Immigrants in the Garment Industry
Whether they worked in a tenement shop or a loft factory, for a day or a decade, almost every generation of immigrants to the Lower East Side has been touched by the garment industry.
Prior to 1850, most of the ready-to-wear made in New York City was sewn by German immigrants or native-born Americans who had come to New York from rural areas. They were gradually replaced by Irish immigrants, who dominated the industry between 1850 and 1880.
By 1890, the garment trade was New York's largest industry, powered by the flood of Eastern European Jews and Italians who began arriving at that time. As the decade wore on, ncewcomers continued to pour in to New York, often finding jobs in the booming garment industry. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Lower East Side had emerged as both the center of the nation's garment production, and the center of its immigrant life.
Successive generations of newcomers have continued to transform the garment industry. The implementation of immigration quotas in the 1920s opened up garment jobs, many of which were filled by Puerto Rican migrants. Indeed, by the 1950s, when employment in New York's garment trade was at its peak (310,537 workers), Puerto Rican migrants constituted the largest ethnic group making these dresses, skirts, and blouses. More recently, Asian and Dominican workers have come to dominate the needle trades.
Technology, taste and economics have also re-shaped the garment industry. Natalie Gumpertz and the independent tailors of the 19th Century have given way to industrialized factories and global corporations. Instead of the more elaborately appointed garments of the 19th Century, needle workers now largely focus on casual fashions. Producing these simple garments requires less skill than other types of clothing. As a result, casual wear drove down wages and skill levels, creating a sector of the industry for low-paid, low-skilled immigrants.
Though the factories and garments have changed, immigrant garment workers past and present have many experiences in common. They also share the memories of long hours hunched over sewing machines, the hiss and heat of pressing irons, the sometimes desperate scramble for profits, and the constant goal of making a better life.