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Adjusting Our Lives

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Dr. Frank’s Column Appears in this Space Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The needle trades in the United States, above all other occupations, have come to be considered a representative Jewish industry. Over thirty years ago it had already been stated that “the Jewish needle made America the best dressed nation in the world.”

Jewish immigrant labor, in the 1880’s and 1890’s, entered the clothing industries at a time when the despicable sweatshop with its innumerable abuses of human health and dig###y was the predominant form of production. There was no limit in the weekly or daily hours of work, and the best wages seldom exceeded ten dollars per week.

Despite the distressing conditions, Jewish enterprises blazed a path for a truly marvelous development of the industry, while Jewish workers managed to build up organizations that brought a certain measure of order into an over-productive, chaotic, and seasonal line of production. They raised the economic and cultural level of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and made them familiar with the social-political rights inherent in the American civilization.


The needle trades, from 1910 to 1920, built up a structure of industrial statesmanship which has made them models the world over. Work-hours were reduced, minimum scales of wages for all workers were established and attempts at fixing a guaranteed period of annual employment were made.

The needle trade unions, under almost purely Jewish leadership, pioneered in many constructive fields—in collective bargaining, in practice of impartial arbitration, in educational and recreational work, in experimenting with the sanitary control of the shop and medical work among the members, in unemployment insurance, and cooperative banking and housing.

In a word, by a truly American method; that is, from small beginnings and through voluntary action with fair play to all the interests involved, Jewish immigrants, at first despised and dejected, have reached a singular achievement in industrial democracy.


Yet for all this, in the past twelve years, the needle trades have undergone sweeping changes, and their future, particularly so far as Jewish labor is concerned, remains quite uncertain.

Extreme swings in style, tending to standardization and simplification, changes in production and merchandising methods, have thrown thousands of Jews out of the industry, weakened the large-scale manufacturer, and created the new-type jobber, sub-manufacturer and out-of-town shop. Still worse, a resurrection of the sweatshop has threatened for some time. This new house of exploitation arose mostly in country towns and was based mainly upon child and woman labor.

The labor force, especially in ladies garments trades, declined steadily and visibly. Eighty per cent of the coats, cloaks, and dresses are made in New York. In 1910, about 60,000 cloakmakers were employed in this city, whereas in 1926, during the unfortunate cloakmakers’ strike, all in all 33,000 workers walked out. It was estimated at that time that there were 12,000 too many for the demand of almost 4,000,000 more women.


Since 1920, thousands of cloakmakers have dropped out of the trade on account of age, while comparatively few had entered it. Except for the cutter branch, the American-born children of the older generation of Jewish needle workers have kept out of the cloak shops preferring to seek means of livelihood in other trades or professions.

Still many other thousands have left the cloak trade in search of a more stable occupation, of a trade less overcrowded and not so badly afflicted with short and fitful seasons.

The depression has added sharply to the problem of more workers than jobs in the New York cloak shops. Over 12,000 cloakmakers, who had established themselves in business or in other trades, have now returned to their old occupation. This has added, needless to say, to the regular reserve of unemployed workers.

Even the employers are in a bad plight. More than one-third of all the contractor shops (before 1929) used to go out of business each year, turning loose close to twenty-five per cent of all the workers in the cloak industry. The large scale manufacturers, in their turn, were sadly affected by sharp seasonal fluctuations in production.

In the dress industry, the situation is still worse. The cheapest line of merchandise has driven out from the market the better brands. Many thousands of housewives, whose husbands have lost their jobs on account of the crisis, have drifted into the dress shops in an effort to support their families.


Recent changes in social manners and standards of living have complicated the habitual ills of the clothing industries. The increasing use of central heating plants in offices and private houses diminished the demand for heavy, uncomfortable woolen clothing. Fur manufacturers again, managed to cheapen their products and to popularize them at the expense of plain coats and cloaks.

The rapid advance of feminism, above all, changed the strategy of style in general. The woman of our time hangs on a strap, works and plays everywhere, while to step into a car requires comfort and ease. Her garments, therefore, very seldom call for the imagination of a skilled craftsman.

In a way, Americans began to spend less money on clothes and more on automobiles, radio sets, and other luxuries. The social status of an individual is now being rated, not so much by the quality of his clothes as the case was in bygone years, as by the make of his motor car. People are content to wear old clothes as long as they hold together provided they can get an up-to-date automobile every second or third year.

Dr. Frank’s Column Appears in this Space Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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