Friday, March 22, 2013

Schmatta: A Book that Needs to be Written

Ask my college friend David what his father did for a living and he would say "outsmarts the ILGWU."  I mor or less got it: papa was management, contending withgi the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, which meant (I have long assumed) that he scratched and clawed his way up from an immigrant beginning--first as a tailor, perhaps, then behind a sewing machine, then off on his own--a factor?--and so forth.   I never did get the details and I haven't seen David for half a century.

But it prompts a still-unanswered question: is there a good history of the garment industry in New York City, with or without its larger context in textile more generally.  Odd if there is not because as many have observed, except perhaps for the  story of the rise of Harlem,there are few immigrant sagas more fully documented than the story of the East European Jews who fled the Tsar's pogroms in the 1890s and beyond.

And you can get parts of the story everywhere.  Maybe the story is well enough told in Irving Howe's great World of Our Fathers; I read it with great pleasure and profit may years ago although I can't find a copy in the Buce bibliotech just now.  You get a slice of the story in David Von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire that Changed America and its ilk but that is only part of  larger story.  Perhaps you get the flavor from IJ Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi--perhaps the most gripping novel I read  in past 10 years, but it is about Poland, not Amricaa, and one gets the sense the structure of the story is different.  I see there is an HBO documentary called Schmatta which I think I'll have to take a look at, although it sounds a bit solemn and predictable in format.  You even get a whiff of it in Grant Gilmore's magnificent Security Interests in Personal Property, where he devotes a chapter to "The Factor's Lien," with a concise but elegant account of the patterns of schmatt finance (fn.: as Gilmore's work suggests, someone would write a pretty good history of the word "factor" and its more overbearing offspring, the "factory")--but I digress). 

The story that I'm describing is in large part a story of Jewish immigrant life but I don't quite want to see it that way.  For one thing, I think it could also be described as "Italian," at least in part.  For another, I'd really like something more abstract or technical--the structure of the industry, where the capital came from, indeed the larger question of how anybody could make a living an enterprise so free of product differentiation and the absence of monopoly rents.

I suppose the book I want to read would have to include the account of the collapse of New York textile in the Lindsay-Beame years, including, perhaps, the inglorious last chapter in which someone gave an old loft factory building to Yeshiva University which turned it into a (gasp) lasw school.

Anyone?  Anyone?  Meanwhile, I guess I'll have to settle for this:

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

I once taught (in the 1990s, as an adjunct, of course) at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, a Manhattan branch of the State University of New York.

I was so horrified by the paucity of any academic endeavors connected with the curriculum that I decided the Institute needed to publish a learned journal. JOPASA - The Journal Of The Professors of the American Shmatology Association.

The Journal would, I proposed, run learned and peer reviewed articles such as, "Unconscious Freudian Symbols in the HIgh Fashion Gowns of Jacqueline Kennedy," and "Brownshirts, Jackboots, and the Symbology of Hobnails."
For some reason, the journal failed to accrue any enthusiasm and after teaching three courses in three years, I was consigned to the dustbin of academia.
We really want people with Doctorates, said the Chairwoman of My Department, explaining why she would not renew me.
You can't make this crap up.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank