Industrial Work for Women

A report by investigator Leonora Barry describes women’s working conditions in New Jersey factories.

Document Text


December 6th I went to Trenton, N.J., in compliance with the request of L.A. 4925. While there made an investigation in three woolen mills, and found the condition of the female operatives to be in every respect above the average. Also visited the potteries, where many women are employed. Those people stand greatly in need of having their condition bettered, as they receive poor wages for laborious and unhealthy employment. The conditions for women working in three wool mills in Trenton, NJ were above average. The conditions for women working in potteries need improvement.
Also visited the State Prison, and noticed with regret, the vast amount of work of various kinds the inmates were turning out to be put on the market in competition with honest labor. While in the city, I addressed five local assemblies and held one public meeting of working women. Inmates at the state prison are forced to make products that are sold at the same price as those made in factories. I talked to five local groups from the union and gave a public speech to working women.
December 10th went to Newark to investigate the matter concerning the sewing-women of that city, which was referred to our committee at the General Assembly at Richmond. Found, after a careful study of the matter, that the case reported by the boys’ shirt-waist makers was not only true, but that in general the working-women of Newark were very poorly paid, and the system of fines in many industries was severe and unjust. The conditions for working women in Newark are unfair. They get paid low wages and have to pay unfair fines to their employer.
Instance: A corset factory where a fine is imposed for eating, laughing, singing or talking, of 10 cents each. If not inside the gate in the morning when the whistle stops blowing, an employee is locked out until half-past seven; then she can go to work, but is docked two hours for waste power; and many other rules equally slavish and unjust. At a corset factory women are fined for eating, laughing, singing, or talking. Workers lose two hours of pay if they arrive late.
Other industries closely follow these rules, while the sewing-women receive wages which are only one remove from actual starvation. In answer to all my inquiries, of employer and employed, why this state of affairs exists, the reply was, monopoly and competition. Employers say they have to keep wages low because of competition.
On January 6, 1887 took up the work again in Trenton, N. J., per instruction. Held several meetings, both public and private, of working-women for the purpose of getting them into the order, as the women of this city are not well organized. Went to Bordentown to a shirt factory there, but the unjust prejudice which they have always held toward organized labor cropped out on this occasion and they refused me admission. I returned to Trenton and had several meetings there to have more working women join the Knights of Labor. I tried to visit a factory in Bordentown but was not allowed to enter.
…March 14, was sent to Paterson to look into the condition of the women and children employed in the linen-thread works of that city. There are some fourteen or fifteen hundred persons employed in this industry, who were at that time out of employment for this reason: Children who work at what is called doffing were receiving $2.70 per week, and asked for an increase of 5 cents per day. They were refused, and they struck, whereupon all the other employees were locked out. This was what some of the toadying press called “Paterson’s peculiar strike”, or “unexplainable phenomena”. I inspected the conditions of working women and children in linen-thread factories in Paterson. Children have replaced adult workers for very low wages. They asked for a small raise and went on strike.
The abuse, injustice and suffering which the women of this industry endure from the tyranny, cruelty and slave-driving propensities of the employers is something terrible to be allowed existence in free America. In one branch of this industry women are compelled to stand on the stone floor in water the year round, most of the time barefoot, with a spray of water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the breast; and the coldest night in winter as well as the warmest in summer those poor creatures must go to their homes with water dripping from their under-clothing along their path because there could not be space or a few moments allowed them wherein to change their clothing. The horrible treatment of workers in this industry is completely unacceptable. Women have to stand in water without shoes year-round. Water constantly sprays on their bodies. They have to go home in wet clothes every day.
A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any who dare rebel against the iron-clad authority of those in charge. The law is evaded in this matter; but the passage-tickets on the Inman Steamship Line, that are advanced at from $5 to $7 more than they actually cost to the friends of those employed here or in the factory of this firm in Belfast, Ireland, and which are paid for after they commence work for the firm on this side of the ocean in $1 installments, at their semi-monthly payments, furnish good ground for a test case in the near future. There are always new workers available if employees complain. Immigrants from Ireland are brought over to work in the industry. They have to work until they pay back the money for their tickets to America.
Add to this the most meagre wages, crowded, badly ventilated rooms, want of proper sanitary conditions, and many other cruelties, and a fair-minded public can form some solution of this unexplainable “phenomena”. A thorough account of all this was placed in the hands of State Deputy Factory Inspector Hall. Also notified L. T. Fell, Chief Factory Inspector, and through his efforts much child labor has been abolished and other defects somewhat remedied. But there is very much yet to be done. The conditions in this industry need to change. I wrote a report for the factory inspectors.

Leonora M. Barry, “Report to the Knights of Labor, 1887”, Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey (Somerville, 1888). New Jersey Women’s History.


Mass production of clothing in standard sizes became common during the Civil War. Instead of purchasing their clothes from a tailor, middle-class women started primarily buying factory-made ready-to-wear clothing. 

Most of the workers in ready-to-wear garment factories were young immigrant women from Europe. They worked long hours for low wages in sweatshops. Most factory owners hired people from the same country because they spoke the same language and shared the same culture. Factory work also provided young immigrant women with independence. They supported their families with their wages but earned some pocket money as well.

About the Resources

Leonora Barry was an Irish immigrant who became a leader in the Knights of Labor. She traveled all over the country investigating the working conditions of the organization’s female members. Her reports provided insights into the challenges women faced in the workplace and informed the work of the Knights of Labor.

This is an excerpt from Leonora Barry’s 1887 report on women’s working conditions in New Jersey. At the time, at least 4,400 women were members of the Knights of Labor in that state, most of whom were white. During her visit to New Jersey, she found that some women worked in above-average conditions. One example was the wool mills of Trenton. However, most women worked in poor conditions for low wages. In one factory, she described the pay as close to “actual starvation.”


  • assemblies: Local groups of the Knights of Labor.
  • docked: Took money out of someone’s wages.
  • doffing: Switching to a new roll of fabric when one is finished.
  • Inman Steamship Line: British passenger shipping company; many immigrants from Europe came to the United States on their ships.
  • ironclad: Strong, or difficult to break.
  • Knights of Labor: National labor organization that advocated for worker’s rights.
  • laborious: Something that takes a lot of time and effort. 
  • meagre: Something very small.
  • monopoly: Complete control over an industry.
  • operatives: Workers.
  • ready-to-wear: Clothing made in standardized sizes, usually in large quantities. 
  • shirt-waist: Women’s blouse.
  • slavish: Mean; lack of respect.
  • standard: Accepted as average, such as the size of something.
  • struck: Went on strike.
  • sweatshops: Factories with bad working conditions and low wages and might be located in living spaces known as tenements.
  • toadying: Flattering; in this case, trying to make the employers look good.
  • union: Worker’s organization that advocates for better working conditions and rights for its members.

Discussion Questions

  • What conditions did Leonora describe in the different factories across New Jersey? How did she feel about them? What solutions did she offer?
  • What challenges did Leonora Barry face in conducting her investigations?
  • Leonora Barry mentions that most women workers had not joined the Knights of Labor or organized in other ways. Why might women not have joined the organization? What would be the benefits of joining the Knights of Labor?

Suggested Activities

  • Explore labor activism by pairing this resource with the life stories of Leonora Barry and Clara Lemlich Shavelson.
  • Despite its challenges, factory work was still considered more respectable than working in domestic service. Compare and contrast the experiences of women in factories and domestic service by teaching this resource alongside resources about Black domestic workers and Irish domestic workers.
  • Factory work was primarily open to white women. Consider the racial tensions within factories by pairing this resource with the Fulton Bag Strike. Why did the white women protest against the Black workers and not their working conditions?
  • Consider the role of an outsider investigating the workplace conditions of working-class women by pairing this resource with a study about Black domestic workers and the life story of Nellie Bly. How did the middle-class position of these investigators affect their investigations and influence?



Source Notes