Sweating in a union shop

Pages from workers’ lives

One summer in the 1930s I worked in a laundry in the Bronx. I probably worked there in the fall and winter too. But it was the summer I remember because it was hot and hotter. The laundry was housed in an old, commercial garage and employed about 100 workers, mostly women. There was little natural ventilation and I don’t remember any fans.

One of my jobs was as a sleeve-girl, working among the presses in the dress shirt department. The wet, washed shirt went first to the collar-and-cuff presser, then the bosom presser and last, the back presser. The presses were all close together, putting out steam each time they came down.

My operation was last before the shirt folders. I used two hands to grab the shirt from the back presser. My job was to force the sleeves over the hot sleeve-forms. There was no way to do that but lean between the hot forms as the sleeves began to steam and dry. Then I pulled the shirt off the hot sleeve-forms and hung it on a rack. Last I used the hook tool that hung around my neck to button the front. By that time another shirt would be waiting for me. It was important to keep up.

The hottest and steamiest job was operating the presses. My job was a close second to the pressers. But at least it was clean, unlike my earlier job of sorting dirty clothes. Normally, I sweat less than most people. On that job the choice was sweat or die. Of course, there were those who sweated and died, or at least passed out.

I learned a lot about cooling down. Wet cloths around the forehead cooled the head and kept the sweat from running into your eyes. Wet cloths around the neck felt really good. And it was amazing how wet cloths tied around each wrist helped.

Yet and still, the sweat rolled down my body, down my legs and into my shoes. Puddles of sweat in the shoes was a weird sensation. You have to drink water, the other workers reminded me. But there was little time. Then the boss got magnanimous. He began to pass out free salt tablets. It was amazing how those tablets kept down the aches and cramps that had annoyed me on the job. Probably someone told the boss he would get more work out of us to more than make up for the free salt tablets.

That laundry was a new union shop in a newly organized industry. The CIO had been organized just one year earlier. The union won us a raise. Before, we made only the minimum wage of 35 cents an hour. Dignity on the job also came with the union. With the union contract, you could not to be fired because you refused to go out with the foreman. But life-preserving demands such as good ventilation and rest periods were not yet part of our vocabulary. All the workers on that job were young. It was not a job you could get old on.