On Nov. 5, Election Day 2019, a group of New York City high school teachers took a trip back in time to New York City at the turn of the 20th century. They participated in a workshop designed to re-create the experience of new immigrant employees at a small garment factory. Seated in groups of four with each group assigned a specific task, they were challenged to produce enough garments in 40 minutes for all participants to take home a completed piece.
The “Garment Factory Workshop” is a program created by Yeshiva University Museum and presented by Ilana Benson, the Museum’s Director of Museum Education, as part of an Educators’ Open House at the Center for Jewish History.
The workshop has been part of the Museum’s school program offerings since 2006 and has engaged students from grade 3 through 12 in exploring the complexities of a new immigrant’s experiences upon arrival in the United States.
As the participants struggle to do the necessary tasks to complete a quota of garments, their comments are noted on a board at the front of the room. The comments almost always range from frustration (“I can’t do this!” or “Can you help me?”) to satisfaction (“I finished another one!”).
As they hustle to complete their tasks, introductions are made across the tables as the “workers” get to know each other a bit. Each of these genuine reactions and moments of interaction provides a tiny glimpse into the daily routine of an immigrant factory worker.
In the early 1900s, the immigrants were mostly Jewish or Italian. Later, they were African and Puerto Rican, and then Chinese. Still, it was the garment industry that, with all its hardships, provided an income, feelings of self-worth and a community of friends.
Following the hands-on workshop, Bonni-Dara Michaels, Museum Collections Curator, treated the teachers to a close-up look at some immigration-related artifacts from the Museum’s permanent collection that are not currently on view to the public. An oversized, 100-year-old poster created in 1917 by James Harrison Donahey of the Artcraft Company Lithograph of Cleveland, exhorts adults to take English classes, so that they can follow what their children are learning in school. A 14-inch-long pair of cutter’s shears, used by Kalman Haas in Newark, New Jersey, around 1932, is clearly designed for a man’s hand, to do one of the higher paying jobs in the garment industry.
An oil painting on wood board by artist Samuel Rothbort, titled “New World, Old World,” sparked a thoughtful discussion about nostalgia for one’s old home while adapting to a “better” new life.