Saturday, September 6, 2014

Shopping Saturday: T.J. Maxwell & Co.

If you were a skilled seamstress living in Peekskill in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, you might have been employed by T.J. Maxwell. As early as 1892, Mr. Maxwell operated a shirt factory at the corner of Division and Paulding Streets. His business employed about 49 sewing-machine operators, nearly all of whom were women. They earned a salary of less than eight dollars a week or they may have been paid by the piece. Either way, they worked nearly sunrise to sunset, and if they were late to work, they would have been penalized with a salary reduction or they may have received no wages for the day.

In 1902 a new factory on Broad Street was built. This modern-looking
four-story building boasted the “latest and best equipment for their business.” High-speed Singer sewing machines were used to manufacture Restwell brand pajamas, night shirts and “tub” dresses, linen suits for general wear. The work was steady and product was in high demand. Working conditions were generally harsh with the deafening noise of the machines and the break-neck pace required to keep up with the work load. The newer machines meant that now workers were expected  to sew twice as fast as they did just five years earlier. However, each year, in late summer, Mr. Maxwell closed the entire factory for two weeks to allow its operators a vacation.

By 1921, the factory had so many existing orders that Mr. Maxwell was able to employ “several hundred girls.” That was the year improvements were made to the building, likely the influence of labor unions. Due to “its height above the street,” the fourth floor of the factory had been unused, but now a new stairway and wider hallways were added. Fire resistant partitions between halls and work rooms, as well as an alarm on each floor improved work place safety. Doors that opened automatically with pressure were another improvement which allowed a quick exit by the operators in case of fire. The local fire department, Cortlandt Hook & Ladder No. 1, conducted fire drills at the factory.  In one such drill, using their tallest extension ladder, a fireman was able to make it to the roof of the factory in less than five minutes after the alarm was sounded.

Even in the small village of Peekskill, T.J. Maxwell’s shirt factory, by employing women as sewing machine operators, contributed to the nation-wide increase in labor opportunities for women in the United States.

The Highland Democrat (Peekskill, New York), 29 Oct 1892, p. 5, col. 1; digital image, Old Fulton New York Post Cards ( : accessed 5 Sep 2014); The Highland Democrat, 16 Aug 1902, p. 5, col. 2; The Highland Democrat, 3 Aug 1907, p. 5, col. 2.
G. M. Vescelius, compiler, Gems of the Hudson Peekskill and Vicinity, (Peekskill, New York: n.p., n.d.), 51; digital book, Internet Archive ( : accessed 5 Sep 2014).
Julius Mathews, Marketing Communications, vol. 65 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1908), 42; ebook, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Sep 2014).
James M. Lynch, Second Annual Industrial Directory of New York State 1913 (Albany: State Department of Labor, 1915), 725; digital image, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Sept 2014).
Women in Various Styles of Summer Dresses, 1910s still image, 1910; digital images, New York Public Library, "Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection," NYPL Digital Collections ( : accessed 5 Sep 2014); citing image ID no. 816671.
Factory and Industrial Management, vol. 9 (New York City: McGraw Hill Publishing Co, 1895), 1017, 1018; digital image, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Sept 2014). 

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