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Working for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company

by Pauline Newman and Joan Morrison

In this oral history interview conducted by historian Joan Morrison, Pauline Newman told of getting a job at the Triangle Company as a child, soon after arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1901. Newman described her life as an immigrant and factory worker. Like many other young immigrant workers, she chafed at the strict regulations imposed by the garment manufacturers. One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Although she was not working in the factory at the time of the fire, many of her friends perished. Newman later became an organizer and leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Listen to Audio:

Joan Morrison: So, back to the early days when you first came, and you lived in this flat, with the toilet in the street, and the, ah coal stove. Did you go right to work then? And your mother? Do you remember about your first job, how you got it?

PaulineNewman: We got here in May and I . . . a cousin of mine who 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 various jobs off and on, you know? But in October she got me to the Triangle basement.

Morrison: Do you remember your first impressions, of going in there?

Newman: What, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company? You don’t forget a situation of that kind, because it was one . . . 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. And they got, 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 anything for supper money. At times they would give you - in those days, the bakery had a little apple pie not very much bigger than this - and they would give you that for your supper. 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, ah, what they did, as I said, at times they’d be generous. You could get a little apple pie.

Morrison: Yes.

Newman: The wage scales. You forget nothing, as long as your memory still serves, and mine does. My own wages when I got to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a dollar and a half a week. And by the time I left during the shirtwaist workers strike in 1909 I had worked myself up to six dollars.

Morrison: Ah, magnificent.

Newman: But you see 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 piece work, also?

Newman: You were considered 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 for, ah, when you fitted the shirtwaist at the machine, there are some threads that are left. And I wasn’t the only one. We was, we had the corner on the floor. It resembled a kindergarten: we were all youngsters. And we were given little scissors to cut the threads off, like so. It wasn’t heavy work. It was monotonous 'cause you did that from 7: 30 till nine o’clock 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 was 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 to your next colleague you were admonished. 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, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And 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. And finally, it took from the time I got there, October 1901 to November 1909, for the people to really rise and proclaim that they cannot work under such condition any longer. And we had 20,000 of them coming out here, and 15,000 in Philadelphia, you know? And that was the strike, Boston 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 and my particular assignment took me to the coldest part of the State of New York. I was assigned to go to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, to collect money.

Source: Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky, American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, 1993). By permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. (c) 1980, (c) 1993 by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.

See Also:No Way Out: Two New York City Firemen Testify about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire