"The Slaves of the Sweaters," Harper's Weekly, 26 April 1890, p. 335.
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The burden of poverty is a heavy one, and the observer need not go to Hester Street, as the artist has done, to find an exemplification of it. Yet the artist has done wisely, for he has found what may be accepted as the embodiment of the extreme pressure of that burden. Poverty, to those who have studied the problem of it, seems to bear the hardest on those who struggle the most vigorously against it. The burden of it is not great upon the tramp or the idler, who relinquishes the struggle, and, lying down, leaves the community to do for him what he should do for himself. He is like the tropical savage, who simply opens his mouth and waits for the cocoa-nut to drop into it. If it drops, well; if not, well, the game is not worth playing. But to the toiler-to him who accepts the responsibility of carrying his portion of the burden of mankind-there comes always a load as heavy as he can well carry.
In the byways of New York there is an army of such. The student of sociology may not linger on the highways. There the prosperous pass. It is in the meaner streets, along the passageways of the "slums," that one may find the man whom civilization treads under foot. More than that, the man's wife and little ones may be found, as the artist has found them, staggering under the overplus of that burden. Into New York, as the gateway of the New World, flows, year by year, a steady an ever-increasing stream-the "surplus humanity" of Europe. Whoever in human form finds the conditions of life too hard in older civilizations turns to America as the land of promise. It is that. Yet, to the infinite dismay and discouragement of the toiler, the promise is one that may only be fulfilled in the third and fourth generation. Coming from the grinding conditions of labor in the Old World into the broad, generous sunrise of promise in the New, the toiler is at once confronted with the drawbacks of an overcrowded community. No doubt if he could "go West," or if he understood the necessity of doing so, he might find circumstances more favorable; but he cannot or does not. He has reached America. He stops where he is, and no man knows or cares about his necessities enough to guide him. He sits down in such a habitation as he may find, and does such work as he may find to do. It is the story of this man, not seen in the picture, which the artist tells in his picture of what may be seen any day in the streets of New York. He is a tailor; not one who accumulates a fortune by dictating fashions to the votaries of fashion, but the man who has learned to fasten together the garments that clothe the common people. Good honest work he is ready to give in return for a living, but in America he looks for a comfortable living, with a possibility of something more. The tools of his trade are few and simple, and he has them. At once he looks for work, and he finds it. He falls into the hands of the "sweater," and thenceforward, if his life is better than it was in Poland or Hungary-and it is-it is solely because of the larger liberty he has, and because of that bow of promise that is ever before him, and that will, so long as he lives, remain in the distance like an actual rainbow. His son, the little fellow who is tottering along, manfully struggling under his share and more of the family's burden, will grow up a happier and better man than the father ever can be, for he has the better start and larger opportunities; and the father and mother, seeing and knowing this, although vaguely, are content. It takes little to content the hopelessly poor.
And hopelessly poor the parents will remain. The squalor and almost incredible toil endured by the slaves of the "sweaters" can only be realized by those who see and study it. The artist has studied one incident of it in the picture, but it is only an incident. While the father is sewing at home, the mother and children are bringing him more work to do. Toilsome as their progress is through the wretched streets of the poorer quarters, the home must be seen before their poverty can be realized. It is a room-perhaps two rooms-in the top floor of a "rear tenement." Five, six, or eight dollars a month go for bare shelter, for rent buys nothing more than shelter in these places; comforts, conveniences, and cleanliness are not looked for. In these rooms are a table, a stove, a few chairs, a sewing-machine, and perhaps a bed. Or, it may be, in lieu of a bed there is a heap of rags in the corner. Besides these things, there is nothing but a few dishes and the family of four.
Week after week, sometimes without even the rest of the weekly Sabbath, and year after year, the toiler struggles on for the enrichment of the "sweater." This creature is not a toiler, not a merchant, not a producer, not even a dealer in anything but human endurance. He is a contractor, and the name "sweater" by which he is commonly called is indicative of the character of his employment and the esteem in which he is commonly held. He is acquainted with some of the large clothing manufacturers, who, under competition, are striving always to lessen the cost of manufacture. They are willing to pay only a trifle for the sewing together of garments, and they contract with the "sweater" for the performance of the work. To him it matters little how small the price of the work is if he can secure enough of it, for he looks out for his own pay first, and pays the workmen whom he employs whatever is left. He serves no purpose whatever in the economy of civilization beyond the mere convenience of the manufacturer, and yet that slender hold is enough for him.
The figures tell the story, or would, if they could be collated accurately and fully. Within a few years a number of the States have established bureaus of labor statistics, and have set their commissioners at work investigating the facts of the daily life of the workers. The field is too large to be covered in a few years, and the reports that are made annually are valuable chiefly as material for the student. The chief criticism to be made so far is that the returns are too scattering. Figures are there, and they are instructive, but they are neither exact enough nor complete enough to be satisfactory. We can learn however, from Commissioner Peck's report from Albany, that the newly arrived immigrant who goes to work for the "sweater" can make at first about five cents an hour in return for hard work. On this he expects to support his family, and he begins work hopefully. In a little time he finds that he is underpaid, and he begins the struggle, which lasts for the rest of his life, for better wages. He gets them. From the testimony which Mr. Peck has collected we learn that the clothing manufacturer pays as much as a dollar and a half to three dollars for "making," that is, sewing, a dozen pairs of pantaloons, and from fifteen cents to thirty-five cents apiece for making vests. Out of this munificent contract price the "sweater" retains so much that his victim is able to earn about fifty cents for sixteen hours work. To do this, he has to employ the help of his wife and children. Newspaper reporters who have occasion to visit the homes of the very poor find children from four to six years old-just such infants as the one who toils under the lightest burden in the picture-sitting on the floor pulling out basting threads. They are earning their quota of the half-dollar a day that comes in for the labor of the entire family. Better wages come with more knowledge, but knowledge comes slowly, and the emancipation of the "slaves of the sweaters" is a very gradual process.
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