"The Song of the Shirt" is a poem written by British poet Thomas Hood, Esq. It was published anonymously in a London publication in 1843 as a means of informing the public of the exploitation of workers in Britain. It was quickly taken and printed on sheets and handkerchiefs and was even hailed by Charles Dickens, among other writers of the era. In 1908, famed director D. W. Griffith made it into a movie by the same name.
Although this poem was written to describe working conditions in Britain, it could easily have been a description of the exploitation of garment factory workers in the United States as well. Most of these workers were women and it is from this point of view that Hood wrote the poem. In it, we can get a sense of the tedium and long hours that these workers were forced to endure: "Work, work, work, while the cock is crowing aloof, and work, work, work, till the stars shine through the roof".
We can also see clearly what reward they received for these long, hard hours of work: "Work work, work, my labor never flags, and what are its wages? A bed of straw, a crust of bread - and rags."
Lastly, we can hear the questioning of this woman as she sits and sews all day and into the night, asking why things are the reverse of how they should be: "Oh, God - that bread should be so dear and flesh and blood so cheap!"
Most of us think of worker exploitation, poor working conditions and little pay as problems of a by-gone era, but unfortunately, these conditions still exist today for many workers in various countries around the world, the United States included.