top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

Garment Industry Sweatshops in Baltimore at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

BHW 48: December 30, 2023

An engraved print depicting an upset sweatshop proprietor scolding one of their workers, who is working hard stitching with a sewing machine.
Figure 1. A sweatshop proprietor scolding a worker, an 1888 depiction from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [1].

In 1894, the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland (BIS) included a section on “sweat shops” in its annual report for the first time. This was a response to the Maryland General Assembly passing its first anti-sweatshop law earlier that year. [2] Like anti-sweatshop reformers nationally, Maryland officials deemed this an urban problem. [3] This mostly concerned Baltimore, the state’s primary city. It also mostly pertained to the city’s largest industry around the turn of the twentieth century: ready-to-wear clothing. [4] In particular, men’s ready-to-wear clothing became industrialized and mass-produced in Baltimore during this period. With typically faster-changing fashions and more complex ornamental designs, women’s garments took longer to transition from custom to ready made. [5] The Baltimore garment industry employed many new immigrants, predominantly Jewish Eastern Europeans often experienced in the industry. [6] The BIS sent a team of inspectors to garment manufacturing establishments around Baltimore, seeking to identify, create, and solve the sweatshop as a social problem. [7] After many years of study, the bureau defined the sweatshop as: “[T]hose places which contract with the manufacturer for the making of certain garments at a certain price and who sub-contract the same articles out to third parties at a less price, thereby ‘sweating’ them out of a certain amount of money, which is the middle-man’s profit.” [8] From 1894 to about 1910, the BIS problematized and recommended policies against the Baltimore sweatshop. Examining these reform efforts provides valuable insights into dynamics of immigration, labor, anti-Semitism, and gender in Baltimore City around the turn of the twentieth century.

A large wave of Eastern European immigrants arrived in Baltimore and the United States in the late nineteenth century, fleeing persecution in their home countries. [9] This created an immense labor pool of new arrivals, many of whom were Jewish people with significant experience in garment production. [10] As a result, clothing production operations sprung up in large numbers in Baltimore and other American manufacturing hubs. Given the limited financial resources available to most newcomers, many of these workshops fell under the sweatshop definition created and espoused by government authorities. Maryland’s BIS initially reported that the proprietors of these shops, whom they referred to as “contractors,” lived essentially as precarious an economic existence as their workers. According to the 1894 BIS Annual Report: “The contractor is little, if any, better off than his employes [sic], for the cut in prices, which is from 30 to 50 per cent, leaves him but little profit after deducting the price paid for labor, fuel, gas or gasoline, thread, and rent. It is only by constant self-denial and hard labor that he can even live.” [11] By 1901, the BIS changed this position dramatically, arguing that through worker exploitation sweatshop owners could achieve significant upward mobility. It deemed data provided by proprietors, “and in some cases verified by the workmen,” to be “sufficient to warrant the statement that the contractor grows wealthy in a number of years by ‘sweating’ the worker out of enough to pay all expenses and save for the future.” By contrast, “the toiler goes on in his hum-drum existence of ‘stitch, stitch, stitch,’ in ‘dirt, dirt, dirt.’” [12]

Maryland BIS officials and the social worker inspectors they appointed exhibited substantial anti-Semitism in their efforts to reform what they deemed “THE SWEATSHOP EVIL.” Their 1901 data declared that “Fully 90 per cent of those employed” in sweatshops were Eastern European Jews. It is unclear if anti-Semitism contributed to over-representation of Jewish people in this data. What is clear is that harmful anti-Semitic prejudice was applied to sweatshop workers, especially through concerns about the public health threats of manufacturing. In 1901, the BIS reported: “No one now doubts that disease is often spread through the clothing manufactured in these ‘sweatshops,’ nor does anyone doubt that many of the ‘sweatshop’ workers become impregnated with the germs of disease in the close and foul-smelling rooms.” [13] As historian Daniel E. Bender demonstrates, reformers combined anti-Semitism with eugenics to stigmatize shop workers. He writes, “Physical exhaustion revealed the weak body that factory inspectors believed was emblematic of Jewish racial inferiority.” [14] This emphasis on racialized propensity to exhaustion demonstrates how anti-Semitism became embedded in the sweat concept of the sweatshop name itself. In the eyes of reformers, physical weakness extended to weak immunity to disease, thus threatening overall public health in Baltimore. [15]

Another area of BIS official and inspector anti-Semitism was their concern about gender relations amongst Jewish new arrivals. Reformers found common ground with many male Jewish immigrants on this, who also believed in the ideal of a male breadwinner. This patriarchal alliance further marginalized women within Baltimore clothing manufacturing. As historian Jo Ann E. Argersinger asserts, “More than half of Baltimore’s ten thousand men’s garment workers were women or teenage girls. Difficult living conditions for working-class families required all members to contribute to the family income.” [16] This prevalence of working women alarmed reformers, who firmly believed in the potential of the male-led household model to reform immigrants into model Americans. [17] Prejudiced views of disease influenced this conversation as well, with reformers claiming the prevalence of disease in sweatshops threatened to force women into the workforce when their husbands became ill. [18] Argersinger importantly emphasizes the perspectives of immigrant women in these histories, stating: “Although most immigrant wage-earning women did not identify with the exalted notion of domesticity held by members of the American middle class in the nineteenth century, neither did they regard themselves as victims of industrialized society.” [19] Nevertheless, by regulating clothing production operations through rigorous inspection, BIS officials and other moral reformers reinforced patriarchal relations.

The anti-Semitic problematization of the so-called sweatshop also led to the stigmatization of neighborhoods in Baltimore City. A lack of effective transportation infrastructure meant Baltimoreans needed to be able to walk to work around the turn of the twentieth century, which meant ethnic residential clustering and occupational clustering developed in unison. [20] Maryland officials deemed certain areas of Baltimore Jewish, threatening, and problematic. Oldtown was the most substantially targeted neighborhood. Historical geographer Sherry Olson lays out this spatial distribution: “There were three to four hundred sweatshops between Central Avenue and Jones Falls, on both sides of Lombard Street. The majority were Jewish.” [21] Historians Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner provide important amplification of the Jewish Baltimorean voices in this story, emphasizing that clustered Jewish communities came together in cooperation and solidarity to lift each other up. [22] Additionally, Olson shows that many Jewish Baltimoreans of German ancestry arrived in Baltimore a generation earlier than their Eastern European counterparts and eagerly supported Jewish new arrivals. [23]

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Maryland public officials and reformers conceptualized and problematized the sweatshop as a social problem, demonstrating anti-Semitic views while expressing concerns about immigration, labor, and gender relations. Morally repugnant and threatening sweatshop framings extend from these historical roots well into the twenty-first century. While modern sweatshop concerns often target manufacturers outsourced internationally from the United States, stigmatization remains. However, it is not fair or just to stigmatize the sweatshop workers who simply try to make do in a challenging economy. [24] The rightful stigmatization of exploitative proprietors is most evident in the negative public relations impact that revelations of sweatshop use have on present-day multinational corporations. In response, advertising teams for these businesses are sent scrambling for morally redemptive ad campaigns. [25] This advertising emphasis also has great historical precedent. In its 1900 annual report, Maryland’s BIS proclaimed: “Once let the world know that there are no unsanitary sweat-shops in our State, and the already large trade in clothing and other garments will be doubled by the splendid advertisement resulting therefrom.” [26] Meanwhile, the voices of the workers themselves are often silenced in both past and present sweatshop condemnations. One of the most promising avenues for using these histories to create positive social impact is the empathetic consideration of the perspectives of those most exploited by systems of global capitalism.


[1] “[Man (boss) waiving his fist at female employee in a sweatshop (clothing factory)],” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), November 3, 1888, 188,

[2] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1894 (Baltimore: The Sun Book and Job Printing Office, 1895), 80-83,

[3] Daniel E. Bender, “‘A Foreign Method of Working’: Racial Degeneration, Gender Disorder, and the Sweatshop Danger in America,” in Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Global and Historical Perspective, eds. Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald (New York: Routledge, 2003), 21,

[4] Edward K. Muller and Paul A. Groves, “The Changing Location of the Clothing Industry: A Link to the Social Geography of Baltimore in the Nineteenth Century,” Maryland Historical Magazine 71, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 404,

[5] Daniel E. Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 31,

[6] Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies, 27.

[7] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Third Annual Report, 84-114.

[8] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1909 (Baltimore: Geo. W. King Printing Co., 1910), 69-70,

[9] Jo Ann E. Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 13-14,

[10] Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies, 26.

[11] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Third Annual Report, 82.

[12] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1901 (Baltimore: King Brothers, 1902), 168,

[13] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Tenth Annual Report, 139-140.

[14] Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies, 42-43.

[15] Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated, 14-15.

[16] Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated, 16.

[17] Bender, “A Foreign Method of Working,” 28.

[18] Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies, 60.

[19] Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated, 19.

[20] Muller and Groves, “The Changing Location of the Clothing Industry,” 403-404.

[21] Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 229,

[22] Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 6, Kindle edition.

[23] Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City, 280.

[24] Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald, “Introduction,” in Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Global and Historical Perspective, eds. Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald (New York: Routledge, 2003), 2,

[25] Tim Bartley and Curtis Child, “Movements, Markets, and Fields: The Effects of Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns on U.S. Firms, 1993-2000,” Social Forces 90, no. 2 (December 2011), 427,

[26] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1900 (Baltimore: The Sun Book and Job Printing Office, 1901), 114,


bottom of page