* * * * *
THE WOMAN WHO TOILS
Being the Experiences of Two Gentlewomen as Factory Girls
MRS. JOHN VAN VORST
MARIE VAN VORST
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
* * * * *
To Mark Twain
In loving tribute to his genius, and to his human sympathy, which in Pathos and Seriousness, as well as in Mirth and Humour, have made him kin with the whole world:—
this book is inscribed by
BESSIE and MARIE VAN VORST.
* * * * *
PREFATORY LETTER FROM THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Written after reading Chapter III. when published serially
WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, October 18, 1902.
My Dear Mrs. Van Vorst:
I must write you a line to say how much I have appreciated your article, "The Woman Who Toils." But to me there is a most melancholy side to it, when you touch upon what is fundamentally infinitely more important than any other question in this country—that is, the question of race suicide, complete or partial.
An easy, good-natured kindliness, and a desire to be "independent"—that is, to live one's life purely according to one's own desires—are in no sense substitutes for the fundamental virtues, for the practice of the strong, racial qualities without which there can be no strong races—the qualities of courage and resolution in both men and women, of scorn of what is mean, base and selfish, of eager desire to work or fight or suffer as the case may be provided the end to be gained is great enough, and the contemptuous putting aside of mere ease, mere vapid pleasure, mere avoidance of toil and worry. I do not know whether I most pity or most despise the foolish and selfish man or woman who does not understand that the only things really worth having in life are those the acquirement of which normally means cost and effort. If a man or woman, through no fault of his or hers, goes throughout life denied those highest of all joys which spring only from home life, from the having and bringing up of many healthy children, I feel for them deep and respectful sympathy—the sympathy one extends to the gallant fellow killed at the beginning of a campaign, or the man who toils hard and is brought to ruin by the fault of others. But the man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage, and has a heart so cold as to know no passion and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children, is in effect a criminal against the race, and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people.
Of course no one quality makes a good citizen, and no one quality will save a nation. But there are certain great qualities for the lack of which no amount of intellectual brilliancy or of material prosperity or of easiness of life can atone, and which show decadence and corruption in the nation just as much if they are produced by selfishness and coldness and ease-loving laziness among comparatively poor people as if they are produced by vicious or frivolous luxury in the rich. If the men of the nation are not anxious to work in many different ways, with all their might and strength, and ready and able to fight at need, and anxious to be fathers of families, and if the women do not recognize that the greatest thing for any woman is to be a good wife and mother, why, that nation has cause to be alarmed about its future.
There is no physical trouble among us Americans. The trouble with the situation you set forth is one of character, and therefore we can conquer it if we only will.
Very sincerely yours,
* * * * *
A portion of the material in this book appeared serially under the same title in Everybody's Magazine. Nearly a third of the volume has not been published in any form.
* * * * *
By MRS. JOHN VAN VORST
I. Introductory 1
II. In a Pittsburg Factory 7
III. Perry, a New York Mill Town 59
IV. Making Clothing in Chicago 99
V. The Meaning of It All 155
By MARIE VAN VORST
VI. Introductory 165
VII. A Maker of Shoes at Lynn 169
VIII. The Southern Cotton Mills 215 The Mill Village The Mill
IX. The Child in the Southern Mills 275
* * * * *
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Miss Marie and Mrs. John Van Vorst in their factory costumes, Frontispiece
"The streets are covered with snow, and over the snow the soot falls softly like a mantle of perpetual mourning," 12
"Waving arms of smoke and steam, a symbol of spent energy, of the lives consumed, and vanishing again," 58
"They trifle with love," 70
After Saturday night's shopping, 84
Sunday evening at Silver Lake, 96
"The breath of the black, sweet night reached them, fetid, heavy with the odour of death as it blew across the stockyards," 102
In a Chicago theatrical costume factory, 114
Chicago types, 128
The rear of a Chicago tenement, 144
A delicate type of beauty at work in a Lynn shoe factory, 172
One of the swells of the factory: a very expert "vamper," an Irish girl, earning from $10 to $14 a week, 172
"Learning" a new hand, 184
The window side of Miss K.'s parlour at Lynn, Mass., 196
"Fancy gumming," 210
An all-round, experienced hand, 210
"Mighty mill—pride of the architect and the commercial magnate," 220
"The Southern mill-hand's face is unique, a fearful type," 240
* * * * *
THE WOMAN WHO TOILS
MRS. JOHN VAN VORST
* * * * *
Any journey into the world, any research in literature, any study of society, demonstrates the existence of two distinct classes designated as the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unfortunate, the upper and the lower, the educated and the uneducated—and a further variety of opposing epithets. Few of us who belong to the former category have come into more than brief contact with the labourers who, in the factories or elsewhere, gain from day to day a livelihood frequently insufficient for their needs. Yet all of us are troubled by their struggle, all of us recognize the misery of their surroundings, the paucity of their moral and esthetic inspiration, their lack of opportunity for physical development. All of us have a longing, pronounced or latent, to help them, to alleviate their distress, to better their condition in some, in every way.
Now concerning this unknown class whose oppression we deplore we have two sources of information: the financiers who, for their own material advancement, use the labourer as a means, and the philanthropists who consider the poor as objects of charity, to be treated sentimentally, or as economic cases to be studied theoretically. It is not by economics nor by the distribution of bread alone that we can find a solution for the social problem. More important for the happiness of man is the hope we cherish of eventually bringing about a reign of justice and equality upon earth.
It is evident that, in order to render practical aid to this class, we must live among them, understand their needs, acquaint ourselves with their desires, their hopes, their aspirations, their fears. We must discover and adopt their point of view, put ourselves in their surroundings, assume their burdens, unite with them in their daily effort. In this way alone, and not by forcing upon them a preconceived ideal, can we do them real good, can we help them to find a moral, spiritual, esthetic standard suited to their condition of life. Such an undertaking is impossible for most. Sure of its utility, inspired by its practical importance, I determined to make the sacrifice it entailed and to learn by experience and observation what these could teach. I set out to surmount physical fatigue and revulsion, to place my intellect and sympathy in contact as a medium between the working girl who wants help and the more fortunately situated who wish to help her. In the papers which follow I have endeavoured to give a faithful picture of things as they exist, both in and out of the factory, and to suggest remedies that occurred to me as practical. My desire is to act as a mouthpiece for the woman labourer. I assumed her mode of existence with the hope that I might put into words her cry for help. It has been my purpose to find out what her capacity is for suffering and for joy as compared with ours; what tastes she has, what ambitions, what the equipment of woman is as compared to that of man: her equipment as determined,
1st. By nature, 2d. By family life, 3d. By social laws;
what her strength is and what her weaknesses are as compared with the woman of leisure; and finally, to discern the tendencies of a new society as manifested by its working girls.
After many weeks spent among them as one of them I have come away convinced that no earnest effort for their betterment is fruitless. I am hopeful that my faithful descriptions will perhaps suggest, to the hearts of those who read, some ways of rendering personal and general help to that class who, through the sordidness and squalour of their material surroundings, the limitation of their opportunities, are condemned to slow death—mental, moral, physical death! If into their prison's midst, after the reading of these lines, a single death pardon should be carried, my work shall not have been in vain.
* * * * *
IN A PITTSBURG FACTORY
* * * * *
IN A PITTSBURG FACTORY
In choosing the scene for my first experiences, I decided upon Pittsburg, as being an industrial centre whose character was determined by its working population. It exceeds all other cities of the country in the variety and extent of its manufacturing products. Of its 321,616 inhabitants, 100,000 are labouring men employed in the mills. Add to these the great number of women and girls who work in the factories and clothing shops, and the character of the place becomes apparent at a glance. There is, moreover, another reason which guided me toward this Middle West town without its like. This land which we are accustomed to call democratic, is in reality composed of a multitude of kingdoms whose despots are the employers—the multi-millionaire patrons—and whose serfs are the labouring men and women. The rulers are invested with an authority and a power not unlike those possessed by the early barons, the feudal lords, the Lorenzo de Medicis, the Cheops; but with this difference, that whereas Pharaoh by his unique will controlled a thousand slaves, the steel magnate uses, for his own ends also, thousands of separate wills. It was a submissive throng who built the pyramids. The mills which produce half the steel the world requires are run by a collection of individuals. Civilization has undergone a change. The multitudes once worked for one; now each man works for himself first and for a master secondarily. In our new society where tradition plays no part, where the useful is paramount, where business asserts itself over art and beauty, where material needs are the first to be satisfied, and where the country's unclaimed riches are our chief incentive to effort, it is not uninteresting to find an analogy with the society in Italy which produced the Renaissance. Diametrically opposed in their ideals, they have a common spirit. In Italy the rebirth was of the love of art, and of classic forms, the desire to embellish—all that was inspired by culture of the beautiful; the Renaissance in America is the rebirth of man's originality in the invention of the useful, the virgin power of man's wits as quickened in the crude struggle for life. Florence is par excellence the place where we can study the Italian Renaissance; Pittsburg appealed to me as a most favourable spot to watch the American Renaissance, the enlivening of energies which give value to a man devoid of education, energies which in their daily exercise with experience generate a new force, a force that makes our country what it is, industrially and economically. So it was toward Pittsburg that I first directed my steps, but before leaving New York I assumed my disguise. In the Parisian clothes I am accustomed to wear I present the familiar outline of any woman of the world. With the aid of coarse woolen garments, a shabby felt sailor hat, a cheap piece of fur, a knitted shawl and gloves I am transformed into a working girl of the ordinary type. I was born and bred and brought up in the world of the fortunate—I am going over now into the world of the unfortunate. I am to share their burdens, to lead their lives, to be present as one of them at the spectacle of their sufferings and joys, their ambitions and sorrows.
I get no farther than the depot when I observe that I am being treated as though I were ignorant and lacking in experience. As a rule the gateman says a respectful "To the right" or "To the left," and trusts to his well-dressed hearer's intelligence. A word is all that a moment's hesitation calls forth. To the working girl he explains as follows: "Now you take your ticket, do you understand, and I'll pick up your money for you; you don't need to pay anything for your ferry—just put those three cents back in your pocket-book and go down there to where that gentleman is standing and he'll direct you to your train."
This without my having asked a question. I had divested myself of a certain authority along with my good clothes, and I had become one of a class which, as the gateman had found out, and as I find out later myself, are devoid of all knowledge of the world and, aside from their manual training, ignorant on all subjects.
My train is three hours late, which brings me at about noon to Pittsburg. I have not a friend or an acquaintance within hundreds of miles. With my bag in my hand I make my way through the dark, busy streets to the Young Women's Christian Association. It is down near a frozen river. The wind blows sharp and biting over the icy water; the streets are covered with snow, and over the snow the soot falls softly like a mantle of perpetual mourning. There is almost no traffic. Innumerable tramways ring their way up and down wire-lined avenues; occasionally a train of freight cars announces itself with a warning bell in the city's midst. It is a black town of toil, one man in every three a labourer. They have no need for vehicles of pleasure. The trolleys take them to their work, the trains transport the products of the mills.
I hear all languages spoken: this prodigious town is a Western bazaar where the nations assemble not to buy but to be employed. The stagnant scum of other countries floats hither to be purified in the fierce bouillon of live opportunity. It is a cosmopolitan procession that passes me: the dusky Easterner with a fez of Astrakhan, the gentle-eyed Italian with a shawl of gay colours, the loose-lipped Hungarian, the pale, mystic Swede, the German with wife and children hanging on his arm.
In this giant bureau of labour all nationalities gather, united by a common bond of hope, animated by a common chance of prosperity, kindred through a common effort, fellow-citizens in a new land of freedom.
At the central office of the Young Women's Christian Association I receive what attention a busy secretary can spare me. She questions and I answer as best I can.
"What is it you want?"
"Board and work in a factory."
"Have you ever worked in a factory?"
"Have you ever done any housework?"
She talks in the low, confidential tone of those accustomed to reforming prisoners and reasoning with the poor.
"Yes, ma'am, I have done housework."
"What did you make?"
"Twelve dollars a month."
"I can get you a place where you will have a room to yourself and fourteen dollars a month. Do you want it?"
"Are you making anything now?"
"Can you afford to pay board?"
"Yes, as I hope to get work at once."
She directs me to a boarding place which is at the same time a refuge for the friendless and a shelter for waifs. The newly arrived population of the fast-growing city seems unfamiliar with the address I carry written on a card. I wait on cold street corners, I travel over miles of half-settled country, long stretches of shanties and saloons huddled close to the trolley line. The thermometer is at zero. Toward three o'clock I find the waif boarding-house.
The matron is in the parlour hovering over a gas stove. She has false hair, false teeth, false jewelry, and the dry, crabbed, inquisitive manner of the idle who are entrusted with authority. She is there to direct others and do nothing herself, to be cross and make herself dreaded. In the distance I can hear a shrill, nasal orchestra of children's voices. I am cold and hungry. I have as yet no job. The noise, the sordidness, the witchlike matron annoy me. I have a sudden impulse to flee, to seek warmth and food and proper shelter—to snap my fingers at experience and be grateful I was born among the fortunate. Something within me calls Courage! I take a room at three dollars a week with board, put my things in it, and while my feet yet ache with cold I start to find a factory, a pickle factory, which, the matron tells me, is run by a Christian gentleman.
I have felt timid and even overbold at different moments in my life, but never so audacious as on entering a factory door marked in gilt letters: "Women Employees."
The Cerberus between me and the fulfilment of my purpose is a gray-haired timekeeper with kindly eyes. He sits in a glass cage and about him are a score or more of clocks all ticking soundly and all surrounded by an extra dial of small numbers running from one to a thousand. Each number means a workman—each tick of the clock a moment of his life gone in the service of the pickle company. I rap on the window of the glass cage. It opens.
"Do you need any girls?" I ask, trying not to show my emotion.
"Ever worked in a factory?"
"No, sir; but I'm very handy."
"What have you done?"
"Housework," I respond with conviction, beginning to believe it myself.
"Well," he says, looking at me, "they need help up in the bottling department; but I don't know as it would pay you—they don't give more than sixty or seventy cents a day."
"I am awfully anxious for work," I say. "Couldn't I begin and get raised, perhaps?"
"Surely—there is always room for those who show the right spirit. You come in to-morrow morning at a quarter before seven. You can try it, and you mustn't get discouraged; there's plenty of work for good workers."
The blood tingles through my cold hands. My heart is lighter. I have not come in vain. I have a place!
When I get back to the boarding-house it is twilight. The voices I had heard and been annoyed by have materialized. Before the gas stove there are nine small individuals dressed in a strange combination of uniform checked aprons and patent leather boots worn out and discarded by the babies of the fortunate. The small feet they encase are crossed, and the freshly washed faces are demure, as the matron with the wig frowns down into a newspaper from which she now and then hisses a command to order. Three miniature members are rocking violently in tiny rocking chairs.
"Quit rocking!" the false mother cries at them. "You make my head ache. Most of 'em have no parents," she explains to me. "None of 'em have homes."
Here they are, a small kingdom, not wanted, unwelcome, unprovided for, growled at and grumbled over. Yet each is developing in spite of chance; each is determining hour by hour his heritage from unknown parents. The matron leaves us; the rocking begins again. Conversation is animated. The three-year-old baby bears the name of a three-year-old hero. This "Dewey" complains in a plaintive voice of a too long absent mother. His rosy lips are pursed out even with his nose. Again and again he reiterates the refrain: "My mamma don't never come to see me. She don't bring me no toys." And then with pride, "My mamma buys rice and tea and lots of things," and dashing to the window as a trolley rattles by, "My mamma comes in the street cars, only," sadly, "she don't never come."
Not one of them has forgotten what fate has willed them to do without. At first they look shrinkingly toward my outstretched hand. Is it coming to administer some punishment? Little by little they are reassured, and, gaining in confidence, they sketch for me in disconnected chapters the short outlines of their lives.
"I've been to the hospital," says one, "and so's Lily. I drank a lot of washing soda and it made me sick."
Lily begins her hospital reminiscences. "I had typhoy fever—I was in the childun's ward awful long, and one night they turned down the lights—it was just evening—and a man came in and he took one of the babies up in his arms, and we all said, 'What's the row? What's the row?' and he says 'Hush, the baby's dead.' And out in the hall there was something white, and he carried the baby and put it in the white thing, and the baby had a doll that could talk, and he put that in the white thing too, right alongside o' the dead baby. Another time," Lily goes on, "there was a baby in a crib alongside of mine, and one day he was takin' his bottle, and all of a suddint he choked; and he kept on chokin' and then he died, and he was still takin' his bottle."
Lily is five. I see in her and in her companions a familiarity not only with the mysteries but with the stern realities of life. They have an understanding look at the mention of death, drunkenness and all domestic difficulties or irregularities. Their vocabulary and conversation image the violent and brutal side of existence—the only one with which they are acquainted.
At bedtime I find my way upward through dark and narrow stairs that open into a long room with a slanting roof. It serves as nursery and parlour. In the dull light of a stove and an oil lamp four or five women are seated with babies on their knees. They have the meek look of those who doom themselves to acceptance of misfortune, the flat, resigned figures of the overworked. Their loose woolen jackets hang over their gaunt shoulders; their straight hair is brushed hard and smooth against high foreheads. One baby lies a comfortable bundle in its mother's arms; one is black in the face after a spasm of coughing; one howls its woes through a scarlet mask. The corners of the room are filled with the drones—those who "work for a bite of grub." The cook, her washing done, has piled her aching bones in a heap; her drawn face waits like an indicator for some fresh signal to a new fatigue. Mary, the woman-of-all-work, who has spent more than one night within a prison's walls, has long ago been brutalized by the persistence of life in spite of crime; her gray hair ripples like sand under receding waves; her profile is strong and fine, but her eyes have a film of misery over them—dull and silent, they deaden her face. And Jennie, the charwoman, is she a cripple or has toil thus warped her body? Her arms, long and withered, swing like the broken branches of a gnarled tree; her back is twisted and her head bowed toward earth. A stranger to rest, she seems a mechanical creature wound up for work and run down in the middle of a task.
What could be hoped for in such surroundings? With every effort to be clean the dirt accumulates faster than it can be washed away. It was impossible, I found by my own experience, to be really clean. There was a total absence of beauty in everything—not a line of grace, not a pleasing sound, not an agreeable odour anywhere. One could get used to this ugliness, become unconscious even of the acrid smells that pervade the tenement. It was probable my comrades felt at no time the discomfort I did, but the harm done them is not the physical suffering their condition causes, but the moral and spiritual bondage in which it holds them. They are not a class of drones made differently from us. I saw nothing to indicate that they were not born with like capacities to ours. As our bodies accustom themselves to luxury and cleanliness, theirs grow hardened to deprivation and filth. As our souls develop with the advantages of all that constitutes an ideal—an intellectual, esthetic and moral ideal—their souls diminish under the oppression of a constant physical effort to meet material demands. The fact that they become physically callous to what we consider unbearable is used as an argument for their emotional insensibility. I hold such an argument as false. From all I saw I am convinced that, given their relative preparation for suffering and for pleasure, their griefs and their joys are the same as ours in kind and in degree.
* * * * *
When one is accustomed to days begun at will by the summons of a tidy maid, waking oneself at half-past five means to be guardian of the hours until this time arrives. Once up, the toilet I made in the nocturnal darkness of my room can best be described by the matron's remark to me as I went to bed: "If you want to wash," she said, "you'd better wash now; you can't have no water in your room, and there won't be nobody up when you leave in the morning." My evening bath is supplemented by a whisk of the sponge at five.
Without it is black—a more intense black than night's beginning, when all is astir. The streets are silent, an occasional train whirls past, groups of men hurry hither and thither swinging their arms, rubbing their ears in the freezing air. Many of them have neither overcoats nor gloves. Now and then a woman sweeps along. Her skirts have the same swing as my own short ones; under her arm she carries a newspaper bundle whose meaning I have grown to know. My own contains a midday meal: two cold fried oysters, two dried preserve sandwiches, a pickle and an orange. My way lies across a bridge. In the first gray of dawn the river shows black under its burden of ice. Along its troubled banks innumerable chimneys send forth their hot activity, clouds of seething flames, waving arms of smoke and steam—a symbol of spent energy, of the lives consumed and vanishing again, the sparks that shine an instant against the dark sky and are spent forever.
As I draw nearer the factory I move with a stream of fellow workers pouring toward the glass cage of the timekeeper. He greets me and starts me on my upward journey with a wish that I shall not get discouraged, a reminder that the earnest worker always makes a way for herself.
"What will you do about your name?" "What will you do with your hair and your hands?" "How can you deceive people?" These are some of the questions I had been asked by my friends.
Before any one had cared or needed to know my name it was morning of the second day, and my assumed name seemed by that time the only one I had ever had. As to hair and hands, a half-day's work suffices for their undoing. And my disguise is so successful I have deceived not only others but myself. I have become with desperate reality a factory girl, alone, inexperienced, friendless. I am making $4.20 a week and spending $3 of this for board alone, and I dread not being strong enough to keep my job. I climb endless stairs, am given a white cap and an apron, and my life as a factory girl begins. I become part of the ceaseless, unrelenting mechanism kept in motion by the poor.
The factory I have chosen has been built contemporaneously with reforms and sanitary inspection. There are clean, well-aired rooms, hot and cold water with which to wash, places to put one's hat and coat, an obligatory uniform for regular employees, hygienic and moral advantages of all kinds, ample space for work without crowding.
Side by side in rows of tens or twenties we stand before our tables waiting for the seven o'clock whistle to blow. In their white caps and blue frocks and aprons, the girls in my department, like any unfamiliar class, all look alike. My first task is an easy one; anybody could do it. On the stroke of seven my fingers fly. I place a lid of paper in a tin jar-top, over it a cork; this I press down with both hands, tossing the cover, when done, into a pan. In spite of myself I hurry; I cannot work fast enough—I outdo my companions. How can they be so slow? I have finished three dozen while they are doing two. Every nerve, every muscle is offering some of its energy. Over in one corner the machinery for sealing the jars groans and roars; the mingled sounds of filling, washing, wiping, packing, comes to my eager ears as an accompaniment for the simple work assigned to me. One hour passes, two, three hours; I fit ten, twenty, fifty dozen caps, and still my energy keeps up.
The forewoman is a pretty girl of twenty. Her restless eyes, her metallic voice are the messengers who would know all. I am afraid of her. I long to please her. I am sure she must be saying "How well the new girl works."
Conversation is possible among those whose work has become mechanical. Twice I am sent to the storeroom for more caps. In these brief moments my companions volunteer a word of themselves.
"I was out to a ball last night," the youngest one says. "I stayed so late I didn't feel a bit like getting up this morning."
"That's nothing," another retorts. "There's hardly an evening we don't have company at the house, music or somethin'; I never get enough rest."
And on my second trip the pale creature with me says:
"I'm in deep mourning. My mother died last Friday week. It's awful lonely without her. Seems as though I'd never get over missing her. I miss her dreadful. Perhaps by and by I'll get used to it."
"Oh, no, you won't," the answer comes from a girl with short skirts. "You'll never get used to it. My ma's been dead eight years next month and I dreamt about her all last night. I can't get her out o' me mind."
Born into dirt and ugliness, disfigured by effort, they have the same heritage as we: joys and sorrows, grief and laughter. With them as with us gaiety is up to its old tricks, tempting from graver rivals, making duty an alien. Grief is doing her ugly work: hollowing round cheeks, blackening bright eyes, putting her weight of leaden loneliness in hearts heretofore light with youth.
When I have fitted 110 dozen tin caps the forewoman comes and changes my job. She tells me to haul and load up some heavy crates with pickle jars. I am wheeling these back and forth when the twelve o'clock whistle blows. Up to that time the room has been one big dynamo, each girl a part of it. With the first moan of the noon signal the dynamo comes to life. It is hungry; it has friends and favourites—news to tell. We herd down to a big dining-room and take our places, five hundred of us in all. The newspaper bundles are unfolded. The menu varies little: bread and jam, cake and pickles, occasionally a sausage, a bit of cheese or a piece of stringy cold meat. In ten minutes the repast is over. The dynamo has been fed; there are twenty minutes of leisure spent in dancing, singing, resting, and conversing chiefly about young men and "sociables."
At 12:30 sharp the whistle draws back the life it has given. I return to my job. My shoulders are beginning to ache. My hands are stiff, my thumbs almost blistered. The enthusiasm I had felt is giving way to a numbing weariness. I look at my companions now in amazement. How can they keep on so steadily, so swiftly? Cases are emptied and refilled; bottles are labeled, stamped and rolled away; jars are washed, wiped and loaded, and still there are more cases, more jars, more bottles. Oh! the monotony of it, the never-ending supply of work to be begun and finished, begun and finished, begun and finished! Now and then some one cuts a finger or runs a splinter under the flesh; once the mustard machine broke—and still the work goes on, on, on! New girls like myself, who had worked briskly in the morning, are beginning to loiter. Out of the washing-tins hands come up red and swollen, only to be plunged again into hot dirty water. Would the whistle never blow? Once I pause an instant, my head dazed and weary, my ears strained to bursting with the deafening noise. Quickly a voice whispers in my ear: "You'd better not stand there doin' nothin'. If she catches you she'll give it to you."
On! on! bundle of pains! For you this is one day's work in a thousand of peace and beauty. For those about you this is the whole of daylight, this is the winter dawn and twilight, this is the glorious summer noon, this is all day, this is every day, this is life. Rest is only a bit of a dream, snatched when the sleeper's aching body lets her close her eyes for a moment in oblivion.
Out beyond the chimney tops the snowfields and the river turn from gray to pink, and still the work goes on. Each crate I lift grows heavier, each bottle weighs an added pound. Now and then some one lends a helping hand.
"Tired, ain't you? This is your first day, ain't it?"
The acid smell of vinegar and mustard penetrates everywhere. My ankles cry out pity. Oh! to sit down an instant!
"Tidy up the table," some one tells me; "we're soon goin' home."
Home! I think of the stifling fumes of fried food, the dim haze in the kitchen where my supper waits me; the children, the band of drifting workers, the shrill, complaining voice of the hired mother. This is home.
I sweep and set to rights, limping, lurching along. At last the whistle blows! In a swarm we report; we put on our things and get away into the cool night air. I have stood ten hours; I have fitted 1,300 corks; I have hauled and loaded 4,000 jars of pickles. My pay is seventy cents.
The impressions of my first day crowd pell-mell upon my mind. The sound of the machinery dins in my ears. I can hear the sharp, nasal voices of the forewoman and the girls shouting questions and answers.
A sudden recollection comes to me of a Dahomayan family I had watched at work in their hut during the Paris Exhibition. There was a magic spell in their voices as they talked together; the sounds they made had the cadence of the wind in the trees, the running of water, the song of birds: they echoed unconsciously the caressing melodies of nature. My factory companions drew their vocal inspiration from the bedlam of civilization, the rasping and pounding of machinery, the din which they must out-din to be heard.
For the two days following my first experience I am unable to resume work. Fatigue has swept through my blood like a fever. Every bone and joint has a clamouring ache. I pass the time visiting other factories and hunting for a place to board in the neighbourhood of the pickling house. At the cork works they do not need girls; at the cracker company I can get a job, but the hours are longer, the advantages less than where I am; at the broom factory they employ only men. I decide to continue with tin caps and pickle jars.
My whole effort now is to find a respectable boarding-house. I start out, the thermometer near zero, the snow falling. I wander and ask, wander and ask. Up and down the black streets running parallel and at right angles with the factory I tap and ring at one after another of the two-story red-brick houses. More than half of them are empty, tenantless during the working hours. What hope is there for family life near the hearth which is abandoned at the factory's first call? The sociableness, the discipline, the division of responsibility make factory work a dangerous rival to domestic care. There is something in the modern conditions of labour which act magnetically upon American girls, impelling them to work not for bread alone, but for clothes and finery as well. Each class in modern society knows a menace to its homes: sport, college education, machinery—each is a factor in the gradual transformation of family life from a united domestic group to a collection of individuals with separate interests and aims outside the home.
I pursue my search. It is the dinner hour. At last a narrow door opens, letting a puff of hot rank air blow upon me as I stand in the vestibule questioning: "Do you take boarders?"
The woman who answers stands with a spoon in her hand, her eyes fixed upon a rear room where a stove, laden with frying-pans, glows and sputters.
"Come in," she says, "and get warm."
I walk into a front parlour with furniture that evidently serves domestic as well as social purposes. There is a profusion of white knitted tidies and portieres that exude an odour of cooking. Before the fire a workingman sits in a blue shirt and overalls. Fresh from the barber's hands, he has a clean mask marked by the razor's edge. Already I feel at home.
"Want board, do you?" the woman asks. "Well, we ain't got no place; we're always right full up."
My disappointment is keen. Regretfully I leave the fire and start on again.
"I guess you'll have some trouble in finding what you want," the woman calls to me on her way back to the kitchen, as I go out.
The answer is everywhere the same, with slight variations. Some take "mealers" only, some only "roomers," some "only gentlemen." I begin to understand it. Among the thousands of families who live in the city on account of the work provided by the mills, there are girls enough to fill the factories. There is no influx such as creates in a small town the necessity for working-girl boarding-houses. There is an ample supply of hands from the existing homes. There is the same difference between city and country factory life that there is between university life in a capital and in a country town.
A sign on a neat-looking corner house attracts me. I rap and continue to rap; the door is opened at length by a tall good-looking young woman. Her hair curls prettily, catching the light; her eyes are stupid and beautiful. She has on a black skirt and a bright purple waist.
"Do you take boarders?"
"Why, yes. I don't generally like to take ladies, they give so much trouble. You can come in if you like. Here's the room," she continues, opening a door near the vestibule. She brushes her hand over her forehead and stares at me; and then, as though she can no longer silence the knell that is ringing in her heart, she says to me, always staring:
"My husband was killed on the railroad last week. He lived three hours. They took him to the hospital—a boy come running down and told me. I went up as fast as I could, but it was too late; he never spoke again. I guess he didn't know what struck him; his head was all smashed. He was awful good to me—so easy-going. I ain't got my mind down to work yet. If you don't like this here room," she goes on listlessly, "maybe you could get suited across the way."
Thompson Seton tells us in his book on wild animals that not one among them ever dies a natural death. As the opposite extreme of vital persistence we have the man whose life, in spite of acute disease, is prolonged against reason by science; and midway comes the labourer, who takes his chances unarmed by any understanding of physical law, whose only safeguards are his wits and his presence of mind. The violent death, the accidents, the illnesses to which he falls victim might be often warded off by proper knowledge. Nature is a zealous enemy; ignorance and inexperience keep a whole class defenseless.
The next day is Saturday. I feel a fresh excitement at going back to my job; the factory draws me toward it magnetically. I long to be in the hum and whir of the busy workroom. Two days of leisure without resources or amusement make clear to me how the sociability of factory life, the freedom from personal demands, the escape from self can prove a distraction to those who have no mental occupation, no money to spend on diversion. It is easier to submit to factory government which commands five hundred girls with one law valid for all, than to undergo the arbitrary discipline of parental authority. I speed across the snow-covered courtyard. In a moment my cap and apron are on and I am sent to report to the head forewoman.
"We thought you'd quit," she says. "Lots of girls come in here and quit after one day, especially Saturday. To-day is scrubbing day," she smiles at me. "Now we'll do right by you if you do right by us. What did the timekeeper say he'd give you?"
"Sixty or seventy a day."
"We'll give you seventy," she says. "Of course, we can judge girls a good deal by their looks, and we can see that you're above the average."
She wears her cap close against her head. Her front hair is rolled up in crimping-pins. She has false teeth and is a widow. Her pale, parched face shows what a great share of life has been taken by daily over-effort repeated during years. As she talks she touches my arm in a kindly fashion and looks at me with blue eyes that float about under weary lids. "You are only at the beginning," they seem to say. "Your youth and vigour are at full tide, but drop by drop they will be sapped from you, to swell the great flood of human effort that supplies the world's material needs. You will gain in experience," the weary lids flutter at me, "but you will pay with your life the living you make."
There is no variety in my morning's work. Next to me is a bright, pretty girl jamming chopped pickles into bottles.
"How long have you been here?" I ask, attracted by her capable appearance. She does her work easily and well.
"About five months."
"How much do you make?"
"From 90 cents to $1.05. I'm doing piece-work," she explains. "I get seven-eighths of a cent for every dozen bottles I fill. I have to fill eight dozen to make seven cents. Downstairs in the corking-room you can make as high as $1.15 to $1.20. They won't let you make any more than that. Me and them two girls over there are the only ones in this room doing piece-work. I was here three weeks as a day-worker."
"Do you live at home?" I ask.
"Yes; I don't have to work. I don't pay no board. My father and my brothers supports me and my mother. But," and her eyes twinkle, "I couldn't have the clothes I do if I didn't work."
"Do you spend your money all on yourself?"
I am amazed at the cheerfulness of my companions. They complain of fatigue, of cold, but never at any time is there a suggestion of ill-humour. Their suppressed animal spirits reassert themselves when the forewoman's back is turned. Companionship is the great stimulus. I am confident that without the social entrain, the encouragement of example, it would be impossible to obtain as much from each individual girl as is obtained from them in groups of tens, fifties, hundreds working together.
When lunch is over we are set to scrubbing. Every table and stand, every inch of the factory floor must be scrubbed in the next four hours. The whistle on Saturday blows an hour earlier. Any girl who has not finished her work when the day is done, so that she can leave things in perfect order, is kept overtime, for which she is paid at the rate of six or seven cents an hour. A pail of hot water, a dirty rag and a scrubbing-brush are thrust into my hands. I touch them gingerly. I get a broom and for some time make sweeping a necessity, but the forewoman is watching me. I am afraid of her. There is no escape. I begin to scrub. My hands go into the brown, slimy water and come out brown and slimy. I slop the soap-suds around and move on to a fresh place. It appears there are a right and a wrong way of scrubbing. The forewoman is at my side.
"Have you ever scrubbed before?" she asks sharply. This is humiliating.
"Yes," I answer; "I have scrubbed ... oilcloth."
The forewoman knows how to do everything. She drops down on her knees and, with her strong arms and short-thumbed, brutal hands, she shows me how to scrub.
The grumbling is general. There is but one opinion among the girls: it is not right that they should be made to do this work. They all echo the same resentment, but their complaints are made in whispers; not one has the courage to openly rebel. What, I wonder to myself, do the men do on scrubbing day. I try to picture one of them on his hands and knees in a sea of brown mud. It is impossible. The next time I go for a supply of soft soap in a department where the men are working I take a look at the masculine interpretation of house cleaning. One man is playing a hose on the floor and the rest are rubbing the boards down with long-handled brooms and rubber mops.
"You take it easy," I say to the boss.
"I won't have no scrubbing in my place," he answers emphatically. "The first scrubbing day, they says to me 'Get down on your hands and knees,' and I says—'Just pay me my money, will you; I'm goin' home. What scrubbing can't be done with mops ain't going to be done by me.' The women wouldn't have to scrub, either, if they had enough spirit all of 'em to say so."
I determined to find out if possible, during my stay in the factory, what it is that clogs this mainspring of "spirit" in the women.
I hear fragmentary conversations about fancy dress balls, valentine parties, church sociables, flirtations and clothes. Almost all of the girls wear shoes with patent leather and some or much cheap jewelry, brooches, bangles and rings. A few draw their corsets in; the majority are not laced. Here and there I see a new girl whose back is flat, whose chest is well developed. Among the older hands who have begun work early there is not a straight pair of shoulders. Much of the bottle washing and filling is done by children from twelve to fourteen years of age. On their slight, frail bodies toil weighs heavily; the delicate child form gives way to the iron hand of labour pressed too soon upon it. Backs bend earthward, chests recede, never to be sound again.
* * * * *
After a Sunday of rest I arrive somewhat ahead of time on Monday morning, which leaves me a few moments for conversation with a piece-worker who is pasting labels on mustard jars. She is fifteen.
"Do you like your job?" I ask.
"Yes, I do," she answers, pleased to tell her little history. "I began in a clothing shop. I only made $2.50 a week, but I didn't have to stand. I felt awful when papa made me quit. When I came in here, bein' on my feet tired me so I cried every night for two months. Now I've got used to it. I don't feel no more tired when I get home than I did when I started out." There are two sharp blue lines that drag themselves down from her eyes to her white cheeks.
"Why, you know, at Christmas they give us two weeks," she goes on in the sociable tone of a woman whose hands are occupied. "I just didn't know what to do with myself."
"Does your mother work?"
"Oh, my, no. I don't have to work, only if I didn't I couldn't have the clothes I do. I save some of my money and spend the rest on myself. I make $6 to $7 a week."
The girl next us volunteers a share in the conversation.
"I bet you can't guess how old I am."
I look at her. Her face and throat are wrinkled, her hands broad, and scrawny; she is tall and has short skirts. What shall be my clue? If I judge by pleasure, "unborn" would be my answer; if by effort, then "a thousand years."
"Twenty," I hazard as a safe medium.
"Fourteen," she laughs. "I don't like it at home, the kids bother me so. Mamma's people are well-to-do. I'm working for my own pleasure."
"Indeed, I wish I was," says a new girl with a red waist. "We three girls supports mamma and runs the house. We have $13 rent to pay and a load of coal every month and groceries. It's no joke, I can tell you."
The whistle blows; I go back to my monotonous task. The old aches begin again, first gently, then more and more sharply. The work itself is growing more mechanical. I can watch the girls around me. What is it that determines superiority in this class? Why was the girl filling pickle jars put on piece-work after three weeks, when others older than she are doing day-work at fifty and sixty cents after a year in the factory? What quality decides that four shall direct four hundred? Intelligence I put first; intelligence of any kind, from the natural penetration that needs no teaching to the common sense that every one relies upon. Judgment is not far behind in the list, and it is soon matured by experience. A strong will and a moral steadiness stand guardians over the other two. The little pickle girl is winning in the race by her intelligence. The forewomen have all four qualities, sometimes one, sometimes another predominating. Pretty Clara is smarter than Lottie. Lottie is more steady. Old Mrs. Minns' will has kept her at it until her judgment has become infallible and can command a good price. Annie is an evenly balanced mixture of all, and the five hundred who are working under the five lack these qualities somewhat, totally, or have them in useless proportions.
Monday is a hard day. There is more complaining, more shirking, more gossip than in the middle of the week. Most of the girls have been to dances on Saturday night, to church on Sunday evening with some young man. Their conversation is vulgar and prosaic; there is nothing in the language they use that suggests an ideal or any conception of the abstract. They make jokes, state facts about the work, tease each other, but in all they say there is not a word of value—nothing that would interest if repeated out of its class. They have none of the sagaciousness of the low-born Italian, none of the wit and penetration of the French ouvriere. The Old World generations ago divided itself into classes; the lower class watched the upper and grew observant and appreciative, wise and discriminating, through the study of a master's will. Here in the land of freedom, where no class line is rigid, the precious chance is not to serve but to live for oneself; not to watch a superior, but to find out by experience. The ideal plays no part, stern realities alone count, and thus we have a progressive, practical, independent people, the expression of whose personality is interesting not through their words but by their deeds.
When the Monday noon whistle blows I follow the hundreds down into the dining-room. Each wears her cap in a way that speaks for her temperament. There is the indifferent, the untidy, the prim, the vain, the coquettish; and the faces under them, which all looked alike at first, are becoming familiar. I have begun to make friends. I speak bad English, but do not attempt to change my voice and inflection nor to adopt the twang. No allusion is made to my pronunciation except by one girl, who says:
"I knew you was from the East. My sister spent a year in Boston and when she come back she talked just like you do, but she lost it all again. I'd give anything if I could talk aristocratic."
I am beginning to understand why the meager lunches of preserve-sandwiches and pickles more than satisfy the girls whom I was prepared to accuse of spending their money on gewgaws rather than on nourishment. It is fatigue that steals the appetite. I can hardly taste what I put in my mouth; the food sticks in my throat. The girls who complain most of being tired are the ones who roll up their newspaper bundles half full. They should be given an hour at noon. The first half of it should be spent in rest and recreation before a bite is touched. The good that such a regulation would work upon their faulty skins and pale faces, their lasting strength and health, would be incalculable. I did not want wholesome food, exhausted as I was. I craved sours and sweets, pickles, cake, anything to excite my numb taste.
So long as I remain in the bottling department there is little variety in my days. Rising at 5:30 every morning, I make my way through black streets to offer my sacrifice of energy on the altar of toil. All is done without a fresh incident. Accumulated weariness forces me to take a day off. When I return I am sent for in the corking-room. The forewoman lends me a blue gingham dress and tells me I am to do "piece"-work. There are three who work together at every corking-table. My two companions are a woman with goggles and a one-eyed boy. We are not a brilliant trio. The job consists in evening the vinegar in the bottles, driving the cork in, first with a machine, then with a hammer, letting out the air with a knife stuck under the cork, capping the corks, sealing the caps, counting and distributing the bottles. These operations are paid for at the rate of one-half a cent for the dozen bottles, which sum is divided among us. My two companions are earning a living, so I must work in dead earnest or take bread out of their mouths. At every blow of the hammer there is danger. Again and again bottles fly to pieces in my hand. The boy who runs the corking-machine smashes a glass to fragments.
"Are you hurt?" I ask, my own fingers crimson stained.
"That ain't nothin'," he answers. "Cuts is common; my hands is full of 'em."
The woman directs us; she is fussy and loses her head, the work accumulates, I am slow, the boy is clumsy. There is a stimulus unsuspected in working to get a job done. Before this I had worked to make the time pass. Then no one took account of how much I did; the factory clock had a weighted pendulum; now ambition outdoes physical strength. The hours and my purpose are running a race together. But, hurry as I may, as we do, when twelve blows its signal we have corked only 210 dozen bottles! This is no more than day-work at seventy cents. With an ache in every muscle, I redouble my energy after lunch. The girl with the goggles looks at me blindly and says:
"Ain't it just awful hard work? You can make good money, but you've got to hustle."
She is a forlorn specimen of humanity, ugly, old, dirty, condemned to the slow death of the overworked. I am a green hand. I make mistakes; I have no experience in the fierce sustained effort of the bread-winners. Over and over I turn to her, over and over she is obliged to correct me. During the ten hours we work side by side not one murmur of impatience escapes her. When she sees that I am getting discouraged she calls out across the deafening din, "That's all right; you can't expect to learn in a day; just keep on steady."
As I go about distributing bottles to the labelers I notice a strange little elf, not more than twelve years old, hauling loaded crates; her face and chest are depressed, she is pale to blueness, her eyes have indigo circles, her pupils are unnaturally dilated, her brows contracted; she has the appearance of a cave-bred creature. She seems scarcely human. When the time for cleaning up arrives toward five my boss sends me for a bucket of water to wash up the floor. I go to the sink, turn on the cold water and with it the steam which takes the place of hot water. The valve slips; in an instant I am enveloped in a scalding cloud. Before it has cleared away the elf is by my side.
"Did you hurt yourself?" she asks.
Her inhuman form is the vehicle of a human heart, warm and tender. She lifts her wide-pupiled eyes to mine; her expression does not change from that of habitual scrutiny cast early in a rigid mould, but her voice carries sympathy from its purest source.
There is more honour than courtesy in the code of etiquette. Commands are given curtly; the slightest injustice is resented; each man for himself in work, but in trouble all for the one who is suffering. No bruise or cut or burn is too familiar a sight to pass uncared for.
It is their common sufferings, their common effort that unites them.
When I have become expert in the corking art I am raised to a better table, with a bright boy, and a girl who is dignified and indifferent with the indifference of those who have had too much responsibility. She never hurries; the work slips easily through her fingers. She keeps a steady bearing over the morning's ups and downs. Under her load of trials there is something big in the steady way she sails.
"Used to hard work?" she asks me.
"Not much," I answer; "are you?"
"Oh, yes. I began at thirteen in a bakery. I had a place near the oven and the heat overcame me."
Her shoulders are bowed, her chest is hollow.
"Looking for a boarding place near the factory, I hear," she continues.
"Yes. You live at home, I suppose."
"Yes. There's four of us: mamma, papa, my sister and myself. Papa's blind."
"Can't he work?"
"Oh, yes, he creeps to his job every morning, and he's got so much experience he kind o' does things by instinct."
"Does your mother work?"
"Oh, my, no. My sister's an invalid. She hasn't been out o' the door for three years. She's got enlargement of the heart and consumption, too, I guess; she 'takes' hemorrhages. Sometimes she has twelve in one night. Every time she coughs the blood comes foaming out of her mouth. She can't lie down. I guess she'd die if she lay down, and she gets so tired sittin' up all night. She used to be a tailoress, but I guess her job didn't agree with her."
"How many checks have we got," I ask toward the close of the day.
"Thirteen," Ella answers.
"An unlucky number," I venture, hoping to arouse an opinion.
"Are you superstitious?" she asks, continuing to twist tin caps on the pickle jars. "I am. If anything's going to happen I can't help having presentiments, and they come true, too."
Here is a mystic, I thought; so I continued:
"And what about dreams?"
"Oh!" she cried. "Dreams! I have the queerest of anybody!"
I was all attention.
"Why, last night," she drew near to me, and spoke slowly, "I dreamed that mamma was drunk, and that she was stealing chickens!"
Such is the imagination of this weary worker.
The whole problem in mechanical labour rests upon economy of force. The purpose of each, I learned by experience, was to accomplish as much as possible with one single stroke. In this respect the machine is superior to man, and man to woman. Sometimes I tried original ways of doing the work given me. I soon found in every case that the methods proposed by the forewoman were in the end those whereby I could do the greatest amount of work with the least effort. A mustard machine had recently been introduced to the factory. It replaced three girls; it filled as many bottles with a single stroke as the girls could fill with twelve. This machine and all the others used were run by boys or men; the girls had not strength enough to manipulate them methodically.
The power of the machine, the physical force of the man were simplifying their tasks. While the boy was keeping steadily at one thing, perfecting himself, we, the women, were doing a variety of things, complicated and fussy, left to our lot because we had not physical force for the simpler but greater effort. The boy at the corking-table had soon become an expert; he was fourteen and he made from $1 to $1.20 a day. He worked ten hours at one job, whereas Ella and I had a dozen little jobs almost impossible to systematize: we hammered and cut and capped the corks and washed and wiped the bottles, sealed them, counted them, distributed them, kept the table washed up, the sink cleaned out, and once a day scrubbed up our own precincts. When I asked the boy if he was tired he laughed at me. He was superior to us; he was stronger; he could do more with one stroke than we could do with three; he was by nature a more valuable aid than we. We were forced through physical inferiority to abandon the choicest task to this young male competitor. Nature had given us a handicap at the start.
For a few days there is no vacancy at the corking-tables. I am sent back to the bottling department. The oppressive monotony is one day varied by a summons to the men's dining-room. I go eagerly, glad of any change. In the kitchen I find a girl with skin disease peeling potatoes, and a coloured man making soup in a wash-boiler. The girl gives me a stool to sit on, and a knife and a pan of potatoes. The dinner under preparation is for the men of the factory. There are two hundred of them. They are paid from $1.35 up to $3 a day. Their wages begin above the highest limit given to women. The dinner costs each man ten cents. The $20 paid in daily cover the expenses of the cook, two kitchen maids and the dinner, which consists of meat, bread and butter, vegetables and coffee, sometimes soup, sometimes dessert. If this can pay for two hundred there is no reason why for five cents a hot meal of some kind could not be given the women. They don't demand it, so they are left to make themselves ill on pickles and preserves.
The coloured cook is full of song and verse. He quotes from the Bible freely, and gives us snatches of popular melodies.
We have frequent calls from the elevator boy, who brings us ice and various provisions. Both men, I notice, take their work easily. During the morning a busy Irish woman comes hurrying into our precincts.
"Say," she yells in a shrill voice, "my cauliflowers ain't here, are they? I ordered 'em early and they ain't came yet."
Without properly waiting for an answer she hurries away again.
The coloured cook turns to the elevator boy understandingly:
"Just like a woman! Why, before I'd make a fuss about cauliflowers or anything else!"
About eleven the head forewoman stops in to eat a plate of rice and milk. While I am cutting bread for the two hundred I hear her say to the cook in a gossipy tone:
"How do you like the new girl? She's here all alone."
I am called away and do not hear the rest of the conversation. When I return the cook lectures me in this way:
"Here alone, are you?"
"Well, I see no reason why you shouldn't get along nicely and not kill yourself with work either. Just stick at it and they'll do right by you. Lots o' girls who's here alone gets to fooling around. Now I like everybody to have a good time, and I hope you'll have a good time, too, but you mustn't carry it too far."
My mind went back as he said this to a conversation I had had the night before with a working-girl at my boarding-house.
"Where is your home?" I asked.
She had been doing general housework, but ill-health had obliged her to take a rest.
She looked at me skeptically.
"We don't have no homes," was her answer. "We just get up and get whenever they send us along."
And almost as a sequel to this I thought of two sad cases that had come close to my notice as fellow boarders.
I was sitting alone one night by the gas stove in the parlour. The matron had gone out and left me to "answer the door." The bell rang and I opened cautiously, for the wind was howling and driving the snow and sleet about on the winter air. A young girl came in; she was seeking a lodging. Her skirts and shoes were heavy with water. She took off her things slowly in a dazed manner. Her short, quick breathing showed how excited she was. When she spoke at last her voice sounded hollow, her eyes moved about restlessly. She stopped abruptly now and then and contracted her brows as though in an appeal for merciful tears; then she continued in the same broken, husky voice:
"I suppose I'm not the only one in trouble. I've thought a thousand times over that I would kill myself. I suppose I loved him—but I hate him now."
These two sentences, recurring, were the story's all.
The impotence of rebellion, a sense of outrage at being abandoned, the instinctive appeal for protection as a right, the injustice of being left solely to bear the burden of responsibility which so long as it was pleasure had been shared—these were the thoughts and feelings breeding hatred.
She had spent the day in a fruitless search for her lover. She had been to his boss and to his rooms. He had paid his debts and gone, nobody knew where. She was pretty, vain, homeless; alone to bear the responsibility she had not been alone to incur. She could not shirk it as the man had done. They had both disregarded the law. On whom were the consequences weighing more heavily? On the woman. She is the sufferer; she is the first to miss the law's protection. She is the weaker member whom, for the sake of the race, society protects. Nature has made her man's physical inferior; society is obliged to recognize this in the giving of a marriage law which beyond doubt is for the benefit of woman, since she can least afford to disregard it.
Another evening when the matron was out I sat for a time with a young working woman and her baby. There is a comradeship among the poor that makes light of indiscreet questions. I felt only sympathy in asking:
"Are you alone to bring up your child?"
"Yes, ma'am," was the answer. "I'll never go home with him."
I looked at him: a wizened, four-months-old infant with a huge flat nose, and two dull black eyes fixed upon the gas jet. The girl had the grace of a forest-born creature; she moved with the mysterious strength and suppleness of a tree's branch. She was proud; she felt herself disgraced. For four months she had not left the house. I talked on, proposing different things.
"I don't know what to do," she said. "I can't never go home with him, and if I went home without him I'd never be the same. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to him." Her head bowed over the child; she held him close to her breast.
But to return to the coloured cook and my day in the kitchen. I had ample opportunity to compare domestic service with factory work. We set the table for two hundred, and do a thousand miserable slavish tasks that must be begun again the following day. At twelve the two hundred troop in, toil-worn and begrimed. They pass like locusts, leaving us sixteen hundred dirty dishes to wash up and wipe. This takes us four hours, and when we have finished the work stands ready to be done over the next morning with peculiar monotony. In the factory there is stimulus in feeling that the material which passes through one's hands will never be seen or heard of again.
On Saturday the owner of the factory comes at lunch time with several friends and talks to us with an amazing camaraderie. He is kindly, humourous and tactful. One or two missionaries speak after him, but their conversation is too abstract for us. We want something dramatic, imaginative, to hold our attention, or something wholly natural. Tell us about the bees, the beavers or the toilers of the sea. The longing for flowers has often come to me as I work, and a rose seems of all things the most desirable. In my present condition I do not hark back to civilized wants, but repeatedly my mind travels toward the country places I have seen in the fields and forests. If I had a holiday I would spend it seeing not what man but what God has made. These are the things to be remembered in addressing or trying to amuse or instruct girls who are no more prepared than I felt myself to be for any preconceived ideal of art or ethics. The omnipresence of dirt and ugliness, of machines and "stock," leave the mind in a state of lassitude which should be roused by something natural. As an initial remedy for the ills I voluntarily assumed I would propose amusement. Of all the people who spoke to us that Saturday, we liked best the one who made us laugh. It was a relief to hear something funny. In working as an outsider in a factory girls' club I had always held that nothing was so important as to give the poor something beautiful to look at and think about—a photograph or copy of some chef d'oeuvre, an objet d'art, lessons in literature and art which would uplift their souls from the dreariness of their surroundings. Three weeks as a factory girl had changed my beliefs. If the young society women who sacrifice one evening every week to talk to the poor in the slums about Shakespeare and Italian art would instead offer diversion first—a play, a farce, a humourous recitation—they would make much more rapid progress in winning the confidence of those whom they want to help. The working woman who has had a good laugh is more ready to tell what she needs and feels and fears than the woman who has been forced to listen silently to an abstract lesson. In society when we wish to make friends with people we begin by entertaining them. It should be the same way with the poor. Next to amusement as a means of giving temporary relief and bringing about relations which will be helpful to all, I put instruction, in the form of narrative, about the people of other countries, our fellow man, how he lives and works; and, third, under this same head, primitive lessons about animals and plants, the industries of the bees, the habits of ants, the natural phenomena which require no reasoning power to understand and which open the thoughts upon a delightful unknown vista.
My first experience is drawing to its close. I have surmounted the discomforts of insufficient food, of dirt, a bed without sheets, the strain of hard manual labour. I have confined my observations to life and conditions in the factory. Owing, as I have before explained, to the absorption of factory life into city life in a place as large as Pittsburg, it seemed to me more profitable to centre my attention on the girl within the factory, leaving for a small town the study of her in her family and social life. I have pointed out as they appeared to me woman's relative force as a worker and its effects upon her economic advancement. I have touched upon two cases which illustrate her relative dependence on the law. She appeared to me not as the equal of man either physically or legally. It remained to study her socially. In the factory where I worked men and women were employed for ten-hour days. The women's highest wages were lower than the man's lowest. Both were working as hard as they possibly could. The women were doing menial work, such as scrubbing, which the men refused to do. The men were properly fed at noon; the women satisfied themselves with cake and pickles. Why was this? It is of course impossible to generalize on a single factory. I can only relate the conclusions I drew from what I saw myself. The wages paid by employers, economists tell us, are fixed at the level of bare subsistence. This level and its accompanying conditions are determined by competition, by the nature and number of labourers taking part in the competition. In the masculine category I met but one class of competitor: the bread-winner. In the feminine category I found a variety of classes: the bread-winner, the semi-bread-winner, the woman who works for luxuries. This inevitably drags the wage level. The self-supporting girl is in competition with the child, with the girl who lives at home and makes a small contribution to the household expenses, and with the girl who is supported and who spends all her money on her clothes. It is this division of purpose which takes the "spirit" out of them as a class. There will be no strikes among them so long as the question of wages is not equally vital to them all. It is not only nature and the law which demand protection for women, but society as well. In every case of the number I investigated, if there were sons, daughters or a husband in the family, the mother was not allowed to work. She was wholly protected. In the families where the father and brothers were making enough for bread and butter, the daughters were protected partially or entirely. There is no law which regulates this social protection: it is voluntary, and it would seem to indicate that civilized woman is meant to be an economic dependent. Yet, on the other hand, what is the new force which impels girls from their homes into the factories to work when they do not actually need the money paid them for their effort and sacrifice? Is it a move toward some far distant civilization when women shall have become man's physical equal, a "free, economic, social factor, making possible the full social combination of individuals in collective industry"? This is a matter for speculation only. What occurred to me as a possible remedy both for the oppression of the woman bread-winner and also as a betterment for the girl who wants to work though she does not need the money, was this: the establishment of schools where the esthetic branches of industrial art might be taught to the girls who by their material independence could give some leisure to acquiring a profession useful to themselves and to society in general. The whole country would be benefited by the opening of such schools as the Empress of Russia has patronized for the maintenance of the "petites industries," or those which Queen Margherita has established for the revival of lace-making in Italy. If there was such a counter-attraction to machine labour, the bread-winner would have a freer field and the non-bread-winner might still work for luxury and at the same time better herself morally, mentally and esthetically. She could aid in forming an intermediate class of labourers which as yet does not exist in America: the hand-workers, the main d'oeuvre who produce the luxurious objects of industrial art for which we are obliged to send to Europe when we wish to beautify our homes.
The American people are lively, intelligent, capable of learning anything. The schools of which I speak, founded, not for the manufacturing of the useful but of the beautiful, could be started informally as classes and by individual effort. Such labour would be paid more than the mechanical factory work; the immense importation from abroad of objects of industrial art sufficiently proves the demand for them in this country; there would be no material disadvantage for the girl who gave up her job in a pickle factory. Her faculties would be well employed, and she could, without leaving her home, do work which would be of esthetic and, indirectly, of moral value.
I was discouraged at first to see how difficult it was to help the working girls as individuals and how still more difficult to help them as a class. There is perhaps no surer way of doing this than by giving opportunities to those who have a purpose and a will. No amount of openings will help the girl who has not both of these. I watched many girls with intelligence and energy who were unable to develop for the lack of a chance a start in the right direction. Aside from the few remedies I have been able to suggest, I would like to make an appeal for persistent sympathy in behalf of those whose misery I have shared. Until some marvelous advancement has been made toward the reign of justice upon earth, every man, woman and child should have constantly in his heart the sufferings of the poorest.
On the evening when I left the factory for the last time, I heard in the streets the usual cry of murders, accidents and suicides: the mental food of the overworked. It is Saturday night. I mingle with a crowd of labourers homeward bound, and with women and girls returning from a Saturday sale in the big shops. They hurry along delighted at the cheapness of a bargain, little dreaming of the human effort that has produced it, the cost of life and energy it represents. As they pass, they draw their skirts aside from us, the labourers who have made their bargains cheap; from us, the cooeperators who enable them to have the luxuries they do; from us, the multitude who stand between them and the monster Toil that must be fed with human lives. Think of us, as we herd to our work in the winter dawn; think of us as we bend over our task all the daylight without rest; think of us at the end of the day as we resume suffering and anxiety in homes of squalour and ugliness; think of us as we make our wretched try for merriment; think of us as we stand protectors between you and the labour that must be done to satisfy your material demands; think of us—be merciful.
* * * * *
PERRY, A NEW YORK MILL TOWN
* * * * *
PERRY, A NEW YORK MILL TOWN
No place in America could have afforded better than Pittsburg a chance to study the factory life of American girls, the stimulus of a new country upon the labourers of old races, the fervour and energy of a people animated by hope and stirred to activity by the boundless opportunities for making money. It is the labourers' city par excellence; and in my preceding chapters I have tried to give a clear picture of factory life between the hours of seven and six, of the economic conditions, of the natural social and legal equipment of woman as a working entity, of her physical, moral and esthetic development.
Now, since the time ticked out between the morning summoning whistle to that which gives release at night is not half the day, and only two-thirds of the working hours, my second purpose has been to find a place where the factory girl's own life could best be studied: her domestic, religious and sentimental life.
Somewhere in the western part of New York State, one of my comrades at the pickle works had told me, there was a town whose population was chiefly composed of mill-hands. The name of the place was Perry, and I decided upon it as offering the typical American civilization among the working classes. New England is too free of grafts to give more than a single aspect; Pittsburg is an international bazaar; but the foundations of Perry are laid with bricks from all parts of the world, held together by a strong American cement.
Ignorant of Perry further than as it exists, a black spot on a branch of a small road near Buffalo, I set out from New York toward my destination on the Empire State Express. There was barely time to descend with my baggage at Rochester before the engine had started onward again, trailing behind it with world-renowned rapidity its freight of travelers who, for a few hours under the car's roof, are united by no other common interest than that of journeying quickly from one spot to another, where they disperse never to meet again. My Perry train had an altogether different character. I was late for it, but the brakeman saw me coming and waved to the engineer not to start until my trunk was checked and safely boarded like myself. Then we bumped our way through meadows quickened to life by the soft spring air; we halted at crossroads to pick up stray travelers and shoppers; we unloaded plowing machines and shipped crates of live fowl; we waited at wayside stations with high-sounding names for family parties whose unpunctuality was indulgently considered by the occupants of the train.
My companions, chiefly women, were of the homely American type whose New England drawl has been modified by a mingling of foreign accents. They took advantage of this time for "visiting" with neighbours whom the winter snows and illnesses had rendered inaccessible. Their inquiries for each other were all kindliness and sympathy, and the peaceful, tolerant, uneventful way in which we journeyed from Rochester to Perry was a symbol of the way in which these good people had journeyed across life. Perry, the terminus of the line, was a frame station lodged on stilts in a sea of surrounding mud. When the engine had come to a standstill and ceased to pant, when the last truck had been unloaded, the baggage room closed, there were no noises to be heard except those that came from a neighbouring country upon whose peace the small town had not far encroached; the splash of a horse and buggy through the mud, a monotonous voice mingling with the steady tick of the telegraph machine, some distant barnyard chatter, and the mysterious, invisible stir of spring shaking out upon the air damp sweet odours calling the earth to colour and life. Descending the staircase which connected the railroad station with the hill road on which it was perched, I joined a man who was swinging along in rubber boots, with several farming tools, rakes and hoes, slung over his shoulder. A repugnance I had felt in resuming my toil-worn clothes had led me to make certain modifications which I feared in so small a town as Perry might relegate me to the class I had voluntarily abandoned. The man in rubber boots looked me over as I approached, bag in hand, and to my salutation he replied:
"Going down to the mill, I suppose. There's lots o' ladies comes in the train every day now."
He was the perfection of tact; he placed me in one sentence as a mill-hand and a lady.
"I'll take you down as far as Main Street," he volunteered, giving me at once a feeling of kindly interest which "city folks" have not time to show.
We found our way by improvised crossings through broad, soft beds of mud. Among the branches of the sap-fed trees which lined the unpaved streets transparent balls of glass were suspended, from which, as twilight deepened, a brilliant artificial light shot its rays, the perfection of modern invention, over the primitive, unfinished little town of Perry, which was all contrast and energy, crudity and progress.
"There's a lot of the girls left the mill yesterday," my companion volunteered. "They cut the wages, and some of the oldest hands got right out. There's more than a thousand of 'em on the pay-roll, but I guess you can make good money if you're ready to work."
We had reached Main Street, which, owing to the absence of a trolley, had retained a certain individuality. The rivers of mud broadened out into a sea, flanked by a double row of two-story, flat-roofed frame stores, whose monotony was interrupted by a hotel and a town hall. My guide stopped at a corner butcher shop. Its signboard was a couple of mild-eyed animals hanging head downward, presented informally, with their skins untouched, and having more the appearance of some ill-treated pets than future beef and bouillon for the Perry population.
"Follow the boardwalk!" was the simple command I received. "Keep right along until you come to the mill."
I presently fell in with a drayman, who was calling alternately to his horse as it sucked in and out of the mud and to a woman on the plank walk. She had on a hat with velvet and ostrich plumes, a black frock, a side bag with a lace handkerchief. She was not young and she wore spectacles; but there was something nervous about her step, a slight tremolo as she responded to the drayman, which suggested an adventure or the hope of it. The boardwalk, leading inevitably to the mill, announced our common purpose and saved us an introduction.
"Going down to get work?" was the question we simultaneously asked of each other. My companion, all eagerness, shook out the lace handkerchief in her side bag and explained:
"I don't have to work; my folks keep a hotel; but I always heard so much about Perry I thought I'd like to come up, and," she sighed, with a flirt of the lace handkerchief and a contented glance around at the rows of white frame houses, "I'm up now."
"Want board?" the drayman called to me. "You kin count on me for a good place. There's Doctor Meadows, now; he's got a nice home and he just wants two boarders."
The middle-aged woman with the glasses glanced up quickly.
"Doctor Meadows of Tittihute?" she asked. "I wont go there; he's too strict. He's a Methodist minister. You couldn't have any fun at all."
I followed suit, denouncing Doctor Killjoy as she had, hoping that her nervous, frisky step would lead me toward the adventure she was evidently seeking.
"Well," the drayman responded indulgently, "I guess Mr. Norse will know the best place for you folks."
We had come at once to the factory and the end of the boardwalk. It was but a few minutes before Mr. Norse had revealed himself as the pivot, the human hub, the magnet around which the mechanism of the mill revolved and clung, sure of finding its proper balance. Tall, lank and meager, with a wrinkled face and a furtive mustache, Mr. Norse made his rounds with a list of complaints and comments in one hand, a pencil in the other and a black cap on his head which tipped, indulgent, attentive to hear and overhear. His manner was professional. He looked at us, placed us, told us to return at one o'clock, recommended a boarding-house, and, on his way to some other case, sent a small boy to accompany us on future stretches of boardwalk to our lodgings. The street we followed ended in a rolling hillside, and beyond was the mysterious blue that holds something of the infinite in its mingling of clouds and shadows. The Geneseo Valley lay near us like a lake under the sky, and silhouetted against it were the factory chimney and buildings. The wood's edge came close to the town, whose yards prolong themselves into green meadows and farming lands. We knocked at a rusty screen door and were welcomed with the cordiality of the country woman to whom all folks are neighbours, all strangers possible boarders. The house, built without mantelpiece or chimney, atoned for this cheerlessness with a large parlour stove, whose black arms carried warmth through floor and ceiling. A table was spread in the dining-room. A loud-ticking clock with a rusty bell marked the hour from a shelf on the wall, and out of the kitchen, seen in vista, came a spluttering sound of frying food. Our hostess took us into the parlour. Several family pictures of stony-eyed women and men with chin beards, and a life-sized Frances Willard in chromo, looked down at our ensuing interview.
Board, lodging, heat and light we could have at $2.75 a week. Before the husky clock had struck twelve, I was installed in a small room with the middle-aged woman from Batavia and a second unknown roommate.
Now what, I asked myself, is the mill's attraction and what is the power of this small town? Its population is 3,346. Of these, 1,000 work in the knitting-mill, 200 more in a cutlery factory and 300 in various flour, butter, barrel, planing mills and salt blocks. Half the inhabitants are young hands. Not one in a hundred has a home in Perry; they have come from all western parts of the State to work. There are scarcely any children, few married couples and almost no old people. It is a town of youthful contemporaries, stung with the American's ambition for independence and adventure, charmed by the gaiety of being boys and girls together, with an ever possible touch of romance which makes the hardest work seem easy. Within the four board walls of each house, whose type is repeated up and down Perry streets, there is a group of factory employees boarding and working at the mill. Their names suggest a foreign parentage, but for several generations they have mingled their diverse energies in a common effort which makes Americans of them.
As I lived for several weeks among a group of this kind, who were fairly representative, I shall try to give, through a description of their life and conversation, their personalities and characteristics, their occupations out of working hours, a general idea of these unknown toilers, who are so amazingly like their more fortunate sisters that I became convinced the difference is only superficial—not one of kind but merely of variety. The Perry factory girl is separated from the New York society girl, not by a few generations, but by a few years of culture and training. In America, where tradition and family play an unimportant part, the great educator is the spending of money. It is through the purchase of possessions that the Americans develop their taste, declare themselves, and show their inherent capacity for culture. Give to the Perry mill-hands a free chance for growth, transplant them, care for them, and they will readily show how slight and how merely a thing of culture the difference is between the wild rose and the American beauty.
What were my first impressions of the hands who returned at noon under the roof which had extended unquestioning its hospitality? Were they a band of slaves, victims to toil and deprivation? Were they making the pitiful exchange of their total vitality for insufficient nourishment? Did life mean to them merely the diminishing of their forces?
On the contrary, they entered gay, laughing young, a youth guarded intact by freedom and hope. What were the subjects of conversation pursued at dinner? Love, labour, the price paid for it, the advantages of town over country life, the neighbour and her conduct. What was the appearance of my companions? There was nothing in it to shock good taste. Their hands and feet were somewhat broadened by work, their skins were imperfect for the lack of proper food, their dresses were of coarse material; but in small things the differences were superficial only. Was it, then, in big things that the divergence began which places them as a lower class? Was it money alone that kept them from the places of authority? What were their ambitions, their perplexities? What part does self-respect play? How well satisfied are they, or how restless? What can we learn from them? What can we teach them?
We ate our dinner of boiled meat and custard pie and all started back in good time for a one o'clock beginning at the mill. For the space of several hundred feet its expressionless red brick walls lined the street, implacable, silent. Within all hummed to the collective activity of a throng, each working with all his force for a common end. Machines roared and pounded; a fine dust filled the air—a cloud of lint sent forth from the friction of thousands of busy hands in perpetual contact with the shapeless anonymous garments they were fashioning. There were, on their way between the cutting-and the finishing-rooms, 7,000 dozen shirts. They were to pass by innumerable hands; they were to be held and touched by innumerable individuals; they were to be begun and finished by innumerable human beings with distinct tastes and likings, abilities and failings; and when the 7,000 dozen shirts were complete they were to look alike, and they were to look as though made by a machine; they were to show no trace whatever of the men and the women who had made them. Here we were, 1,000 souls hurrying from morning until night, working from seven until six, with as little personality as we could, with the effort to produce, through an action purely mechanical, results as nearly as possible identical one to the other, and all to the machine itself.
What could be the result upon the mind and health of this frantic mechanical activity devoid of thought? It was this for which I sought an answer; it is for this I propose a remedy.
At the threshold of the mill door my roommate and I encountered Mr. Norse. There was irony in the fates allotted us. She was eager to make money; I was indifferent. Mr. Norse felt her in his power; I felt him in mine. She was given a job at twenty-five cents a day and all she could make; I was offered the favourite work in the mill—shirt finishing, at thirty cents a day and all I could make; and when I shook my head to see how far I could exploit my indifference and said, "Thirty cents is too little," Mr. Norse's answer was: "Well, I suppose you, like the rest of us, are trying to earn a living. I will guarantee you seventy-five cents a day for the first two weeks, and all you can make over it is yours." My apprenticeship began under the guidance of an "old girl" who had been five years in the mill. A dozen at a time the woolen shirts were brought to us, complete all but the adding of the linen strips in front where the buttons and buttonholes are stitched. The price of this operation is paid for the dozen shirts five, five and a half and six cents, according to the complexity of the finish. My instructress had done as many as forty dozen in one day; she averaged $1.75 a day all the year around. While she was teaching me the factory paid her at the rate of ten cents an hour.
A touch of the machine's pedal set the needle to stitching like mad. A second touch in the opposite direction brought it to an abrupt standstill. For the five hours of my first afternoon session there was not an instant's harmony between what I did and what I intended to do. I sewed frantically into the middle of shirts. I watched my needle, impotent as it flew up and down, and when by chance I made a straight seam I brought it to so sudden a stop that the thread raveled back before my weary eyes. When my back and fingers ached so that I could no longer bend over the work, I watched my comrades with amazement. The machine was not a wild animal in their hands, but an instrument that responded with niceness to their guidance. Above the incessant roar and burring din they called gaily to each other, gossiping, chatting, telling stories. What did they talk about? Everything, except domestic cares. The management of an interior, housekeeping, cooking were things I never once heard mentioned. What were the favourite topics, those returned to most frequently and with surest interest? Dress and men. Two girls in the seaming-room had got into a quarrel that day over a packer, a fine looking, broad-shouldered fellow who had touched the hearts of both and awakened in each an emotion she claimed the right to defend. The quarrel began lightly with an exchange of unpleasant comment; it soon took the proportions of a dispute which could not give itself the desired vent in words alone. The boss was called in. He made no attempt to control what lay beyond his power, but applying factory legislation to the case, he ordered the two Amazons to "register out" until the squabble was settled, as the factory did not propose to pay its hands for the time spent in fights. So the two girls "rang out" past the timekeeper and took an hour in the open air, hand to hand, fist to fist, which, as it happens to man, had its calming effect.