by Daryl Sznyter
Northeastern Pennsylvania may be most historically famous for its anthracite coal mining, but coal isn’t the only industry the region’s history was built on. In the 1930s when anthracite miners started losing their jobs, women and children became the primary supporters of their families, finding jobs in one of the newly established garment factories that began popping up in the region as the textile industry migrated its center from Manhattan to take advantage of areas that had been hit hardest by the Great Depression. Most of the labor was provided by immigrant women and their children, who worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. In many ways, the garment factories were the females’ coal mines as many rarely saw the light of day.
My grandmother was a garment worker. She loves to regale our family with stories of her time spent making dresses and how she practiced speed until she went from one of the slowest dressmakers to one of the quickest. Today is her 96th birthday. Her story is critical to how I motivate myself on a daily basis, and it is such a rich part of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history that it should never be forgotten.
Pennsylvania Dress Factory
She was hired to mass produce
when mass production was still new.
At first she sewed like she was slipping
her entire life through the head of the needle
and stood stiff as a soldier
while women around her churned out
a hundred dresses to her ten,
not realizing that they were the beginning
of an unfamiliar era and that their worth
would become as flimsy as their stitching.
She practiced at home, darning the holes
in her family’s shreds until her hands
moved like bullets sealed with a kiss.
Day by day, she moved up the line.
until she earned her place of honor
by the only window in the factory
where the sun scorched her skin
and the noise dulled her senses.
She wanted to make it her home
until her body became a spool of yarn
that she no longer knew how to manipulate.
The factory burnt down a few years
after she left, her lips the only
fabric that didn’t turn to ash.
Daryl Sznyter is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and content writer from Northeast Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in Poetry from The New School and is the author of the poetry collection Synonyms for (OTHER) Bodies (New York Quarterly Books). Her work has appeared in Phoebe, Gravel, Cleaver Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Poet Lore, WomenArts Quarterly, and elsewhere. To read more of her work, visit darylsznyter.com.
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Powerful! A necessary, and well-told, piece of history most of us don’t think about enough. Thank you for this.
My mom was the only zipper setter at the factory where she worked. She got me a PT job as a turner/ floor girl when I was 15. One summer in that sweatshop was enough for me! It was a valuable learning experience though, and motivational in several ways. Thanks for the memory jogger! It was truly a different world, not so long ago.