Jewish Garment Workers

Into the sweatshops.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

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. 

Jews in the garment industry

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.