Shirtwaist Tales


One night recently I caught five minutes of this ridiculous MTV program Cribs. The segment focused on jewelers who specialize in making absurdly expensive, gaudy chains for rap artists, and on dentists who are getting righteously overpaid to encase these young men’s teeth in gold and platinum. What disturbs me is not just our culture’s obsession with the lives of the rich and famous, but the seemingly infectious desire to become famous by any means necessary, fueled in part by the “reality show” phenomenon. Now you, too, can be on Letterman if you’re willing to live on an island with no resources, eat raw cow brains, or spend three days on a cruise ship with a date from hell.

“Reality,” of course, is not about what is real. If that were the case, we wouldn’t see so many young, slim, attractive white people on TV speaking in sound bites and dramatic cadences. Reality? What about the “survivors” in our midst who have eaten rats, pig scraps, and spoiled produce out of necessity—no cameras, prize money, or future endorsements?

While bookstore-hopping with my daughter not long afterward, I came across The Cruel Years: American Voices at the Dawn of the 20th Century. It was like a salve on my soul. Edited by the distinguished historian William Loren Katz and his wife, education professor Laurie R. Lehman, it is a compilation of brief testimonials by the unfamous. The book captures the voices of 22 immigrant and native-born working people who toiled in the nation’s coal mines, sweatshops, mansions, laundries, and sawmills. Nine were women. A few were political radicals, notably labor organizer Rose Schneiderman and Puerto Rican socialist Bernardo Vega.

A moving preface by Howard Zinn provides historical context for the period, roughly 1890 to 1915. The Cruel Years builds on a premise established in 1906 by Edwin E. Slosson, literary editor of The Independent, where a few of these stories first appeared. “It is the undistinguished people,” Slosson noted, “who move the world, or who prevent it from moving.” Move they did, but not under conditions of their own choosing, to paraphrase Marx. These men and women had to move against entrenched power that didn’t hesitate to employ violence, intimidation, and outright starvation.

Their accounts of the conditions of work are brutal. They speak almost nonchalantly of falling rocks and bolts in mine shafts, and of sewing-machine needles that drive through fingernails and splinter bones, of kidnapping and forced labor. Metaphors of slavery recur, including one by a “farming woman” whose ambition to be a writer constantly smacks up against the demands of the household patriarch. Her story, like those of the other women in these pages, dispels the myth of the full-time housewife-mother. They tell of a society in which poverty often compelled families to send children away to relatives, orphanages, or homes for “wayward” children; in which wives and mothers worked in factories, shops, farms; in which some children went to work before their 10th birthday. The book’s photographs show the hardened faces of children working on looms and spindles, and in coal mines. The most compelling photo of children comes from a demonstration led by the Industrial Workers of the World, in which kids holding American flags march under the banner “Give us a living wage, not charity.”

These “undistinguished” Americans did not tell their stories to elicit sympathy. They wanted fairness and equity, and the lack of it often made them bitter. Hungarian-born Mike Trudics asks, “Should I become a citizen? Why should I?” Chinese immigrant Lee Chew wonders, “How can I call this my home and how can any one blame me if I take my money and go back to my village in China?” To which an anonymous African American woman in an unidentified Southern town responds: “Happy Chinaman! Fortunate Lee Chew! You can go back to your village and enjoy your money. This is my village, my home, yet I am an outcast.”

These stories unwittingly deflate the captains of industry who appear in history books as the celebrities of their day. In place of the rags-to-riches tales of the Rockefellers and Carnegies, we hear stories of how their wealth was gained by violence, trickery, and outright theft. Rose Schneiderman tells us that in the garment industry, workers had to buy the sewing machines they used from their employers, but if a fire or some disaster destroyed the factory, the owners collected the insurance money.

You don’t have to believe the workers if you don’t want to; Katz and Lehman generously quote these noble leaders of industry and government throughout the book. But what they say here won’t make it onto museum walls or plaques below busts cast in their likenesses. George F. Baer, president of the Reading Railroad Company, declares, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.” T.J. Morgan, commissioner of Indian affairs, says, “We ask them to recognize that we (whites) are the better race; that our God is the true God; that our civilization is the better; that our manners and customs are superior.”

Katz and Lehman have not only assembled a powerful teaching tool for the study of the turn of the last century, but they have also reminded us just how easy it is to erase stories of the oppressed and exploited. Already the media is transforming the 1990s, what ought to be called our “cruel years”—a decade marked by the elimination of welfare, sharpening divisions between rich and poor, erosion of civil rights, questioning of affirmative action and immigrants’ rights, escalating police violence, proliferation of sweatshops and outright slavery throughout the world—into the Cool Years. It may be remembered as the age in which what was “hot” was tight, low-cut jeans, not the grossly underpaid worker who sweated to make them.