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Voice from the Sweatshop

Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), journalist, editor, poet, labor leader and political activist, was born in Poland and grew up in Cleveland. As a young working woman, she wrote and published poetry in Yiddish and English and served as president of the Roses of Zion, a women’s Zionist group.

In 1903, the family moved to New York, where Rose became an assistant editor for the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily News and wrote an English column for the popular newspaper.

Always outspoken on contemporary political issues, Rose was indicted under the Espionage Act in 1918 for her attacks on the Wilson Administration during World War I. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, but the verdict was later reversed.

Rose’s lifelong concern for the welfare of the working class was reflected in her active support of many labor strikes in the early twentieth century, and her unsuccessful campaign for Borough President of Manhattan on the Communist ticket in 1921. Her espousal of Communism after the war was a factor leading to her divorce from her husband, James Graham Phelps Stokes, who had by then abandoned his former Socialist ideals.

The following excerpt describing Rose’s childhood experiences working in a Cleveland cigar factory is from her unpublished autobiography, I Belong to the Working Class, (Rose Pastor Stokes Papers, Yale University Library).

Spring found me in Mr. Brodno’s “factory.” Mr. Brodno ran what cigar-makers in Ohio call a “buckeye.” A “buckeye” is a “factory” in a private home. In other words, a sweatshop.

In the three small rooms that comprised Mr. Brodno’s “factory” were a dozen scattered benches, or the dozen “workers at the bench”— not counting strippers, bookers, and packers— six were Mr. Brodno’s very own: four sons and two daughters. Several others were blood relations—first cousins; still another was a distant connection by marriage. The remaining three were “outsiders”: a young girl, a young boy, and I who came to fill the last unoccupied bench.

Mr. Brodno was a picturesque patriarch, with his long black beard, and his tall black skull-cap. He had come from the Old Country with a little money (not acquired through toil, rumor had it) and was determined to get rich quick in America.

I came to work for Brodno because his “buckeye” was near my home. By saving morning time and energy, I might earn a dollar more a week. Even fifty cents meant much.

Brodno gave me a trial, and stood near my bench while I rolled stogies for his approval.

“A good worker. You may come on Monday,” he had said. “But remember!” he had added, “here one does not play. One hustles.” As if there was need to say this to me! Youth and want drove my flying fingers. To slacken them would have cost me more than to make them fly. My pace was like the pace of a child pushed down a hill. It feels disaster in its little legs, but it cannot check itself, it must fly, driven on by the initial impulse. I was impelled to race till I broke….

Mr. Brodno was immensely pleased with my pace. “She’s much quicker than any of the others,” he crowed. And—”the quicker you work, the more you earn—you understand?”

Yes, I understood. That’s the way it seemed to be with the scheme of piecework.

But he understood something besides: “Look,” he’d say, “if she can do it, why can’t you and you do it—and you? Earn more! You need to, don’t you?”

Yes—need—we understood that force well. Brodno’s would race with me, and gradually increase their speed, and I would race with the clock—and further increase my own ….

By summer’s end I was the pride of Brodno’s heart. I sped up the others, and turned out again as many stogies as the average slow ones. He was seeing results.

It never occurred to me that I was being used by the boss to set the pace in his stogie-factory ….

Brodno soon moved to an enormous loft building, where the dozen benches he started out with were many times duplicated. There his factory hummed with the industry of girls and boys/or men, women and young children. The stripping, the rolling and the bunchmaking were concentrated in one end of a vast room, where the rolling was done. In another room, the raw materials were unpacked and sorted, and the drying, storing and other processes carried on. Driven by the boss and our own need, we piled up wealth for him rapidly. We were paid miserably little for our labor; and he always complained that we were getting too much.

When the “buckeye” moved to the big loft, and became a factory, Mr. Brodno announced a cut. The stogie-rollers were getting fourteen cents a hundred. Now it would be thirteen.

We took the cut in silence. We were for the most part poor little child slaves, timid and unorganized. The thought of union never occured to us. There was no strength in us or behind us. It was each one by his lone self. Not one of us would have ventured to pit his little self against the boss. We merely looked into each others’ faces. No words. But each had the same thought in mind. Now there would be less of something that was already scarce. Bread, or milk, or coal. Mr. Brodno owned the factory and we were his workers. Nothing could be done about it. So we raced some more . . . and still more, and more!

The cut came the very week that a new baby was born into our family.

“Rosalie!” My step-father’s voice, tense and unnatural with excitement, shook me out of sleep.

I heard my mother’s shriek pierce the deep night, and rushed into the room next to mine.

“Mother! oh, my mother!” What could be wrong with my mother? . . .

My step-father rushed after me, and snatched me out of the room. “Rosalie, run to Mrs. So-and-so, and say she’s to come right away. Mother’s giving birth—come quick!”

“Giving birth?” A new baby coming!… I rushed out into the dark, chill, deserted streets, shoes unbuttoned, dress unhooked, hair loose in the wind, feet flying ….

It was hard enough to scrape together the ten dollars for the midwife. To get help for the next two weeks was out of the question.

For those two weeks, I did the work at home, after shop. There was no water in the flat on Liberal Street. I had to fill the washtub by carrying pails of water from the pump in the yard to the tub upstairs. How heavy the sheets were, and how hard to rub clean! . . . Every day of the two weeks, I washed: diapers, sheets, other “linens,” carrying water up and down, till all was washed and rinsed, and the white things hanging out on the line in the yard.

There were meals to get and dishes to wash, my two-year old brother to care for, and special things to prepare for mother. Mornings, before daylight, my step-father would make the fire. I would get the breakfast. He would stay to wash the dishes and do a few chores before starting for his horse and wagon and then struggle with another day. By noon the ailing Mrs. Feinberg (next door) would look in on my mother and babies and help out a bit. During the course of those two weeks, I was allowed the privilege of leaving work an hour earlier daily (on my own time, of course) to help my mother.

At night, with tired feet and hands, and a heaviness that hung on my eyelids and threatened to close them, I’d take up Les Miserables and shed a few tears of sympathy for poor little Cosette ….

There were now five mouths to feed. My step-father tried desperately to supply bread for his growing family. He worked early and late. When winter came again, there were days when he’d climb down from his wagon with difficulty. The overlong exposure to frost and winter storm, and his attempts to save by taking no food during the day, began to tell on his splendid strength. He grew haggard and troubled. Deep lines ran like large new moons along the sides of his cheeks. There were lines like wires across his forehead. He was unable to understand why, with such hard trying, he could not keep hunger shut out, why he could not drive the stubborn wolf from the door.

I was then in my thirteenth year. Already I felt the staggering weight of the struggle upon my shoulders. I worked all day. My fingers flew! But what I got, together with what my hardworking step-father got was not enough to keep us in the bare needed things.

One day I had an idea. It came to me suddenly. That evening after supper, I slipped on my coat. Mother protested.

“Where are you going?—and the dishes?” “I’ll do them when I get back. I want to go out for a while.”

My step-father protested. “Such a young child should not run around in the evenings.” And my mother, musing on it, said, “Well, Israel, she’s growing up. Shell be wanting some pleasure, poor child mine! she has little enough—nothing but her books!—and these when she should sleep and rest.

“I suppose you’re going over to Ida’s? … Let her go, Israel, let her go. It may be more cheerful there than here.” It was the same for several evenings, till I came with the glad news.

“Mother! father! I’ve found one—where I didn’t think to look; right here on Liberal Street, in the middle of the block!” I had followed clues night after night, but nothing had come of them. And here, on our very own street, by chance, in crossing to the other side, I discovered a “buckeye,” tucked away in the rear of a yard! I had walked in, found the “boss” at his own bench, and asked for evening work. And he said, “Come tomorrow, after your supper.”

How happy I was! At last I could help more.

But my mother drew me to her, kissed me, and cried, and insisted that I must not go: “It is bad enough that you have to slave ten or eleven hours a day, and then do things about the house. How can I let you work all day and all night too! Was it to such a fate as this that we were born?” My step-father went about the room beating his breast in silence. Then he broke into angry protest. “Cursed be such a life—cursed, cursed!”

The following evening, seeing my parents exchange glances as we sat at supper, I rushed up from the table, bolted through
the door coatless, and ran down the street to the “buckeye.” I couldn’t lose my chance to work by failing to turn up as agreed.

All that winter, after the long day in Brodno’s factory, I rolled stogies till midnight in the little “buckeye,” cheerful and lively as a sparrow because I was doing my utmost to help.