Samuel Gompers Primary Source eText

Primary Source

While Gompers focused attention on the squalor of tenements, the U.S. Housing Authority suggested a connection between poor neighborhoods and high crime rates, as this poster reflects. Reproduced by permission of the National Archives and Records Administ While Gompers focused attention on the squalor of tenements, the U.S. Housing Authority suggested a connection between poor neighborhoods and high crime rates, as this poster reflects. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of the National Archives and Records Administration
Crowded tenement buildings housed cigar factories and their families in squalid conditions. Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress. Crowded tenement buildings housed cigar factories and their families in squalid conditions. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress

Excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture"

Published in the New Yorker Volkszeitung, October 31, 1881

"For many years the system of tenement-house cigar manufacture has formed one of the most dreadful, cancerous sores in our city."

Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) is best known as the leader of the American Federation of Labor, a group of unions (organizations of workers) representing workers with special skills, such as weavers or carpenters. Before he came to national prominence as a leader of the labor movement, he was active in organizing a union of cigar makers.

In 1881, when Gompers was thirty-one years old, he wrote a series of articles in a German-language newspaper in New York City, the New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York Peoples' Newspaper), describing the living and working conditions of people who worked in cigar factories located in tenement houses. Tenement houses were narrow, run-down apartment houses built right next to one another; the houses Gompers describes were located in a neighborhood of Manhattan (in New York City) called the Lower East Side. Because they only had windows on two sides, the front and back, they were often dark and lacked good ventilation.

In these buildings, cigar makers worked in spaces that doubled as living quarters. As described by Samuel

Gompers, a typical family lived in three rooms: a bedroom, a room where cigars were made, and a kitchen. Usually the entire family was engaged in the process of making cigars. Because they were paid by the cigar, life was reduced to rolling cigars for twelve hours—or more—a day, then sleeping, and waking in order to make more cigars. Merchants delivered tobacco leaves to the cramped quarters; the leaves gave off an overpowering smell that lingered in the poorly ventilated rooms.

Gompers was inspired to write his own articles by a series of newspaper articles in the New York Times that had run ten years earlier, exposing corruption in city government. As he notes in the introduction to his articles, no one did anything about the corruption until the New York Times provided exact details about the wrongdoing. It was Gompers's aim to provide such details about tenement house factories in order to arouse public disgust and bring about government action.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture":

  • Samuel Gompers was a cigar maker and understood the business from the inside. The use of children as workers from a very young age was a practice not limited to cigar-making in the 1880s. Child labor and substandard living conditions were common in many other industries. As the nineteenth century progressed, articles like Gompers's succeeded in creating a public uproar and resulted in legislation to ban child labor.
  • Gompers believed that he needed to paint a vivid word picture of cigar makers' conditions in order to be effective. Rather than simply saying that workers lived in poor conditions, he went to the trouble of measuring the rooms, even the size of the windows, in order to give readers a precise picture of the harsh conditions in which cigar-makers and their families lived.
  • In order to put the wages and rents mentioned by Gompers into context, the dollar amounts have been translated into current values. One dollar in 1881 would be worth about $18.17 in 2003, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In the text below, the dollar values in 2003 are in brackets after the amounts mentioned in the original text. For example: $7 [$127] means that a rent of $7 in 1881 would be equivalent to a rent of $127 in 2003.

Excerpt from "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture"

For many years the system of tenement-house cigar manufacture has formed one of the most dreadful, cancerous sores in our city: In every way, whether in regard to the wage conditions of the workers and not only that of the tenement-house workers—or their existence as human beings or family members, or the influence it has upon the immediate surroundings of the tenement factories and indirectly upon all the working population of the city, every year this system proves itself more of a veritable plague spot in the already quite corrupt economic and social life of New York. The truth of this assertion has been recognized often enough in so-called "decisive" places, and most recently Mayor Grace expressed his intention of attacking this pernicious institution.

Unfortunately, the impressions produced in people by general assertions of grievances, no matter how well-grounded they may be, are usually not very deep or lasting. Only when precise and authentic details allow the public to gain insight into the actual character of the evils we reproach are people set into motion and one can count on finding the appropriate support for an agitationto abolish the grievances. One of the most striking examples of all times of this tendency is the fall of the Tweed Ring. Long before its collapse there was scarcely anyone in the city of New York who was not convinced that Tweed and his companions were daily and hourly plundering the city in the most shameful way. Despite all this, no movement to oust the scoundrels could be launched successfully. Only when the "Times" produced that famous expose which gave very precise details about the specific fraudulent transactions of city officials did a storm of indignation arise in the public which then swept the whole gang of political crooks out of public life.

Proceeding from this standpoint we have made it our business, through an exact examination of the facts and through publication of the results obtained … to provide the necessary factual foundation for those oft-repeated general assertions about the dreadful conditions produced by the tenement-factory system. This is no longer a matter of phrases but of facts and figures that cannot be argued away and that are well suited to horrify the reader who has had no previous idea of the depth of this abyss.

We hope the results of these publications will provide a lever that will at least contribute to preparing as quick an end as possible to that institution which is a burning humiliation to the so highly praised culture of our day and of our country.

In presenting to the readers of the N.Y. Volkszeitung the results of a careful examination of tenement-house cigar manufacture, of its system, the circumstances under which it takes place, and the dreadful consequences that inevitably result from it, we ask that attention be paid to the fact that the information depends in part on the degree of willingness of those most immediately involved, that is, the workers themselves, to inform us about their conditions. Since these workers are in constant fear not only of losing their jobs but also of being evicted from their apartments, it is natural for them to

regard with suspicion every stranger who attempts to gain precise information about their situation. Although it is fairly safe to assume that everything which the reporter learned about the conditions of the workers, not through his own observations but through what the workers told him themselves, still makes the situation appear far more favorable than it really is, there were nevertheless no attempts made in the following reports to express speculations or assumptions that would alter the actual facts. On the contrary, the following remarks, without any coloration or exaggeration, are a true mirror of that which our thoroughly objective reporter saw and heard. Since we will refrain from making the required commentary on the results of the investigation, without further introduction we begin with the presentation of our reporter which in its almost photographic way speaks an eloquent and terrible language.


No. 90 Cannon St. [in New York City], was the first of these buildings visited by this writer. It is a five-story double tenement house. Already from a distance it gave the impression of not having been repaired for a generation; we did not wish to rely on external impressions, however, but wanted to see with our own eyes what it looks like on the inside, see the rooms in which people live and work, are born and die. Fifteen families live in the house, an average of four on each floor. Each family has a room and a bedroom; the size of the room is 11 by 13 feet, the bedroom 512 by 712 feet. In the wall adjoining the dark corridor is a hole measuring 18 inches square, a so-called window; the ceiling height is 712 feet. Fifty-two people live in this house; moreover the whole bottom floor and half of one of the upper stories are used as an office and a place for packing cigars and as storage space for tobacco and tobacco stems. In two families, four people work in the apartment rooms described above; in three families, three. The remaining families have two workers each but the strippers are not included in this figure since this task is usually carried out by an old person who is useless for other occupations or by a child. Tobacco in every stage of preparation is found in all the rooms; mostly it lies spread out over the floor to dry. In the bedroom we find casks, chests, and rusty milk cans that contain tobacco and tobacco stalks, called "stems" by the workers. Working hours are from 6 or 6:30 in the morning until 10, 11, or even 12 o'clock at night. Wages vary from $4.25 to $6.00 [equivalent to $77 to $109 in 2002 prices] in per thousand [cigars rolled] and a family in which two people work can produce 2,800 cigars a week on the average, but the families with more working members do not produce proportionately more, but significantly less for their number. Rent is from $7.00 to $9.00 [$127 to $164] per month. What one finds as furniture in these apartments usually consists first and foremost of a worktable, kitchen table, and cook stove, two or three wooden chairs, a bedstead, and a few cheap pictures of saints. We go through the rooms, the hallway, down the stairs, and into the yard, and everywhere we come across tobacco, tobacco scraps, tobacco stems, and other filth. Even in the yard where the children who are still too young to be able to work—and they have to be very young not to—are playing, great piles of drying tobacco are lying about. One structure in the yard arouses a curious impression; it looks like a small model of a dilapidated palace or castle, but when we come nearer our sense of smell quickly tells us what the purpose of this "little palace" is. We go to the door but the stench drives us back; this breeding-ground of disease has no drain to the sewer and consists only of a pit which is emptied out when it is filled to the brim. Great piles of tobacco stems, some 60 to 70 pounds, lie, rotting and moldy, in the entry way next to the stairs. We could not ascertain how often these piles are removed to make space for new ones, but the

Samuel Gompers (center) with leaders of the American Federation of Labor in 1916. Gompers exposed the working conditions in cigar factories located in tenement buildings in New York City. Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress. Samuel Gompers (center) with leaders of the American Federation of Labor in 1916. Gompers exposed the working conditions in cigar factories located in tenement buildings in New York City. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress
atrocious smell emitted by these deposits indicates that it does not happen often. And this odor of tobacco hovers over everything, the infant's cradle, the marriage bed, and the food set before the children. The cellars are dank, damp, and filthy, and the store on the ground floor, which serves as office and packing area, is encrusted with filth. The condition of the upper floors is made even worse by the fact that no water rises to them—and this is the case not only during a period of drought—which, of course, in no way encourages cleanliness. We asked each family that did not regard us with too much suspicion what they thought about efforts to eliminate the tenement factory system and the answer was always the same: "We wish it could be abolished and the sooner the better."…


They own three houses on 15th Street and four on 16th St. No. 623 East 15th St. shelters 20 families numbering 98 people, plus ten people who work there but live elsewhere. Each family has a room of 8 by 10 feet, kitchen of 8 by 6 feet, bedroom of 7 by 512 feet, ceiling height 734 feet. There is only one window in each room in this house, a window 2 feet high and 9 inches wide in the kitchen and an even smaller one in the bedroom, which understandably lets in almost no light or air at all. There is no hearth in the whole house, no mantelpiece, nothing but a round hole in the chimney through which a stove pipe could be put. In several families three or four people work in one room, surrounded on all sides by huge quantities of tobacco, with the fire blazing with all its might to dry the tobacco sufficiently; obviously under these conditions the air in the rooms is thick and steamy. In one of the rooms the father, mother, and small girl had an eye infection; the mother and a small boy also had sores on their lips. Last week a child died in this house. Rent varies from $7.50 to $8.50 [$136 to $154]; wages are $3.75 [$68] per thousand [cigars]; working hours go from 5 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. We were told: "We begin around 5 o'clock in the morning and work as long as we can." When calculating the working hours, one must not forget that Sunday is not a day of rest in these tenement factories; most families, despite their religious scruples, work until 2 or 3 in the afternoon on Sunday, some the whole day through as on any other day. A family with two workers produces an average of 2,800 cigars per week, provided a third person does the necessary stripping.

No. 621 East 15th St. has 18 families, totaling 92 people; 10 others work in the house but do not live there. Seven people were working in an 8-by-8-foot room; two small children were lying in the tobacco. A cookstove was in the room, spreading unbearable heat, next to it a small kitchen table where the family takes its meals. The bedrooms have no windows and neither air nor light can reach them. The room in which this large family works has only one window; the haze and stench are unbearable, the quantity of tobacco enormous, rubbish piled up everywhere. In every way this house resembles the first one we described; a short while ago two children died there of diarrheal illnesses.…

When we went around the corner we came upon the houses owned by the same company on 16th Street; No. 634 is the first with which we wish to acquaint our readers. Sixteen families, consisting of 73 people, live in it; 20 others who do not live in the house work there as well. The families on the street side have a room, kitchen, and bedroom; those who live in the back, only a room and bedroom. The dimensions are: room 10 by 13 feet, kitchen 10 by 9 feet, bedroom 6 by 612 feet, ceiling height 8 feet. Here as usual we found the only bedroom window 15 inches square looking out on the dark corridor. Six people work in one family and a seventh is hired by it; since last summer four children have died of measles in this house. Great heaps of tobacco lie about the rooms; one is constantly stumbling over tobacco rubbish and stems in the halls and on the steps. Rent varies from $7 to $9 [$127 to $164]. The water closetis a drainless cesspool full of filth, as are the seats and floors in it.

No. 636 East 16th St. houses 16 families with 75 people; six people work in the house but do not live there. The ground floor is used as an office; the apartments are the same as at No. 634. Five people work in some families, four in others, two or three in the remainder. Three children have died of diarrheal ailments in this house since last summer. The condition of this house is the same as the earlier one, but it is even dirtier and more dilapidated. The walls, partitions, and stairways are defective and unsafe; the staircase steps are covered with dirt and tobacco refuse. Eight- or nine-year-old children work in several rooms making wrappers; despite its youth, the oldest of these pitiful creatures looks as if it will soon say farewell forever to all work. The water supply is deficient here as well, and the water closets are very filthy.…

What we have seen, heard, and smelled so far on our rounds through the atrociously unnatural cigar factories does indeed not encourage us to continue the investigative tour we have begun, and this writer would certainly prefer reporting more pleasant and appetizing things to the reader. But he who has once made it his duty to drag out of its dark hiding place into the light of day the total horror of the system which poisons men, demeans women, and murders children, who has undertaken to show his colleagues, the workers struggling for their daily bread, what a devouring, poisonous cancer the pursuit of the almighty dollar, through exploitation, oppression, and sacrifice of our fellow men, has created in our midst, he must be willing to get his hands dirty in this duty and can say to anyone who turns away, disgusted by the unfolding picture: It is up to us to change it!

What happened next …

Samuel Gompers succeeded in organizing cigar makers into a union (an organization of workers that bargains for better pay and working conditions), and in the same year that he wrote his articles about the living conditions of these workers, he organized the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was a group of unions representing skilled workers (people who had specific skills, such as cigar making) that joined together to push for laws to protect the interests of union members. The AFL was organized by trade, rather than by industry or company. It continues today in the form of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations), the largest labor organization in the United States.

Despite the efforts of Gompers and others, the use of tenements as factories continued for at least thirty years after Gompers wrote about the cigar makers. From October 1906 to April 1907 a group of consumer groups and organizations opposed to child labor studied the issue in depth and released a report in January 1908. The report concluded that laws banning child labor in factories had been ineffective in eliminating child labor in tenements, which doubled as homes for the workers. Companies that made artificial flowers,

for example, continued to rely on home factories to assemble the parts and used children as young as age six to do the work. The fact that work was done in the home instead of in a factory made enforcement of child labor laws difficult.

The 1908 report observed:

The evils of the system, —intense competition among unskilled workers in a crowded district, low wages, unrestricted hours of work, irregularity of employment, and utilization of child labor, —are the very conditions which make the system possible and profitable to the employer.… By turning the workers' homes into branches of the factory, he escapes in them the necessity of observing the factory laws.

It was not until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, establishing both a minimum wage and a minimum age for workers (sixteen years; for hazardous work the minimum age was eighteen). Even so, child labor remains an issue. Underage children of migrant agricultural workers have been found working in the fields, and in developing countries of Asia and Latin America, children still work in U.S.-owned factories, making clothing, athletic shoes, and many other products.

Did you know …

In 1911 Samuel Gompers summarized his goals as a labor union organizer this way:

Our mission has been the protection of the wage-worker, now; to increase his wages; to cut hours off the long workday, which was killing him; to improve the safety and the sanitary conditions of the workshop; to free him from the tyrannies [severe authority], petty or otherwise, which served to make his existence a slavery.

For more information


Kaufman, Stuart B., ed. The Samuel Gompers Papers. Volume 1: The Making of a Union Leader, 1850–86 (includes "Tenement-House Cigar Manufacture" published in the New Yorker Volkszeitung, October 31, 1881). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1993.

Ranta, Judith A. Women and Children of the Mills: An Annotated Guide to Nineteenth-Century American Textile Factory Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Schlemmer, Bernard, ed., and Philip Dresner, trans. The Exploited Child. Paris: L'Institut de Recherche pour le Développement; New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.