Welcome to the Sewing Room
The women of the sewing room first heard of the photographer on Christmas Eve, 1949. The company Christmas party was slowly disbanding: all the older ladies had already bundled up in their hats and scarves to brave the icy sidewalks that led back into town, bound together in groups of two or three. A worker in her mid-twenties with dark, curly hair was still inside, standing alone by the empty coat-hooks, waiting for her girlfriend to stop chatting with the machinist. It was a quarter past nine. There was another Christmas social to attend still, in the basement of the Catholic church, and there’d be plenty of younger, more interesting men for her to talk to there. Especially since the next party was hosted by the Polish families, who were always very lively on Christmas Eve.
The talkative girl eventually escaped from her conversation and rejoined her friend; together they left the P.K. Christmas party and were on their way to the Catholic church, trundling along the sidewalk arm in arm. “Mr. Miller told me that Mr. Traber is hiring a photographer to come in around January,” one girl related to another. There had been a lot of photography at the P.K. lately. All the younger working girls were excited by the prospect of being photographed by a professional. It was a luxury, especially to some of the poorer girls who had never had their photo taken before. But some of the women who worked in the office knew the photographer somehow was connected to a forthcoming crisis: business was slowing down unexpectedly, and the P.K.C. needed to document all the progress promised by their company, or else risk being bought out by new competitors.
Despite these quiet worries, news of a photographer brought a sense of refinement to the workers’ otherwise mundane occupation. The women were rarely documented as individuals, but in the sewing room they became meaningful people, worthy of being photographed on the basis of their work. It’s likely that the first-generation Italian or Polish immigrants who found jobs as factory girls at the P.K. around the turn of the century experienced the photograph as a similarly exciting occasion. The girls’ preparations for their moment of importance—fresh perms, starched dresses, polished jewelry—petered out once they realized the photograph wasn’t about them, after all.
Women workers were the driving force of the sewing room. Their standard workday began at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. In 1950, the women worked for minimum wage, which was $1 an hour. Each woman, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, worked at their own sewing machine, but their final product was ultimately a collaborative effort. We might guess that all of the women were at least acquainted with one another, if not close friends and mutual supporters. The clothes made by the women working in the sewing room served the Perry community and beyond, but it is evidence of the womens’ pride and faith in their own handiwork that they purchased this same clothing for themselves and their children. The P.K. employees’ children wore Nitey Nites, and it's not hard to see why-- workers were aware of almost every step in the production process of their children’s clothing. The women workers, many of whom were mothers or grandmothers, were surely proud to know they were contributing something carefully made to the community, and by extension, to their own families.
The men of the sewing room, like the two men wearing white shirts seen dimly in the background of this picture, were most often overseers who treated the women with a professional and distanced affect. Their duty was to oversee quality and quantities, roaming the rows of women in search of an offender with messy stitching or too much wasted fabric. The machinist seen in overalls here, Mr. Miller, was almost a paternal figure; he would amble over to set things back in order when someone’s machine went haywire. A good deal of the girls looked forward to the day that the president of the company, George Traber, Jr., was in town from the corporate office in New York City, because he was quite handsome. On those days when George briefly graced the sewing room, the girls were in good spirits for the next few hours, chattering about his suit or his hair or who he looked at the longest. He was an attractive figurehead for the company.
Mr. Miller, an old-time machinist and superintendent at the mill, was interested in documenting the “Before and After” of safety hazards using Polaroids. Mr. Clark Rice, the photographer hired for January 1950, was to take a picture of the sewing room documenting the new overhead lights--a modern renovation in response to concerns for employee welfare. Many workers complained of poor eyesight or wore glasses as a result of working by natural light. The working women, their enhanced safety assured by the photograph, would be captured in their natural state: poised to work, with their materials close at hand. Unbeknownst to many of the women in the sewing room, the photo also served to document the good workers and company at stake should a financial crisis occur. By the 1950s, business at the Perry Knitting Company had begun to decline, a harbinger of its eventual closure. Cheaper ways to mass-produce clothing were being discovered in the South, which threatened the livelihood of more costly Northern manufacturers like the P.K.. Many of the Southern clothing manufacturers favored quantity over quality, rapidly producing thousands of cheaply made clothing items. The economic state of the world moving into the 1960s favored this production model over the older, more time intensive one. This trend has continued into our present day.
When the day of the picture arrived, the Polish girl knew better than to fret over her makeup like some of the younger girls. She recognized that their working forms mattered more than their faces to the company photographer. Mr. Rice counted down from three before the flash-bulb went off, and everyone assumed the expected position: straight-backed, hands at work. She wondered what the back of her head looked like on film. Her friend, who worked in the opposite aisle, got lucky: she was facing the camera. Her friend told her after: “I almost smiled, but one of the overseers saw me and told me to cut it out. ‘This is supposed to be a natural photo, and if you smile you don’t look hard at work,’ he told me.” As if the women don’t smile and laugh with one another as they work! That was the only way to get through the worst of it, when their hands cramped and their backs ached. Laughing together, over and through their shared pain, was as much a part of the workday as threading bobbins.
They only had to seem stoic for the photographs. In fact, a few women in the back near the windows stood with their arms crossed, wary of the whole spectacle: Mr. Rice up on a ladder trying to get the right perspective of the sewing room, coaching the girls all the while to “act natural.” Like the sewing room was their natural environment, and his presence might disturb the authenticity of the shot. As though the laughing and smiling in itself were inauthentic, because that wasn’t what working women were supposed to look like. After the photographer left, the workday continued as per usual, and the older women were further amused by the downcast look of the other girls, who seemed surprised that the occasion hadn’t amounted to something more than a silly interruption in their day.
In that photograph from January 1950, the two young, dark-haired girls and all of their coworkers served as an authentic background for the real subject matter of the photograph: those new overhead lights, so bright compared to the diluted sunlight of a January afternoon. The womens’ work by that first fading light was documented once in the year 1900, but these diligent forms, frozen under a fluorescent cast, were documented several times around the year 1950. The photo is evidence of the company’s commitment to safety. It is not evidence of the women as themselves, evidence of their value as people who happened to work for the Perry Knitting Company, like the younger girls wanted to believe. Or is it? After all, the photo still exists, the forms and faces can still be seen and read and imagined.
The individuals captured in these photographs transcend time and meet us in the present; we are able to view them in a new light, just as their memory illuminates and casts its shadow upon our understanding of the world today. In looking back, we are also looking forward; by reviving the memory of the women in the P.K. sewing room, we are reminded of their humanity and our own, the constant thread that runs through us all for centuries and centuries to come.