The Dressmaker

Last night, we happened upon a documentary on PBS about workers’ unions, most likely aired in response to the current issue in Wisconsin. It focused on the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike that took place in New York City in 1909 and the tragic factory fire that occurred a couple years afterwards at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 garment workers, most of them women, half of them teenagers – the youngest victim being 14 years old. Most of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent theft. They either burned to death trapped on the ninth floor, or they jumped to their death.

As I watched this story I’d never heard before (if I’d been taught about it in school, I’d forgotten — the most I previously knew about the history of unions was from watching Sally Field in Norma Rae, so for all I knew, that’s when unions were started), I began to think about my great-great grandmother. Recently, I’ve become intrigued with genealogy, so I’ve begun relating events in history back to what my ancestors were doing at the time. It occurred to me that the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike took place around the time my great-grandfather, H.B. Williams Sr., was born. His mother (my great-great grandmother) was a dressmaker. Her name was Ada Williams. I haven’t been able to find out a lot about her, other than she came over on a ship from Wales at the age of 17, apparently alone. Her maiden name was “Scarlet” which I thought was unusual, but it turns out that it is a very common surname in Wales. However, when she stepped off the ship, her last name was “Williams”. I don’t know if she was widowed back in Wales, or if her husband died on the way to America. At any rate, the next time I found her was in the Minnesota Census, living in a boarding house with her young son, Henry. Her occupation was listed as “Dressmaker”.

Up until last night,  I’d romanticized my great-great grandmother as a tragic young widow, with her own little shop where she sewed beautiful custom gowns for the rich ladies in Minneapolis, her young son by her side. But last night I realized that it was more likely that she had worked in a similar factory as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, working hideously long 12-14 hour days in a hot cramped room with dozens of other young women like her. What is amazing to me, is that she somehow raised her son by herself, a foreign young widow all on her own, and that son grew up to found a successful furniture company that was later taken over by my grandfather, H.B. Williams, Jr.

Someday, when my current novel is finished, I plan to write a story about Ada. I will have to make up most of it up, as I know only what the passenger lists and censuses tell me, the rest my imagination has filled in. She remarried when her son was a young man, and my mother remembers her as “Grandma Tripp”.  Out of all the old family photos I’ve gathered over the years, I don’t even have a picture of her. But one thing is for sure, she had to have been an extraordinarily strong woman, like so many other women I’ve found in my family tree. I’ve never really considered myself what you’d call a feminist, but ever since I’ve started researching my family history, I’ve been particularly proud of the women that I come from. It inspires me to know that I have their blood flowing through my veins, and their spirit in my heart.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Karen Pinco
    Mar 01, 2011 @ 17:06:01

    I love these family tree stories. Keep ’em coming!

  2. coffeegirl88
    Mar 01, 2011 @ 17:12:32

    Who knows, maybe between now and when you start the story you’ll learn a little more about her. Sounds like an interesting story all the same. I remember seeing a documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and fire . . . probably in college because well, to be honest my high school education left a lot to be desired.

  3. Dad
    Mar 03, 2011 @ 18:05:00

    Wonderful thoughts, if Ada was alive today she would be very proud of you.
    Interestingly enough, I watched and was captivated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory story on PBS. Can’t wait to read the novel you are writting.

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