Primary Source

Puerto Rican Needleworkers in a Factory, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1942

Photo shows women working at sewing machines on both sides of 2 long tables.


This government photograph provides an important contrast to the popular culture images of poor southern whites. During the 1940s and 1950s, U.S. government agencies hired photographers to travel the main island of Puerto Rico to capture the conditions of working people. This photo was taken at a “good factory” subsidized by the U.S. government to serve mainland manufacturers. The photographer would have taken contrasting photos of women doing piece work in rural shacks and dingy sweatshops to show “bad exploitation.” The intention was to celebrate the modernization of colonial labor. Women like these in San Juan produced textiles and apparel for U.S. companies, and many joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and migrated to the Northeast for the better pay and public education. Puerto Rican needleworkers on the island and in New York City and New England did a range of labor, including floorgirl, reeling and winding of yarn or thread, weaving, cloth loading, cutting patterns, sewing machine operation for all types of apparel and home goods, hemming and finishing edges, basic and fine embroidery, and packing. They also told their stories in union newspapers and oral history projects to assert their own narrative of the American working class. These official photos, however, remained in offices for business and trade or archives for scholars, and did not reach popular media. Meanwhile, television shows like The Real McCoys (1957-1962) and movies like God’s Little Acre (1958) and Norma Rae (1979) presented southern white workers as part of the American working class. 

This source is part of the women workers in film teaching module


“In a needlework factory. Vicinity of San Juan, Puerto Rico” 

Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) fsa 8c29483  

Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-048248-D (b&w film nitrate neg.) LC-DIG-fsa-8c29483 (digital file from original neg.)  

Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA 


How to Cite This Source

"Puerto Rican Needleworkers in a Factory, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1942 ," in World History Commons, [accessed February 23, 2024]