Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea

Laura Hapke
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 216
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Arguing that the sweatshop is as American as apple pie, Laura Hapke surveys over a century and a half of the language, verbal and pictorial, in which the sweatshop has been imagined and its stories told. Not seeking a formal definition of the sort that policymakers are concerned with, nor intending to provide a strict historical chronology, this unique book shows, rather, how the "real" sweatshop has become intertwined with the "invented" sweatshop of our national imagination, and how this mixture of rhetoric and myth has endowed American sweatshops with rich and complex cultural meaning. Hapke uncovers a wide variety of tales and images that writers, artists, social scientists, reformers, and workers themselves have told about "the shop." Adding an important perspective to historical and economic approaches,Sweatshopdraws on sources from antebellum journalism, Progressive era surveys, modern movies, and anti-sweatshop websites. Illustrated chapters detail how the shop has been a facilitator of assimilation, a promoter of upward mobility, the epitome of exploitation, a site of ethnic memory, a venue for political protest, and an expression of twentieth-century managerial narratives. An important contribution to the real and imagined history of garment industry exploitation, this book provides a valuable new context for understanding contemporary sweatshops that now represent the worst expression of an unregulated global economy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4256-0
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Chapter 1 Narrating the Shop
    (pp. 1-14)

    The sweatshop is as American as apple pie. But what has it meant to the American imagination? Scholars, of course, have long told the story of sweated labor. Of late, excellent work by Andrew Ross, Edna Bonacich and Richard Applebaum, and others has clarified our understanding of the sweatshop from its antebellum origins to the era of cyberspace.¹ My concern here, though, is the language, verbal and pictorial, in which the sweatshop is imagined and its stories told. A century and a half of writings on the shop, punctuated by graphic art, does more than narrate or define. Even in...

  6. Part I The Sweatshop Surveyed

    • Chapter 2 A Shop Is Not a Home: Dirt, Ethnicity, and the Sweatshop
      (pp. 17-39)

      When the photojournalist Jacob Riis wrote, in narrating the Lower East Side sweatshop, that the “‘homes’ in these pictures are, truly, nothing but factories,” he was wrestling with an issue that had long defined American sweatshop discourse. From antebellum times to the beginnings of Progressivism, observers of the oppressive environment of home industry pointed to it as a destroyer of the domestic space. By 1892, the subcontracting system at the heart of this exploitative labor site, routinely associated with the garment trade, was under serious scrutiny in Congress and had become the subject of a host of reform venues.¹ It...

    • Chapter 3 Surviving Sites: Sweatshops in the Progressive Era and Beyond
      (pp. 40-66)

      The sweatshop discourse had provided late-nineteenth-century reformers with a narrative structure that linked economic exploitation, moral outrage, fear of germs, social control, and modern social science. In the new century, as sweatshop containment strategies played a minor part in a wider social survey movement, the very term itself seemed to fall out of reform language. The American sweatshop seemed to have disappeared, almost as if its demise paralleled the assimilation of cheap ethnic labor into an American workplace that no longer registered their distinctive presence.

      The nineteenth century had early recognized that industry could be damaging without being sweated. Work...

  7. Part II Sweatshop Aesthetics

    • Chapter 4 Newsreel of Memory: The WPA Sweatshop in the Great Depression
      (pp. 69-87)

      The sweatshop meets the New Deal in Ben Shahn’s epic mural in Roosevelt, New Jersey (1935–1936), commissioned for the resettlement and renaming of the former Jersey Homesteads (figure 1). The reinvented town was designed to provide jobs and sanctuary for displaced European garment workers during the Depression and to aid the ethnic needle trades in New York City, where the labor market had been devastated by the Depression. The Roosevelt mural exemplifies unionist idealism in a kind of utopian re-visioning of present-day conditions. In his portrayal of the end of sweatshops in times so troubled that these places were...

    • Chapter 5 The Sweatshop Returns: Postindustrial Art
      (pp. 88-108)

      The WPA images of Shahn, Soyer, and their group reflected the historical shop of Jews and Italians, ethnics allied with rank-and-file power in the garment trades by the late 1940s. As early as 1937, however, nonwhites had entered the shops and the needle-trades locals that staffed them: local 22 in New York City was 10 percent black before the Depression was over.¹ By the late 1940s, the large-scale immigration of Puerto Ricans to New York City and new waves of Asian immigration had supplied workers for the city’s many smaller garment shops. There the boundary between union shop and sweatshop...

  8. Part III Spinning the Shop

    • Chapter 6 Spinning the New Shop: El Monte and the Smithsonian Furor
      (pp. 111-128)

      While in the mid and late 1990s socially conscious artists Sue Coe and David Riker waged their solitary battles in New York to reawaken awareness of the sweatshop, a 1995 Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid on an illegal shop in suburban El Monte, near Los Angeles, so ignited popular sentiment that by the end of the decade it had found a prominent place in the history of sweated labor as presented in a national museum exhibition.

      With its flood of immigrant labor, southern California had been home to much sweatshop activity since the 1960s. The El Monte shop, flagrantly...

    • Chapter 7 Nike’s Sweatshop Quandary and the Industrial Sublime
      (pp. 129-143)

      A powerful coalition of apparel industries engineered a halt to the 1998 sweatshop retrospective exhibition at the Smithsonian, arguing that it defamed a self-regulating industry, but they took a different tack with the Clinton White House’s Apparel Industry Partnership. This task force, which targeted enforcement in major garment center companies and notified manufacturers of violations, had emerged from a 1995 “Trendsetter List” that praised “good guy” retailers and manufacturers. By 1996 and 1997 it was pinning “Garment Enforcement Reports” on those contractors and firms that were out of compliance in the previous two or three years.¹

      Because it provided a...

    • Chapter 8 Watching Out for the Shop
      (pp. 144-156)

      Nike’s public relations campaign from the late 1990s onward to deny the existence of sweatshops among its contractors was answered in kind by opponents like the National Labor Committee, Sweatshop Watch, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and United Students Against Sweatshops. These were but some of the dominant groups that had joined a widespread sweatshop-watching effort that included labor, civil rights, immigrant rights, women’s, religious, and student organizations. Another representative alliance of antisweatshop activists, the Global Sweatshop Coalition, found that Nike had simply created “a world view in which sweatshops are ok.”¹ To...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 157-180)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 181-190)
  11. Index
    (pp. 191-202)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 203-203)