Labor Day Special: Philadelphia’s Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910

Happy Labor Day! Most people are familiar with the Uprising of 20,000 and the tragic New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Did you know that Philadelphia had a similar fire that led to one of the first massive uprisings of women in the United States?

post by Jessica Markey Locklear, Graduate Assistant at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center

Philadelphia was home to a number of unregulated garment sweatshops since the 1880s. Employees often worked in poor conditions for minimal pay, and were charged for work related expenses such as light, heat, power, and thread. A majority of employees working in these garment factories were immigrant women, many of whom were Jewish. In December 1909, 7,000 independent garment workers began a strike for consistent pay, free supply of work materials, safe and sanitary conditions, and the recognition of unions. The strikers faced strong opposition from wealthy Philadelphians, businesses, law enforcement and the administration of Mayor John E. Reyburn, as hundreds of girls were arrested and charged with crimes of disorderly conduct. The strike gained national attention, but retained an emphasis on independent working women, rather than famous or wealthy spokespeople, creating a subculture of working “ladyhood.” The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) provided financial support for the strike, and well-known labor rights advocates such as Mother Jones and Helen Taft encouraged the strikers to persevere, despite pressures to give in. With the support of these organizations and individuals, the strikers were able to reach a settlement that gave de facto union recognition and significantly improved wages and conditions in February 1910. 

Textile workers in a Philadelphia factory.


Further Reading: 

Kornacki, Julianne. “Revealing Division: The Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike, the Jewish Community, and Republican Machine Politics, 1909–1910.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 80, no. 3 (2013): 364-400. doi:10.5325/pennhistory.80.3.0364.

Kornacki, Julianne. “Shirtwaist Strike (1909-1910)”. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Rutgers University, 2015. 

Sidorick, Daniel. “The ‘Girl Army’: The Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike of 1909–1910.” Pennsylvania History 71, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 323-69.