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Uprising: The Shirtwaist Strike of 1909

EPISODE 311 Nobody had seen anything quite like it.

In late November 1909, tens of thousands of workers went on strike, angered by poor work conditions and unfair wages within the city’s largest industry.

New York City had seen labor strikes before, but this one would change the city forever.

The industry in question was the garment industry or ‘the needle trades’. The manufacture of clothing — and, in the case of this strike, the manufacture of shirtwaists, the fashionable blouse worn by many American women.

The strikers in question were mostly young women and girls, mostly Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants who were tired of being taken advantage of by their male employers.

Leading the charge were labor leaders and activists. And in particular, one young woman named Clara Lemlich would inspire a crowd of thousands at Cooper Union with a rousing speech that would forever echo as a cry of solidarity for an underpaid and abused workforce.

PLUS: A visit to the New-York Historical Society‘s new exhibition Women March and an interview with Valerie Paley, co-curator and director at the Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History.

LISTEN NOW — THE SHIRTWAIST STRIKE OF 1909

To get this week’s episode, simply download or stream it forFREE from iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or other podcasting services.You can also get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:


THE TAKEOUT — A bonus after-show podcast for those who support us on Patreon. Greg and Tom share some exciting insights about their collaboration with the New-York Historical Society and a bit of backstage drama that happened on the podcast a couple weeks ago. Subscribe at the Five Points level and above to receive this bonus show.


Clara Lemlich, 1910, Courtesy ILR School at Cornell University
February 10, 1910, Bain News Service
Women pledging to strike 1909, courtesy Kheel Center, Cornell University
Library of Congress
January 1910, Library of Congress

From the new exhibition at the New-York Historical SocietyWomen March:


FURTHER LISTENING
After taking in the story of the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909, revisit these past Bowery Boys episodes for a fuller context of the events recounted on this program.

Triangle Factory Fire

Ready to Wear: A History of the Garment District

Saving the City: Women of the Progressive Era


READING LIST
Beaten Down, Worked Up by Steven Greenhouse
Common Sense and A Little Fire by Annelise Orleck
Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace
A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis
There Is Power In A Union by Philip Dray
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle
U.S. Women In Struggle: A Feminist Studies Anthology

Overlooked No More: Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Crusading Leader of Labor Rights by Zoe Greenberg for the New York Times


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2 replies on “Uprising: The Shirtwaist Strike of 1909”

The apparel industry was alive and well in western Queens through the 1970’s and into the 80’s. At that time Ridgewood averaged close to one knitting mill per block, about on par with the number of bars. These were mostly small, family owned businesses that made relatively small lots of knit goods for jobbers. They provided ready employment for many people in this mostly residential area. I worked at several knitting mills while going to school in the 78’s and 80’s, mostly as a steamer/presser. Most positions payed a base salary plus piecework. You could do quite well if you hustled a little; roughly three time the then-minimum wage.
There are still a handful of these shops left but nothing like what it was forty years ago. I believe this would make an excellent topic for a future episode.

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