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  • Revealing Division:The Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike, the Jewish Community, and Republican Machine Politics, 1909-1910
  • Julianne Kornacki (bio)

I personally will fight in this strike until after the last morsel of bread that I can buy will pass my lips. I will fight to a finish!

This declaration, made by fifteen-year-old shirtwaist worker Alice Sabowitz in December 1909, embodied the spirit of the shirtwaist workers' strike that took place in Philadelphia during the harsh winter of 1909-10.1 The strikers, approximately 85 percent of whom were Jewish women and girls from Russia, refused to return to work until their demands for better working conditions and union recognition were met.2

The strike was, among other things, a contest between young immigrant workers who sought to build power and a municipal government that sought to expand its own.3 These opposing goals met with resistance beyond the immediate space of the strike. The actions of young sweatshop workers revealed generational, political, and economic fissures within Philadelphia's Jewish community. Further, the violent response of Mayor John E. Reyburn's administration helped galvanize support for the strike among Philadelphia's club women, suffragists, and female college students. Taking place in distinct spheres of Philadelphia life, the reactions of Reyburn's administration, [End Page 364] society women, and members of the Jewish elite to the strike revealed rifts that had already existed in the city.

Unlike the New York shirtwaist strike, which also began in 1909, its Philadelphia counterpart has received only brief attention by scholars.4 Though related works have illuminated components of the strike, none have explored the dynamics at play in Philadelphia beyond the lives and communities of workers and their bosses. This article is an attempt to situate the Philadelphia shirtwaist strike within the immediate history of municipal reform efforts and, conversely, municipal corruption, as well as the traditions of labor radicalism and elite conservatism within Philadelphia's Jewish community.

The Shirtwaist Industry

The central conflict of the strike—the standoff between workers and manufacturers—evolved in part out of Philadelphia's history of sweatshop work. Philadelphia, unlike other northern American cities, had a small immigrant population. The city's economy was mature, dominated by small shops with skilled and semi-skilled employees, and the city's labor market was segmented by gender, ethnic, racial, and national groupings.5 The vast majority of African American women were relegated to domestic service, as other industries routinely shut them out.6 Irish women also tended to work in domestic service, while both Jewish and Italian women tended to work in the garment industry—with Jewish women working primarily in sweatshops and Italian women working from their homes. In contrast, native-born white women had a much wider range of job options, due in large part to employers' preferences.7

Garment sweatshops had been operating in Philadelphia since the 1880s, and complaints about them dated back just as far. In 1894, after receiving negative feedback, the state legislature appointed a commission to investigate Pennsylvania's garment industry.8 From a survey of the state's sweatshops, factory inspectors found:

victims striving with pitiable energy to perform their tasks as they labor, it may well be said unceasingly, in stifling rooms, with every principle of proper hygiene and health set at defiance, with ill-fed and poorly clad bodies, unclean in person and degraded in mind. . . . Their animal disregard of the ordinary decencies of life is of itself a sermon [End Page 365] upon the appalling demoralization prevailing among these white slaves of the cities, and this alone should incite a general demand for a government policy which will relieve the body politic of a blot upon its fame as a progressive and intelligent nation.9

Despite this report, Philadelphia's garment manufacturers—who were predominantly first- and second-generation Jews from Germany—vehemently opposed regulations, which they argued "would necessitate espionage, and might be prejudicial to coreligionists who are largely employed in this industry." To the benefit of shop owners, the garment industry remained largely unregulated through the time of the shirtwaist strike.10

In 1909 Philadelphia's shirtwaist industry was relatively new, though it followed patterns established in...


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