|An Immigrant Experience: An Interview
Joan Morrison: So, back to the early days when you first came and lived in this apartment with the toilet in the street and the coal stove. Did you go right to work then?
Pauline Newman: We got here in May. A cousin of mine worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and by the time she got me in there it was October. So between May and October I did many different jobs off and on, you know? But in October she got me to the Triangle.
Morrison: Do you remember your first thoughts going in there?
Newman: In the first place, it was probably the largest shirtwaist factory in the city of New York. By the time I got there, they had something like two, more than two hundred operators. And they had collars, examiners, finishers. All together probably, they had about four hundred people. And that was a large staff. And they had two floors. The fire took place on one floor. We started work at 7:30 and during the busy season; we worked until nine o'clock in the evening. They didn't pay any overtime and didn't give you an~4hing for supper. At times they would give you a little apple the size of an ashtray-and they would give you that for your supper. That is what we got for our overtime instead of money. Very generous.
Morrison: A small child then, like you, would go in and work all day with that and ... ?
Newman: You'd work until you got your regular pay from six to nine in those times.
Morrison: And what did they pay you?
Newman: And what they did, as I said, at times they'd be generous. You could get a little apple pie.
Newman: The wages. You forget nothing, as long as your memory still serves, and mine does. My own wages when I got the to Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a dollar and a half a week. And by the time I left during the shirtwaist workers strike in 1909 1 had worked myself up to six dollars.
Morrison: Ah, Magnificent.
Newman: But you see the hours didn't change. The hours remained, no matter how much you got. The operators, their average wage, as I recall-because two of my sisters worked there-they averaged around six, seven dollars a week. If you were very fast--because they worked piece work-if you were very fast and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or anything, you could make around ten dollars a week. But most of them, as I remember-and I do remember them very well-they averaged about seven dollars a week. Now the collars are the skilled men in the trade. Twelve dollars was the maximum.
Morrison: And that was piecework, also?
Newman: You were well paid, twelve dollars a week!
Morrison: And how about what you did? What did you do for your six dollars and a half?
Newman: Well, what I did really was not difficult. When you finished the shirtwaist at the machine, there are some threads that are left. And I wasn't the only one. We had the corner on the floor. It looked like a kindergarten--we were all children-eight, nine, ten years old. We were given little scissors to cut the threads off, like so. It wasn't heavy work. It was monotonous because you did that from 7:30 until 9:00 at night. You had one half hour for lunch and nothing for supper or anything like that.
Before I left I was promoted to the cutting department. You'd cut the embroidery, which as inserted in the front of the shirtwaist in those days, and that was.... They were the kind of employers who didn't recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren't allowed to sing.
You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking you were scolded. If you'd keep on, you'd be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, or forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back.
And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. That door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people. There were two partners, Rank and Harris, and one was worse than the other. People were afraid, actually. Finally, it took from the time I got there
October 1901, to November 1909, for the people to really rise and say that they could not work under such conditions any longer. And we had 20,000 of them coming out here and 15,000 in Philadelphia, you know? That was the strike, Boston, too. From November 1909 to the end of March 1910.
Morrison: That must have been very hard on the workers, to get along without....
Newman: It was the coldest winter anyone could remember.
Adapted from American Mosaic. - The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, 1993) by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.