A few weeks ago, I posted about my paternal grandmother’s ILGWU card, and how it was a key to dress and social history research as well as personal family genealogy. The post opened up a dialogue among my own family, and those of friends whose forebears also worked in the garment industry in the USA in the last century. This conversation took place virtually, here on Worn Through and on Facebook and via email. I am thrilled that digital communication technology facilitated the sharing of knowledge and memories, and was even more delighted that the post inspired my father to locate a photo that gives a glimpse of my grandmother’s working environment in the 1940s.
My grandmother is the women furthest from the camera, and the woman in the center is her sister, my great-aunt Nancy. I must admit, this is not what I pictured the dress factories of 1940s New York City to look like! I think it looks a lot more domestic than I imagined – which makes me realize that my vision of garment factories is much more influenced by more recent images of large scale industrial production and of sweatshop labour conditions around the globe. This photo shows a cramped workplace, but I think it also looks comfortable and like a social work space. Most significantly, I am struck by the worktables facing each other. This may save space, but it also encourages workers to chat – something I am sure garment factories would seek to avoid to increase production!
With this photo comes a vision of a workplace of the past; and a surprising insight into labor conditions for women garment workers.