations open to Jews in 19th-century Europe.
Jobs for Jews
As early as 1890 almost 80 percent of New York’s garment industry was located below 14th Street, and more than 90 percent of these factories were owned by German Jews. Lower New York, therefore, was a powerful magnet for the Eastern Europeans throughout the period of mass immigration. Immigrants were attracted by jobs and by Jewish employers who could provide a familiar milieu as well as the opportunity to observe the Sabbath. By 1897 approximately 60 percent of the New York Jewish labor force was employed in the apparel field, and 75 percent of the workers in the industry were Jewish.
Within the American needle industry there were three systems and three sites of production. The oldest was the family system, which had been dominant under Irish and German influence in the mid-19th century. Work was divided among family members and was done at home. In the 1870s, homework, or outside manufacture, declined, as factories–the second mode of production–became dominant. But with the coming of Eastern European Jews, there sprang up a third form of production–the contracting, or sweatshop, system, a variant of the family system.
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