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Abraham Cahan’s “A Sweatshop Romance” Essay

In his story “A Sweatshop Romance,” Abraham Cahan does a good job of creating a clear visual of the activities that occurred at the coat-making factory of Mr. Leizer Lipman, a Jewish-American who got married to a woman from a poor town in Western Russia. In this story, there are certain propagandistic situations as well as anxieties and concerns that relates to class-consciousness in the twentieth century. According to the story, Mrs. Lipman, the proprietor’s wife and a co-owner of the business occupied a low social position at her birthplace compared to some visitors that had recently arrived from her hometown. One day, some visitors were invited to the coat-making factory for an “inspection” of the business. During the visit, Mrs. Lipman was trying to use the business to show off so as to bring herself to an “equal social position” to that of her visitors’; however, some of her employees felt downgraded and insulted by her, and her efforts were thwarted by her employees’ refusal to allow themselves to be treated as “servants” in front of the visitors.

As explained in the introductory paragraphs, the business was located in one of the small rooms at the proprietor’s home and the employees were a single team that consisted of a sewing-machine operator, a baster, a finisher and a presser. The employees of the “Sweatshop” were not paid based on how many hours they served. They were paid only by how many coats they were able to manufacture. A business week was not seven days; a business week at the “sweatshop” was completed only when eight coats have been successfully produced. The mini firm was mainly involved in coat-production. The writer also paints a picture of the business being located in a cramped up space in the proprietor’s home, which in addition to providing “space” for coat-making factory also served as a kitchen as well as a dining room. The cramped and overcrowded space coupled with the blast of thermal energy from the red-hot kitchen stove and the glowing flat irons used by the employees in pressing the coats contributed significantly to the overwhelming temperature of the overcrowded room. This description really aided in justifying why the location of the business was called a “Sweatshop.”

Before I continue any further, I would like to define certain terms such as (Propagandistic, Marxist and Marxism) that I will be using in this discussion. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the adjective “propagandistic” describes a situation related to or characterized by propaganda, and the noun “Propaganda” is defined as information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause. It is also described as the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause. The noun “Marxist” is described by the American Heritage Dictionary as one who believes in Marxism or follows the ideas of Marx and Engels. Marxism in the dictionary is described as a form of communism based on the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in which the concept of class struggle plays a central role in understanding society’s allegedly inevitable development from bourgeois oppression under capitalism to a socialist and ultimately classless society, where everyone is “equal” [in social status].

As discussed briefly in my introductory paragraph, there was an incident that occurred at the “Sweatshop” between Mrs. Lipman and her employees during her visitors “inspection” of the coat-making factory. In the fifty-third paragraph, Mrs. Lipman invites the visitors to “inspect” her “factory.” After she finished her demonstrative greetings, she said “It’s rather too small, isn’t it? But we are going to move to a larger and better quarters.” Her visitors according to the story, had occupied a much higher social position than her at her hometown and she wasted no time in bringing them over to the house to show off the coat-making factory so as to convince them about her American achievements in a bid to place herself at an equal social position with that of her visitors back at her hometown in Russia.

At the shop, she attempted to use one of her employee, Beile, as an example of a servant by giving her a nickel and rudely asking her to fetch her two bottles of soda from the grocery – something she could not afford to do back at her hometown in Western Russia owing to her low social status. Her employees were very surprised at the way she treated the girl as a servant in front of the visitors and the girl felt very reluctant to go and fetch the soda because of the tone of the voice Mrs. Lipman used when asking her to fetch the soda. She threatened to fire her, as she yelled “Either fetch the Soda or leave my shop at once!” Mrs. Lipman was only trying to prove to her visitors that she now belongs to the “upper class” because she now has her own “servants” whom she could yell at and send on errands if she feels like doing so.

However, David (one of the employees at the Sweatshop who was also in love with Beile) thwarted her efforts by informing the visitors that she was only trying to brag about owning something she could not afford. To prove this, he added that the parlor carpet was being paid for installmentally and that the custom-peddler had threatened to take it away unless she made her payments more regularly. At the end of the fiasco, David and Beile decided to quit and they left. Mrs. Lipman felt highly embarrassed by the fact that her efforts were foiled and she could not place herself at an equal social status with that of her visitors back at her hometown in Russia.

I would conclude that the story contained certain elements of Marxism because there were some concerns and anxieties raised during this incident which clearly relates to class-consciousness in the early twentieth century. Mrs. Lipman’s attempt to “artificially” place herself at an equal cultural, economic and social position with that of her visitors made her entire plan propagandistic because the information she gave out and the image she portrayed was intended to convince her visitors and make them feel that at least she is now of an equal social position with them compared to how she was at her poor hometown in western Russia.


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