By Lisa Peterson
By the turn of the 20th Century, German immigrants, many of them Jewish, were coming to America in droves to start a new life. They landed in New York City equipped with their trade, as milliners, tailors, and hat makers. These men and women were skilled at the various stages required to make clothes. Their talents included jobs as seamstresses, dressmakers, pattern cutters, quilters, knitters, and even lace makers.
By 1910 the city was making seventy percent of women’s clothing and forty percent of men’s clothing for the entire country. Many of these tradesmen found work in the garment factories, in local shops, or even working as contractors in their own small apartments. One only had to walk among the streets of Manhattan to hear sewing machines churning away in cloistered rooms, workers sewing as fast and as hard as they could to earn the few pennies every completed garment might make them.
Much of this work, done by newly arrived German Jews, took place in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you did not work at a factory, you might be sewing in a small apartment, used as a shop, among squalid conditions. Workers would be sewing and stitching side by side with multiple families stuffed into a single room, many without plumbing or electricity.
The following description is of what an Essex Street tenement looked like just before the turn of the 20th Century from the book, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories, written in 1898 by Abraham Cahan:
LEIZER Lipman was one of those contract tailors who are classed by their hands under the head of “cockroaches,” which–translating the term into lay English–means that he ran a very small shop, giving employment to a single team of one sewing-machine operator, one baster, one finisher, and one presser. The shop was one of a suite of three rooms on the third floor of a rickety old tenement house on Essex Street, and did the additional duty of the family’s kitchen and dining room. It faced a dingy little courtyard, and was connected by a windowless bedroom with the parlor, which commanded the very heart of the Jewish markets. Bundles of cloth, cut to be made into coats, littered the floor, lay in chaotic piles by one of the walls, cumbered Mrs. Lipman’s kitchen table and one or two chairs, and formed, in a corner, an improvised bed upon which a dirty two-year-old boy, Leizer’s heir apparent, was enjoying his siesta.
By 1890, most of the garment factories were below 14th Street and afforded many German Jews employment upon arriving in this land of opportunity. These ghettos contained the sweatshops of the garment industry. These apartments turned shops would be filled with contractors to do piece meal work. One “shop” owner would go to the factories and pick up precut garments and bring them back to the sweatshops to be sewn together. The shop owner would oversee that the work was done quickly to maximize profits. The types of workers included basters, who sewed the long, loose stitches on the cloth, finishers, who sewed the garment together, pressers and finishers, who cleaned up the item before the zipper installers and pocket makers added their touches. There were even subcontractors who then took the garment into their homes to do even more work on each garment.
While the conditions were horrible, it came with freedom, and the promise of a new land and upward mobility. Many families endured these slums, then survived and thrived. After health and housing reforms years later, the welfare of New York City’s garment workers improved.
Cahan, Abraham. “A Sweatshop Romance.” Crucibleteachnotes.html,
Sachar, Howard. “Jewish Immigrants in the Garment Industry.” My Jewish Learning,
Siegel, Allison B. “A Little History of 75 Essex Street.” Tenement Museum Blog, 9 Feb. 2010,