When factory inspectors first used the word “sweatshop” at the turn-of-the-last century, they sought to describe much more than the cramped garment workplaces where immigrants labored. They also tried to explain the social dangers posed by these workplaces. Inspectors relied on their sensory responses. Citing odors as evidence, inspectors united fears of poverty, pestilence, and promiscuity in their definition of the sweatshop. Clothing produced in filthy shops by diseased workers could infect consumers and male and female immigrants working in close quarters were becoming an enfeebled, immoral race. Workers eschewed the language of racial decline, but pointed to their weak bodies as evidence of the exploitative nature of the sweatshop.
The subjectivity of definitions of the sweatshop presents a challenge, especially to public historians. How, in the process of exhibition and reconstruction, can public historians represent the competing moral judgments and racial, class, and gendered fears that shaped initial definitions of the sweatshop?