Think of the New Deal, created in the 1930s to battle the Great Depression, and images of breadlines, Hoovervilles, and men digging ditches come to mind. With over 25% unemployment in 1933, the challenge of the federal government was to put people – men – back to work and thus stabilize the economy.
But significant numbers of women were also among the unemployed; many of them were single, divorced, widowed, or had been abandoned by their husbands. Many of these women found jobs through the Works Progress Administration, established by Congress in 1935, although only 7% of the 3 million employed in WPA projects were female. WPA Projects used funding from federal, state and local sources.
Professional women, those with college degrees, found work in local archives and libraries, or recording oral histories or even doing archaelogical digs. But thousands of women with fewer skills, and less education, were employed in hundreds of “Sewing Rooms” established in large and small towns throughout America.
This concept of “Sewing Rooms” was not new; in Syracuse, New York, for example, needy women (who had to be certified as having no male breadwinner in the household) were paid by the Ladies Employment Society, a private charity, to sew shirts, aprons, undergarments, and children’s clothing for sale. This charity, the oldest in post-Civil War Central New York, was established in 1872, and it continued to pay women to hand or machine sew clothing right through the 1930s (the seamstresses never made very much doing this; they were paid only 25 or 50 cents for each garment). But after 1929, as the Depression worsened, the plight of poor women also worsened. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration kept such Sewing Rooms open, and the WPA then took over them in 1935, and leased vacant factories and storefronts to expand their operations.
Syracuse’s Sewing Room employed approximately 600 women to make knickers for boys and shirts for workingmen, along with other garments and bedclothes such as blankets and sheets. They also were paid to patch and mend clothing.
Local women were hired for either a morning or afternoon shift (depending upon their household obligations and childcare arrangements). But this wasn’t just a “make-work” project (as some WPA projects were); the women were also taught dressmaking skills, and textile care and design. The goal of the Sewing Rooms was to provide needy women with skills that would make them employable by department stores or dressmakers.
Similar arrangements were established in Watertown, New York, San Antonio and Fort Worth in Texas, in Anacortes, Washington, and in Louisville, Kentucky and Sylva, North Carolina. In the South, the Sewing Rooms were segregated in accordance with local practices. Sewing Rooms in the Ohio Valley were called upon to provide clothing and bedclothes for thousands of people flooded out of their homes in 1937.
These seamstresses were paid less than men in WPA projects; the average weekly pay was around $13 (depending on the region). Garment manufacturers and textile companies in the South, fearful that the WPA would push up wages, demanded that the Sewing Rooms pay less than private pay rates (although there were no jobs available in the textile mills anyway).
After World War II began in Europe in 1939, new job opportunities opened up for women throughout the country, and they no longer needed to sew for a living. By the time the Sewing Rooms were closed in 1942, over 1/2 billion garments and other articles had been produced nationwide.