October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
There is a fine and compelling sense of immediacy to this 189Os photograph, sent in by H. Peter Metzger, whose grandfather, Harris Filler, is the second man from the left. “Harris had neither skills nor education when he arrived in America,” Metzger writes, “so he went to work as a presser in the garment business on New York’s Lower East Side. About the only good thing that could be said for that job was that it was better than the future to which he was born: being a miner in Galicia.”
It is highly unusual to come across a photo of a sweatshop that, like this one, seems to bear a distinct tone of celebration rather than condemnation. “So why was it taken?” asks Mr.Metzger. He offers the following guess: “This picture was most likely meant to memorialize an event. And I suspect that event was the transition from the charcoal-fueled stove method of heating irons to the gas-fueled iron. Notice the manifold hanging from the ceiling with the six gas hoses going to the six irons manned by the workers.
“There is in this picture something else that changed life in the 189Os, not only for the pressers but for everyone. The incandescent gas mantle, its clear white light replacing the old smoky, smelly, and yellow gaslight, had just come into widespread use; the ones visible here are probably newly installed, as would be the globes. Add to this the presence of indoor toilets and windows and the conclusion must be drawn that this place was very advanced for its day and was probably regarded with great pride by its owner. No doubt that’s why the boss had the picture taken in the first place and gave copies to his employees. And that must be why Harris saved it and passed it on to his children.”