Sweat Shop Romance by Abraham Cahan
Leizer Lipman was one of those contract
tailors who are classed by their hands under
the head of "cockroaches," which—translating
the term into lay English—means
that he ran a very small shop, giving employment
to a single team of one sewing-machine
operator, one baster, one finisher,
and one presser.
The shop was one of a suite of three
rooms on the third floor of a rickety old
tenement house on Essex Street, and did the
additional duty of the family's kitchen and
dining-room. It faced a dingy little courtyard,
and was connected by a windowless
bedroom with the parlor, which commanded
the very heart of the Jewish markets. Bundles
of cloth, cut to be made into coats, littered
the floor, lay in chaotic piles by one of
the walls, cumbered Mrs. Lipman's kitchen
table and one or two chairs, and formed, in
a corner, an improvised bed upon which a
dirty two-year-old boy, Leizer's heir apparent,
was enjoying his siesta.
Dangling against the door or scattered
among the bundles, there were cooking
utensils, dirty linen, Lipman's velvet skull-cap,
hats, shoes, shears, cotton-spools, and
whatnot. A red-hot kitchen stove and a
blazing grate full of glowing flat-irons combined
to keep up the overpowering temperature
of the room, and helped to justify its
nickname of sweat-shop in the literal sense
of the epithet.
Work was rather scarce, but the designer
of the Broadway clothing firm, of whose
army of contractors Lipman was a member,
was a second cousin to the latter's wife, and
he saw to it that his relative's husband was
kept busy. And so operations in Leizer's
shop were in full swing. Heyman, the operator,
with his bared brawny arms, pushed
away at an unfinished coat, over which his
head, presenting to view a wealth of curly
brown hair, hung like an eagle bent on his
prey. He swayed in unison to the rhythmic
whirr of his machine, whose music, supported
by the energetic thumps of Meyer's press-iron,
formed an orchestral accompaniment
to the sonorous and plaintive strains of a
vocal duet performed by Beile, the finisher
girl, and David, the baster.
Leizer was gone to the Broadway firm's
offices, while Zlate, his wife, was out on a
prolonged haggling expedition among the
tradeswomen of Hester Street. This circumstance
gave the hands a respite from the
restrictions usually placed on their liberties
by the presence of the "boss" and the
"Missis," and they freely beguiled the tedium
and fatigue of their work, now by
singing, now by a bantering match at the
expense of their employer and his wife, or
of each other.
"Well, I suppose you might as well quit,"
said Meyer, a chubby, red-haired, freckled
fellow of forty, emphasizing his remark by
an angry stroke of his iron. "You have
been over that song now fifty times without
taking breath. You make me tired."
"Don't you like it? Stuff up your ears,
then," Beile retorted, without lifting her
head from the coat in her lap.
"Why, I do like it, first-rate and a half,"
Meyer returned, "but when you keep your
mouth shut I like it better still, see?"
The silvery tinkle of Beile's voice, as she
was singing, thrilled Heyman with delicious
melancholy, gave him fresh relish for his
work, and infused additional activity into
his limbs: and as her singing was interrupted
by the presser's gibe, he involuntarily
stopped his machine with that annoying feeling
which is experienced by dancers when
brought to an unexpected standstill by an
abrupt pause of the music.
"And you?"—he addressed himself to
Meyer, facing about on his chair with an
irritated countenance. "It's all right enough
when you speak, but it is much better when
you hold your tongue. Don't mind him,
Beile. Sing away!" he then said to the
girl, his dazzlingly fair face relaxing and his
little eyes shutting into a sweet smile of self-confident
"You had better stick to your work, Heyman.
Why, you might have made half a
cent the while," Meyer fired back, with an
ironical look, which had reference to the
operator's reputation of being a niggardly
fellow, who overworked himself, denied himself
every pleasure, and grew fat by feasting
his eyes on his savings-bank book.
A sharp altercation ensued, which drifted
to the subject of Heyman's servile conduct
toward his employer.
"It was you, wasn't it," Meyer said, "who
started that collection for a birthday present
for the boss? Of course, we couldn't help
chipping in. Why is David independent?"
"Did I compel you?" Heyman rejoined.
"And am I to blame that it was to me that
the boss threw out the hint about that present?
It is so slack everywhere, and you
ought to thank God for the steady job you
have here," he concluded, pouncing down
upon the coat on his machine.
David, who had also cut short his singing,
kept silently plying his needle upon pieces
of stuff which lay stretched on his master's
dining-table. Presently he paused to adjust
his disheveled jet-black hair, with his fingers
for a comb, and to wipe the perspiration
from his swarthy, beardless and typically
Israelitic face with his shirt-sleeve.
While this was in progress, his languid
hazel eyes were fixed on the finisher girl.
She instinctively became conscious of his
gaze, and raised her head from the needle.
Her fresh buxom face, flushed with the heat
of the room and with exertion, shone full
upon the young baster. Their eyes met.
David colored, and, to conceal his embarrassment,
he asked: "Well, is he going to
raise your wages?"
Beile nodded affirmatively, and again
plunged her head into her work.
"He is? So you will now get five dollars
a week. I am afraid you will be putting on
airs now, won't you?"
"Do you begrudge me? Then I am willing
to swap wages with you. I'll let you
have my five dollars, and I'll take your
twelve dollars every week."
Lipman's was a task shop, and, according
to the signification which the term has in the
political economy of the sweating world, his
operator, baster, and finisher, while nominally
engaged at so much a week, were in reality
paid by the piece, the economical week being
determined by a stipulated quantity of made-up
coats rather than by a fixed number of
the earth's revolutions around its axis; for
the sweat-shop day will not coincide with the
solar day unless a given amount of work be
accomplished in its course. As to the
presser, he is invariably a piece-worker, pure
For a more lucid account of the task system
in the tailoring branch, I beg to refer
the reader to David, although his exposition
happens to be presented rather in the form
of a satire on the subject. Indeed, David,
while rather inclined to taciturnity, was an
inveterate jester, and what few remarks he
indulged in during his work would often
cause boisterous merriment among his shop-mates,
although he delivered them with a
nonchalant manner and with the same look
of good-humored irony, mingled in strange
harmony with a general expression of gruffness,
which his face usually wore.
"My twelve dollars every week?" David
echoed. "Oh, I see; you mean a week of
twelve days!" And his needle resumed its
duck-like sport in the cloth.
"How do you make it out?" Meyer demanded,
in order to elicit a joke from the
witty young man by his side.
"Of course, you don't know how to make
that out. But ask Heyman or Beile. The
three of us do."
"Tell him, then, and he will know too,"
Beile urged, laughing in advance at the
A request coming from the finisher was—yet
unknown to herself—resistless with
David, and in the present instance it loosened
"Well, I get twelve dollars a week, and
Heyman fourteen. Now a working week
has six days, but—hem—that 'but' gets
stuck in my throat—but a day is neither a
Sunday nor a Monday nor anything unless
we make twelve coats. The calendars are a
lot of liars."
"What do you mean?"
"They say a day has twenty-four hours.
That's a bluff. A day has twelve coats."
Beile's rapturous chuckle whetted his
appetite for persiflage, and he went on:—
"They read the Tuesday Psalm in the
synagogue this morning, but I should have
read the Monday one."
"You see, Meyer's wife will soon come
up with his dinner, and here I have still two
coats to make of the twelve that I got yesterday.
So it's still Monday with me. My
Tuesday won't begin before about two
o'clock this afternoon."
"How much will you make this week?"
"I don't expect to finish more than four
days' work by the end of the week, and will
only get eight dollars on Friday—that is,
provided the Missis has not spent our wages
by that time. So when it's Friday I'll call
it Wednesday, see?"
"When I am married," he added, after a
pause, "and the old woman asks me for
Sabbath expenses, I'll tell her it is only
Wednesday—it isn't yet Friday—and I
have no money to give her."
David relapsed into silence, but mutely
continued his burlesque, hopping from subject
David thought himself a very queer fellow.
He often wondered at the pranks
which his own imagination was in the habit
of playing, and at the grotesque combinations
it frequently evolved. As he now
stood, leaning forward over his work, he
was striving to make out how it was that
Meyer reminded him of the figure "7."
"What nonsense!" he inwardly exclaimed,
branding himself for a crank. "And what
does Heyman look like?" his mind queried,
as though for spite. He contemplated the
operator askance, and ran over all the digits
of the Arabic system, and even the whole
Hebrew alphabet, in quest of a counterpart
to the young man, but failed to find anything
suitable. "His face would much better become
a girl," he at last decided, and mentally
proceeded to envelop Heyman's head in
Beile's shawl. But the proceeding somehow
stung him, and he went on to meditate upon
the operator's chunky nose. "No, that nose
is too ugly for a girl. It wants a little
planing. It's an unfinished job, as it were.
But for that nose Heyman would really be
the nice fellow they say he is. His snow-white
skin—his elegant heavy mustache—yes,
if he did not have that nose he would
be all right," he maliciously joked in his
heart. "And I, too, would be all right if
Heyman were noseless," he added, transferring
his thoughts to Beile, and wondering
why she looked so sweet. "Why, her nose
is not much of a beauty, either. Entirely
too straight, and too—too foolish. Her
eyes look old and as if constantly on the
point of bursting into tears. Ah, but then
her lips—that kindly smile of theirs, coming
out of one corner of her mouth!" And
a strong impulse seized him to throw himself
on those lips and to kiss them, which
he did mentally, and which shot an electric
current through his whole frame. And at
this Beile's old-looking eyes both charmed
and pierced him to the heart, and her nose,
far from looking foolish, seemed to contemplate
him contemptuously, triumphantly, and
knowingly, as if it had read his thoughts.
While this was going on in David's brain
and heart, Beile was taken up with Heyman
and with their mutual relations. His attentions
to her were an open secret. He did
not go out of his way to conceal them. On
the contrary, he regularly escorted her home
after work, and took her out to balls and
picnics—a thing involving great sacrifices
to a fellow who trembled over every cent
he spent, and who was sure to make up for
these losses to his pocket-book by foregoing
his meals. While alone with her in the
hallway of her mother's residence, his voice
would become so tender, so tremulous, and
on several occasions he even addressed her
by the endearing form of Beilinke. And
yet all this had been going on now for over
three months, and he had not as much as
alluded to marriage, nor even bought her
the most trifling present.
Her mother made life a burden to her, and
urged the point-blank declaration of the alternative
between a formal engagement and
an arrest for breach of promise. Beile would
have died rather than make herself the heroine
of such a sensation; and, besides, the
idea of Heyman handcuffed to a police detective
was too terrible to entertain even for
She loved him. She liked his blooming
face, his gentleman-like mustache, the quaint
jerk of his head, as he walked; she was
fond of his company; she was sure she
was in love with him: her confidant, her fellow
country girl and playmate, who had recently
married Meyer, the presser, had told
But somehow she felt disappointed. She
had imagined love to be a much sweeter
thing. She had thought that a girl in love
admired everything in the object of her
affections, and was blind to all his faults.
She had heard that love was something
like a perpetual blissful fluttering of the
"I feel as if something was melting here,"
a girl friend who was about to be married
once confided to her, pointing to her heart.
"You see, it aches and yet it is so sweet at
the same time." And here she never feels
anything melting, nor can she help disliking
some things about Heyman. His smile
sometimes appears to her fulsome. Ah,
if he did not shut his eyes as he does when
smiling! That he is so slow to spend
money is rather one of the things she likes
in him. If he ever marries her she will be
sure to get every cent of his wages. But
then when they are together at a ball he
never goes up to the bar to treat her to a
glass of soda, as the other fellows do to their
girls, and all he offers her is an apple or a
pear, which he generally stops to buy on the
street on their way to the dancing-hall. Is
she in love at all? Maybe she is mistaken?
But no! he is after all so dear to her. She
must have herself to blame. It is not in
vain that her mother calls her a whimpering,
nagging thing, who gives no peace to
herself nor to anybody around her. But
why does he not come out with his declaration?
Is it because he is too stingy to wish
to support a wife? Has he been making a
fool of her? What does he take her for,
In fairness to Heyman, it must be stated
that on the point of his intentions, at least,
her judgment of him was without foundation,
and her misgivings gratuitous. Pecuniary
considerations had nothing to do with his
slowness in proposing to her. And if she
could have watched him and penetrated his
mind at the moments when he examined his
bank-book,—which he did quite often,—she
would have ascertained that little images of
herself kept hovering before his eyes between
the figures of its credit columns, and that the
sum total conjured up to him a picture of
prospective felicity with her for a central
Poor thing; she did not know that when
he lingeringly fondled her hand, on taking
his leave in the hallway, the proposal lay on
the tip of his tongue, and that lacking the
strength to relieve himself of its burden he
every time left her, consoling himself that
the moment was inopportune, and that "to-morrow
he would surely settle it." She did
not know that only two days ago the idea
had occurred to him to have recourse to the
aid of a messenger in the form of a lady's
watch, and that while she now sat worrying
lest she was being made a fool of, the golden
emissary lay in Heyman's vest-pocket, throbbing
in company with his heart with impatient
expectation of the evening hour,
which had been fixed for the delivery of its
"I shall let mother speak to him," Beile
resolved, in her musings over her needle.
She went on to picture the scene, but at this
point her meditations were suddenly broken
by something clutching and pulling at her
hair. It was her employer's boy. He had
just got up from his after-dinner nap, and,
for want of any other occupation, he passed
his dirty little hand into her raven locks.
"He is practicing to be a boss," observed
David, whose attention was attracted to the
spectacle by the finisher's shriek.
Beile's voice brought Heyman to his feet,
and disentangling the little fellow's fingers
from the girl's hair, he fell to "plastering
his nasty cheeks for him," as he put it. At
this juncture the door opened to admit the
little culprit's father. Heyman skulked
away to his seat, and, burying his head in
his work, he proceeded to drown, in the
whir-r, whir-r of his machine, the screams
of the boy, who would have struck a much
higher key had his mamma happened on the
Lipman took off his coat, substituted his
greasy velvet skull-cap for his derby, and
lighting a cigar with an air of good-natured
business-like importance, he advanced to
Meyer's corner and fell to examining a
"And what does he look like?" David
asked himself, scrutinizing his task-master.
"Like a broom with its stick downward,"
he concluded to his own satisfaction. "And
his snuff-box?"—meaning Lipman's huge
nose—"A perfect fiddle!—And his mouth?
Deaf-mutes usually have such mouths. And
his beard? He has entirely too much of it,
and it's too pretty for his face. It must
have got there by mistake."
Presently the door again flew open, and
Mrs. Lipman, heavily loaded with parcels
and panting for breath, came waddling in
with an elderly couple in tow.
"Greenhorns," Meyer remarked. "Must
be fellow townspeople of hers—lately arrived."
"She looks like a tea-kettle, and she is
puffing like one, too," David thought, after
an indifferent gaze at the newcomers, looking
askance at his stout, dowdyish little
"Missis." "No," he then corrected himself,
"she rather resembles a broom with its stick
out. That's it! And wouldn't it be a
treat to tie a stick to her head and to sweep
the floor with the horrid thing! And her
mouth? Why, it makes me think she does
nothing but sneeze."
"Here is Leizer! Leizer, look at the
guests I have brought you!" Zlate exclaimed,
as she threw down her bundles.
"Be seated, Reb Avrom; be seated, Basse.
This is our factory," she went on, with a
smile of mixed welcome and triumph, after
the demonstrative greetings were over. "It
is rather too small, isn't it? but we are going
to move into larger and better quarters."
Meyer was not mistaken. Zlate's visitors
had recently arrived from her birthplace, a
poor town in Western Russia, where they
had occupied a much higher social position
than their present hostess, and Mrs. Lipman,
coming upon them on Hester Street,
lost no time in inviting them to her house,
in order to overwhelm them with her American
"Come, I want to show you my parlor,"
Mrs. Lipman said, beckoning to her country
people, and before they were given an opportunity
to avail themselves of the chairs
which she had offered them, they were towed
into the front room.
When the procession returned, Leizer, in
obedience to an order from his wife, took
Reb Avrom in charge and proceeded to initiate
him into the secrets of the "American
style of tailoring."
"Oh, my!" Zlate suddenly ejaculated,
with a smile. "I came near forgetting to
treat. Beilke!" she then addressed herself
to the finisher girl in a tone of imperious
nonchalance, "here is a nickel. Fetch two
bottles of soda from the grocery."
"Don't go, Beile!" David whispered
across his table, perceiving the girl's reluctance.
It was not unusual for Beile to go on an
errand for the wife of her employer, though
she always did it unwillingly, and merely
for fear of losing her place; but then Zlate
generally exacted these services as a favor.
In the present instance, however, Beile felt
mortally offended by her commanding tone,
and the idea of being paraded before the
strangers as a domestic cut her to the quick,
as a stream of color rushing into her face
indicated. Nevertheless the prospect of
having to look for a job again persuaded
her to avoid trouble with Zlate, and she was
about to reach out her hand for the coin,
when David's exhortation piqued her sense
of self-esteem, and she went on with her
sewing. Heyman, who, being interrupted in
his work by the visitor's inspection, was a
witness of the scene, at this point turned his
face from it, and cringing by his machine,
he made a pretense of busying himself with
the shuttle. His heart shrank with the
awkwardness of his situation, and he nervously
grated his teeth and shut his eyes,
awaiting still more painful developments.
His veins tingled with pity for his sweetheart
and with deadly hatred for David.
What could he do? he apologized to himself.
Isn't it foolish to risk losing a steady
job at this slack season on account of such
a trifle as fetching up a bottle of soda?
What business has David to interfere?
"You are not deaf, are you? I say go
and bring some soda, quick!" Mrs. Lipman
screamed, fearing lest she was going
"Don't budge, Beile!" the baster
prompted, with fire in his eyes.
Beile did not.
"I say go!" Zlate thundered, reddening
like a beet, to use a phrase in vogue with
"Never mind, Zlate," Basse interposed,
to relieve the embarrassing situation. "We
just had tea."
"Never mind. It is not worth the
trouble," Avrom chimed in.
But this only served to lash Zlate into a
greater fury, and unmindful of consequences,
she strode up to the cause of her
predicament, and tearing the coat out of her
hands, she squeaked out:—
"Either fetch the soda, or leave my shop
Heyman was about to say, to do something,
he knew not exactly what, but his
tongue seemed seized with palsy, the blood
turned chill in his veins, and he could neither
speak nor stir.
Leizer, who was of a quiet, peaceful disposition,
and very much under the thumb of
his wife, stood nervously smiling and toying
with his beard.
David grew ashen pale, and trembling
with rage he said aloud and in deliberate
"Don't mind her, Beile, and never worry.
Come along. I'll find you a better job.
This racket won't work, Missis. Your
friends see through it, anyhow, don't you?"
he addressed himself to the newcomers.
"She wanted to brag to you. That's what
she troubled you for. She showed off her
parlor carpet to you, didn't she? But did
she tell you that it had been bought on the
installment plan, and that the custom-peddler
threatened to take it away unless she
paid more regularly?"
"Leizer! are you—are you drunk?"
Mrs. Lipman gasped, her face distorted with
rage and desperation.
"Get out of here!" Leizer said, in a
tone which would have been better suited to
a cordial invitation.
The command was unnecessary, however,
for by this time David was buttoning up his
overcoat, and had his hat on. Involuntarily
following his example, Beile also dressed to
go. And as she stood in her new beaver
cloak and freshly trimmed large old hat by
the side of her discomfited commander,
Basse reflected that it was the finisher girl
who looked like a lady, with Zlate for her
servant, rather than the reverse.
"See that you have our wages ready for
Friday, and all the arrears, too!" was David's
parting shot as the two left the room
with a defiant slam of the door.
"That's like America!" Zlate remarked,
with an attempt at a scornful smile. "The
meanest beggar girl will put on airs."
"Why should one be ordered about like
that? She is no servant, is she?" Heyman
murmured, addressing the corner of the
room, and fell to at his machine to smother
When his day's work was over, Heyman's
heart failed him to face Beile, and although
he was panting to see her, he did not call at
her house. On the following morning he
awoke with a headache, and this he used as
a pretext to himself for going to bed right
On the next evening he did betake himself
to the Division Street tenement house,
where his sweetheart lived with her mother
on the top floor, but on coming in front of
the building his courage melted away.
Added to his cowardly part in the memorable
scene of two days before, there now
was his apparent indifference to the finisher,
as manifested by his two evenings' absence
at such a critical time. He armed himself
with a fib to explain his conduct. But all
in vain; he could not nerve himself up to
the terrible meeting. And so day after day
passed, each day increasing the barrier to
the coveted visit.
At last, one evening, about a fortnight
after the date of Mrs. Lipman's fiasco, Heyman,
forgetting to lose courage, as it were,
briskly mounted the four flights of stairs of
the Division Street tenement. As he was
about to rap for admission he was greeted
by a sharp noise within of something, like a
china plate or a bowl, being dashed to pieces
against the very door which he was going to
open. The noise was followed by merry
voices: "Good luck! Good luck!" and
there was no mistaking its meaning. There
was evidently an engagement party inside.
The Rabbi had just read the writ of betrothment,
and it was the mutual pledges of the
contracting parties which were emphasized
by the "breaking of the plate."
Presently Heyman heard exclamations
which dissipated his every doubt as to the
identity of the chief actors in the ceremony
which had just been completed within.
"Good luck to you, David! Good luck
to you, Beile! May you live to a happy old
age together!" "Feige, why don't you take
some cake? Don't be so bashful!" "Here
is luck!" came through the door, piercing
a muffled hum inside.
Heyman was dumbfounded, and with
his head swimming, he made a hasty retreat.
Ever since the tragi-comical incident at
Lipman's shop, Heyman was not present to
Beile's thoughts except in the pitiful, cowering
attitude in which he had sat through
that awful scene by his machine. She was
sure she hated him now. And yet her heart
was, during the first few days, constantly
throbbing with the expectation of his visit;
and as she settled in her mind that even if
he came she would have nothing to do with
him, her deeper consciousness seemed to
say, with a smile of conviction: "Oh no,
you know you would not refuse him. You
wouldn't risk to remain an old maid, would
you?" The idea of his jilting her harrowed
her day and night. Did he avail
himself of her leaving Lipman's shop to
back out of the proposal which was naturally
expected of him, but which he never
perhaps contemplated? Did he make game
When a week had elapsed without Heyman's
putting in an appearance, she determined
to let her mother see a lawyer about
breach-of-promise proceedings. But an image,
whose outlines had kept defining themselves
in her heart for several days past,
overruled this decision. It was the image
of a pluckier fellow than Heyman—of one
with whom there was more protection in
store for a wife, who inspired her with more
respect and confidence, and, what is more,
who seemed on the point of proposing to
It was the image of David. The young
baster pursued his courtship with a quiet
persistency and a suppressed fervor which
was not long in winning the girl's heart.
He found work for her and for himself in
the same shop; saw her home every evening;
regularly came after supper to take her out
for a walk, in the course of which he would
treat her to candy and invite her to a coffee
saloon,—a thing which Heyman had never
done;—kept her chuckling over his jokes;
and at the end of ten days, while sitting by
her side in Central Park, one night, he said,
in reply to her remark that it was so dark
that she knew not where she was:—
"I'll tell you where you are—guess."
"Here, in my heart, and keeping me
awake nights, too. Say, Beile, what have I
ever done to you to have my rest disturbed
by you in that manner?"
Her heart was beating like a sledge-hammer.
She tried to laugh, as she returned:—
"I don't know—You can never stop
making fun, can you?"
"Fun? Do you want me to cry? I will,
gladly, if I only know that you will agree to
have an engagement party," he rejoined,
deeply blushing under cover of the darkness.
"When?" she questioned, the word
crossing her lips before she knew it.
"On my part, to-morrow."