THE OPPRESSIONS OF THE WORTHY POOR
BY REV. LOUIS ALBERT BANKS, D.D.
To My Father and Mother,
Who instilled into my mind and heart, in the days of a happy boyhood, their own love for liberty and hatred of oppression, this volume is gratefully dedicated.
TO THE MERCY AND HELP DEPARTMENT OF THE EPWORTH LEAGUE
Mr. Edison tells us that ninety per cent of the energy that there is in coal is lost in the present method of converting it into a usable force. May I, without being considered a croaker, say that almost the same amount of spiritual power goes to waste in our average church life? One is startled at times as he notes the manifestations of fervor and warmth in the devotional meetings of the present day, and the meagre results that follow in the transformation of society into the likeness of the kingdom of heaven. Exactly what we have to do, however, is to help hasten the answer to the prayer our Lord taught us, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," and not to be forever seeking to build tabernacles on some Mount of Transfiguration.
This book of Dr. Banks's is a positive stimulus to this work of social transformation. The young men and women of our Epworth League could not do better than to carefully and thoughtfully study its vivid pictures of every-day scenes in our great, and even in our lesser, cities.
Such study will open their eyes to sad deformities in their own communities, to which too many have become strangely indifferent through custom and wont. True, it is not pleasant to consider these distressing matters; but is it the business of the Christian to avoid that which is unpleasant? Consideration leads to sympathy, and sympathy wonderfully quickens the inventive faculties; and the aroused intellect and active affection are leavening forces that alter social conditions always for the better.
I take great pleasure, therefore, in commending this work, because it stirs all who read it. It may make you indignant. What of it? Would that more were alive enough to be indignant with the indignation of our Lord at the forces of unbrotherliness at work in our midst! It will do more than rouse your indignation; it will help you to utter the prayer that gave the accent to the life of Paul: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" When in works of Mercy and Help our tens of thousands of Epworth Leaguers are loyally living this prayer, the problem of Edison, as applied to spiritual dynamics, will be solved, and the latent forces of spiritual energy used to their utmost. Then, as slavery has passed away, war and tyranny and idleness and poverty will be no more, and the end to which Christ leads us, and for which He died, will be attained.
WILLIAM INGRAHAM HAVEN,
Vice-President for Mercy and Help Department.
INWOOD LODGE, PINE ISLAND N.H. August 1893
This volume had its origin in experiences which came to me in the daily duties of a city pastorate. The inadequate wages received by some of the members of my own congregation, and the impoverished and unhealthy surroundings of many of the poor people who came for me to christen their children, pray with their sick, or bury their dead, so aroused my sympathy for the victims, and my indignation against the cruel or indifferent causes of their misery, that I determined upon a thorough and systematic investigation of the conditions of life among the worthy Boston poor. By the word "worthy" I do not mean to indicate a class of saints, but the poor people of the city who are willing and anxious to exchange honest hard work for their support. I have not, in the series of studies here presented, entered into a discussion of the vicious and criminal classes. I have tried to perform, as it seemed to me, a far more important task—to make a plea for justice on behalf of the crushed, and often forgotten, victims of greed, who work and starve in their cellars and garrets rather than beg or steal.
The larger part of the matter contained in these pages was originally delivered in a series of discourses from the pulpit of St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church, South Boston, and retains here the direct form of the spoken address.
I desire to make a personal acknowledgment to some who have given me great assistance in making the investigations, the results of which are here recorded. I am greatly indebted to Mr. B. O. Flower, Editor of The Arena, for many kindnesses, and especially for the use of several interesting illustrations originally prepared for the magazine over which he so ably and gracefully presides. The Rev. Walter J. Swaffield, of the Boston Baptist Bethel, the Rev. C. L. D. Younkin, of the North End Mission, the Rev. Geo. L. Small, of the Mariners' House, the Rev. John G. May, of the Italian Mission, and that indefatigable reformer, Mrs. Alice N. Lincoln, have each put me under great obligations by their unwearying kindness and willing assistance. I am also greatly indebted to Mr. Sears Gallagher, the brilliant young South Boston artist, and to the veteran photographer of Boston Highlands, Mr. W. H. Partridge, for many courtesies in connection with the illustrations which illumine these chapters.
LOUIS ALBERT BANKS. BOSTON, September 15, 1891.
I. THE WHITE SLAVES OF THE BOSTON "SWEATERS"
II. LETTER OF CRITICISM
III. REPLY TO A CRITICISM ON "THE WHITE SLAVES OF THE BOSTON SWEATERS"
IV. THE PLAGUE OF THE SWEAT-SHOP
V. THE RELATION OF WAGES TO MORALS
VI. THE WAGES AND TEMPTATIONS OF WORKING-PEOPLE
VII. BOSTON'S UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
VIII. SOCIAL MICROBES IN BOSTON TENEMENT HOUSES, AND HOW TO DESTROY THEM
IX. OLD WORLD TIDES IN BOSTON
X. OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS, THE BOSTON PAUPERS
XI. COMMENT ON "OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS, THE BOSTON PAUPERS"
XII. THE GOLD GOD OF MODERN SOCIETY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PORTRAIT OF AUTHOR PORTUGUESE WIDOW IN ATTIC PORTUGUESE WIDOW AND CHILDREN LITTLE CHILDREN FINISHING PANTS INVALID IN CHAIR POSTAL UNIFORMS A TENEMENT-HOUSE COURT SUNDAY ON NORTH STREET CLARK'S MISSION NORTH END JUNK SHOP HOME OF THE MATHERS THE PEANUTTER INSIDE A SWEAT-SHOP PAUL REVERE HOUSE, NORTH SQUARE REAR OF NORTH END TENEMENT HOUSE COMMONWEALTH AVENUE DRYING "THE FIND" THE NORTH END MISSION A BOSTON "BRIDGE OF SIGHS" COURT OFF NORTH STREET CELLARWAY LEADING TO UNDERGROUND APARTMENTS SICK MAN IN UNDERGROUND APARTMENT AN ANCIENT TENEMENT ITALIAN FRUIT-VENDERS AT HOME COCKROACHES BY FLASH-LIGHT BANANA SELLER UNDERGROUND TENEMENT WITH TWO BEDS TWO O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING EXTERIOR OF A NORTH END TENEMENT HOUSE WIDOW AND TWO CHILDREN IN UNDERGROUND TENEMENT THE BANK OF THE UNFORTUNATE OUT OF WORK A CHEAP LODGING-HOUSE THE "GOOD LUCK" TENEMENT HOUSE THE SAND GARDEN CHRIST CHURCH TOWER ON THE CUNARDER ON THE WAY TO THE RABBI PASSING THE QUARANTINE DOCTOR SURGICAL THEOLOGY BUILDING USED BY THE BRITISH AS A HOSPITAL VICTORIA SQUARE OAK DOOR AT ENTRANCE READING-ROOM AT FACTORY FERRIS BROTHERS' CORSET FACTORY QUARTER SECTION OF ONE OF THE WORK ROOMS THE QUEEN OF THE DUMP TRAMPS WOMEN'S HOSPITAL WARD AT LONG ISLAND GETTING A BREATH OF FRESH AIR ATTIC AT RAINSFORD ISLAND MARINERS' HOME CHILDREN PLAYING IN COPP'S HILL BURYING-GROUND DIGGING IN THE ASH-BARRELS IN WINTER FOUR SHINERS SOUTH BOSTON RAG-PICKERS
THE WHITE SLAVES OF THE BOSTON "SWEATERS".
"Hard work is good an' wholesome, past all doubt; But 'tain't so, ef the mind gits tuckered out."
—JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL: Biglow Papers.
A wise man of the old time, after a tour of observation, came home to say, "So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such, as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter." If this report had been written by one who had been climbing with me through the tenement houses of not less than a score of Boston streets, conversing with the sewing-women, looking on their poverty-lined faces and their ragged children, breathing the poisonous air of the quarters where they work, and listening to their heart-rending stories of cruelty and oppression, it would be an appropriate summary of our observation. It is my purpose, at this time, to take you with me on a tour of observation. As well-lighted streets are better than policemen to insure safety and good order, so I believe that the best possible service I can render the public is to turn on the light, and tell, as plainly and simply as I can, the story of what I have seen and heard and smelled in the white slave-quarters, which are a disgrace to our fair city. I shall confine myself at this time entirely to the work of women and children in their own homes. Most of this work is parcelled out to them by middlemen who are known as "sweaters." That word sweater is not in the old dictionaries. It is a foul word, born of the greed and infernal lust for gold which pervade the most reckless and wicked financial circles of our time. The sweater takes large contracts and divides it out among the very poor, reducing the price to starvation limits, and reserving the profits for himself.
Some of the women whose story I shall tell do not work for sweaters, but are treated almost as badly by the powerful and wealthy firms who employ them. In these cases the firm itself has learned the sweater's secret, and through an agent of its own is sweating the life-blood out of these half-starved victims.
Let us begin near at home with a South Boston case, which came to my notice through the dispensary doctor for the district. It is a widow with one child—a little boy scarcely three years old. The child is just recovering from a troublesome sickness, through which the doctor became acquainted with her. She has been sewing for a good while for one of the largest and most respectable dry-goods houses on Washington Street—a firm whose name is a household word throughout New England. Her sewing has been confined to two lines—cloaks and aprons. For some time she has been making white aprons—a good long apron, requiring a yard, perhaps, of material; it is hemmed across the bottom and on both sides, the band or "apron string" is hemmed on both sides, and then sewed on to the apron, making six long seams. For these she is paid fifteen cents a dozen! And besides that, this great, rich firm, whose members are rolling in wealth and luxury, charges this poor widow fifteen cents expressage on her package of ten dozen aprons, so that for making one hundred and twenty aprons, such as I have described, she receives, net, one hundred and thirty-five cents! If she works from seven o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night, she can make four dozen; but, with the care of her child, she is unable to average more than three dozen, for which, after the expressage is taken out, she receives forty cents a day for the support of herself and child.
Her rent for the one little room is one dollar per week. It is idle to say that this firm is compelled to do this by competition, for the material and making of these aprons cost less than ten cents, and the firm retails them ordinarily at twenty-five cents apiece. On cloaks she did better, receiving from fifty to seventy-five cents apiece, she furnishing her own sewing-silk and cotton. On these she could make, by working from seven A.M. till eleven P.M., nearly a dollar a day, but she could never get more than six cloaks a week, so that the income for the week was about the same.
Now come with me a little farther around the harbor. Let us climb up three flights, to a little attic suite of two rooms, so low at the side that, with my length of anatomy, I have to keep well to the middle of the room in order to stand upright. Here live a Portuguese mother and five children, the oldest thirteen, the youngest not yet three, a poor, deformed, little thing that has consumption of the bowels, brought on by scanty and irregular food. Its tiny legs are scarcely thicker than my thumb, and you cannot look at its patient, wasted, little face, that looks old enough to have endured twenty-five years of misery, instead of three, without the heartache. I ask the mother how she earns her living, and she points to a package that has just come in. Picking it up, and untying the strings, I find there six pairs of pants, cut out and basted up, ready for making. Looking at the card, we are astonished to find that it bears the name of one of the largest firms in the city of Boston, a firm known, perhaps, as widely as any. Three pairs of these pants are custom-made; they are fashionable summer trousers, with the names and addresses of the men for whom they are made tacked on them. The other three pairs are stamped with "New York" as customer, from which we infer that they are made for a New York house, the Boston firm acting as sweater. This woman and her little children must finish these pants by the same hour to-morrow, when the messenger from the store will bring a new lot and take these away. She receives ten cents a pair—three pairs being custom-made pants! In order to finish the six pairs in the twenty-four hours, she must get to work at six in the morning, and improve every available moment until eleven or twelve in the evening, and sometimes, if the sick child is fretful, until one o'clock in the morning. Her wages for this tremendous strain that is wearing her very life away, until she looks almost as frail as her dying child, is sixty cents! Her rent for these two small attic pockets is one dollar and fifty cents per week. She has one bed for herself and five children. Only through the aid of the Boston Baptist Bethel is she able to keep up the struggle. And yet, O my brothers! this is in sight of the old North Church, and the tower where they hung the lanterns for a signal to Paul Revere, when he rode through the darkness to arouse the Fathers to fight against oppression. God help us to hang another light for liberty in the midst of this cruel slavery!
Perhaps you are tired now, and want to rest, but I am insatiable, and will go on. Let me give you the record of six families found in the same tenement.
Family No. 1. They are Italians. The wife and mother is finishing cheap overcoats at four cents apiece. She can finish from eight to ten in a day. She has two finer coats, lined with handsome satin; of these she can complete only five a day, and receives eight cents apiece. There are three in the family, and they pay a dollar and a half per week for their one room. I asked about the husband, and a neighbor woman from the next room remarked contemptuously, "He is no good."
No. 2. These are Poles. The woman makes knee pants of grammar-schoolboy size; she receives sixteen cents a dozen pairs. Two dozen are as many as she ever gets done in a day.
No. 3. They are Italians here, and are at work on knee pants. This woman receives sixteen cents a dozen pairs for most of them, but for some extra nice ones she gets eighteen cents a dozen. She has two dozen brought to her from the sweater's shop every day about two o'clock. She works from two in the afternoon until ten at night, and from six in the morning until noon the next day, to complete her allowance, for which she receives from thirty-two to thirty-six cents. The rent is a dollar and seventy-five cents per week; she has two children.
No. 4. This woman makes men's pants at twelve cents a pair. Formerly, when she was stronger, she could drive herself through six pairs a day; but now, with a little babe to look after, she can get only four pairs done. The room is intolerably dirty; but how can you have the heart to blame her?
No. 5. Polish Jews. The woman makes knee pants, working from seven in the morning till ten o'clock at night, and nets from twenty-seven to forty-four cents a day.
No. 6. Italians. This woman is an expert seamstress. She is finishing men's coats at six cents apiece; and with nothing to bother her, working sixteen hours a day, she makes fifty-four cents. The rent for the narrow little back room is one dollar and thirty-five cents per week.
If you want variety, we will climb four flights of stairs, with half the plastering knocked off the walls, and talk with an English woman. She is working on fine cloth pants; she gets thirteen cents a pair; by working till very late in the evening, she can complete four pairs a day, and thinks it would be almost a paradise if she could make her fifty-two cents every day; but it is one of the characteristics of a sweater to systematically keep all his people hungry for work, and she seldom is able to get more than twelve pairs a week. She lives alone in a little sweat-box under the roof, for which she pays a dollar and a quarter per week.
Not far away, up two flights, we find a Portuguese widow, with four little girls, the eldest fifteen, the next thirteen, and the younger ones three and six, respectively; they are all dwarfed by hardship and insufficient food, so that the one who is fifteen is not larger than an average girl of twelve. The mother is sick, and the girls are trying to keep the wolf from the door by carrying on the sewing. They are all hard at work; they carry the pants back and forth themselves, and so for the most of their work receive twelve cents, though for some they get only ten cents a pair. They have only two little rooms with the most meagre furniture; the rent is one dollar and a half per week, and the sick mother and four girls huddle together in the one bed at night. They are pretty, bright-faced, intelligent girls, and with a fair chance would grow into strong, noble women; but one shudders when he takes into consideration the fearful odds against which they will have to struggle in this poverty-stricken, crime-cursed alley.
Here is another case of a similar description only a few blocks away. We go up three narrow flights, steep and dark, for space is as important in a low-class Boston tenement house as in a sardine box. The stairway is slippery from filth on the last flight, for on a small bench at the top, in a dry-goods box, a little boy is raising squabs for the market, and the pigeon business, however much it may help to pay the rent, is not conducive to cleanliness. We find here a suite of three little rooms, the largest of which is not more than 10x10; the others are much smaller. In these three little pigeon boxes eight people live, at least sleep—five men and boys, and a mother and two girls. The men are off most of the day, and work at such jobs as they find; the mother and little girls make pants for another leading Boston clothing house. The two little girls, the younger only three years, are both overcasting seams. The three make on an average sixteen pairs of pants a week, for which they get thirteen cents a pair; the young pigeon fancier, already spoken of, carrying the goods to and fro. The rent of these crowded quarters is two dollars and a quarter per week. In the same building, down-stairs, we went into a room which could not have been more than 10x12, where an American woman, with seven young women helping her, was at work dressmaking. We could not discover whether they were working for the stores or not, but the air was poisonous, and the workers had that deadly pallor which comes from habitually breathing bad air and from lack of sufficient food.
Sickness, to be dreaded anywhere, is especially pitiful among these sweaters' slaves in the city. In the country the fresh air, fragrant with the breath of new-mown hay, or sweetened from ten thousand clover blossoms, is free to the poorest, but to be sick in a tenement house is something terrible. Yet crowded quarters, poisonous air, and filthy clothing make sickness a common guest in such places. I climbed one day up two flights into a dirty little room, the smell of which was sickening to me in three minutes, and yet there I found a man on a little cot (that had been given by the charitable missionary who guided me) who has been lying there for more than three years. For two years and more he had not even a cot, but lay on the floor in his dirt and pain. There are two children, too young to be of much assistance; the wife and mother sews, finishing pants for a rich Washington Street firm. She gets twelve, and sometimes, on fine, custom-made pants, thirteen cents a pair. She has worked so hard and continuously on poor food and with insufficient clothing, that rheumatism has settled in the joints of her fingers and stiffened them, till she is only able to turn off nine or ten pairs a week. Last week she could only make a dollar and fifteen cents; the rent was a dollar and a quarter. They have absolutely none of the ordinary comforts of life; the sick man has no sheets for his cot, and the rheumatic mother sleeps with her children on the floor.
Down-stairs, we look in on a mother and two grown daughters who are finishing pants for another fashionable firm, one which does a large business with clergymen. They are paid thirteen cents a pair, ordinarily, and for the very finest custom-made pants they receive as high as twenty cents, but complain, as it takes so much longer with the fine pants, that from two to three pairs is as much as one woman can complete in a day. There is a helpless air about this mother and her daughters that is very depressing.
There has been quite a controversy recently as to where the new United States postal uniforms for the Boston carriers were made. I settled this question to my own satisfaction during the past week, when, in company with Dr. Luther T. Townsend, of Boston University, and two other gentlemen, one of them being an Italian interpreter, I climbed the rickety stairs of an old North End tenement house, and found the pants for these same uniforms being made by Italian women at nine and a half cents a pair! They received them from a Jewish sweater. One of these women says that, by beginning at four o'clock in the morning and frequently working until twelve o'clock at night, she can make six pairs of these pants in a day. She has five children; the rent is two dollars per week. The husband has been out of work for eight months; the only one of the children who is able to earn anything is a boy who is a bootblack, and can earn, in fine weather, three dollars a week. Another woman at work on these postal uniforms, who was not able to labor quite such long hours, could only make four pairs a day. She also had five children, the only one able to earn anything being a daughter, fourteen years of age, who works in a sweater's shop for two dollars a week.
On the walls of the rooms in this building where the postal uniforms were being made, the cockroaches were crawling, and in some places were swarming as thick as ants about an anthill.
I have my note-books full of many other cases, including Portuguese, Italian, English, Polish, and a few Irish and American women, of the same general character as those already related; but a similar wicked scale of prices runs through the making of other clothing. I called on a woman in South Boston last week who was making overalls for a city firm at sixty cents a dozen pairs. They are the large variety of overalls, such as expressmen and such workers use, with straps going over the shoulders. I took a tape-line and carefully measured the sewing on one pair of these overalls. When they come to the seamstress, there has not been a stitch taken in them—they are simply cut out. There are thirty separate and distinct seams to be sewed, making in the aggregate thirty-two and a half feet of sewing, for which she receives the gross amount of five cents, out of which she has to pay the carrying to and fro. If she goes after them herself, she can bring only two dozen at a time, which will cost her ten cents car-fare, going and coming. When sent by express in a package of five or six dozen—the number she is able to make in a week—she is charged fifteen cents expressage each way, so that the expressage eats up the making of six pairs. In addition to this, the stiff cloth is very hard on machine needles, and she will break about ten cents worth per week. This woman's story is a sad one. Her husband, who was a strong, hard-working man, fell ill through an over-strain, and died after fifteen months' sickness, two months ago. She has three little children, the oldest four years and the youngest a little over a year. Work as hard as she can, driving her machine until late into the night, she is able to make only five dozen pairs of overalls a week, which, when expressage and breakage of needles are taken out, leaves her two dollars and sixty-five cents. The rent is a dollar and a half, which leaves one dollar and fifteen cents for the food and clothing of a mother and three children. Of course she cannot live on that, and would starve to death if she were not assisted by charity. And yet there is a firm doing business in South Boston mean enough to take advantage of the fact that people living in this part of the city are compelled to pay car-fare or expressage on work secured in the city proper, and so has reduced the price for work given out in South Boston to fifty cents a dozen pairs.
I talked with another young woman, who has made overalls for both these firms, and has been compelled to give it up through sickness brought on from the confinement and strained position of sitting so many hours a day over a sewing-machine. This poor girl told me that both of these firms were now giving a great part of this class of work to the public authorities in charge of the House of Correction, to be done by the prisoners, and that a daily stint for a woman in prison is only eight pairs. This sick, discouraged girl, in a most heart-breaking way, said she thought she would better commit some crime in order to procure a place in the House of Correction, for there she would have much better quarters, a great deal nicer food, and would only have to make eight pairs a day, while at home she must force herself to make at least a dozen pairs a day, or starve.
Fellow-citizens, what do you think of this? Is there not something wrong in a system of things that permits the authorities of the State or city to enter into competition with the sewing-women of Boston at such a cruel and heartless rate that no woman can work at it and keep out of prison, unless she is assisted by charity? This same South Boston firm gives out men's shirts to be made at sixty cents a dozen. The material for one of these shirts costs twenty-three cents, the making five cents—a total of twenty-eight cents. They retail these shirts at fifty cents apiece, making a net profit of twenty-two cents on an investment of twenty-eight cents for a few weeks' time.
During the last few weeks, as I have gone about among these women, my ears have been haunted with that old song of Thomas Hood, as appropriate now, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the city of Boston, as it ever has been anywhere, at any time, in the history of human greed.
With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread— Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt; And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang the "Song of the Shirt!"
"Work! work! work! While the cock is crowing aloof! And work—work—work, Till the stars shine through the roof! It's, oh! to be a slave Along with the barbarous Turk, Where woman has never a soul to save, If this is Christian work!
"Work—work—work Till the brain begins to swim! Work—work—work Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
* * * * *
Stitch—stitch—stitch, In poverty, hunger, and dirt,— Sewing at once, with a double thread, A shroud as well as a shirt!
"But why do I talk of death, That phantom of grisly bone? I hardly fear his terrible shape, It seems so like my own— It seems so like my own Because of the fast I keep: O God! that bread should be so dear, And flesh and blood so cheap!
"Work—work—work! My labor never flags; And what are its wages? A bed of straw, A crust of bread—and rags, That shattered roof—and this naked floor— A table—a broken chair— And a wall so blank my shadow I thank For sometimes falling there!
"Work—work—work From weary chime to chime! Work—work—work As prisoners work for crime!"
If Thomas Hood had lived in our day, and could have gone around with me in Boston, he would have had to make it stronger yet, for among us the good, honest sewing-woman must work at least one-third harder than the "prisoners work for crime." And on such wages the prayer with which he continues must be forever unanswered:—
"Oh! but to breathe the breath Of the cowslip and primrose sweet— With, the sky above my head, And the grass beneath my feet! For only one short hour To feel as I used to feel, Before I knew the woes of want, And the walk that costs a meal!
"Oh! but for one short hour,— A respite, however brief! No blessed leisure for love or hope, But only time for grief! A little weeping would ease my heart; But in their briny bed My tears must stop, for every drop Hinders needle and thread!"
With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread— Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt; And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,— Would that its voice could reach the rich!— She sang this "Song of the Shirt."
LETTER OF CRITICISM.
"Slavery ain't o' nary color, 'Tain't the hide that makes it wus, All it keers fer in a feller 'S jest to make him fill its pus."
—JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL: Biglow Papers.
BOSTON, June 29, 1891.
REV. Louis ALBERT BANKS, St. John's M. E. Church, South Boston, Mass.
Dear Sir:—In the sermon which you preached yesterday, the title, as given in the newspapers, is "The White Slaves of Boston Sweaters." Under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States there can be no such thing as "slave" in this country. Under the decision of Judge Parsons there has not been a slave in Massachusetts since the adoption of the Constitution. I therefore venture to ask you some questions.
1. How do you justify the term "white slave" when applied to the persons whose condition you describe?
2. "Climb three flights to an attic suite of two rooms, and there one would find a mother and five children" doubtless in very bad condition; the mother trying to support them; the tenement doubtless very bad. Suppose we condemn the tenement,—pull it down,—then these people would have no roof over their heads. Is no roof better than some kind of a roof? Suppose we refuse to trust her to make pants? Is no work better than some work?
3. The mother earns her living, or part of it, by making "pants." Pants made in this way are sold at a very low price at retail, after being subjected to the cost of distribution in the customary way. There is great competition in this business. That competition leads every employer to pay the highest wages that can be recovered from the sale of the pants, also allowing the sweater's charge. If the cost of making is advanced on this class of pants, they cannot be sold at all; then there would be no sweater, and the woman would get no work. Is no work better than some work?
4. The sweater deals as a middleman with the manufacturer and the worker. If he did not deal with this kind of work, it would cost the manufacturer more to reach the worker than it does now; no sweater would be employed if he did not earn what he makes; then the manufacturer, or clothier, could pay less for making the pants, because he now pays all that the trade will bear. If it cost him more to reach the worker, he must pay less. Suppose we abolish the sweater, or middleman, then he would not distribute the work, and there would be no work. Is that better than some work?
5. Suppose this woman had not come here with her children and had stayed, perhaps, in Italy or in Russia, instead of coming here. Is some work here better than no work in Italy?
6. If the mother cannot support the children,—being now in this country without having been sent back,—she is entitled to go with her children to the almshouse, where suitable shelter, clean rooms, and good food would be provided. Is it better for her to try to support her children under existing conditions than to go to the almshouse?
7. There is an ample supply of money available for purposes of true charity. Does not true charity consist in refusing to give alms to those who can or may support themselves? Is it better to give alms to those people in their attic, or to give alms to them under the conditions of the almshouse? Which course would be most sure to pauperize them utterly?
8. The use of the term "slave" implies a slave-owner and a slave-driver. In this series of (1) the manufacturer, (2) the sweater or middleman, and (3) the working-woman with her children, which is the slave-owner and which is the slave-driver? Under what authority does the slave-master force this woman to render her labor for all that it is worth?
9. If her work is worth more than she gets, can she not get it?
A little inquiry into the condition of the clothing trade, and some examination of the fact, might disclose to you that the poor sewing-woman is poor because she sews poorly, and that there is always a scarcity of skilful and intelligent sewing-women, at full wages.
My final question is, how do you propose to help those who are incapable of helping themselves, without pauperizing them yet more than they are pauperized under their present conditions? What will you do when you have destroyed the house and done away with the sweater?
Are you justified, as a Christian minister, in creating a prejudice and arousing malignant passion by the use of the term "slave?" Can you defend or justify this term, under the conditions that are reported, as they are stated in the printed report of your sermon?
I venture to put these questions to you because I think that the dangerous class in this community is to be found among persons who, without intelligence, create animosity, and by their method of preaching tend to retard rather than to promote the progress of the poor and ignorant in this country.
Very sincerely yours, *****
REPLY TO A CRITICISM ON "THE WHITE SLAVES OF BOSTON SWEATERS".
"Freedom's secret wilt thou know?— Counsel not with flesh and blood; Loiter not for cloak or food; Eight thou feelest, rush to do."
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON: Freedom.
Among the scores of thankful letters which I have received, commenting on the discourse on "The White Slaves of the Boston Sweaters," there is one of an entirety different character, written by a distinguished writer on social questions, a gentleman for whom I have always entertained the highest respect. I should be very glad to give the name of the author of this letter; but as it is marked "personal," I cannot, in honor, do so.
This letter so clearly and unswervingly outlines and defends the extreme conservative side of this question, that I feel I cannot do a better service to the cause of the "sweater's victim" than to answer it in this public way. My critic begins by assailing the title of the discourse. He says: "In the sermon which you preached yesterday, the title as given in the newspapers is 'The White Slaves of the Boston Sweaters.' Under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, there can be no such thing as 'slave' in this country. Under the decision of Judge Parsons there has not been a slave in Massachusetts since the adoption of the Constitution." Wonderful Judge Parsons! who is able, by the magic wand of his decision, to unshackle all the slaves who, under the cruel whip of necessity,—more unmerciful than any slave-driver's lash,—have sweated under the burdens imposed by avaricious task-masters in every city of the commonwealth.
Can you make men free by constitution simply? Are there no slaves except those who, like the African thirty years ago, are bought and sold at the auction block? Ay, indeed! for every black man liberated by President Lincoln's proclamation, there is, to-day, a white man robbed and degraded and brutalized by some gigantic trust or other equally soulless, unfeeling, corporate power.
For every mother whose heart was broken by having her children wrenched from her arms in the African slave-market, there is a white mother, whose very soul is crushed at the sight of her hungry, ragged, little ones. For every black babe torn from its mother's breast by the iniquitous system of negro slavery, the slums of our great cities have a white child, whose future is equally dark and hopeless.
My critic's first question is, "How do you justify the term 'white slave' when applied to the persons whose condition you describe?" My answer is very simple. If a widow with little children to care for, who cannot go out to do other kinds of work, and is compelled to work eighteen hours a day for fifty cents, and dares not give this up for fear of starvation to her children, is not a slave, then will somebody tell me what element is lacking to make slavery?
The second question is as follows: "'Climb three flights to an attic suite of two rooms, and there one would find a mother and five children,' doubtless in very bad condition; the mother trying to support them; the tenement doubtless very bad. Suppose we condemn the tenement,—pull it down,—then these people will have no roof over their heads. Is no roof better than some kind of a roof? Suppose we refuse to trust her to make pants—is no work better than some work?"
To the first part of this question, relating to the roof of this bad tenement house, I answer frankly: Yes, no roof is better. This poor woman, working at starvation-wages, is furnishing from twelve to twenty per cent interest on the money invested in this miserable old rookery, whose heartless landlord, like the unjust judge of the Gospels, fears not God and regards not man. If we condemn this disease-breeding death-trap, it will not be a question of this woman having "no roof" over her head, but she may have a decent roof, with healthful, sanitary regulations, at a less rent than she now pays, and still pay an honest interest on the investment to the landlord. As to the second part of the question, "Is no work better than some work?" that is not a fair putting of the question. Our modern Christian civilization does not dare to put it that way. It is not a question of no work, or some work. We must furnish this woman some work, at such, just and rightful wages as shall give her and her children bread to eat and raiment to put on, and a decent, though it be humble, roof over their heads.
We pass to our critic's third question: "The mother earns her living, or a part of it, by making 'pants.' Pants made in this way are sold at a very low price at retail, after being subjected to the cost of distribution in the customary way. There is great competition in this business. That competition leads every employer to pay the highest wages that can be recovered from the sale of the pants, also allowing the sweater's charge. If the cost of making is advanced on this class of pants, they cannot be sold at all; then there would be no sweater, and the woman would get no work. Is no work better than some work?" The trouble with a great deal of this is, that it is incorrect both in its premise and in its reasoning. It is indeed true that there is great competition in the clothing business, but it is not true that the result of this competition leads every employer to pay the highest wages that can be recovered from the sale of the pants. It is also a remarkable statement to make, that if the cost is advanced, then there will be no more pants made. Can my critic really believe that the whole of mankind would suddenly go "pantless" if the price for making them were raised to a point where the sewing-woman could make a decent living? It is also a curious statement to make that "If there were no sweater, the woman would get no work." The sweater is a comparatively recent institution, and I devoutly believe an institution of the devil. Before the sweater came to be a factor in the situation, the woman had work, and better pay than she now receives. The incoming of the sweater has not resulted in more work, but in less wages.
If my critic will take the trouble to examine the testimony given before the committee appointed by the English House of Lords, which may be found in the Public Library, he will see that it is the universal testimony of hundreds of witnesses that the sweater is an unnecessary factor in the manufacturing trades, and that in every department of the labor world where the sweating system has been introduced, the wages of the laborer have been reduced from forty to seventy per cent.
The fourth question is similar to the third: "The sweater deals as a middleman with the manufacturer and the worker. If he did not deal with this kind of work, it would cost the manufacturer more to reach the worker than it does now. No sweater would be employed if he did not earn what he makes. Then the manufacturer, or clothier, could pay less for making the pants, because he now pays all the trade will bear. If it cost him more to reach the worker, he must pay less. Suppose we abolish the sweater, or middleman, then he would not distribute the work, and there would be no work. Is that better than some work?"
I have already answered this question in part. It is not correct that it would cost the manufacturer more to reach the worker without the sweater than with him. It is also ridiculous to suppose that if the sweater were abolished there would be no work. The demand for clothing would be just the same without the sweater as with him. Besides that, everything that takes the employer away from the people who do his work, and removes him from contact with them, is a bad thing, and always bodes ill to any harmonious relation between capital and labor. I am satisfied that there are proprietors in Boston firms, who, if they could go around with me, and see, as I have seen, the poverty and suffering of the sweaters' slaves who are making up their goods, would revolt against the whole system. It is only the sweater who comes in contact with these people, and the sweater is, as a rule, greedy and avaricious, and hardened against all humane feeling.
We pass to the fifth question: "Suppose this woman had not come here with her children, and had stayed, perhaps, in Italy or in Russia, instead of coming here. Is some work here better than no work in Italy?" Very likely it is true that the woman is as well off here as she would be in Italy. But is Italy to be the standard of our American civilization? I stood on a bridge over the Tiber, fronting the famous castle of St. Angelo in Rome, on a hot Sunday morning in July, and watched a company of people on a barge who were driving piles in the river. There were about eighty men and women, the sexes about equally divided, pulling and tugging away, in the hot sun, at ropes and pulleys, in order to lift the heavy iron hammer and drop it on the head of the piling. In Boston there would have been a little donkey engine, and one or two men to look after it all the crew that would have been needed. Shall we go back to Italy for a model? Furthermore, this Italian woman is setting up a standard of life for all laboring women. It is not enough to say she is as well off here as in Italy. We cannot afford to permit the establishing of little Italian centres throughout the Republic, with which every American laborer in the land must enter into competition. No matter where people came from, nor what they have suffered in their native land, if we permit them to come to us, we are compelled, in sheer self-defence, to see that they are treated fairly and justly, and receive a sufficient compensation for their toil to support them in cleanliness, intelligence, and morality.
Question six raises a different problem: "If the mother cannot support the children,—being now in this country, without having been sent back,—she is entitled to go with her children to the almshouse, where suitable shelter, clean rooms, and good food will be provided. Is it better for her to try to support her children, under existing conditions, than to go to the almshouse?" It is, of course, better for the woman to try to support her children. The almshouse is for the sick and helplessly infirm; Such may go there in all honor, without disgrace. I doubt not there are men in the almshouse who have done more service to humanity than many others who die amid luxury and wealth. But nothing can be more vicious than to speak of people who are able and willing to work as candidates for the almshouse, because the cruel oppression in their wages makes it impossible for them to support themselves. It is not charity these people need or want; it is justice. True, Christ said, "The poor ye have always with you," and it is probable that we shall always need to support by charity the crippled, the insane, and the unfortunate, but it is a certain indication of rottenness in any civilization that makes charity necessary for a man or woman who is able and willing to work.
The seventh question continues this same thought with variations: "There is an ample supply of money available for purposes of true charity. Does not true charity consist in refusing to give alms to those who can, or may, support themselves? Is it better to give alms to these people, in their attic, or to give alms to them under the conditions of the almshouse? What course would be most sure to pauperize them utterly?" For once, my critic and myself are in agreement. I believe it is better for one to partly support himself than not to do anything towards it. Nothing is more demoralizing to any one than to become accustomed to receive charity. But, after all, you may pauperize people almost as rapidly in the attic as in the almshouse. It is against the whole system that I make war. I do not admit, for a moment, that it is necessary for the sewing-woman to receive such wages as to compel her starvation, unless alms be given to her in her attic.
In the discourse which is thus criticised. I showed plainly that the aprons for which the seamstress received, net, one cent for making, returned a profit of fifteen cents, on an investment of ten cents by her employer. Now, I do not admit that the rigors of competition are so great that it compels this manufacturer to make one hundred and fifty per cent profit while this woman toils sixteen hours a day to make forty-five cents.
I showed that the women who make shirts made only fifty cents a day, and yet the proprietor made on every shirt twenty-two cents profit on an investment of twenty-eight cents. I do not admit that competition is so stern that it is necessary for this shirt manufacturer to make seventy-eight per cent profit while the woman who works for him must beg assistance of the Provident Association, or see her children cry for bread.
Or, take the case of the poor girl, whose mother finishes pants for the postal uniforms at nine and one-half cents a pair, slaving eighteen hours for fifty-seven cents; and she, the daughter, toils all day long, in the midst of the physical and moral stench of a Jewish sweater's shop, for sixteen and two-thirds cents. But she is better off than the orphan girl that works beside her, whose condition some poet has described:—
"Left there, nobody's daughter, Child of disgrace and shame, Nobody ever taught her A mother's sweet saving name.
Nobody ever caring Whether she stood or fell, And men (are they men?) ensnaring With the arts and the gold of hell!
Stitching with ceaseless labor To earn her pitiful bread; Begging a crust of a neighbor, And getting a curse instead!
All through the long, hot summer, All through the cold, dark time, With fingers that numb and number Grow, white as the frost's white rime.
Nobody ever conceiving The throb of that warm, young life, Nobody ever believing The strain of that terrible strife!
Nobody kind words pouring In that orphan heart's sad ear; But all of us all ignoring, What lies at our door so near!"
There is nothing wholesome in the question whether it is better to pauperize people a little in the attic, or to pauperize them altogether in the almshouse. We ought not to pauperize them at all. A noble Christian woman, who has a young men's Bible class in the North End, and who by her womanly tact and Christian sympathy has gained the confidence of some of the most hopeless cases in that section, told me that one of these boys said to her, "When the Back Bay folks know that we are made of flesh and blood, they won't pauperize us any longer."
The eighth question returns in some of its aspects to the first: "The use of the term 'slave' implies a slave-owner and a slave-driver. In this series of the manufacturer, the sweater or middleman, and the working-woman with her children, which is the slave-owner, and which is the slave-driver? Under what authority does the slave-master force this woman to render her labor for all that it is worth?" Answering the last part of the question first, I have already shown that the woman does not get all that her work is worth. The manufacturer, who makes from seventy-eight to a hundred and fifty per cent profit, gets a far larger proportion of the profits than rightly belongs to him.
Under the sweating system, the sweater is, most emphatically, both the slave-master and slave-driver; and no Georgia overseer was ever more cruel than some of these sweater taskmasters in Boston to-day.
Even at the wretched wages they pay, they will not give any of their workers all the work they can do; they dole out the work to them, trying to make them think it is very scarce. If they ask for higher pay, they are met at once with a threat of discharge. Do you ask why they do not hunt for something better? What can a poor, half-broken-down mother, with three little babies, do hunting work? Who will pay the rent, furnish them food, and care for the children while she makes her search? There are thousands of laboring people, both men and women, in all our great cities, who are in the same condition that a majority of the Israelites were when Moses came to them, and told the marvellous story of his talk with Jehovah, and painted before their dim eyes the picture of the Canaan, and recounted to their dull ears the promise of their deliverance from bondage. Pathetic, indeed, is the record, "They hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit and for cruel bondage." It is idle to talk, as so many newspapers as well as private individuals do, as though domestic service were the cure-all for these half-starving, under-paid women. A great majority of the women who are slaves to these sweaters, have families of little children depending on them, that are as dear to their hearts as are the children of more fortunate mothers to them. Dr. Barnardo, of London, who has had a most extensive experience among the poor, tells of a poor woman, with a husband lying disabled in the hospital, earning her living by charing and odd jobs, while she herself was receiving out-door hospital relief for physical debility. Driven at last to accept assistance from the relieving officer, she hastened home, placed the bread and meat on a table, and fell dead of exhaustion. Dr. Barnardo was sent for, and beside the dead body of the mother he was surprised, as well he might be, to find five well-fed, chubby children. The poor, slum mother had literally starved herself to death that her children might live! Truly, as Coleridge says, "A mother is the holiest thing alive;" and God never intended that the almshouse or the orphan asylum should be the only refuge held open for a mother who is able and willing to work to support her children.
In the ninth question our critic says: "If her work is worth more than she gets, can she not get it? A little inquiry into the condition of the clothing trade and some examination of the facts might disclose to you that the poor sewing-woman is poor because she sews poorly, and that there is always a scarcity of skilful and intelligent sewing-women, at full wages." The more thorough my examination into the facts of the case, the more I am convinced that the sweating system is demoralizing the entire clothing trade, as it will every trade it touches. Whether the woman sews poorly or not, she does not, in any class she may be placed, receive the wages to which she is entitled.
The conclusion of my critic's letter is, I think, as remarkable as anything in it. He says: "My final question is, how do you propose to help those who are incapable of helping themselves, without pauperizing them yet more than they are pauperized under their present conditions? What will you do when you have destroyed the house and done away with the sweater?" To this part of the concluding question I simply say, I will be a Christian, and pay honest wages for honest work. But the critic continues: "Are you justified, as a Christian minister, in creating prejudice and arousing malignant passion by the use of the term 'slave?' Can you defend or justify this term under the conditions as they are stated in the printed report of your sermon? I venture to put these questions to you because I think that the dangerous class in this community is to be found among persons who, without intelligence, create animosity and, by their method of preaching, tend to retard rather than to promote the progress of the poor and ignorant in this country." My answer to all that is, that, as a Christian minister, I am a follower of Him, who, standing in the midst of the self-satisfied and wealthy oppressors of His times, exclaimed, "Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God." And who, standing in the audience of all the people, said unto His disciples, "Beware of the Scribes which devour widows' houses, and for a show make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation;" who, standing in the presence of the lawyers, cried aloud, "Woe unto you, also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers." I am a follower of Him who came "not to send peace on the earth, but a sword." All an infernal system of oppression, like the sweating system, asks, is to be let alone. To uncover its atrocities is like turning over a huge stone in the meadow in springtime, that has been a hiding-place for bugs and worms that nest away in the dark. As soon as the hot, searching sunlight finds them, they will wriggle and squirm in agony until they can crawl under cover again. So I do not wonder that, when the hideous cruelty of the tenement-house sweat-shop is brought to light, the sweater and all his friends wriggle and squirm in an agony of fright and shame. Neither am I alarmed that this critic, as a type of conservatism, regards me as a member of the most dangerous class in the community. It was ever thus. The old antislavery agitators were considered the most dangerous men in the republic, and I remember that a very distinguished minister once bitterly regretted the agitation on the evils of slavery, because he feared it would destroy the prospect for a revival of religion in the city where he lived.
If to be a Christian minister is to stand as a policeman to hold back the righteous indignation of the robbed and degraded laborer, or preach patience and contentment to empty stomachs,—empty that the sweater may grow rich and fat on the toil of orphans and widows,—then I spurn the title as beneath the dignity of my manhood; but if, as I take it, to be a Christian minister is to be like my Master, the brother of all men, rich or poor, standing forever as the unflinching enemy of oppression and injustice wherever found, as the friend and advocate of the defenceless and the weak, then I am proud of the title, and thank God for its unspeakable privilege.
THE PLAGUE OF THE SWEAT-SHOP.
"Can the heart be deformed, and contract incurable ugliness and infirmity under the pressure of disproportionate misfortune, like the spine beneath too low a vault?"
—VICTOR HUGO: Les Miserables.
The Klamath Lake Indians in Oregon have a strange and weird fashion of mourning their dead. They dig a hole in the ground, and roof it over with willows, which they cover with dirt, forming a sort of underground cabin. In case of death in the family, the relatives go into this dug-out, which is called a "sweat-lodge," and heated rocks are brought in and heaped in the centre of the lodge, and water sprinkled over them, so as to fill the room with steam. In the midst of this steam-heated, poisonous air the family hover around their heap of rocks, and sweat for days at a time, in memory of their departed friends.
When the mourning days are over, they heap up into a cairn beside the sweat-lodge the stones that have been used, as a monument to their dead.
But that, after all, is only a brief torture which is soon over, and is constantly lightened by the hope of relief. The sweat-lodge of our modern civilization is a much more serious matter. The tortured victims who are suffering there, are not mourning for their dead friends, but for the living, and in the dark night of their sorrow there is no promise of a brighter dawn.
The word "sweater" derives its origin from the Anglo-Saxon word swat, and means the separation or extraction of labor or toil from others, for one's own benefit. Any person who employs others to extract from them surplus labor without compensation, is a sweater. A middleman-sweater is a person who acts as a contractor of such labor for another man. The position becomes aggravated when the middleman-sweater, as is usually the case in the modern sweat-shop, employs the labor himself, at his own house, for the purpose of extracting a double quantity of labor, either by lowering wages or working longer hours.
An English writer gives this definition of the sweating system: "One whereby the middleman tries to get the largest profit, with the least labor and outlay, out of the maximum labor of his workers." Another gives three definitions: "First, one who grinds the face of the poor; second, a man who contributes neither capital, skill, nor speculation, and yet gets a profit; third, a middleman." Still another describes it as a systematized payment of unfair wages. Away back in the days of Queen Anne the term "sweater" was given to a certain class of street ruffian. The sweaters went about in small bands, and, forming a circle around an inoffensive wayfarer, pricked him with their swords, and compelled him to dance till he perspired from the exertion. The sweater is still a ruffian, though the street is no longer the scene of action, but, in some attic or tenement-house bedroom, he gathers his victims from the poorest and most helpless of our population.
It is my purpose, first of all this morning, to show you something of the growth and development of the sweat-shop in England. It is reasonable for us to suppose that, if left to itself, it will produce the same general results in this country that it has there. Fortunately we have an abundance of data upon which to form our conclusions.
There are in the Boston Public Library five ponderous volumes containing the evidence taken before a commission, appointed by the English House of Lords, to examine into the sweating system of Great Britain.
I think it is well for American laboring-men to know that this evidence puts beyond question the fact that the sweating business, while it may begin with the clothing trade, by no means ends there. "The plague of the sweatshop" is not something of interest to the tailors and sewing-women only, but is of equal importance to workers of every class. Take the matchbox trade; before the sweating days, the people who worked at it received two and three-fourths pence a gross. Now the large contractors let and sub-let until it is only one and a half pence a gross, and a woman and a family of children have to work all the week to make four or five shillings.
The fur trade in Europe has been largely driven into Whitechapel sweaters' shops. They call the sweater in this business a "chamber master," and in these foul chambers, in the midst of "bad smells, great heat, no ventilation, and fetid refuse," men and women swelter and die, the men getting ten shillings, and the women about five shillings a week.
The cabinet and upholstery trade is not exempt. Sub-contracting here, as in clothing, is the first step in sweating. The evidence shows that sweating began in this business as early as 1855, but has rapidly increased under pauper immigration from Italy and Russia since 1880. Much of the work is crowded into garrets and cellars, where there are no sanitary arrangements. So universally is this so, that the sweater in this business is called a "garret master." Wages have been brought down, from forty to fifty shillings a week, to from eighteen to twenty shillings.
The boot and shoe trade has had the same history. Large numbers of foreigners are employed in this work. The workers are kept in ignorance of the language and under surveillance, so as to be taken advantage of. They are not instructed in the more skilled work, and, to use the words of one of the witnesses, "are too crushed to resist." They are compelled to work from eighteen to twenty hours a day. Wages in these sweat-shops are from ten to fifteen shillings a week.
In Sheffield, the great cutlery manufacturing city, the same system is prevailing, and a woman whose business was awl-blade grinding, a strong woman of forty-five years of age, testified that she could only make six and a half shillings per week.
Military harness and accoutrements are also made by the sweaters. Many workmen earn only three pence an hour, and complain that they cannot live on it. The nail trade is in the same condition. A man and wife working together make thirteen shillings a week. Women's earnings average from three shillings and a half to six shillings per week.
Large numbers of women are only able to earn three shillings a week at this business. Boys and girls are paid, in a sweater's chain-shop, one-half penny per hour.
A witness from Glasgow testified in regard to the clothing shops of that city: "It is a rule among the sweaters to give the men some money, a shilling, every night, to keep them alive till the next day. Some of the men at the end of the week are actually in debt instead of having anything coming to them. When in debt, they do not, as a rule, come back, but go to another sweater. The men never actually get any wages, but are in debt from one year's end till another. All independence is taken out of the men; they are always in the sweater's power."
A witness from Leeds says: "Wages are driven to a starvation level, and workmen at piece-work compelled to excessive hours. If the employers find a good workman, who is earning good wages by piece-work, they try to reduce prices. Time work is healthier, but no one would believe how the men are driven in shops where time-work exists."
Another gentleman, testifying about his investigations in Glasgow, tells of a place he visited, where a sweater had between forty and fifty women employed in an old boiler shed, a disused part of an engineer's shop; the women had to get to it by three wooden ladders, and had to go through a joiner's shop in order to enter the workroom. There was no sanitary accommodation for these women anywhere. It is a common practice for sweaters to take on learners, that is to say, to employ young girls for a certain time to learn the machine part of the work; but they get no wages for say five or six weeks or so, or two months, and after that time, if competent, they receive two or three shillings per week. But the sweater's trick, as soon as the busy season is over, is to discharge all these girls and take on a new batch.
The practical slavery to which the laboring-people, by the sweating system, have been degraded, is illustrated on almost every page of the evidence. One witness testifies: "They do almost as they like with their victims. The people are afraid to give evidence against them. The sweater is a law unto himself. One woman I came across says she has not been paid for her work done some three years ago, on some trivial pretext which the sweater made. Another deducted a whole week's work from a woman's wages because she was ten minutes late, and so aggravated the people in the neighborhood that they smashed his windows, showing the state of things between the sweater and his people."
As one would naturally expect, moral degradation keeps pace with the outrage upon the rights of the laborer. It is claimed that the Jewesses, who have always had the most unblemished character of any women in the world, are being ruined in the sweat-shops of London, where they are herded together with all classes of men in a way which renders morality and decency next to impossible. One witness bears this terrible testimony: "The sweating system, in which you have young girls working with men of all nationalities, and of all degrees of intelligence, conduces to their being later on, and they are mostly, to my certain knowledge, prostitutes. Most of the young English girls whom we can see in the Strand and Oxford Street are, or have been, tailoresses, and the conditions conduce to that effect."
So great and wide-spread is this question of the increase of immorality in England, under the reign of the sweat-shop, that a barrister-at-law, Mr. Wm. Thompson, has written a novel entitled, "The Sweater's Victim," which has for its burden the ruin of girls through the "plague of the sweat-shop."
It is easy to say, "Oh, well, these horrible things you are telling us about belong to the Old World!" I would to God they did belong to the Old World alone, but the horrible truth is, that this vicious system is like a banyan-tree that has run its roots under the sea, and is coming up, and blossoming, and flourishing in all our great American cities. Listen to this description of the slaves of the sweat-shop in New York, given by the New York Herald: "In the lower portion of the great east side of this city, are hundreds of tall, ill-appearing tenement houses, in which thousands of half-starved, sunken-eyed men and women are crowded into small, foul, over-heated rooms, working day and night for just enough to keep body and soul together. Scattered among the workers are dirty children, and sometimes cats and dogs. Everything in these places has to stand aside for work. It is work, work, work, day and night, year in and year out. In these over-crowded rooms the air is poisoned with the heat from the stoves, the steam from the cooking, and the fumes of oil and gas. Very few of the toilers can speak English. They are the most wretched-looking, miserably-paid class of workers in America. They are foreigners, and come chiefly from Russia and Poland. No sunshine enters into their lives. Their existence is one hard, deep, grinding toil. They have no hope of brighter days to come. As they have worked for years, so they expect to work in the future. But the sweater does not care. He has his contracts with the manufacturers. Every day great bundles of clothing are dumped into these dens, and then the slaves are driven at full speed to make them up. Competition is keen, but the sweater makes money."
The Journeymen Tailors' National Union, in its fifth annual report, describes in detail one of these New York sweat-shops, similar to those which the recent commission, appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts, found to be the manufactories of enormous quantities of clothing for Boston firms: "On the first floor, which was occupied by two families, was a contractor, or 'sweater,' who made overcoats. In the front room, 8x16 ft., eight full-grown men were at work, some on sewing-machines, a man pressing, and others finishing. They were hollow-cheeked and cadaverous. Trousers and undershirts were their only apparel. In the rear room, 9x14, were six other men, almost identical in appearance with those in the front. All were working as if for dear life.
"This place was simply indescribable in its filthiness. The only household furniture discernible (for the contractor and his family lived in the rooms), were a bedstead and a child's crib in one of the two dark, so-called bedrooms. Bedding and overcoats were piled up together. The floors were four inches deep with dirt and cotton battings and scraps of linings. The ceilings and woodwork looked as though they had not seen a brush since the house was built years ago. Water from the floor above had leaked through the ceiling, but it seemed to make no difference. One stove was used by the pressers and the cook. It did not appear that there was any regular meal hour. There was a table littered with dirty dishes, morsels of food, and scraps of coats. One man was seated, eating out of a dish with his fingers, without the aid of spoon, knife, or fork. As soon as he had finished, he merely wiped his hands on some cotton batting, and proceeded with his work. The poor creatures were haggard and apparently stupid." What wonder?
Dr. George C. Stiebling, of New York, who accompanied the recent Boston investigating committee, says, in an affidavit made after a careful investigation, that the New York sweatshops "in which clothing is manufactured, and which serve at the same time as dwelling-rooms for the bosses, their families, and boarders, are overcrowded, ill-ventilated, over-heated, full of dirt, filth, vermin and stench, and that, consequently, they are in a most unwholesome, health-destroying and disease-breeding condition." The doctor, speaking of one particular case, says: "On the fourth floor I found four very small rooms, occupied by five sewing-machines, twenty-four working hands, and the family of the boss consisting of himself, wife, and five living children. The mother reported to affiant that, within the last few years, six of her children had died of various diseases here in the same place." Relying upon these and other facts, which he relates, the Doctor declares it to be his deliberate conclusion, as a medical man, that "the dust, filth, and dirt, accumulated in the 'sweating dens' he has visited and examined, contain the germs of the prevailing infectious diseases, such as diphtheria, scarlatina, measles, erysipelas, and smallpox, and that the clothing manufactured in these shops is impregnated with such germs, and consequently may transmit and spread the aforesaid diseases to persons who handle and wear it."
These places referred to in this affidavit by Dr. Stiebling, who is a wealthy and respectable medical practitioner, are places where goods are made almost exclusively for Boston houses.
Another physician of standing and repute, Dr. Markierez, who made an investigation of the sweating district, in connection with a commission from the advisory board of the operative tailors of Boston, in August, 1889, states that the section of New York City in which the tenement-house system of clothing manufacture is carried on, is filthy and infested with vermin; and he further affirms that the sanitary condition of these tenement houses is so low that the death rate is frightful and almost beyond comprehension.
That the sweating system in New York degrades the men and women employed in the sweatshops, may be inferred from the fact that men and women to the number of twelve have been found sleeping together in one of these workrooms. The tenement-house factories are so crowded that no such thing as privacy or modesty, on the part of men or women, is possible; the usual water-closet is a wooden bucket upon every landing, which fills the air with its vile and death-breeding stench.
The New York sweaters, like some of their English prototypes, take advantage of the newly arrived foreigners who do not understand the language. Green hands, who have just arrived at Castle Garden, are pure gold for the contractors. Full-grown men among these will receive, probably, two dollars a week, but one case was discovered where a man was only paid eighty cents for his week's labor. A fourteen-year-old boy was found in a Jewish sweatshop, who, although he had been in the shop eight months, was still receiving only his board. If that is not slavery, what is it?
But now let us come to Boston. To begin with, I. S. Mullen, State Inspector of factories and workshops, testified, before the committee on public health, of the Massachusetts Legislature, on the 30th of last March, that he had found two places in Boston as bad as anything he had seen in New York. How much that means, you can imagine, after the descriptions I have given.
The State inspectors of factories and public buildings, in their report to Chief Wade of the Massachusetts district police, say that "the confidential clerk of perhaps the largest concern in town assured us that but a small part of their goods were made in New York, and that in shops; that all of their nice work was done in Boston; admitted the fact of tenement-house clothing, but thought the greater part of it was worn in New York, and wished that its manufacture could be prohibited by law. This gentleman, as well as some others questioned, believed that relatively there was as much tenement-house work done in Boston as in New York, and under nearly as unwholesome conditions."
The Boston Evening Record, of September 29, 1890, speaks as follows of Boston sweating: "The shops are scattered all over the city proper, and a visit to one is a visit to all. The cheapest shop in the city is on lower Hanover Street. The work is done in a square, low-studded room about twenty-four feet square. Within this space are sixteen women and three men at work. There are also half a dozen sewing-machines, a large stove (kept in full blast to heat the flat-irons, necessary at every stage of clothing manufacture), two pressing-machines, and piles of unfinished clothing. Two windows illumine the room, furnishing light for the nineteen workers. Working hours are from seven A. M. to six P. M., with no clipping of time at either end of the day. The proprietor is a Hebrew. One of the operatives thus describes the life: 'We make from two dollars and a half to four dollars a week, depending on how strong we are, but none of us can make the last figure very long. The air is bad, and the room is kept too hot. In the warm, summer days the heat was something awful. Every little while there is a cut-down, and about once in so often the boss fails, and leaves the girls in the lurch about their pay.
"'Another bad thing is the "sample" game. A small lot of garments are brought in, which, we are told, must be made up very carefully. We are made to rip, and do work over, to suit the notions of the big firms, who want the garments to send out on the road. It takes twice as long to make such a coat, but we get no more for it. Of course the game is played on us when the coats are not really samples. If we accidentally scorch the cloth a little, in pressing, we have to pay for that.'"
An officer of the Operatives' Union puts the number of sweat-shops in Boston at one hundred and fifty, but this does not include the smaller tenement-house shops that are beginning to develop here very rapidly.
I have, myself, visited a number of these shops during the past few weeks. I will describe a few of them very briefly. Here is one in two rooms. There is no light except from the end of the room, which contains twenty-three people, men, women, and little girls. I am satisfied that some of the girls could not have been more than twelve or thirteen. One of the women had a little baby which, though almost entirely naked, was crying from the heat and poisonous air. The place did not look as if it had been swept for weeks. The clothing, both finished and unfinished, was piled up in every direction, and workers walked over it with their sweaty feet, for they wore only such clothing as was absolutely indispensable. The stench of the place was sickening in the extreme.
I went into another place, where there were eighteen men and twelve girls. As near as I could judge, the ages of the girls were from ten to fifteen. The men were nearly all smoking, and that, together with the heat from the fire necessary for the pressing, made an atmosphere that was almost intolerable, even for a few moments. I was not astonished that the girls looked pallid and sickly. There was only one filthy water-closet for men and women.
I was in a little tenement-house Jew shop where a man and four boys were making knee pants in a bedroom. The clothing was piled upon the bed, which was one of the filthiest assortments of tenement-house bedding that I have ever seen—and that is saying a great deal. The largest shop I visited was one in which there were seventy-nine people employed. They occupied four rooms. The rooms were quite large, but were filthy almost beyond description. The coal was piled up in huge heaps on the floor; ashes, both in barrels and heaps, were scattered about; clothing was flung over the floors everywhere; dirt and scraps of cloth literally made a carpet for these rooms. These seventy-nine people were about evenly divided between the sexes, and yet for all this herd of humanity there was only one water-closet, the door of which stood open, on the landing, and the poisonous stench filled all the rooms; the floor about it was damp and filthy. How any woman or girl could work in this shop, and retain her self-respect, I do not understand. I estimated that at least twenty boys and girls of this company were under fifteen; one little boy sitting on the floor hard at work was almost crying with a headache. The men were smoking cigarettes here, as in other places, and this added to the poisonous condition of the air. The majority of these people could not speak English. Taken altogether, they were a hopeless-looking lot. Many of them had a brutal, hunted look in their faces.
Remember, this is not Glasgow, or London, or New York, but in the heart of Boston, in the month of June, 1891. It is easy to say that these people are foreigners, and that they had poor wages where they came from; that they are probably as well off here as they were at home, and that they are too ignorant and brutal to suffer, as more refined and cultivated people would. Putting all other questions aside for a moment, let us remember that these people are setting up a standard of living in our midst, which, if permitted to become established, will dictate its cruel laws to all the laboring people in the community.
If this system is allowed to go on, there are people living in luxury, who are indifferently pooh-poohing this whole question, whose grandchildren will be starved to death in a sweat-shop.
No investment exacts such cruel usury as indifference to injustice. A wrong, uncared for in a North End tenement house will avenge itself, sooner or later, on Beacon Hill or Commonwealth Avenue.
I thank God for every indication of discontent, on the part of laboring men and women, at conditions which cramp or fetter the free utterance of their manhood or womanly glory. In that divine discontent is the hope of the race. Our own Lowell sings:—
"The hope of truth grows stronger day by day. I hear the soul of man around me waking, Like a great sea its frozen fetters breaking, And flinging up to heaven its sunlit spray, Tossing huge continents in scornful play, And crushing them with din of grinding thunder That makes old emptinesses stare in wonder. The memory of a glory passed away Lingers in every heart, as in the shell Resounds the by-gone freedom of the sea. And every hour new signs of promise tell That the great soul shall once again be free; For high and yet more high the murmurs swell Of inward strife for truth and liberty."
THE RELATION OF WAGES TO MORALS.
"When the toiler's heart you clutch, Conscience is not valued much; He recks not a bloody smutch On his gold; Everything to you he defers, You are potent reasoners; At your whisper Treason stirs, Hunger and Cold!"
—JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
When Henry W. Grady, the brilliant Southern orator, was in Boston on his last visit, only a few weeks before his sad and untimely death, he charmed us all by his entrancing word-picture of a happy country home. The fields, the lowing kine, the well-appointed farmhouse, the noble farmer, the contented matron, the dutiful children, the hospitable welcome of their guest, the cheerful and reverent evening worship—all these and more stand out on the glowing canvas under his words, as I have myself seen them in real life a thousand times. About such a home, and the toilers that support it, there is a halo of glory. There is, however, a great deal said about the dignity of labor which is nothing more than oratorical commonplace—the meaningless froth of the rhetorician. There is no dignity about labor in itself. What is there about piling bricks on top of each other, or mixing mortar, or sewing blue denim into overalls, or trading earthen jars for nickel coin, that has about it any inherent dignity? It is only as there is mixed with the mortar, or builded with the bricks, the holy cement of a moral purpose; only as there is stitched into the cloth the diviner thread of hopeful love; only as the deed gathers the aroma of an aspiring human life, is it a dignified transaction. But when you make of the laborer a slave, degrade his work to a mere fight for bread, harass him by continual debt, put him in a vile tenement house that smothers all holy ambition, labor has no longer dignity, it smells rather of the dungeon and the pit.
Honest labor, continued through reasonable hours, paid at a rate which assures a wholesome support, is ennobling; but overwork, that is hopeless of comfortable reward, is degrading in the extreme. On the continent of Europe, where men and women work in the factories for fourteen and sixteen hours in a day, the laborers are reduced simply to machines. They have a wooden look, when you meet them on the streets, that is startling to an American observer. Every observant European travelling in this country notices the difference in the intelligence of the average countenance of American working-people, both among men and women. But how long can we expect that to last if the dominion of the sweater is to spread in our midst? Reduce wages to the point where the laborer has to either remain at the shop or take his work home and work into the night, and drive it on through Sunday as well, and you simply brutalize the workman. It is idle, and pharisaical as well, for us to shrug our shoulders and say this is not a question for the pulpit. So intimate is the relation between the body and the soul, that every question which has to do with the feeding or clothing of a human body is, at the last analysis, a moral question. The great generals of history have understood that the moral force of their armies depended largely upon the provision wagon. Frederick the Great once wrote: "Where one desires a solid basis for the good organization of an army, it is necessary to have regard to the stomach." Napoleon once said: "The soldier has his heart in his abdomen;" and Von Moltke adds his testimony: "In a campaign no food is costly except that which is bad."
One of the greatest of physiologists, Moleschott, says: "Courage, readiness, and activity depend in a great measure upon a healthy and abundant nourishment. Hunger makes heart and head empty. No force of will can make up for an impoverished blood, a badly nourished muscle, or an exhausted nerve." All these tend to the one conclusion, that the moral and intellectual life is very largely subject to physiological conditions. A man, of course, may be a scoundrel and well-fed; but, on the other hand, poor food and undue exposure to cold and heat have tremendous influence in breaking down the resistance-power against temptation to evil. Courage is the safeguard both of truth and honesty.
Break down a man's courage by overwork, bad food, and poisonous air, and you have opened the way for lying, theft, and a whole brood of vicious tendencies. You may find this strongly illustrated in Hugo's story of Jean Valjean, who in his despair begins his criminal career by stealing a loaf of bread to keep his sister's children from starving.
We get so in the habit of thinking of drunkenness as the chief cause of poverty, as it undoubtedly is,—for when a man drinks to excess his whole character falls to pieces like a child's house of cards,—that we forget, or fail to perceive, the companion fact, that poverty is, in turn, a great and serious factor in the spread of drunkenness.
When a man or woman is physically exhausted, there is a natural craving for stimulant, and the power of resistance is reduced to the lowest point, if not to zero. It will not do for us to forget that the drink habit is often a symptom of exhaustion. Here are a man and a woman who receive such low wages that they are driven into unhealthy quarters. They ought to have four or five rooms in order to the least approach to wholesome living; but poverty herds them in two, or it may be only one, for within the past month I have myself seen many families of father and mother and as many as five children packed into one little room, in one case only seven by nine feet. The air is poisonous; and, after the rent is paid, the food-money is insufficient, and sickness is the result. I do not mean that large numbers of people in Boston are literally starved to death for lack of bread; but I do mean that thousands of men and women and children in this city are compelled to eat such a quality of food that the result is a condition of mind and body which is subject to an insatiable thirst for strong drink, and makes drunkards of those who would otherwise be sober people. In company with two gentlemen I was examining a filthy court a few weeks ago, when, in the rear of a bake-shop under a shed, we noticed some curious machinery, and were looking at it rather inquisitively when a young lad came up out of the bakery in the cellar, and, in answer to our inquiries, said in a matter-of-course way that it was a mill for grinding old bread and stale crackers into flour, which was again baked into a cheaper class of bread. This grade of flour may make a very nourishing food, but the incident left a most unpleasant taste in my mouth.
It is a commonplace thing, I know, to say that the American home is the strongest fortress of our civilization. It is one of those things, however, that needs to be said over and over again. Before the church or the state there must be the home. Destroy that, and the whole fabric of our civilization will come crashing to the ground in a common ruin. But the reduction of wages below the comfort point means, inevitably, the deterioration of the home. The father and mother and the children must know each other, if the home is to be welded together with mutual love. Acquaintance of that character, however, requires that they shall be together under such conditions that they may come to enjoy the gifts and talents that each possess. But wages are being reduced to the point where the home is only a sleeping-barrack and a lunch-counter for supper and breakfast. Remember that poor wages mean long hours; and long hours that exhaust all the energy of the laborer mean ignorance; and ignorance, when it is finished, means immorality.
There is only about so much vital force in the average human being. If all this force is put into one's daily toil, there is none left for helpful conversation, for sympathetic communion at home, for uplifting reading, or for worship. Persevere in that course, and you reach barbarism: the road faces that way.
Insufficient wages have their relation to the demoralization of laboring-people in many ways that are not perceived by people who look no deeper than the surface. The city abounds in organized firms of sharpers who prey upon the necessities of the hard-pinched laborer. If you will examine a copy of "The Banker and Tradesman," published in this city, and look down the column of chattel-mortgages, for any week, you will see a very innocent-appearing column, to the unadvised, but one that is full of devilish wickedness to a man who has been behind the scenes. If there be anything in Boston that can rival the cruelty of the tenement-house sweat-shop, you will find it in the dens of some chattel-mortgage sharks, whose business methods I have investigated. Here is a woman who made her living by making overalls at five cents a pair. Times, of course, were always hard with her. Her husband was out of work a good part of the time. At a period when they were in a specially hard place, they borrowed ten dollars of one of these human sharks. They were to pay two dollars a month interest on it. If at any time it ran over two or three days and the interest was not paid, so that the collector had to call for it, he charged and collected two dollars extra for calling. I should have stated that this money was secured by a chattel-mortgage upon every article of household furniture they possessed. These mortgages are ironclad, and put the people at the mercy of the man who holds them. In the course of fifteen months, under cover of this loan of ten dollars, this firm managed to squeeze forty dollars out of the hard earnings of these people; and then they came to foreclose the mortgage and take away the furniture, and would have removed every household article they possessed, had not the police-officer on the beat, a man of noble heart and generous instincts, stepped in and agreed to be responsible personally for the amount. Here is another case, all of the papers of which are now in my hands: A man and his wife borrowed twenty dollars; the firm charged two dollars for making out the papers, so that the note read twenty-two dollars. The agent called on them once, and charged two dollars for that. In the course of ten months they paid twenty dollars interest. The matter then came to the attention of the secretary of a charitable association, who forced the brokers to settle up the case for six dollars. I know of another case of a Swede family who "got behind," and could not pay the rent. Sickness came upon them, and they borrowed fifty dollars. In a little over a year they paid sixty dollars interest, but the principal had not been reduced a dollar.
Some of the instalment firms are just as bad, and many times are in league with these sharpers. A case has come to my knowledge where a man with a wife and family of five children bought furniture amounting to a hundred and thirty-five dollars. After he had paid seventy dollars, he was taken sick and had to go to the hospital. The wife was unable to meet the instalments promptly, and the firm threatened to take away her furniture. She asked the agent of a charitable organization to intercede for her. This gentleman wrote to the firm and begged them to postpone their foreclosure, and mercifully give the poor family a little more time. But this they absolutely refused to do, and came in the midst of the raw winds of March, and took all the household furniture away, including the stove and the loaf of bread in the oven. These are not hearsay stories, but facts that can be proved by undoubted evidence.
Women are the greatest sufferers from depreciation of wages. Commissioner Carroll Wright's report on the working-women in great cities, given to the public two years since, contains some interesting facts. The investigation on which the report is based covered twenty-two of the larger cities of the United States, and three hundred and forty-two distinct industries, excluding the professional and semi-professional callings, such as teaching, stenography, typewriting, and telegraphy. The total number of women individually interviewed was 17,427.
This is only six or seven per cent of the whole number of women engaged in the class of work indicated, but the Commissioner declares that the investigation is representative so far as the number of women whose affairs enter into it is to be considered. The average age of the women is given as twenty-two years and seven months, though the concentration is greatest at the age of eighteen.... The general average at the beginning of work is put at fifteen years and four months.
A great majority of the women interviewed are single, and the average weekly earnings for the cities, as a whole, are five dollars and twenty-four cents. Take your pencil and count it up—room-rent, board, and clothing—and see how much you have left for books or music, recreation or religion.
The twentieth annual report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics for last year shows not only the poor pay of women, but the cruel and unjust disparity of wages between men and women doing the same work. Beginning with the lowest rate of wages, for the first comparison of relative male and female pay, it appears that of actual wages paid to 248,200 employees of both sexes, 8.99 per cent of all males receive less than five dollars a week, 4.85 per cent less than six dollars, and 6.77 per cent less than seven dollars. That is, about 20 per cent of all males average less than one dollar per day. But the females working at this low scale of wages comprise 72.94 per cent of all the workers. In the higher scale of wages, 63.78 per cent of all the males receive a dollar and a half or more per day. But only a little more than 10 per cent of the females employed are paid wages as high. Out of 7,257 receiving twenty dollars a week and over, only 268 are women. But the cruelest part of all this is that women, standing side by side with men in the same shops and stores, are paid far less wages for the same work. This is an aristocracy of sex that shames and belies all our claims to democracy.
This injustice in the wages of women is already beginning to bear a fearful fruitage. Miss Alice S. Woodbridge, the secretary of the Working-women's Society of New York, after a recent tour of investigation, sums up the result of her observations in the following words: "The wages paid to women average between four and four and one-half dollars per week, and are often reduced by unreasonable and excessive fines. The little cash-girls do not average two dollars a week. In one large house the average wages for saleswomen and cash-girls is two dollars and forty cents a week. In many fashionable houses the saleswomen are not allowed to leave the counter between the hours of eleven A. M. and three P. M., except for lunch, and if a saleswoman has a customer when the lunch-hour arrives, she is obliged to remain and wait on the customer, and the time so consumed is deducted from lunch-time.