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Sweatshops and Tenements
Past and Present

Sweatshops and Tenements
  • Children of the Tenements (by )
  • The tenement house problem (by )
  • The Jungle (by )
  • First Special Report of the Factory Insp... (by )
  • Special Report on Tenement House Fires i... (by )
  • Problems of poverty; an inquiry into the... (by )
  • Sweated Industry and the Minimum Wage (by )
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Today’s media often exposes the unethical, unsanitary, and hazardous working conditions of sweatshops worldwide, including China, India, and Central America.  

A “sweatshop” is defined as a factory or workshop with oppressive working conditions. The term, which was first used in the late 19th century, usually refers to clothing factories that employ relatively unskilled employees. Laborers often work very long hours in unsatisfactory conditions and earn significantly less than minimum wage. 

New York, Chicago, and London all have sweatshop histories. Their factories attracted immigrants, who were desperate for work. 

In the 1900s, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was the most densely populated region in America. Its diverse immigrant population hailed from Italy and Eastern Europe. They converted their small apartments into workshops, which doubled as living spaces. 

In The Tenement House Problem, Robert Weeks DeForest writes, 

The evils of New York’s tenement houses as observed in 1900 were summed up as follows:
Inefficiency of light and air due to narrow courts or air shafts, undue height, and to the occupation by the building or by the adjacent buildings of too great proportion of the lot area; danger from fire; lack of separate water-closet and washing facilities; overcrowding; foul cellars and courts and other like evils, which may be classed as bad housekeeping (p. xiv). 
In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair highlights the oppressive working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking district. He writes, “It was a sweltering day in July, and the place ran with steaming hot blood—one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing. His whole soul was dancing with joy—he was at work at last!” (p. 49). The cramped quarters found in these working environments also bred disease. 

The presence of a shop in a tenement house adds three elements of danger during an epidemic. It gathers together men, woman, and children from other tenements where the disease may be, and instead of keeping them by themselves in large, light factory rooms, the tenement house shop throws them into direct contact with tenants living in the worst and most unwholesome houses. (p. 42)

Fires such as Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory incident claimed the lives of many workers. In Special Report on Tenement House Fires in New York, Hugh Bonner writes, “During the past twelve months 41 persons have been burned to death in tenement houses in this city, and 34 persons have been more or less seriously injured” (p. 261). These incidences, as well as a host of others, contributed to the formation of labor unions and the passing of labor laws such as the 1910 International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

By Regina Molaro

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