Tenement Museum New York
Just a hundred years ago, NYC was completely different from what it is today. At that time, people from countries all over the world came here to build a future for their families and upcoming generations. A huge industry that was booming was the garment industry, with concentration on the mass-production of garments. Many immigrant families ran their own ateliers in their own apartments for its conveniences: a home-owned business meant controlling your employees, keeping an eye on their large families, and no language barriers. However, these home businesses, along with garment business in general during the era, were extremely dangerous; the apartment itself was barely large enough for two people let alone your six kids and extra employees, living in your workspace meant safety hazards for everyone, and workdays pretty much went non-stop until Sunday, which was rest day.
Now, I have had my fair share of reading about horrible working conditions in countless History courses, and even in my Fashion Fundamentals course, but for the first time, I had the opportunity to sort of re-live what these people went through. This study tour was at the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. The site consisted of old apartments that were once occupied by immigrants one hundred years ago. I went to two apartments, one unrestored to show the original structure and how the staff found the place originally, and another apartment restored to mimic what apartments would have looked like at that time.
The unrestored apartment (shown on the left) blew my mind. The entire apartment consisted of three small rooms, with the first room being the bedroom, the kitchen in the middle, and the living room at the end. The place was TINY- smaller than the apartment I am living in now! The space was very dirty since it had not been occupied since 1935 but I liked how it was left untouched. The bedroom barely had room for a bed, the kitchen floor was made out of gross linoleum, and decoration was done with horribly-printed floral wallpaper.
The restored apartment (on the right) was cool to see because it didn’t have that abandoned feeling when I went inside. This apartment also showed what the “workplace” looked like, with examples, patterns, old school sewing machine (SO COOL), the mannequin, and finishing area in the living room, and ironing in the kitchen. Just having the set up their made me claustrophobic- I could not imagine running a business there with fabric and children everywhere as well!
This experience has taught me to fully appreciate the fashion industry. It’s not as glamorous as everyone thinks it is and it certainly did not seem like a rewarding experience for the people of that time. Gaining a better understanding of how the mass-produced fashion industry emerged has made me think about fairness in the workplace and safe conditions for employees. Thankfully, these conditions do not really exist in the US anymore, which is good. Laws have been established and workers’ rights have been protected. What scares me is what is going on overseas; these horrible working conditions still exist in sweatshops, and a lot of these places are producing household brands! The worst part is that I know it is easier said than done to want to quit global outsourcing in poor locations because it is much more cost efficient to do so. This issue is especially starting to hit home for me because I am a Fashion student who will be graduating in May and would like to ultimately be a buyer. At some point in time, I will be the person who influences production decisions, potentially compromising peoples’ lives for profit… and that is absolutely terrifying. I know I have a lot of time to figure out how I will strategize, but this thought still irks me.
All in all, this experience was definitely the most thought-provoking I have had thus far, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to visit such an important historical place.