The Wreck of the Home: How Wearing Apparel is Fashioned in the Tenements

Annie S. Daniel Charities 14, No 1. (1 April 1905): 624-29. "Home" as pictured in sentimental songs and stories was in extreme contrast with filthy dark tenements on the East Side. Here crowded rooms doubled as places to both live and earn needed income. Mothers enlisted the youngest children as helpers to put finishing stitches into garments and finery that was manufactured elsewhere and sold uptown to the rich.

The facts of this child labor are carefully recorded here along with the sense of outrage that new laws were needed to protect children and women. The article was originally given as a speech to the National Consumer's League, a women's organization that began in Boston but grew to enlist female reformers in large cities all over the country. While the NCL began with boycotts against department stores hoping the pressure would result in improved working conditions for female employees, concerns and strategies broadened and the NCL was recognized nationally as an influence in public policy.

Much has been accomplished by the efforts to better the conditions of the working people in New York, but to-day there are conditions existing over on the East Side in tenement-houses, which only those who see daily can believe possible in a civilized community. The most hideous and uncontestable type of sweating is done in what should be the homes of working people.

From these homes last year, 120 families applied for the service, at the home, of a physician from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. These "homes" of working men and women consist of from two to four rooms. In one room, that which opens on the street or yard, is carried on all the domestic life. This room serves for parlor, dining-room, and kitchen; and in this room in addition is carried on the manufacturing. It is quite obvious that the work home was never intended to apply to such an apartment; neither does it give a description of an ideal place in which manufacturing should be done.

The new law relating to manufacturing in tenement-houses, provides that thirty-three distinct industries may be carried on in the living rooms of the workers--manufacturing all of which requires hand work or simple machinery. Every garment worn by a woman is found being manufactured in tenement rooms. The coarsest home-wrappers to the daintiest lace gown for a fine evening function are manufactured in these rooms. Corsets and shoes are the most uncommon. The adornments of woman's dress, the flowers and feathers for her hats, the hats themselves--these I have seen being made in the presence of small-pox, on the lounge with the patient. In this case the hats belonged to a Broadway firm. All clothing worn by infants and young children--dainty little dresses--I have seen on the same bed with children sick of contagious diseases and into these little garments is sewed some of the contagion.

Every garment worn by men is found being manufactured in rooms whose legitimate use is for living purposes. Men's hats are less frequently found, but one wonders if there are men enough in the world to wear all the trousers that are finished in tenement rooms. All clothing when not being sewed upon is thrown on the bed or under it, on the floor or more often used as a couch for a child. In addition to wearing apparel, boxes, cigars, pocketbooks, jewelry, clocks, watches, wigs, fur garments, paper bags--anything the manufacturing, altering, repairing or finishing of which requires hand labor or simple machinery, is found in these rooms. Often one finds the women manufacturing, the man sorting fruit to be sold on the street.

The workers, poor, helpless, ignorant foreigners, work on in dirt, often in filth unspeakable, in the presence of all contagious and other diseases, and in apartments in which the sun enters only at noon or never at all. The tenement-house department states that there are "thousands" of apartments in which all rooms open on an air-shaft; in such an apartment I attended a woman ill with tuberculosis, finishing trousers. During the summer, and then only for about two hours, daylight (not sunlight) came in. This daylight lasted two months and for this place of three air-shaft rooms, ten dollars per month was paid. Three years of life in this apartment killed the woman. The finishers are made up of the old and the young, the sick and the well. As soon as a little child can be of the least possible help, it must add to the family income by taking a share in the family toil. A child 3 years old can straighten out tobacco leaves or stick the rims which form the stamens of artificial flowers through the petals. He can put the covers on paper boxes at four years. He can do some of the pasting of paper boxes, although as a rule this requires a child of 6 to 8 years. But from 4 to 6 years he can sew on buttons and pull basting threads. A girl from 8 to 12 can finish trousers as well as her mother. After she is 12, if of good size, she can earn more money in a factory. The boys do practically the same work as the girls, except that they leave the home work earlier, and enter street work, as peddlers, bootblacks, and newsboys. I have seen but two children under 3 years of age working in tenements, one a boy 2 1/2 years old who assisted the mother and 4 other children under 12 years in making artificial flowers. The other, and extraordinary case of a child of 1 1/2 years, who assisted at a kind of passementerie.

The sick as long as they can hold their heads up, must work to pay for the cost of their living. As soon as they are convalescent they must begin again. The other day a girl of 8 years was dismissed from the diphtheria hospital after a severe attack of the disease. Almost immediately she was working at women's collars, although scarcely able to walk across the room alone.

The greatest evils of this particular form of sweating found in tenements can be grouped as follows:

Child Labor.

A Child from 3 to 10 or 12 years adds by its labor from 50 cents to $1.50 per week to the family income. The hours of the child are as long as its strength endures or the work remains. A child 3 years old can work continuously from 1 1/2 to 2 hours at a time; a child 10 years old can work 12 hours. Obviously under such conditions the child is deprived of the two greatest rights which the parents and the state are bound to give each child, health and an education.

The particular dangers to the child's health are such as can be induced by the confinement in the house, in an atmosphere always foul. The bad light under which the child works causes a continual eye-strain, from the effects of which the child will suffer all its life. The brain of the child under 8 years of age is not developed sufficiently to bear fixed attention. Hence it must be continually forced to fix its attention to the work and in doing this an irreparable damage is done to the developing brain. A child forced to earn its bread has neither the time nor the opportunity to obtain an education.


It is absolutely impossible to know the number of hours per week which one person may devote to the work. In the busy season a woman will frequently not have more than five hours rest in the twenty-four.

Children over 8 years of age who attend school begin work immediately after school hours, and frequently work until late at night, and on Saturdays and Sundays.

The women usually begin about 5 A.M., taking a cup of coffee, working steadily without stopping from 4 to 6 hours. When the work must be finished at a fixed time, they usually work until midnight or until 1 or 2 A.M.; nothing will be allowed to interfere with it. I frequently make a medical visit during which the work is not stopped one minute. Recently I told a woman to stop her work on paper boxes long enough to get me a spoon and towel. She said that it was absolutely impossible to stop a minute. Unless the work was at the factory at a certain hour, she could not get the money needed to pay the month's rent, then over-due.

The hours are regulated solely by the amount of work on hand or by the physical strength of the workers; Sundays and holidays, in sickness and health, work they must.


The amount of pay received varies with the kind of work, from 1 1/2 cents an hour to 10 cents--very rarely more. The little children, according to their ages, earn from 50 cents to $2.00 per week. A girl of 10 to 12 years can earn as much as a woman at certain kinds of work, such as finishing men's clothing, and artificial flowers, or hemming by machine dish towels for a Broadway firm--a recent example. In other occupations, such as sewing on buttons, pulling basting threads or clipping threads between seams, they simply save time for the women by assisting.

In no case in over 515 families was any woman working other than from dire necessity. The average weekly income from the man's work was $3.81. The average rent (the one item in the living expenses which must be paid and promptly) was $8.99 per month. The average family to be supported was of 4 1/2 persons. As it requires more than two weeks' wages to pay one month's rent, it is very evident that the women must work or the family go hungry.

Of these 515 families, 161 were supported entirely by men; 30 by men assisted by persons under 18 years; the remaining 324 families in part or entirely by women. In 150 of these families the women were engaged in some kind of manufacturing in the living rooms. The work continued during the entire illness for which the family was attended. In the 174 families remaining, the women either worked in the factories, at home at laundry work, or added to the income by taking lodgers or boarders. The women of 17 families, who worked in a factory, also brought home work to do at night--most often, artificial flowers. As to the reasons given for the necessity of the women working--45 were widows; with 14, the husband was sick; 15 of the women were deserted; with 7, the man drank. The remainder excused the condition by either slack work or insufficient income of the man. The actual amount of money which the women earned averaged $1.04 per week. The combined income of the men and women averaged $4.85. The additional sources of income came from the work of persons under 18 years and from what could be received from boarders and lodgers. This made the average income from all sources for over 515 families $5.69.


The fact that despite the work of the entire family, the income is still too small for living purposes, gives rise to greater evil of overcrowding. The average number of persons in the apartments, due largely to this cause, was 6.4 persons. The average number of rooms occupied by such groups was 2.6. In order to make the income reach the out-go, boarders, lodgers, two and three families huddle together, until not even the ghost of decency remains.

A Social Tally Sheet.

Why does this exist? What are the advantages derived? By the workers--The possibility of utilizing every finger old enough; and unlimited hours.

By the manufacturers--Less factory space, hence less rent, less light, less fuel and a decidedly smaller pay-roll. No contract is made with the workers. When the work is returned, such pay is given as the manufacturers choose to give.

By the consumers--An article costs a little less. And what are the dangers?

To the workers--Chiefly the loss of health, physically, morally; the loss of a home. Absolutely no home life is possible in a tenement workroom.

To the manufacturers--The possibility of giving out work to people who may be caught, the work confiscated and the manufacturers fined. That this is a danger to which the manufacturer pays little attention is shown by the fact of the very few convictions or confiscations which the labor department is able to report.

To the consumer--The real danger of being infected by disease germs. Among the 150 families manufacturing in the living rooms 66 continued at work during the entire course of the contagious disease for which we were attending the family.

The Law and Its Enforcement.

We have laws which if enforced would obliterate every sweat-shop great and small in New York. To enforce these laws would require an army of inspectors working day and night. In some sections of the city every tenement-house would require two inspectors continually, one at the street door entrances, the other on the roof; and more, fire-escapes are used as entrances and exits.

We have repeatedly known of the inspector visiting the family (during the enforcement of the old law) and finding everything all right. The same day (in one case within half an hour) the illegal manufacturing was resumed. Frequently the visit of the inspector is reported upon his entrance to the block, and the work is hidden until after the inspection has been made. In cases of contagious diseases the door is usually kept locked; the time consumed in opening it permits the hiding of the work.

We have a new law recently in effect which provides that the tenement-house must be licensed for home-work and not the apartment. After an inspection by the labor inspector and consultations with the health department, if everything is found in good order, the owner is given a license. This shall be (the law does not say must be) posted in the public hall on the entrance floor of the building and the buildings be inspected every six months at least. I have a list of tenements licensed by the Labor Bureau in my neighborhood. I have been in 38 of these houses. The license was posted in 12.

One of the houses on the list, in which no license was posted, is an apartment house which rents from $900 to $1,200 per year. Each apartment is leased by the year, as I was told by the elevator boy. In one of these licensed houses I attended a case of measles in an apartment occupied by two families. Notice of the contagious disease was posted on the door. Within, two women were finishing trousers and one day I found the sick child lying on a bundle of the trousers. This is very common.

A clause of the law forbids the employment of any but members of the family--a clause which not only is not obeyed, but the work is carried to other apartments and even to other houses. The other day two women from another street brought trousers to finish at the bedside of my patient, sick with tuberculosis; they had simply come to make a social call and brought their work with them. It frequently occurs that a woman takes more work than she can finish. She then distributes it to neighbors or friends; or she takes a large quantity of work and obtains the services of girls, whom she teaches the trade, usually neckties or artificial flowers. The girls receive no pay for this work.

The old law placed the responsibility of manufacturing on the worker and the manufacturers. The new law takes the responsibility off the worker and puts it on the landlord. On January 9, according to the daily papers, a raid was made by twenty-two inspectors in Elizabeth Street. The people were duly frightened, much of the work was hidden, and to my personal knowledge was being done again in the evening in inside bedrooms, with doors locked. Fresh work I saw carried in and finished in about the same way that the people would have made counterfeit money. The next day and since, it has been done openly. Outlooks are posted in different parts of the house who will give the alarm, in their own language, and work will again be hidden should another inspection be made. Any person seeing such a spectacle can but wonder what manner of United States citizens these people thus treated are going to make, trying to make a living, and forced by this law to make it illegally.

Theoretically, placing the responsibility upon the manufacturer and the landlord, relieving entirely the worker would seem both just and easily enforced. It is too soon after the enactment of the new law (October 1, 1904) to draw conclusions. The first effect of the change was upon the worker in the advance of the rent from fifty cents to a dollar per month. I see absolutely no change in conditions. In January we attended a child ill with measles. The health board posted the usual notice on the door. During the three weeks of the illness, which included pnuemonia, the manufacturer sent three times each week neckties to be make by the woman and carried away those already finished. The landlord called every week for the rent, as the woman was behind in her payments. But no interruption in the work occurred, and both landlord and manufacturer knew that they were disobeying the law.

Is there any other remedy? I believe that a law absolutely forbidding any manufacturer to have any part of his work done in a tenement-house could be enforced.

If women must add to the income of the family they should do it in buildings built for this purpose; children at least under eight years of age would not be employed; men and women in the last stages of tuberculosis could not work because of inability to go to a factory. The children, the future Americans, would stand a better chance of becoming useful citizens; and the consumer possessed of much wealth or little, could know that his garments were not stained with the blood of helpless women and little children.

Note: Substance of an address delivered before the annual meeting of the New York City Consumers League.

Annie S. Daniel, The New York Infirmary for Women and Children

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