Making Gendered Poverty Visible: W.A. Rogers’s  “Slaves of the Sweaters”
and Attitudes toward Women and Child Wage Earners

Carol Lasser and Joanna Steinberg
Oberlin College
September 2005

       “Slaves of the Sweaters” was the title for both a powerful image and a revealing editorial addressing exploited labor in late nineteenth-century New York.  Appearing in Harper’s Weekly in 1890, the two documents represent efforts to bring to middle-class readers of a popular magazine a vision of urban poverty and the concerns of the early Progressive Movement.  In the same year, Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives which, in book form, used a similar persuasive strategy: combining text and image to mobilize sympathy for the impoverished urban poor, and for reform of their living and working conditions.[1

       Even on casual inspection, viewers sense the purposefulness of the image by  W. A. Rogers.  His graphic evokes sympathy and draws his audience into a provocative scene.  Yet how does this image make its case for the protection of female and child workers?  What more exactly is the artist’s perspective—on women, workers, and protection?  A closer examination of this graphic yields a deeper understanding of the ways in which it illuminates-- and intervenes in-- deliberations about gender, work, and power at the dawn of the Progressive Era.   But, analyzed in comparison to the text that shares its title, the image suggests yet another reading, illuminating a particular moment in early Progressive reform.  Seen from this perspective, Rogers’s cartoon highlights the emerging reconfiguration of attitudes toward the poor, gendered labor, and strategies aimed at improving the lives of working women and children.

       In our essay, written jointly by a professor and a student at an undergraduate liberal arts college, we explore how focused readings of the image and text provide evidence of the differences among those who would protect exploited wage earners.  Drawing on the field of visual analysis and applying its insights to the study of historical documents, we first note aspects of the production of this image, then turn to analysis of the image itself, exploring the background, the figures, and the relational qualities of the composition that suggest elements in the artist’s critique of gendered industrial relations.[2]  We close by looking at the interactions and tensions between the visual and the text that accompanied its appearance in Harper’s Weekly in 1890, a moment of transition in reform attitudes and strategies. 

Production and Publication

       The image “The Slaves of the Sweaters” is a wood engraving by W.A. Rogers (1854-1931)  published in Harper’s Weekly in 1890.  Harper’s Weekly was noted for the quality of its illustrations, and, in the 1880s and 1890s, Rogers took the lead in introducing its readers to scenes of urban poverty.[3Harper’s Weekly had long portrayed the milieu of the cosmopolitan elite, but, as it joined the chorus of reformers increasingly concerned about urban poverty in the final decades of the century, it began to depict more gritty aspects of city life.  Unlike W.T. Smedley, whose work portrayed Fifth Avenue scenes of wealthy New Yorkers in the magazine, W.A. Rogers illustrated American slum life, sharing his subject matter with contemporaries in the Ash Can School of painters.[4]  According to art historian Peter Hales, Rogers became a “specialist on the picturesqueness of poverty throughout the `80s and the `90s” conveying the “immediacy of street life,” especially in the Mulberry Bend.[5]  His interest took shape during his early work for the New York Daily Graphic, which led him into the New York City slums, where he developed a special sympathy for working children.[6]  Anticipating that his audience was far removed from the working poor, Rogers positioned himself as a hidden observer, thus seeking to give his viewers the same perspective.

       Rogers’s “Slaves” appeared as a full-page illustration for an editorial of the same name in the Harper’s Weekly issue of April 26, 1890.  Rogers self-consciously saw his cartoons as working in conjunction with such commentaries, but with different “strategies.”  As he later wrote: “the cartoon makes a frontal attack.  To be successful it must be one grand smash, while the editorial can attack from all sides—advance, retreat, sidestep, and get in a dozen raps before it is through.”[7]  The editorial text began with a similar assault, directing the reader to the illustration: “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.”[8] Here, artist and editor self-consciously worked together to bring to the audience a vision of  “the squalor and almost incredible toil endured by the slaves of the sweaters [that] can only be realized by those who see and study it.”  Noting  “the artist has studied an incident of it in the picture,” the editor praised Rogers’s work for “wisely” giving Harper’s readers “the embodiment of the extreme pressure” of poverty.  The illustration was, in a sense, intended to remove the blinders from the eyes of the middle-class audience, obstructions that had prevented them from noticing the poverty around them in their daily lives.  On the pages of Harper’s Magazine, the artist created for them a visual confrontation with the urban poor who might have remained otherwise unseen.

       The title of both text and illustration, “The Slaves of the Sweaters” invoked two critical terms that further positioned the artist and the editorial writer in relation to conditions of work.  Reformers often used the term “wage slavery” to denote a degraded relation and encompassed a critique of unchecked competition that could reduce abused workers to “slaves,” ensnared in the capitalist system of wage relations.[9]  Second, the “sweaters”--the middlemen who controlled the putting-out system--tied them to one of the most exploitative aspects of garment production.  Piece workers undertook unskilled labor at home for minimal rates, often drawing other household members into the system.  Thus the title of both the image and the editorial immediately invoked notions of dehumanized labor. 

Image Analysis

       The background of the image evokes a tone of modernity and urbanization that is in tension with the representation of workers as “slaves” bowed under their burdens--an image associated with the rural, archaic institution of slavery that, by 1890, had largely been eliminated from the Western world.  The architectural design of the central building is modern, and the welter of overhead electrical lines in the upper right suggest technological advancements in the urban setting. (See detail.) But these are advances from which the workers are not benefiting.  Even the cables themselves seem frayed, disordered, more threatening of collapse and catastrophe than promising of power.  The artist has placed the scene in a commercial street.  On the right, a vendor sells merchandise to a group of customers. (See detail.) On the left, a horse and carriage shield its occupants as they move through the city, protected from its hurly-burly. (See detail.) One man with a top hat, a signifier of wealth, walks through the scene.  Although the geometric lines of the illustration suggest he might have crossed paths with the foregrounded “slaves of the sweaters,” his back is turned to them; he seems pointedly determined to remain oblivious to them.  Taken as a whole, the image represents a scene in daily life, emphasizing class division and the indifference of the prosperous to the working poor. Nothing arrests the sense of movement in this scene suggesting that it depicts merely routine happenings; life goes on—for wealthy and poor alike—with little mutual recognition.

       Interestingly, although the accompanying editorial places the scene on New York’s Lower East Side, the location as it appeared in Rogers’s cartoon lacks the crowded streets, the sidewalk stalls and pushcarts, that congested these urban byways.  Rather, the expansive road in the foreground would be more likely found in an uptown location.  Yet the editor confidently and precisely identifies the scene as Hester Street, suggesting that, for all their concern to make visible urban poverty, the Harper’s Weekly staff remained geographically and psychologically distant from the locale they sought to portray.[10]

       Although the background is important in setting the scene, the foregrounded workers are the primary focus of the artist. Sympathetically portrayed, these workers appear to be a family forging their way through the city streets with piles of clothes on their backs. (See detail.) Their placement suggests that the family members complete their work in one of the tenement buildings on the cramped streets in the background where they work for the middlemen who export their work to markets outside their neighborhood. The viewer must focus carefully to identify the bent figure in the foreground as female, a woman who has been nearly unsexed by her labor. (See detail.) Her work has undercut and made invisible her gender.  Instead of supporting her children and shielding them from such “slavery” in a protected domestic environment, this mother, due to her poverty  has been unable to protect herself or her children, to do her maternal "duty."  As workers mobilized outside a factory building, these figures are captured by their illustrator on the street; unprotected they have been drawn into modern wage-labor capitalism.

       Rogers further evokes pity through his depiction of their expressions and attire.  Worn faces reflect the burden that they are forced to endure as they struggle to make a living.  Their extreme poverty is accentuated by the rags that they wear in contrast to the clothes that they carry.  The girl in the middle walks barefoot on the city pavements. (See detail.) The bundles of clothes on their backs weight them down and seemingly deform them while making their bearers indistinguishable from their labor, emphasizing their dehumanization.  Ironically, garments meant to offer warmth and protection have become crushing burdens.  The prominent tags on the clothing suggest that these garments fetch far more money in the marketplace than the workers earn for their labor creating them.  Yet the juxtaposition of these workers to the wealthy people walking past them highlights the indifference of intended consumers of their products to the conditions of their production—the nearly backbreaking labor of these poorly paid workers.  Modern consumer society employs these workers and reduces them to brutalized creatures.   

       If the background of the illustration evokes modernity, urbanization, and consumerism, the workers in the foreground exist in opposition to their surroundings.  The busy pedestrians and surrounding commercial world contrast sharply with  the sluggish creep of the exploited, bowed by the weight of their loads.  Without access to public or private means of transportation, these workers are forced to the most primitive mode of transport, becoming themselves beasts of burden.  Functioning as mules, they seem more similar to the horses pulling carriages than the other humans in the image.  Dark figures, they move across large white paving stones.  The artist’s perspective draws the viewer’s eye to the uniform pattern that vanishes only in the distance, suggesting the endless and seemingly predetermined path--and toil--of these workers.

“Slaves of the Sweaters” and the Early Progressive Movement

       Yet where have the artist and the editorial writer variously positioned themselves with respect to the emerging Progressive Movement?  “The Slaves of the Sweaters” appeared as both graphic and text at a moment of awakening for the Progressive Movement.  The image explicitly seeks to persuade its readers to “see” the dreadful poverty and the abuses of men, women, and child wage earners in the turn-of-the-century city. It thereby takes its place in the emergence of socially engaged art in this period.   But the images invoke a particular perspective, a view that, on careful investigation, differs significantly from the position articulated in the editorial of the same name. 

       The image makes visible the exploitation of the poor and, in particular, advocates for helpless women and child wage earners.  Adult male wage earners, who might be thought more capable of helping themselves, are absent from the illustration.  The despoliation of the family and the degradation of motherhood make these figures more pitiable—and less culpable--for their own plight.  Prosperous figures are not indicted for their direct exploitation so much as their failure to take notice of the conditions that surround them.  The impoverished family appears victim of a faceless “system,” not of individual villains; they seem incapable of undertaking actions that would remediate their situation.  In the end, the graphic seeks to connect consumers to the exploitation they unwittingly foster, and to rouse them to enlist in reform projects that the deserving poor cannot undertake for themselves.  In many ways, Rogers’s effort to bring to view the conditions of production of goods destined for sale to the middle class was not dissimilar to strategies used by other reformers of the period, including the work of the Consumers’ League of New York, founded in 1890.[11]

       Yet the Harper’s editorial seems to point in another direction.  Although the image implies that the docile plodding families of the poor require rescue from a system that will continue to entrap them in endless dehumanizing toil, the text raises questions about what remedies the editors endorse.  The editorial alerts readers, whose “eyes have been opened, ” to the work of state bureaus of labor statistics and recent testimony by Commissioner Charles Peck before the New York State Legislature in Albany.[12]  It then describes labor within the context of a newly arrived immigrant family whose hard working male head finds “[i]n a little time...that he is underpaid, and he begins the struggle, which lasts for the rest of his life, for better wages,” concluding optimistically:  “He gets them.”  In the end, the text undercuts the visual by asserting:  “Better wages come with more knowledge, but knowledge comes slowly, and the emancipation of the ‘slaves of the sweaters’ is a very gradual process.”  Here, men’s wage labor is seen as the key to the elevation of the family.  The father, absent from the cartoon, will rescue his family—his dependent working wife and children.

       Why then did Rogers’s cartoon exclude the pater familias, leaving viewers instead with a sense of the desperation of an unprotected woman and children who were dehumanized, unsexed, and forced by their labors to trudge the streets?  In the end, Rogers’s “one grand smash” seems to call for the intervention of cosmopolitan viewers, spurred by the helplessness of the children and women who were, in his image, the victims of the sweating system.  By studying the graphic alongside its accompanying text, we can see the tensions in late nineteenth-century New York over modes of reform, and the difficulties encountered by those who sought to rally—and deploy—public support on behalf of the “slaves of the sweaters,” by placing women and children in their own distinct category, worthy of public attention and aid.

       Reformers drawn to analyze the causes and consequences of urban poverty, and to postulate strategies for its amelioration, rarely endorsed the patient laissez- faire approach seemingly supported by the accompanying Harper’s Weekly editorial.  The text stresses that the passage of time and the process of assimilation would, in a natural “gradual process,” bring about improvements in the opportunities for the son, while his parents “seeing and knowing” what would unfold, would be “content.”  In a telling indication of the distance between the editors and the objects of their concern, the editorial patronizingly asserts, “It takes little to content the hopelessly poor.”  While the writer endorses recent efforts to collect statistics, he insists that they are not yet “collated accurately and fully.”  He expresses more concern for the state of the statistics than of the exploited workers who are the object of statistical study.

       Moreover, while the graphic focuses on the helpless woman and her children, the text centrally addresses the father; he is “the man [emphasis added] whom civilization treads under foot,” the immigrant, the worker.  By positioning the mother and children as subsidiary, the Harper’s Weekly editorial unwittingly forecloses the space to discuss reform that might directly address their plight.  In so doing, the text follows the lead of New York State’s highest court that had, in 1885, struck down a statute that would have prohibited cigarmaking in tenement sweatshops by asserting that such legislation would have limited the rights of men to work in their homes with the “help” of their wives and children.[13]  Subsequent efforts at tenement reform in the 1890s would attempt to ameliorate the conditions of sweatshop labor, but would continue to exempt work by immediate relatives since it was presumably under the direction of well-meaning fathers seeking only the best for their families.[14]

       If Rogers’s cartoon failed to convert his editors to the importance of women and child wage earners, his imagery nonetheless captured an analysis that was ascendant among the white middle-class women who, by 1890, had begun to address the problems raised by these vulnerable wage earners.  These reformers recognized the need to improve wages and working conditions for those of their own sex, both those who labored within the sweating system and those whose work took them into factories.  Activists like Maud Nathan, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Helen Campbell and Florence Kelley had already begun advocating measures that directed attention specifically to the exploitation of laboring women, particularly in the garment trades.  “Working Girls’ Societies” and the more formally organized Working Women’s Society brought reformers and wage-earning women together in the quest for improvements in the conditions of, and remuneration for, women’s work.[15] Although the struggle to involve the state in the regulation and protection of women’s work would require almost two more decades of agitation until the 1908 Muller v. Oregon decision finally secured a national standard, Rogers’s imaginative intervention both reflected and shaped changing popular perceptions, bringing attention to the plight of working women in ways that would eventually supplant the myopic view evident in the older analytic strategies on which the Harper’s Weekly editors relied.


1. Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York was originally published in New York by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1890.
                 Back to Text

2.See, for example, Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (London: Sage Publications, 2001), especially Chapter 1.  See also the work on interpreting visual images in historical teaching and scholarship being developed by the Visible Knowledge Project, including a forthcoming report on its work, “’Seeing’ The Pedagogical Turn in the Historical Profession,” Journal of American History, forthcoming March 2006.
                 Back to Text

3. On the art and technology of illustrations in American weekly publications, see Joshua Brown, Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).  On the history of Harper’s Weekly, see Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines,  (Harvard University Press, 1938), pp. 467-87; and Eugene Exman, The House of Harper: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing  (New York: Harper and Row: 1945).  W.A. Rogers wrote a helpful autobiography, A World Worth While (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922).  His work is also described in Frank Weitenkampf, “William Allen Rogers in a ‘World Worth While,’” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 37(March 1933): 171-76. 
                 Back to Text

4. Peter Hales, Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1838-1915 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 185-90.
                 Back to Text

5. Hales, p. 185.
                 Back to Text


6. See Rogers, A World Worth While, pp. 147-58.  Rogers became a supporter of “Fresh Air” institutions that took boys into the country during the summer.
                 Back to Text

7. Rogers, A World Worth While, p. 39.
                 Back to Text

8. “The Slaves of the Sweaters,” Harper’s Weekly, April 26, 1890, p. 333.  For a full transcription of this text, see the appendix to this article.
                 Back to Text

9. See, for example, Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 84-88 for the use of “wage slavery” in the Gilded Age.  For a contemporary usage, see Denis Donohue, Jr., President of the Newspaper Men’s Henry George Campaign  Club to Theodore Roosevelt, October 21, 1886, printed in the New York Times, October 24, 1886, p. 1, col. 5.
                 Back to Text

10. We are indebted to WASM editor Tom Dublin for this reading of New York streetscapes.
                 Back to Text

11. See, particularly, Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), especially pp. 309-11.  See also Kathryn Kish Sklar and Jamie Tyler, “How Did Florence Kelley's Campaign against Sweatshops in Chicago in the 1890s Expand Government Responsibility for Industrial Working Conditions?” also on this website.
                 Back to Text

12. Charles F. Peck served as New York State Labor Commissioner from 1883 until he was forced to resign in disgrace in 1893. Peck was a supporter of unionization, and, in 1885, investigated the working conditions of women.  In 1889, New York passed a law requiring day laborers employed by the state to receive $2 per day for their work, prompting debate in the legislature the following year about the cost of this measure to the state and to private employers pressured to pay higher wages as a result.  Critics charged that Peck’s pro-union and protectionist stance had caused him to issue faulty and untrustworthy statistics, especially in an 1892 report for which he was unable to produce his original sources after a suspicious fire at the New York State printing office.  Little is known of Peck’s subsequent life.
                 Back to Text

13. See Eileen Boris, “’A Man’s Dwelling House is His Castle’: Tenement House Cigarmaking and the Judicial Imperative,” in Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, ed. Ava Baron (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 114-43, especially pp. 114-16.
                 Back to Text

14. See, for example, “Closing Days at Albany,” New York Times, April 21, 1892, p. 5.
                 Back to Text

15. See Sklar, Florence Kelley, pp. 140-68.
                 Back to Text


| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |