An Immigrant Garment Worker’s “Days and Dreams” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1898, a young Polish girl named Sadie Frowne and her mother immigrated to the United States in search of greater economic opportunities. Their journey was arduous: they traveled in steerage, crowded into dark and damp conditions along with many other immigrants. Less than a year after arriving in New York City, her mother died, leaving Frowne to fend for herself. Frowne found employment at one of New York’s many sweatshops, working long hours in dangerous conditions. In 1902, she gave an interview to the New York Independent, a reform-minded newspaper, in which she describes her experiences immigrating to and living in America.

Summary Overview

In 1898, a young Polish girl named Sadie Frowne and her mother immigrated to the United States in search of greater economic opportunities. Their journey was arduous: they traveled in steerage, crowded into dark and damp conditions along with many other immigrants. Less than a year after arriving in New York City, her mother died, leaving Frowne to fend for herself. Frowne found employment at one of New York’s many sweatshops, working long hours in dangerous conditions. In 1902, she gave an interview to the New York Independent, a reform-minded newspaper, in which she describes her experiences immigrating to and living in America.

Defining Moment

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, immigrants began arriving in the United States at an unprecedented rate. Between 1881 and 1920, more than twenty-three million immigrants settled in the United States, and the country’s population more than doubled in that time, increasing from fifty million in 1880 to more than one hundred million by 1920. On the East Coast, large numbers of eastern and southern European immigrants came to major city centers such as New York in search of better financial opportunities or to escape political or religious persecution in their homelands. According to data from the 1860 US Census, New York City’s population just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War was about 814,000; by 1890, the population of New York City exceeded 1.5 million. Immigrants often settled in ethnic neighborhoods, where they were crowded into dark and poorly made tenement houses. Most immigrants, particularly those who did not speak English well, earned meager wages at factories, dockyards, and sweatshops throughout the city.

Young Sadie Frowne was among a wave of eastern European Jewish immigrants arriving in New York just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Frowne’s parents had owned a small grocery business in their small village in eastern Poland. However, Frowne’s father died when she was ten years old, and her mother struggled to maintain their business following his death. Like many immigrants, Frowne’s mother reached out for assistance to a relative who had already immigrated to the United States. Frowne’s Aunt Fanny, who was living in New York City, encouraged the Frownes to come join her in New York and even gave them the financial assistance needed to make the trip. After a long and dangerous transatlantic voyage in the ship’s overcrowded steerage section, Frowne (who was now thirteen) and her mother arrived in New York.

Not long after their arrival, Frowne’s mother died of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that spread quickly in the crowded tenement buildings of New York City’s immigrant neighborhoods. Following the death of her mother, Frowne found work in one of the city’s garment factories (also known as sweatshops). The substandard working conditions at these sweatshops are infamous–long hours, poor lighting and ventilation, a lack of emergency exits and other safety procedures, frequent injuries, and low pay were the norm for Frowne and her coworkers. She also experienced the sexual harassment of her male coworkers and other forms of workplace abuse.

Frowne was eager to assimilate into American society. She moved from the Lower East Side to Brownsville, a predominantly Jewish community in Brooklyn, and began attending night classes at a nearby public school. She also became involved with the local unions, paying a monthly union membership fee and taking part in several strikes to demand better pay and shorter workdays. At the age of seventeen, she agreed to be interviewed by a New York–based newspaper called the Independent, which was compiling a story about sweatshops and the experiences of the immigrants who worked therein.

Author Biography

Not much is known about Sadie Frowne beyond the information that she provided to the Independent. She was born in 1885 in a small village in eastern Poland. Her mother was a well-educated, multilingual owner of a grocery business, and her father was a farmer. After her father died, expenses became too great for Frowne and her mother to support themselves, and they moved to New York City in 1898. Her mother died of tuberculosis shortly after their arrival, leaving Frowne to fend for herself. She worked long hours in a sweatshop during the day and pursued her education at night. In 1902, she was interviewed by the Independent, which included her brief autobiography in an article that depicted the life of sweatshop workers.

Document Analysis

Prior to her arrival in the United States, Sadie Frowne lived with her parents in a small apartment behind their store in eastern Poland, while her father’s farming income supported their grocery business. When he died, however, Frowne and her mother entered a period of great tumult–they fell behind on their rent and ultimately closed the store. On the advice of Frowne’s Aunt Fanny, they traveled across the Atlantic to settle in New York City, where they had heard it was easier to earn a living.

The trip aboard the steamer was, as Frowne recalls, extremely trying. Steerage–the cheapest section–was packed with fellow immigrants, many of whom were ill with various ailments. The accommodations thus smelled “dreadfully,” as she describes, and both Frowne and her mother worried that they too would fall ill and never make it to the “beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head” (the Statue of Liberty). They did arrive safely, however, and were greeted by Aunt Fanny and her husband, with whom they lived until they obtained lodging for themselves.

Frowne first found work as a household servant, while her mother worked at a garment factory. However, her mother quickly succumbed to tuberculosis, and the cost of her care and funeral wiped away all of their meager savings. Frowne, then sixteen years old, began working at a sweatshop on Allen Street in Manhattan. She had sewing skills but needed to quickly learn how to sew dresses and other complex clothes at a fast pace. Frowne accounts how she wakes up each day at 5:30 in the morning, eats a light breakfast, and gets to work an hour before the sweatshop opens. When the facility opens its doors at 7:00, Frowne and her coworkers immediately sit down at their respective machines, while the foreman brings around a large pile of materials–called a “stint”–that had to be completed by the end of the day, some eleven hours later. Frowne faced a daunting task daily: she needed to perform consistently high-quality work yet complete it within a strict time limit. She already worked long hours during a typical day–any mistakes she made resulted in a much longer day toiling at her machine.

Frowne’s story illustrates the physically draining work performed at sweatshops. The machines “go like mad all day,” she explains, with each worker’s feet operating it. Sometimes, her finger would get caught under the needle, an injury that would occur so frequently she eventually would think nothing of it, even when it resulted in bone fractures. Meanwhile, the foreman would walk up and down the cramped aisles to review the workers’ stints–if the project was not done to standards, the worker was verbally harangued and forced to remain at work after hours until the stint was completed in a satisfactory manner.

Frowne refused to allow the physical and psychological challenges of the sweatshop to overcome her. She was savvy with her money, carefully budgeting her limited pay in such a way that she could afford groceries and other living expenses and still pay for new clothes and outings with her boyfriend, Henry. While many of her coworkers spent their time off resting up from their long and arduous shifts, Frowne insists that one “must go out and get air, and have some pleasure.” Frowne frequently used a portion of her earnings to go to the theater or go out dancing. She even used some of her savings to attend night school, learning English and obtaining a basic education so that she could better assimilate into American society.

Essential Themes

Frowne’s story provides an illustration of the nineteenth-century immigrant experience in New York City. Frowne’s account describes the frightening conditions aboard the transatlantic steamships that brought millions of European immigrants to New York Harbor. It also illustrates the daily challenges facing American laborers at the turn of the century, before the introduction of stringent labor laws, and Frowne’s working experience illustrates the lack of safety regulations, the long hours, and inadequate pay that characterized the work lives of many American laborers at the time. Her enthusiasm for her local union and willingness to strike for better working conditions and pay reflects the nascent labor movement of the time.

Frowne’s account is also illustrative of the increasing independence experienced by young working women of the time. These working women of the early twentieth century were often the first women in their families to experience some measure of independence–living outside of the family, often unmarried, and financially supporting themselves. Frowne’s remarks regarding her boyfriend Henry’s desire to get married and her decision to wait reflect the increasing financial and social independence of working women of the time.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. New York: Simon, 2001. Print.
  • Katzman, David M., and William M. Tuttle, Jr. Plain Folk: The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1982. Print.
  • Lubove, Roy. The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890–1917. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963. Print.
  • Markel, Howard. Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Wenger, Beth S. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America. New York: Random, 2007. Print.
Categories: History Content