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Laura Hapke. Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea.

Laura Hapke. Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. 208 pp.

In 1890, Jacob Riis published his investigations into the tenements of New York's Tenth Ward, How the Other Half Lives. With his gritty mercury flash images of dingy rooms cluttered with grim immigrants and his novelistic accounts of the ethnic inhabitants of the Lower East Side, Riis maintained a controlled outrage over the conditions of squalor below Fourteenth Street. But when he discusses "The Sweaters of Jewtown," he finds himself at a loss to describe the economy of "cheap clothing." Trying to get to the bottom of the sweated economy requires a detour into philosophy: "What is Truth?" he asks in the face of a system built on lies, exploitation and an endless stream of impoverished immigrants. He can only resort to a "surface" account, gleaned from glimpses caught through the windows of the Second Avenue El. Entering the tenements and talking to sweaters and workers reveals nothing but shrugs and falsehoods; only "hard cash" speaks.

Laura Hapke's cultural history of the sweatshop--an institution as American as apple pie, she claims--works from the premise that Riis was onto something; the true history of sweated labor in New York and in America can never be told. The very nature of the sweatshop--transient, unofficial, domestic, illegal--put it beyond and outside of the normal documentation required of historians and economists. Despite an overabundance of studies, dating back to the mid-19th century, the sweatshop, Hapke argues, is best understood as "an idea," a cultural construction consisting as much of the narratives and visual iconography surrounding the tragedies of sweated labor--miserable, sometimes deadly, working conditions; piecework and low wages; exploitation of young, typically female, immigrants--as the actual experiences and statistics amassed by unions, progressives, workers and policy makers to ameliorate or even eliminate them. Arguing that artists have been central to making the sweatshop visible, Hapke recounts how discourses shifted from surveying and surveillance--counting the numbers of shops, overseeing them--to visceral elegies to their lost cultural meaning. If early survey research failed to name and fully define the sweatshop--disagreements centered on the locations of the shop (domestic spaces); the nature of the work (garment industry predominates, but other industries were home-based and sweated, for instance cigarmakers); etc.--later images in WPA murals, immigrant novels and naive paintings coalesced the sweatshop as an icon reeking of ethnic sentimentality and nostalgia for the old neighborhood now fled for a better address.

The sweatshop has been an almost permanent fixture of American industry since the Lowell girls first moved to company dormitories. Questions have persisted since then about whether eliding the home and work spaces, in order to assure that girls could be employed, was a more humane solution to the necessity for a whole family to work, as children could be home with their parents, or a ruthlessly destructive force tearing the fiber of the family because the home became a filthy degraded zone devoted to endless labor. Hapke notes the ever-changing and ever-recurring rhetoric surrounding the sweatshop with as much ambivalence as its varied commentators. On the one hand, sweatshops contribute to the Americanization of immigrant groups by acculturating them into capitalism, through the endless flow of pieceworkers who become jobbers and might eventually themselves "rise" to owning their own shop. On the other, they serve as a retrograde means of isolating ethnic communities from the mainstream by perpetuating illegal and underground economies based on exploitation and servitude. Or perhaps, they provide a way for young women to earn an independent living. Yet they might serve to destroy the fabric of femininity in the process, leaving young women feeble and consumptive, unable to become the wholesome mothers America desires. That is if it really is women and children who predominate as sweated labor.

These competing narratives about gender and class and acculturation/ assimilation survived almost a hundred years of rapidly changing industrialization, labor laws and immigration. Hapke's narrative, based as it is on cultural representations of the sweatshop, appears vague at times; itself discontinuous as the sweatshop flits into view only to be erased by a competing image of labor and ethnicity. But the shops themselves continue to thrive. Globalization has expanded this uniquely American formation across borders, first to Mexico in 1965 through the Border Industrialization Program that created the maquiladoras from Tijuana to Brownsville (see Norma Iglesias Prieto's moving oral histories in Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora), and now across the ocean to cities and villages throughout Asia and Central America. Hapke's book is best when she describes current sweatshops, now relocated to Los Angeles, and populated by immigrants from these new sweat zones, and the media and museum and student efforts to expose their continued presence in the so-called "information economy." One look into almost any closet in America will reveal how much sweatshops inhabit our wardrobes if not our imagination. In her best chapters, Hapke details the sordid story of the El Monte, California, sweatshop slaves exposed in 1995. She tracks the publicity campaigns launched by Nike, Gap and other corporations, in the face of a growing anti-sweatshop movement on university campuses and elsewhere. Reading the websites designed to assuage consumer guilt, she discerns a recrudescence of the same discourses and images lurking throughout American labor and immigrant history, now "exported" globally. Relocating sweatshops elsewhere brings "American values" to the world.

I wish this book had been better edited so some of the turgid and gummy prose might have been sharpened and some of the vague jargon eliminated. But the economy of 21st-century academic publishing works on the same margins as the early 20th-century garment industry. Unfortunately, Sweatshops R Us.

Paula Rabinowitz, University of Minnesota
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Author:Rabinowitz, Paula
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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