When she was 9, my mother was put to work in a garment factory sorting buttons and sewing collars into blouses for 10 hours a day.
had no laws against the use of young girls in sweat shops as long as the mother worked there, too. It was assumed that a child was safe from 'unsavory' influences if her parent was nearby -- as if sexual misbehavior were the only hazard to a child. Manitoba
My mother recollects the constant hum of sewing machines which, at the time, were operated by a foot pedal that the seamstress pressed. It had to be kept in constant motion for the needle and thread to travel in a smooth straight line. She recalls my grandmother limping home each night, her leg swollen and sore from the repeated motion. My mother’s hands were often bloody from needle pricks, and she kept a constant cough from the chill and damp inside the factory.
The floor boss walked up and down the rows shouting orders in English, German, Russian and Polish so that all the immigrant employees were sure to understand.
“Work faster! Arbeit schneller! Rabota bystreye! Szybsza praca!”
One day, however, a health inspector came to the plant and lined everyone up to be checked for tuberculosis. Nurses listened to each woman breathe and cough, and those with suspicious-sounding chests were required to cough onto a slide which was then examined under a microscope.
Fully one third of the workers either had active TB or were suspected of being carriers. Immediately, fabrication ceased and the plant shut down.
Years later, when my mother reminisced about that time, she said that working among women in close quarters was pleasant.
“They smelled of spices or soap, scents brought from
Europe to the new world," she said. "I was young and curious about everything, like body smells and shapes. I liked to look at all the different hair, some icy blond, some inky black. In summer, you could walk in the door and, even if the plant was empty, you would know by the smell that it had been full of women. I have never seen another place like it -- a place that could manage to be both industrious and sultry at the same time.”