Working for the Dream

Daily Bread takes place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island, 1911. Tenement neighborhoods burst with immigrants. Hand and horse-drawn carts and the new-fangled assembly lined motor cars rumbled in the streets harmonizing with the lilts of different languages. Factories sprung up, spitting out goods such as food, clothing, home products, accessories, and so forth. 

The operations of these factories did not place safety as a top priority. The machines’ belchings clogged the air, and the noise muffled orders and instructions. Immigrant men were cheap laborers, women cheaper, but the children were a bargain.

photo by Lewis Hines National Archives

In 1910 the United States had two million children under the age of 14 working 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week. Many of the urban children were immigrants or children of immigrants living on the edge. Uneducated, underfed, and poorly nurtured, the youngsters put in long hours keeping pistons cranking, spools spinning, and cogs whirring. Small children could fit into tight spots to operate or quickly repair. Bloody accidents happened every day.

Reformists of the Progressive Movement recognized that a generation of uneducated, hungry, and sick children dimmed America’s progress into the new century. Education, health, and labor movements quaked through the establishment. The National Child Labor Committee had proposed legislation for minimum age requirements, limit hours for working children, and mandated that kids stay in school until age fourteen.

Although laws passed, enforcement was sporadic at best. It was easy to hide small child workers during cursory inspections. Truant offices could not be bothered hauling in the street schleppers or young newsies when petty thieves and troublemakers who skip school took their attention. Bribery probably kept the illegal exploitations under the radar. It was easy to not miss the 12-year-old girls who suddenly did not show up in crowded classrooms. They simply disappeared into the factories.

photo by

I incorporated child labor as a subplot in my story, Daily Bread. Work played an important role for immigrant families to survive their arrivals and move out of the tenement slums into their American dream. In the story, Papa shaped-up as a longshoreman each morning and took extra shifts, but work was dangerous and never steady. Mama stretched the earnings to house and feed a growing family and took in piecework to save for a home of their own with air to breathe and a plot to grow a garden. The dream darkened when work was scarce. Able-bodied Margaret, the oldest sister, could work in a factory for a wage like her friend. But Margaret had a different dream.

I based the scenario on my grandmother’s history. She had to quit school at age 13. It did not matter that she liked school, admired her teachers, and was very good at math. The family’s attitude did not value educating girls. It was not practical. A young girl’s youth was more useful in earning a wage rather than learning in a classroom. 

As a young girl, Grandma worked in a loud garment factory ten to fifteen hours a day for a paltry pay—a regret she echoed throughout her lifetime. Her sisters, except the youngest, followed her lead. Grandma told of her sadness the first day she took her favorite sister, Lily, by the hand into the dress factory. Lily, tall and pretty, just turned thirteen and would not finish the eighth grade.

“I felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I brought the kid into that life.”

As much as my grandmother hated the job, she and her sisters worked during important labor reforms that shaped the American working force. They held offices in the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, demanded fair pay, safe working conditions, and benefits, and added their voices to vote. Grandma worked most of her life. She was widowed too early and had to return to the garment factories to support her family.  She was not a happy person—she let her wounds fester into anger. Although her life was not what she had dreamed of, my grandmother’s work and tenacity paved a life with more choices for her children and proved herself as a self-sufficient woman. She lived a true American story. 

Daily Bread is my middle-grade historical novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1911. The story follows eight-year-old Lily, an American-born child of Sicilian immigrants, who loves to sing out her artist heart and prove she is not a little kid. She learns that it is not easy to be a big kid in the crowded tenement neighborhood, skirting old-world traditions, tackling bigotry, disasters, and screwy bakers, and learning to cross the street by herself.

Daily Bread was inspired by one of my grandmother’s stories. As I bring Daily Bread to publication, I will share the story’s character and plot developments, the fun research adventures, and my writing process. Get comfortable and join me on the journey. You may need to get something to eat. Share your impressions and your stories. 

Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.

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