WORKING WITH THE WORKING WOMAN
By CORNELIA STRATTON PARKER Author of "AN AMERICAN IDYLL"
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS MCMXXII
WORKING WITH THE WORKING WOMAN
Copyright, 1922, by Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America
I. NO. 1075 PACKS CHOCOLATES 1
II. 286 ON BRASS 42
III. 195 IRONS "FAMILY" 75
IV. IN A DRESS FACTORY 109
V. NO. 536 TICKETS PILLOW CASES 137
VI. NO. 1470, "PANTRY GIRL" 173
The number of books on the labor problem is indeed legion. The tragedy of the literature on any dynamic subject is that most of it is written by people who have time to do little else. Perhaps the best books on many subjects will never be written because those folk, who would be most competent to do the writing, through their vital connection with the problem at hand, never find the spare minutes to put their findings down on paper.
There could be no more dynamic subject than labor, since labor is nothing less than human beings, and what is more dynamic than human beings? It is, therefore, the last subject in the world to be approached academically. Yet most of the approach to the problems of labor is academic. Men in sanctuaries forever far removed from the endless hum and buzz and roar of machinery, with an intellectual background and individual ambitions forever far removed from the interests and desires of those who labor in factory and mill, theorize—and another volume is added to the study of labor.
But, points out some one, there are books on labor written by bona-fide workers. First, the number is few. Second, and more important, any bona-fide worker capable of writing any kind of book on any subject, puts himself so far above the rank and file that one is justified in asking, for how many does he speak?
Suppose that for the moment your main intellectual interest was to ascertain what the average worker—not the man or woman so far advanced in the cultural scale that he or she can set his ideas intelligently on paper—thought about his job and things in general. To what books could you turn? Indeed I have come to feel that in the pages of O. Henry there is more to be gleaned on the psychology of the working class than any books to be found on economic shelves. The outstanding conclusion forced upon any reader of such books as consciously attempt to give a picture of the worker and his job is that whoever wrote the books was bound and determined to find out everything that was wrong in every investigation made, and tell all about the wrongs and the wrongs only. Goodness knows, if one is hunting for the things which should be improved in this world, one life seems all too short to so much as make a start. In all honesty, then, such books on labor should be classified under "Troubles of Workers." No one denies they are legion. Everybody's troubles are, if troubles are what you want to find.
The Schemer of Things has so arranged, praise be, that no one's life shall be nothing but woe and misery. Yea, even workers have been known to smile.
* * * * *
The experiences lived through in the following pages may strike the reader as superficial, artificial. In a way they were. Yet, they fulfilled their object in my eyes, at least. I wanted to feel for myself the general "atmosphere" of a job, several jobs. I wanted to know the worker without any suspicion on the part of the girls and women I labored among that they were being "investigated." I wanted to see the world through their eyes—for the time being to close my own altogether.
There are no startling new facts or discoveries here recorded. Nothing in these pages will revolutionize anything. To such as wish the lot of the worker painted as the most miserable on earth, they will be disappointing.
Yet in being as honest as I could in recording the impressions of my experiences, I am aware that I have made possible the drawing of false conclusions. Already such false conclusions have been drawn. "See," says an "old-fashioned" employer, "the workers are happy—these articles of Mrs. Parker's show it. Why should they have better conditions? They don't want them!"
A certain type of labor agitator, or a "parlor laborite," prefer to see only the gloomy side of the worker's life. They are as dishonest as the employer who would see only the contentment. The picture must be viewed in its entirety—and that means considering the workers not as a labor problem, but as a social problem. Workers are not an isolated group, who keep their industrial adversities or industrial blessings to themselves. They and their families and dependents are the majority of our population. As a nation, we rise no higher in the long run than the welfare of the majority. Nor can the word "welfare," if one thinks socially, ever be limited to the word "contentment." It is quite conceivable—nay, every person has seen it in actuality—that an individual may be quite contented in his lot and yet have that lot incompatible with the welfare of the larger group.
It is but as a part of the larger group that worker, employer, and the public must come to view the labor problem. When a worker is found who appears perfectly amenable to long hours, bad air, unhygienic conditions in general—and many are—somebody has to pay the price. There are thousands of contented souls, as we measure contentment, in the congested tenement districts of East Side New York. Does that fact add to our social welfare? Because mothers for years were willing to feed their children bad milk, was then the movement to provide good milk for babies a waste of time and money? Plenty of people always could be found who would willingly drink impure water. Society found that too costly, and cities pride themselves to-day on their pure water supply and low typhoid rate.
There are industrial conditions flourishing which insidiously take a greater toll of society than did ever the death of babies from unclean milk, the death of old and young from impure water. The trouble is that their effects permeate in ways difficult for the unwilling eye to see.
Perhaps in the long run, one of the most harmful phases of modern civilization is this very contentment of not only the workers, but the employer and society at large, under conditions which are not building up a wholesome, healthy, intelligent population. Indeed, it is not so much the fault of modern industrialism as such. Perhaps it is because there are so many people in the world and the ability of us human beings, cave men only ten thousand years ago, to care for so many people has not increased with the same rapidity as the population. Our numbers have outrun our capacities. Twentieth century development calls for large-scale organization for which the human mind has shown itself inadequate.
It is well to keep in mind that no situation is the product of its own day. The working woman, for instance, we have had with us since the beginning of women—and they began a good spell ago. The problem of the working woman, as we think of it to-day, began with the beginning of modern industry. Nor is it possible to view her past without realizing that the tendency has ever been, with but few interruptions, toward improvement.
In the early factory days in our country it is known that women rose at four, took their breakfast with them to the mills, and by five were hard at work in badly constructed buildings, badly heated, badly lighted. From seven-thirty to eight-thirty there was an hour for breakfast, at noon half an hour, and from then on steady work until half past seven at night. It would be perhaps eight o'clock before the mill girls reached home, sometimes too tired to stay awake till the end of supper. Later, hours were more generally from five in the morning until seven at night. In Lowell the girls worked two hours before breakfast and went back to the mills again in the evening after supper. By 1850 twelve hours had come to be the average working day.
[Footnote 1: Abbot, Women in Industry.]
Wages were very low—around seventy-five cents or a dollar a week with board. Mills and factories were accustomed to provide room and board in the corporation boarding houses, poorly constructed, ill-ventilated buildings, girls often sleeping six and eight in a room. In 1836 it was estimated that the average wage for women in industry (excluding board) was thirty-seven and one-half cents a day, although one thousand sewing women investigated received on an average twenty-five cents a day. In 1835 the New York Journal of Commerce estimated that at the beginning of the century women's labor brought about fifty cents a week, which was equivalent to twenty-five cents in 1835. In 1845 the New York Tribune reported fifty thousand women averaging less than two dollars a week wages, and thousands receiving one dollar and fifty cents. Another investigation in 1845 found "female labor in New York in a deplorable degree of servitude, privation and misery, drudging on, miserably cooped up in ill-ventilated cellars and garrets." Women worked fifteen to eighteen hours a day to earn one to three dollars a week.
And yet authorities tell us that some of the mill towns of New England, Lowell in particular, are looked back upon as being almost idyllic as regards the opportunities for working women. On examination it is found that what was exceptional from our point of view was not the conditions, but the factory employees. In those days work in the mills was "socially permissible." Indeed there was practically no other field of employment open to educated girls. The old domestic labors had been removed from the household—where could a girl with spirit and ability make the necessary money to carry out her legitimate desires? Her brothers "went west"—she went into the factories—with the same spirit. Ambitious daughters of New England farmers formed the bulk of cotton mill employees the first half of the nineteenth century. Their granddaughters are probably college graduates of the highest type to-day. After the long factory hours they found time for reading, debating clubs, lectures, church activities, French, and German classes. Part of the time some of the mill operatives taught school. Many of them looked forward to furthering their own education in such female seminaries as existed in those days, the expense to be met from their mill earnings. Poorly paid as mill hands were, it was often six to seven times what teachers received.
"The mills offered not only regular employment and higher wages, but educational advantages which many of the operatives prized even more highly. Moreover, the girl who had worked in Lowell was looked upon with respect as a person of importance when she returned to her rural neighborhood. Her fashionable dress and manners and her general air of independence were greatly envied by those who had not been to the metropolis and enjoyed its advantages."
[Footnote 2: Abbot, Women in Industry.]
By 1850 the situation had altered. With the opening of the west, opportunities for women of gumption and spirit increased. The industrial depression of 1848-49 lowered wages, and little by little the former type of operative left the mill, her place being filled largely by Irish immigrants.
The Civil War saw a great change in the world of working women. Thousands of men were taken from industry into war, and overnight great new fields of opportunity were opened to women. The more educated were needed as nurses, for teaching positions, and for various grades of clerical work deserted by men. After the close of the war farmers became more prosperous and their daughters were not forced to work for the wherewithal to acquire advantages. Add to all this the depression caused in the cotton industry due to the war—and the result of these new conditions was that when the mills reopened it was with cheap immigrant labor. What then could have been considered high wages were offered in an attempt to induce the more efficient American women operatives back to the mills, but the cost of living had jumped far higher even than high wages. The mills held no further attractions. Even the Irish deserted, their places being filled with immigrants of a lower type.
Since the Civil War look at us—8,075,772 women in industry, as against 2,647,157 in 1880. Almost a fourth of the entire female population over ten years of age are at work, as against about one-seventh in 1880. The next census figures will show a still larger proportion. Those thousands of women the World War threw into industry, who never had worked before, did not all get out of industry after the war. Take just the railroads, for example. In April, 1918, there were 65,816 women employed in railroad work; in October, 1918, 101,785; and in April, 1919, 86,519. In the 1910 census, of all the kinds of jobs in our country filled by men, only twelve were not also filled by women—and the next census will show a reduction there: firemen (either in manufacturing or railroads), brakemen, conductors, plumbers, common laborers (under transportation), locomotive engineers, motormen, policemen, soldiers, sailors, and marines. The interesting point is that in only one division of work are women decreasing in proportion to men—and that was women's work at the beginning—manufacturing. In agriculture, in the professions, in domestic and personal service, in trade and transportation, the number of women is creeping up, up, in proportion to the number of men. From the point of view of national health and vitality for this and the next generation, it is indeed a hopeful sign if women are giving way to men in factories, mills, and plants, and pushing up into work requiring more education and in turn not demanding such physical and nervous strain as does much of the machine process. Also, since on the whole as it has been organized up to date, domestic service has been one of the least attractive types of work women could fill, it is encouraging (though not to the housewife) to find that the proportion of women going into domestic and personal service has fallen from forty-four and six-tenths per cent, in 1880, to thirty-two and five-tenths per cent, in 1910.
Women working at everything under the sun—except perhaps being locomotive engineers and soldiers and sailors. Why?
First, it is part of every normal human being to want to work. Therefore, women want to work. Time was when within the home were enough real life-sized jobs to keep a body on the jump morning and night. Not only mother but any other females handy. There are those who grumble that women could find enough to do at home now if they only tried. They cannot, unless they have young children or unless they putter endlessly at nonessentials, the doing of which leaves them and everybody else no better off than before they began. And it is part of the way we are made that besides wanting to work, we need to work at something we feel "gets us some place." We prefer to work at something desirable and useful. Perhaps what we choose is not really so desirable and useful, looked at in the large, but it stacks up as more desirable and more useful than something else we might be doing. And with it all, if there is to be any real satisfaction, must go some feeling of independence—of being on "one's own."
So, then, women go out to work in 1921 because there is not enough to do to keep them busy at home. They follow in part their age-old callings, only nowadays performed in roaring factories instead of by the home fireside. In part they take to new callings. Whatever the job may be, women want to work in preference to the nonproductiveness of most home life to-day.
Graham Wallas, in his Great Society, quotes the answers given by a number of girls to a woman who held their confidence as to why they worked. He wished to learn if they were happy. The question meant to the girls evidently, "Are you happier than you would have been at home?" and practically every answer was "Yes."
In a "dismal and murky," but fairly well-managed laundry, six Irish girls all answered they were happy. One said the work "took up her mind, she had been awfully discontented." Another that "you were of some use." Another, "the hours went so much faster. At home one could read, but only for a short time. Then there was the awful lonesome afternoon ahead of you." "Asked a little girl with dyed hair but a good little heart. She enjoyed her work. It made her feel she was worth something."
At another laundry, the first six girls all answered they were happy because the "work takes up your mind," and generally added, "It's awful lonesome at home," or "there is an awful emptiness at home." However, one girl with nine brothers and sisters was happy in the collar packing room just because "it was so awful lonesome"—she could enjoy her own thoughts. An Irishwoman at another laundry who had married an Italian said, "Sure I am always happy. It leaves me no time to think." At a knitting plant one girl said "when she didn't work, she was always thinking of dead people, but work always made her cheer up directly."
The great industrial population comes from crowded tenements. It is inconceivable that enough work could be found within those walls to make life attractive to the girls and young women growing to maturity in such households.
So much for the psychological side. The fact remains that the great bulk of women in industry work because they have to work—they enter industrial life to make absolutely necessary money. The old tasks at which a woman could be self-supporting in the home are no longer possible in the home. She earns her bread now as she has earned it for thousands of years—spinning, weaving, sewing, baking, cooking—only to-day she is one of hundreds, thousands in a great factory. Nor is she longer confined to her traditional tasks. Men are playing a larger part in what was since time began and up to a few years ago woman's work. Women, in their need, are finding employment at any work that can use unskilled less physically capable labor.
Ever has it been the very small proportion of men who could by their unaided effort support the entire family. At no time have all the men in a country been able to support all the women, regardless of whether that situation would be desirable. Always must the aid of womenfolk be called in as a matter of course. We have a national ideal of a living wage to the male head of the family which will allow him to support his family without forcing his wife and children into industry. Any man who earns less than that amount during the year must depend on the earnings of wife and children or else fall below the minimum necessary to subsistence, with all which that implies. In 1910, four-fifths of the heads of families in the United States earned under eight hundred dollars a year. At that same time, almost nine-tenths of the women workers living at home in New York City working in factories, mills, and such establishments, paid their entire earnings to the family. Of 13,686 women investigated in Wisconsin in 1914, only 2 per cent gave nothing to the family support. Of girls in retail stores living at home in New York City, 84 per cent paid their entire earnings to the family. Work, then, for the majority of women, is more apt to be cold economic necessity—not only for herself, but for her family.
Besides the fact that great numbers of women must work and many want to work, there are the reasons for women's work arising in modern industry itself. First, a hundred years ago, there was the need for hands in the new manufactures, and because of the even more pressing agricultural demands, men could not be spared. The greater the subdivisions of labor up to a certain point, the simpler the process, and the more women can be used, unskilled as they are ever apt to be. Also they will work at more monotonous, more disagreeable work than men, and for less wages. Again, women's entrance into new industries has often been as strike breakers, and once in, there was no way to get them out. Industrial depressions throw men out of work, and also women, and in the financial pressure following, women turn to any sort of work at any sort of pay, and perhaps open a new wedge for women's work in a heretofore untried field, desirable or undesirable.
The freedom from having to perform every and all domestic functions within the four walls of home is purchased at the expense of millions of toilers outside the home, the majority of whom do not to-day receive enough wages, where they are the menfolk, to support their own families; nor where they are single women, to support themselves. The fact that men cannot support their families forces women in large numbers into industry. There would be nothing harmful in that, if only industry were organized so that participation in it enriched human lives. Remembering always that where industry takes women from the care of young children, society and the nation pay dearly; for, inadequate and ignorant as mothers often are regarding child care, their substitutes to-day are apt to be even less efficient.
Pessimists marshal statistics to show that modern industrialism is going to rack and ruin. Maybe it is. But pessimism is more a matter of temperament than statistics. An optimist can assemble a most cheerful array of figures to show that everything is on the up. Temperament again. Industry is what industry does. If you are feeling gloomy to-day, you can visit factories where it is plain to see that no human being could have his lot improved by working there. Such factories certainly exist. If you would hug your pessimism to your soul, then there are many factories you must stay away from. Despite all the pessimists, there is a growing tendency to increase the welfare of human beings in industry.
It is but an infinitesimal drop any one individual can contribute to hasten a saner industrialism. Yet some of us would so fain contribute our mite! Where the greatest need of all lies is that the human beings in industry, the employer and the employees, shall better understand one another, and society at large better understand both. My own amateur and humble experiences here recorded have added much to my own understanding of the problems of both manager and worker.
Can they add even a fraction to the understanding of anyone else?
CORNELIA STRATTON PARKER.
Woods Hole, August, 1921.
WORKING WITH THE WORKING WOMAN
No. 1075 Packs Chocolates
Wise heads tell us we act first—or decide to act first—and reason afterward. Therefore, what could be put down in black and white as to why we took up factory work is of minor value or concern. Yet everyone persists in asking why? So then, being merely as honest as the Lord allows, we answer first and foremost because we wanted to. Isn't that enough? It is the why and wherefore of almost everything anyone does any place at any time. Only the more adept can concoct much weightier reasons as an afterthought. There is only one life most of us doubting humans are absolutely sure of. That one life gets filled with so much of the same sort of performance day in and day out; usually only an unforeseen calamity—or stroke of luck—throws us into a way of living and doing things which is not forever just as we lived and did things yesterday and the day before.
Yet the world is so full of the unexplored! To those who care more for people than places, around every corner is something new—a world only dreamt of, if that. Why should all one's life be taken up with the kind of people we were born among, doing the sort of things our aunts and our uncles and our cousins and our friends do? Soon there creeps in—soon? yes, by six years or younger—that comforting belief that as we and our aunts and our uncles and our cousins and our friends do, so does—or should do—the world. And all the time we and our aunts and our uncles and our cousins and our friends are one little infinitesimal drop in one hundred million people, and what those above and below and beyond and around about think and do, we know nothing, nor care nothing, about. But those others are the world, with us, a speck of—well, in this case it happened to be curiosity—in the midst of it all.
Therefore, being curious, we decided to work in factories. In addition to wanting to feel a bona-fide part of a cross section of the world before only viewed second or third hand through books, there was the desire better to understand the industrial end of things by trying a turn at what some eight million or so other women are doing. "Women's place is the home." All right—that side of life we know first hand. But more and more women are not staying home, either from choice or from necessity. Reading about it is better than nothing. Being an active part of it all is better still. It is one thing to lounge on an overstuffed davenport and read about the injurious effect on women of long hours of standing. It is another to be doing the standing.
Yet another reason for giving up some months to factory work, besides the adventure of it, besides the desire to see other angles of life for oneself, to experience first hand the industrial end of it. So much of the technic of the world to-day we take as a matter of course. Clothes appear ready to put on our backs. As far as we know or care, angels left them on the hangers behind the mirrored sliding doors. Food is set on our tables ready to eat. It might as well have been created that way, for all our concern. The thousands of operations that go into an article before the consumer buys it—no, there is no reason why use and want should make us callous and indifferent to the hows and wherefores. Never was there such an age. Let's poke behind the scenes a bit.
So, factories it was to be. Not as a stranger snooping in to "investigate." As a factory girl working at her job—with all that, we determined to peek out of the corner of our eyes, and keep both ears to the wind, lest we miss anything from start to finish. Artificial, of course. Under the circumstances, since we were born how and as we were, and this had happened and that, we were not an honest Eyetalian living in a back bedroom on West Forty-fourth Street near the river.
We did what we could to feel the part. Every lady in the land knows the psychology of dress—though not always expressed by her in those terms. She feels the way she looks, not the other way round. So then, we purchased large green earrings, a large bar pin of platinum and brilliants ($1.79), a goldy box of powder (two shades), a lip stick. During the summer we faded a green tam-o'shanter so that it would not look too new. For a year we had been saving a blue-serge dress (original cost $19) from the rag bag for the purpose. We wore a pair of old spats which just missed being mates as to shade, and a button off one. Silk stockings—oh yes, silk—but very darned. A blue sweater, an orange scarf, and last, but not least—
If you had been brought up in a fairly small city by female relatives who were one and all school-teachers, who had watched over your vocabulary (unsuccessfully) as they hung over your morals; if you had been taught, not in so many words, but insidiously, that breaking the Ten Commandments (any one or the entire ten), split infinitives, and chewing gum, were one in the sight of God, or the devil—then you could realize the complete metamorphosis when, in addition to the earrings and the bar pin, the green tam and the lip stick, you stepped up to the Subway newsstand and boldly demanded a package of—chewing gum. And then and there got out a stick and chewed it, and chewed it on the Subway and chewed it on the streets of New York. Some people have to go to a masquerade ball to feel themselves some one else for a change. Others, if they have been brought up by school-teachers, can get the same effect with five cents' worth of chewing gum.
After all, one of the most attractive features about being "well brought up" is the fun of sloughing off. The fun of sloughing off a lot at once! Had it ever been known ahead of time the fascination of doing forbidden things, just that first factory morning would have been worth the whole venture. To read the morning paper over other people's shoulders—not furtively, but with a bold and open eye. To stare at anything which caught one's attention. (Bah! all that is missed in New York because it has been so ground into the bone that it is impolite to stare!) And to talk to any one, male or female, who looked or acted as if he or she wanted to talk to you. Only even a short experience has taught that that abandon leads to more trouble than it is worth. What a pity mere sociability need suffer so much repression! We hate to make that concession to our upbringers.
When the time for beginning factory work came there appeared but one advertisement among "Help Wanted—Female" which did not call for "experience." There might have to be so much lying, direct and indirect, to do. Better not start off by claiming experience when there was absolutely none—except, indeed, had we answered advertisements for cooks only, or baby tenders, or maids of all work. One large candy factory bid for "girls and women, good wages to start, experience not necessary," and in a part of town which could be reached without starting out the night before. At 7.15 of a Monday morning we were off, with a feeling something akin to stage fright. Once we heard a hobo tell of the first time he ever tried to get on a freight train in the dark of night when it was moving. But we chewed our gum very boldly.
One of the phases of finding a job often criticized by those who would add somewhat of dignity to labor is the system of hiring. Like a lot of other things, perhaps, you don't mind the present system if you get by. Here was this enormous good-looking factory. On one side of the front steps, reaching all the way up into the main entrance hall, stood a line of men waiting for jobs; on the other side, though not near so long a line, the girls. The regular employees file by. At last, about eight o'clock, the first man is beckoned. Just behind the corner of a glassed-in telephone booth, but in full view of all, he is questioned by an employee in a white duck suit. Man after man is sent on out, to the growing discouragement, no doubt, of those remaining in line. At last, around a little corner in the stairs, the first girl is summoned. The line moves up. A queer-looking man with pop eyes asks a few questions. The girl goes on upstairs. I am fourth in line—a steam heater next and the actions of my insides make the temperature seem 120 at least. My turn.
"How much experience you've had?"
"What you work in last?"
"Didn't work in a factory—been doin' housework—takin' care of kids."
"Well, I start you packing. You get thirteen dollars this week, fourteen dollars next—you understand?"
He writes something on a little card and I go upstairs with it. There I am asked my name, age (just did away with ten years while I was at it). Married or single? Goodness! hadn't thought of that. In the end a lie there would make less conversation. Single. Nationality—Eyetalian? No, American. It all has to be written on a card. At that point my eye lights on a sign which reads: "Hours for girls 8 A.M.-6 P.M. Saturdays 8-12." Whew! My number is 1075. The time clock works so. My key hangs on this hook; then after I ring up, it hangs here. (That was an entrancing detail I had not anticipated—made me wish we had to ring up at noon as well as morning and night.) Locker key 222. A man takes me in the elevator to the third floor and there hands me over to Ida. The locker works thus and so. Didn't I have no apron? No—but to-morrow I'd bring it, and a cap. Sure.
Three piles of boxes and trucks and barrels and Ida opens a great door like a safe, and there we are in the packing room—from the steam heater downstairs to the North Pole. Cold? Nothing ever was so cold. Ten long zinc-topped tables, a girl or two on each side. At the right, windows which let in no air and little light, nor could you see out at all. On the left, shelves piled high with wooden boxes. Mostly all a body can think of is how cold, cold, cold it is. Something happens to chocolates otherwise.
That first day it is half-pound boxes. My side of the table holds some sixty at a time. First the date gets stamped on the bottom, then partitions are fitted in. "Here's your sample. Under the table you'll find the candies, or else ask Fannie, there. You take the paper cups so, in your left hand, give them a snap so, lick your fingers now and then, slip a cup off, stick the candy in with your right hand." And Ida is off.
The saints curse the next person who delicately picks a chocolate from its curled casing and thinks it grew that way—came born in that paper cup. May he or she choke on it! Can I ever again buy chocolates otherwise than loose in a paper bag? You push and shove—not a cup budges from its friends and relatives. Perhaps your fingers need more licking. Perhaps the cups need more "snapping." In the end you hold a handful of messed-up crumpled erstwhile cup-shaped paper containers, the first one pried off looking more like a puppy-chewed mat by the time it is loose and a chocolate planted on its middle. By then, needless to remark, the bloom is off the chocolate. It has the look of being clutched in a warm hand during an entire circus parade. Whereat you glance about furtively and quickly eat it. It is nice the room is cold; already you fairly perspire. One mussed piece of naked brown paper in a corner of a box.
The table ahead, fingers flying like mad over the boxes, works Annie. It is plain she will have sixty boxes done before I have one. Just then a new girl from the line of that morning is put on the other side of my table. She is very cold. She fares worse with brown paper cups than I. Finally she puts down the patient piece of chocolate candy and takes both hands to the job of separating one cup from the others. She places what is left of the chocolate in the middle of what is left of the paper, looks at me, and better than any ouija board I know what is going on in her head. I smile at her, she smiles back, and she eats that first chocolate. Tessie and I are friends for life.
Then we tackle the second union of chocolate and paper. Such is life. Allah be praised, the second goes a shade less desperately than the first, the third than the second, and in an hour chocolate and paper get together without untoward damage to either. But the room stays feeling warm. Anon a sensation begins to get mixed up with the hectic efforts of fingers. Yes, yes—now it's clear what it is—feet! Is one never to sit down again as long as one lives? Clumsy fingers—feet. Feet—clumsy fingers. Finally you don't give a cent if you never learn to pry those paper cups loose without wrenching your very soul in the effort. If once before you die—just once—you can sit down! Till 12 and then after, 1 till 6. Help!
A bell rings. "All right, girls!" sings Ida down the line. Everyone drops everything, and out into the warm main third floor we go. All the world is feet. Somehow those same feet have to take their possessor out to forage for food. Into a little dirty, crowded grocery and delicatessen store we wedge ourselves, to stand, stand, stand, until at last we face the wielder of a long knife. When in Rome do as the Romans do. "A bologna and a ham sandwich and five cents' worth of pickles." Slabs of rye bread, no butter, large, generous slices of sausage and ham which hang down curtainlike around the bread—twenty-one cents. Feet take me back to the factory lunch room. At last I flop on a chair. Sing songs to chairs; write poems to chairs; paint chairs!
Dear German Tessie, pal of the morning, she who ate more chocolates than I and thus helped to sustain my moral courage—Tessie and I eat bologna sausage sandwiches together and sit. The feet of Tessie are very, very badly off—ach!—but they feel—they feel—jus' fierce—and till six o'clock—"Oh, my Gawd!" says Tessie, in good English.
A gong sounds. Up we go to the ice box packing room. It sends the shivers down our spines. But already there is a feeling of sauntering in like an old hand at the game. What's your business in life? Packing chocolates. The half-pound boxes get finished, wax paper on top, covered, stacked, counted, put on the truck.
"Lena! Start the girl here in on 'assorteds.'"
Pert little Lena sidles up alongside and nudges me in the ribs.
"Say, got a fella?"
I give Lena one look, for which Belasco should pay me a thousand dollars a night. Lena reads it out loud quick as a wink. She snickers, pokes me in the ribs again, and, "What to hell do I think you are, hey?" That's just what I'd meant. "Gee!" says Lena. "Some fool what can't get some kind of a dope!"
"You said it!"
"Say, got more 'n one dope?" asks Lena, hopefully. Meanwhile she sets out, with my aid, row after row of dinky little deep boxes.
"Say now," say I to Lena, "and what would a girl be doin' with jus' one dope?"
"You said it!" says Lena.
At which follows a discussion on dopes, ending by Lena's promising never to vamp my dope if I won't vamp hers.
"Where'd ya work last?" asks Lena.
One thing the first day taught me. If you want to act the part and feel the part, earrings and gum help, but if there is one thing you are more conscious of than all else, it is such proper English as you possess—which compared to Boston is not much, but compared to Lena and Ida and Mary and Louise and Susie and Annie is painfully flawless. Chew hard as ever you can, if you tell Fannie, "There aren't any more plantations," it echoes and re-echoes and shrieks at you from the four sides of Christendom. But holler, "Fannie, there ain't no more plantations!" and it is like the gentle purring of a home cat by comparison. Funny how it is easier to say "My Gawd!" and "Where t' hell's Ida!" than "I 'ain't got none." Any way round, you never do get over being conscious of your grammar. If it is correct, it is lonesome as the first robin. If it is properly awful, there are those school-teacher upbringers. I am just wondering if one might not be dining with the head of the university philosophy department and his academic guests some night and hear one's voice uttering down a suddenly silent table, "She ain't livin' at that address no more." Utterly abashed, one's then natural exclamation on the stillness would be, "My Gawd!" Whereat the hostess would busily engage her end of the table in anguished conversation, giving her husband one look, which, translated into Lena's language, would say, "What t' hell did we ask her for, anyhow?"
Is one to write of factory life as one finds it, or expurgated? I can hear the upbringers cry "expurgated"! Yet the way the girls talked was one of the phases of the life which set the stamp of difference on it all. What an infinitesimal portion of the population write our books! What a small proportion ever read them! How much of the nation's talking is done by the people who never get into print! The proportion who read and write books, especially the female folk, live and die in the belief that it is the worst sort of bad taste, putting it mildly, to use the name of the Creator in vain, or mention hell for any purpose whatsoever. Yet suddenly, overnight, you find yourself in a group who would snap their fingers at such notions. Sweet-faced, curly-headed Annie wants another box of caramels. Elizabeth Witherspoon would call, "Fannie, would you be so kind as to bring me another box of caramels?" Annie, without stopping her work or so much as looking up, raises her voice and calls down the room—and in her heart she is the same exactly as Elizabeth W.—"Fannie, you bum, bring me a box of car'mels or I'll knock the hell clean out o' ya."
According to Elizabeth's notions Fannie should answer her, "One moment, Miss Elizabeth; I'm busy just now." What Fannie (with her soul as pure as drifted snow) does call back to Annie is, "My Gawd! Keep your mouth shut. 'Ain't you got sense enough to see I'm busy!"
Annie could holler a hundred times, and she does, that she'd knock the hell out of Fannie, and God would love her every bit as much as he would love Miss Elizabeth Witherspoon, who has been taught otherwise and never said hell in her life, not even in a dark closet. Fannie and all the other Fannies and Idas and Louisas, say, "My Gawd!" as Miss Elizabeth says "You don't say!" and it is all one to the Heavenly Father. Therefore, gentle reader, it must be all one to you. There is not the slightest shade of disrespect in Annie's or Fannie's hearts as they shower their profanity on creation in general. There is not the slightest shade in mind as I write of them.
So then, back that first day Lena asked, "Where'd ya work last?"
"Didn't work in a factory before."
"No, I 'ain't." (Gulp.) "I took care of kids."
"Gee! but they was fresh."
"You said it!"
"Lena!" hollers Ida. "Get ta work and don't talk so much!" Whereat Lena gives me another poke in my cold ribs and departs. And Tessie and I pack "assorteds": four different chocolates in the bottom of each box, four still different ones in the top—about three hundred and fifty boxes on our table. We puff and labor on the top layer and Ida breezes along. "My Gawd! Look at that! Where's your cardboards?"
Tessie and I look woebegone at one another. Cardboards? Cardboards?
Ida glues her Eyetalian eye on Lena down the line. "Lena, you fool, didn't you tell these here girls about cardboards?... My Gawd! My Gawd!" says Ida. Whereat she dives into our belabored boxes and grabs those ached-over chocolates and hurls them in a pile. "Get all them top ones out. Put in cardboards. Put 'em all in again." Tessie and I almost could have wept. By that time it is about 4. We are all feet, feet, FEET. First I try standing on one foot to let the other think I might really, after all, be sitting down. Then I stand on it and give the other a delusion. Then try standing on the sides, the toes, the heels. FEET! "Ach! Mein Gott!" moans Tessie. "To-morrow I go look for a job in a biscuit factory."
"Leave me know if you get a sit-down one."
And in that state—FEET—Ida makes us pack over the whole top layer in three hundred and fifty boxes. Curses on Lena and her "dopes." Or curses on me that I could so suddenly invent such picturesque love affairs that Lena forgot all about cardboards.
About then my locker key falls through a hole in my waist pocket and on to the floor and out of sight. In the end it takes a broom handle poked about diligently under the bottom shelf of our table to make a recovery. Before the key appear chocolates of many shapes and sizes, long reposing in oblivion under the weighty table. The thrifty Spanish woman behind me gathers up all the unsquashed ones and packs them. "Mus' be lots of chocolates under these 'ere tables, eh?" she notes wisely and with knit brows. As if to say that, were she boss, she'd poke with a broom under each and every bottom shelf and fill many a box.
At least my feet get a moment's rest while I am down on my hands and knees among the debris from under the tables.
By five o'clock Tessie thinks she'll throw up her job then and there. "Ach! Ach! My feet!" she moans. I secretly plan to kill the next person who gives me a box of chocolate candy.
Surely it is almost 6.
Five minutes after 5.
The bell has forgotten to ring. It must be 7.
Quarter after 5.
Now for sure and certain it is midnight.
My earrings begin to hurt. You can take off earrings. But FEET—
Tessie says she's eaten too many candies; her stomach does her pain. Her feet aren't so hurting now her magen is so bad. I couldn't eat another chocolate for five dollars, but my stomach refused to feel in any way that takes my mind in the least off my feet.
Eternity has passed on. It must be beyond the Judgment Day itself.
Ten minutes to 6.
When the bell does ring I am beyond feeling any emotion. There is no part of me with which to feel emotion. I am all feet, and feet either do not feel at all or feel all weary unto death. During the summer I had played one match in a tennis tournament 7-5, 5-7, 13-11. I had thought I was ready to drop dead after that. It was mere knitting in the parlor compared to how I felt after standing at that table in that candy factory from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., with a bit of a half-hour's sitting at noon.
Somehow you could manage to endure it all if it were not for the crowning agony of all—standing up on the Subway going home. I am no aggressive feminist, and I am no old-fashioned clinging vine, but I surely do hate, hate, hate every man in that Subway who sits back in comfort (and most of them look as if they had been sitting all day) while I and my feet stand up. When in my utter anguish I find myself swaying with the jerks and twists of the express in front of a person with a Vandyke beard reading The Gospel According to St. John, I long with all the energy left in me (I still have some in my arms) to grab that book out of his hands, fling it in his face, and hiss, "Hypocrite!" at him. I do not believe I ever knew what it was really and honestly to hate a person before. If it had been the Police Gazette I could have borne up under it. But The Gospel According to St. John—my Gawd!
Thus ends my first factory day. It is small comfort to calculate I stepped on more chocolates in those nine hours than I usually eat in a year. To be sure, it was something new on the line of life's experiences. If that man in front of me were only a chocolate with soft insides and I could squash him flat! Yes, there was enough energy in my feet for that. To get my heel square above him and then stamp—ugh! the sinner! He continues reading The Gospel According to St. John, nor so much as looks up to receive my last departing glare as I drag myself off at 116th Street.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, the next morning my feet feel as if they had never been stood on before. What if we do have to stand up in the Subway all the way down? Who minds standing in the Subway? And then stand in the jammed and elbowing cross-town car. Who cares? And how we do walk up those factory steps as if we owned the world! The chestiness of us as we take our key off left-hand hook 1075, ring up under the clock (twenty minutes early we are) and hang up on No. 1075 right; but it seems you are late if you are not ten minutes early. It is the little tricks like that you get wise about.
I saunter over to the elevator with a jam of colored girls—the majority of the girls in that factory were colored. I call out, "Third, please." Oh, glory be! Why were we ever born? That elevator man turns around and pierces me with his eye as though I were the man with the Vandyke beard in the Subway, and he, the elevator man, were I. "Third floor did ya say? And since when does the elevator lift ya to the third floor? If ya want the sixth floor ya can ride. Third floor! My Gawd! Third floor!" And on and on he mutters and up and up I go, all the proud feelings of owning the world stripped from me—exposed before the multitudes as an ignoramus who didn't know any better than to ride in the elevator when she was bound only for the third floor. "Third floor," continues muttering the elevator man. At last there is no one left in the elevator but the muttering man and me. "Well," I falter, chewing weakly on my Black Jack, "What shall I do, then?"
"I'll leave ya off at the third this time, but don't ya try this trick again."
"Again? Goodness! You don't think I'd make this mistake twice, do you?"
"Twice?" he bellows. "Twice? Didn't I have this all out with ya yesterday mornin'?"
"Goodness, no!" I try to assure him, but he is putting me off at third and calling after me: "Don't I know I did tell ya all this yesterday mornin'? And don't ya forget it next time, neither." It must be awful to be that man's wife. But I love him compared to the Vandyke beard in the Subway reading The Gospel According to St. John.
Everybody is squatting about on scant corners and ledges waiting for the eight o'clock bell. I squat next the thrifty Spanish lady, whereat she immediately begins telling me the story of her life.
"You married?" she asks. No. "Well don' you do it," says the fat and mussy Espaniole, as the girls called her. "I marry man—five years, all right. One morning I say, 'I go to church—you go too?' He say 'No, I stay home.' I go church. I come home. I fin' him got young girl there. I say, 'You clear out my house, you your young girl!' Out he go, she go. 'Bout one year 'go he say he come back. I say no you don'. He beg me, beg me come home. I say no, no, no. He write me letter, letter, letter. I say no, no, no. Bymby I say alright, you come live my house don't you touch me, hear? Don' you touch me. He live one room, I live one room. He no touch me. Two weeks 'go he die. Take all my money, put him in cemetery. I have buy me black waist, black skirt. I got no money more. I want move from that house—no want live that house no more—give me bad dreams. I got no money move. Got son thirteen. He t'ink me fool have man around like that. I no care. See he sen's letter, letter, letter. Now I got no money. I have work." The bell rings. We shiver ourselves into the ice box.
No Tessie across the table. Instead a strange, unkempt female who sticks it out half an hour, announces she has the chills in her feet, and departs. Her place is taken by a slightly less disheveled young woman who claims she'd packed candy before where they had seats and she thought she'd go back. They paid two dollars less a week, but it was worth two dollars to sit down. How she packs! The sloppiest work I ever saw. It outrages my soul. The thrill of new pride I have when Ida gets through swearing at her and turns to me.
"Keep your eye on this girl, will ya? Gee! she packs like a fright!" And to the newcomer: "You watch that girl across the table" (me, she means—me!) "and do the way she does."
No first section I ever got in economics gave me such joy.
But, ah! the first feeling of industrial bitterness creeps in. Here is a girl getting fourteen dollars a week. Tessie was promised fourteen dollars a week. I packed faster, better, than either of them for thirteen dollars. I would have fourteen dollars, too, or know the reason why. Ida fussed and scolded over the new girls all day. The sweetness of her entire neglect of me!
By that noon my feet hardly hurt at all. I sit in a quiet corner to eat rye-bread sandwiches brought from home, gambling on whom I will draw for luncheon company. Six colored girls sit down at my table. A good part of the time they spend growling on the subject of overtime. I am too new to know what it is all about.
The lunch room is a bare, whitewashed, huge affair, with uplifting advice on the walls here and there. "Any fool can take a chance; it takes brains to be careful," and such like. One got me all upset: "America is courteous to its women. Gentlemen will, therefore, please remove their hats in this room." That Vandyke beard in the Subway!
By 4.30 again I think my feet will be the death of me. That last hour and a half! Louie, the general errand boy of our packing room, brushes by our table with some trays and knocks about six of my carefully packed boxes on the floor. "You Louie!" I holler, and I long to have acquired the facility to call lightly after him, as anyone else would have done, "Say, you go to hell!" Instead, mustering all the reserve force I can, the best showing I am able to make is, "You Louie! Go off and die!" I almost hold my own—468 boxes of "assorteds" do I pack. And again the anguishing stand in the Subway. I hate men—hate them. I just hope every one of them gets greeted by a nagging wife when he arrives home. Hope she nags all evening.... If enough of those wives really did do enough nagging, would the men thereupon stay downtown for dinner and make room in the Subway for folk who had been standing, except for one hour, from 7.15 A.M.? At last I see a silver lining to the dark cloud of marital unfelicity....
* * * * *
Lillian of the bright-pink boudoir cap engaged me in conversation this morning. Lillian is around the Indian summer of life—as to years, but not atmosphere. Lillian has seen better days. Makes sure you know it. Never did a lick of work in her life. At that she makes a noise with her upper lip the way a body does in southern Oregon when he uses a toothpick after a large meal. "No, sir, never did a lick." Lillian says "did" and not "done." Practically no encouragement is needed for Lillian to continue. "After my husband died I blew in all the money he left me in two years. Since then I have been packing chocolates." How long ago was that?
"My Gawd," I say, and it comes natural-like. "What did you do with your feet for five years?"
"Oh, you get used to it," says Lillian. "For months I cried every night. Don't any more. But I lie down while I'm warmin' up my supper, and then I go to bed soon as its et."
"Goin' to vote?" asks Lillian.
"I'm not," allows Lillian. "To my notions all that votin' business is nothing for a lady to get mixed up in. No, sir." Lillian makes that noise with her upper lip again. Lillian's lips are very red, her eyebrows very black. I'll not do anything, though, with my eyebrows. Says Lillian: "No, siree, not for a lady. I got a good bet up on the election. Yes, sir!—fifty dollars on Harding."
And five years of going to bed every night after supper.
Tessie is back. I do love Tessie, and I know Tessie loves me. She had not gone hunting for another job, as I thought. Her husband had had his elbow broken with an electric machine of some sort where he works on milk cans. The morning before she had taken him to the hospital. That made her ten minutes late to the factory. The little pop-eyed man told her, "You go on home!" and off she went. "But he tell me that once more I no come back again," said Tessie, her cheeks very red.
I begin to get the "class feeling"—to understand a lot of things I wanted to know first hand. In the first place, there is no thought ever, and I don't see in that factory how there can be, for the boss and his interests. Who is he? Where is he? The nearest one comes to him is the pop-eyed man at the door. Once in a while Ida hollers "For Gawd's sake, girls, work faster!" Now that doesn't inspire to increased production for long. There stands Tessie across the table from me—peasant Tessie from near Muenchen, with her sweet face and white turned-up cap. She packs as fast as she can, but her hands are clumsy and she can't seem to get the difference between chocolates very well. It is enough to drive a seer crazy. They change the positions on the shelves every so often; the dipping-machine tenders cut capers and mark the same kind of chocolates differently to-day from yesterday. By three in the afternoon you're too sick of chocolates to do any more investigating by sampling. Even Ida herself has sometimes to poke a candy in the bottom—if it feels one way it's "marsh"; another, it's peach; another, it's coconut. But my feeling is not educated and I poke, and then end by having to bite, and then, just as I discover it is peach, after all, some one has run off with the last box and Ida has to be found and a substitute declared.
Tessie gives up in despair and hurls herself on me. So then Tessie is nearest to me in the whole factory, and Tessie is slow. The faster I pack the more it shows up Tessie's slowness. If Ida scolded Tessie it would break my heart. The thought of the man who owns that factory, and his orders and his profits and his obligations, never enter my or any other packer's head. I will not pack so many boxes that Tessie gets left too far behind.
Then a strange thing happens. All of a sudden I get more interested in packing chocolates than anything else on earth. A little knack or twist comes to me—my fingers fly (for me). I forget Tessie. I forget the time. I forget my feet. How many boxes can I pack to-day? That is all I can think of. I don't want to hear the noon bell. I can't wait to get back after lunch. I fly out after the big boxes to pack the little boxes in. In my haste and ignorance I bring back covers by mistake and pack dozens of little boxes in covers. It must all be done over again. Six hundred boxes I pack this day. I've not stopped for breath. I'm not a bit tired when 6 o'clock comes round. I ask Ida when she will put me on piecework—it seems the great ambition of my life is to feel I am on piecework. "When you can pack about two thousand boxes a day," says Ida. Two thousand! I was panting and proud over six hundred! "Never mind," says Ida, "you're makin' out fine." Oh, the thrill of those words! I asked her to show me again about separating the paper cups. I didn't have it just right, I was sure. "My Gawd!" sighed Ida, "what ambition!" Yes, but the ambition did not last more than a few days at that pitch.
Tessie wanted to tell me something about her Mann to-day so badly, but could not find the English words. Her joy when I said, "Tell me in German"! How came I to speak German? I'd spent three years in Germany with an American family, taking care of the children. Honest for once.
"That was luck for you," says Tessie.
"That was sure luck for me," says I—honest again.
Wherever Lena works there floats conversation for a radius of three tables. The subject matter is ever the same—"dopes." "Is he big?... Gee! I say!... More like a sister to him.... He never sees the letters." "Lena" (from Ida), "shut up and get to work!" ... "I picked him up Sunday.... Where's them waxing papers?... Third she vamped in two days.... Sure treats a girl swell.... Them ain't pineapples...." "Lee-na! get to work or I'll knock the hell out a ya!" And pretty Lena giggles on: "He says.... She says to him.... Sure my father says if he comes 'round again...."
And Tessie and I; I bend over to hear Tessie's soft, low German as she tells me how good her Mann is to her; how he never, never scolds, no matter if she buys a new hat or what; how he brings home all his pay every week and gives it to her. He is such a good Mann. They are saving all their money. In two years they will go back near Muenchen and buy a little farm.
Tessie and her poor Mann, with his broken elbow and his swollen arm all black and blue, couldn't sleep last night. Oh dear! this New York! One man at one corner he talk about Harding, one man other corner he talk about Cox; one man under their window he talk MacSwiney—New York talk, talk, talk!
Looked like rain to-day, but how can a body buy an umbrella appropriate to chocolate packing at thirteen dollars a week when the stores are all closed before work and closed after? I told Lillian my troubles. I asked Lillian if a cheap umbrella could be purchased in the neighborhood.
"Cheap," sniffs Lillian. "I don't know. I got me a nice one—sample though—at Macy's for twelve-fifty." Lillian may take to her bed after supper, but while she is awake she is going to be every inch to the manner born.
By the time I pack the two thousandth box of "assorteds" my soul turns in revolt. "If you give me another 'assorted' to pack," says I to Ida, "I'll lie down here on the floor and die."
"The hell you will," says Ida. But she gets me fancy pound boxes with a top and bottom layer, scarce two candies alike, and Tessie beams on me like a mother with an only child. "That takes the brains!" says Tessie. "Not for me! It gives me the ache in my head to think of it."
Indeed it near gives me the ache in mine. Before the next to the last row is packed the bottom looks completely filled. Where can four fat chocolates in cups find themselves? I push the last row over gently to make room,—three chocolates in the middle rear up and stand on end. Press them gently down and two more on the first row get out of hand. At last the last row is in—only to discover four candies here and there have all sprung their moorings. For each one I press down gently, another some place else acts up. How long can my patience hold out? Firmly, desperately I press that last obstreperous chocolate down in its place. My finger goes squash through the crusty brown, and pink goo oozes up and out. A fresh strawberry heart must be found. "Ain't no more," announces Fannie. Might just as well tell an artist there is only enough paint for one eye on his beautiful portrait. Of course another chocolate can be substituted. But a strawberry heart was what belonged there!
At last the long rows of boxes are packed, wax paper laid over each—to blow off every time Louie goes by. Then come covers with lovely ladies in low-neck dresses on the tops—and the room so cold, anyhow. Why are all the pictures on all the boxes smiling ladies in scanty attire, instead of wrapped to the ears in fur coats so that a body might find comfort in gazing on them in such a temperature?
Ida comes along and peers in one box. "You can consider yourself a fancy packer now—see?" Harding the night of the election felt less joyous than do I at her words.
This night there is a lecture at the New School for Social Research to be attended. If some of those educated foreigners in our room can go to night school, I guess I can keep up my school. They are all foreigners but Lillian and Sadie and I. Sadie is about the same Indian-summer stage as Lillian and uses even better English. Her eyebrows are also unduly black; her face looks a bit as if she had been trying to get the ring out of the flour with her teeth Halloween. Her lips are very red. Sadie has the air of having just missed being a Vanderbilt. Her boudoir cap is lacy. Her smile is conscious kindness to all as inferiors. One wonders, indeed, what brought Sadie to packing chocolates in the autumn of life—a very wrinkly, powdered autumn. So Lillian, Sadie, and I are the representatives of what the nation produces—not what she gets presented with. As for the rest, there are a Hungarian, two Germans, four Italians, two Spaniards, a Swede, an Englishwoman, and numerous colored folk. Louie is an Italian. Fannie (bless her dear heart! I love Fannie) is colored, with freckles. She is Indian summer too—with a heart of gold. Fannie trudges on her feet all day. Years and years she has been there. At noon she sits alone in the lunch room, and after eating puts her head on her arms and, bending over the cold marble-topped table, gets what rest she can. She was operated on not so long ago, and every so often still has to go to the hospital for a day or so. Everything is at sixes and sevens when Fannie is away.
So then, that night I take my sleepy way to a lecture on "The Role of the State in Modern Civilization." And it comes over me in the course of the evening, what a satisfactory thing packing chocolates is. The role of the State—some say this, some say that. A careful teacher guards against being dogmatic. When it comes to the past, one interpreter gives this viewpoint, due to certain prejudices; another that viewpoint, due to certain other prejudices. When it comes to the future, no sane soul dare prophesy at all. Thus it is with much which one studies nowadays—we have evolved beyond the era of intellectual surety. What an almighty relief to the soul, then, when one can pack six rows of four chocolates each in a bottom layer, seven rows of four chocolates each in the top, cover them, count them, stack them, pile them in the truck, and away they go. One job done—done now and forever. A definite piece of work put behind you—and no one coming along in six months with documents or discoveries or new theories or practices to upset all your labors. I say it is blessed to pack chocolates when one has been studying labor problems for some years. Every professor ought to have a fling at packing chocolates.
Folks wonder why a girl slaves in a factory when she could be earning good money and a home thrown in doing housework. I think of that as I watch Annie. Imagine Annie poking about by her lonesome, saying, "No, ma'm," "Yes, ma'm," "No, sir," "Yes, sir." "Can I go out for a few moments, Mrs. Jones?" "Oh, all right, ma'm!" Annie, whose talk echoes up and down the room all day. She is Annie to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who pokes his nose in our packing room, but they are Tom, Dick, and Harry to her. It is not being called by your first name that makes the rub. It is being called it when you must forever tack on the Mr. and the Mrs. and the Miss. Annie is in awe of no human being. Annie is the fastest packer in the room and draws the most pay. Annie sasses the entire factory. Annie never stops talking unless she wants to. Which is only now and then when her mother has had a bad spell and Annie gets a bit blue. Little Pauline, an Italian, only a few months in this country, only a few weeks in the factory, works across the table from Annie. Pauline is the next quickest packer in our room. She cannot speak a word of English. Annie gives a sigh audible from one end of the room to the next. "My Gawd!" moans Annie to the entire floor. "If this here Eyetalian don't learn English pretty soon I gotta learn Eyetalian. I can't stand here like a dead one all day with nobody to talk to." Pauline might perhaps be reasoning that, after all, why learn English, since she would never get a silent moment in which to practice any of it.
I very much love little Pauline. All day long her fingers fly; all day long not a word does she speak, only every now and then little Pauline turns around to me and we smile at each other. Once on the street, a block or so from the factory, little Pauline ran up to me, put her arm through mine, and caught my hand. So we walked to work. Neither could say a word to the other. Each just smiled and smiled. For the first time in all my life I really felt the melting pot first hand. To Pauline I was no agent of Americanization, no superior proclaiming the need of bathtubs and clean teeth, no teacher of the "Star-spangled banner" and the Constitution. To Pauline I was a fellow-worker, and she must know, for such things are always known, that I loved her. To myself, I felt suddenly the hostess—the generation-long inhabitant of this land so new and strange to little Pauline. She was my guest here. I would indeed have her care for my country, have her glad she came to my home. That day Pauline turned around and smiled more often than before.
I finally settled down to eating lunch daily between Tessie and Mrs. Lewis, the Englishwoman. We do so laugh at one another's jokes. I know everything that ever happened to Tessie and Mrs. Lewis from the time they were born; all the heartbreaking stories of the first homesick months in this my land, all the jobs they have labored at. Mrs. Lewis has worked "in the mills" ever since she was born, it would seem, first in England, later in Michigan. Tessie and her husband mostly have hired out together in this country for housework, and she likes that better than packing chocolates standing up, she says. Mrs. Lewis is—well, she's Indian summer, too, along with Lillian and Sadie and Fannie, only she makes no bones about it (nor does black Fannie, for that matter). Mrs. Lewis is thin and wrinkled, with a skimpy little dust cap on her head. Her nose is very long and pointed, her teeth very false. Her eyes are always smiling. She loves to laugh. One day we were talking about unemployment.
"Don't you know, it's awful in Europe," volunteers Mrs. Lewis.
"One hundred thousand unemployed in Paris alone—saw it in headlines this morning," I advance.
"Paris?" said Tessie. "Paris? Where's Paris?"
If one could always be so sure of one's facts.
Mrs. Lewis wheels about in her chair, looks at me sternly over the top of her spectacles, and:
"Do you know, they're telling me that's a pretty fast country, that France."
"You don't say!" I look interested.
"No—no I haven't got the details yet"—she clasped her chin with her hand—"but 'fast' was the word I heard used."
Irene is a large, florid, bleached blonde. She worked at the table behind me about four days. "Y'know"—Irene has a salon air—"y'know, I jus' can't stand steppen on these soft chocolates. Nobody knows how I suffer. It just goes through me like a knife." She spent a good part of each day scraping off the bottoms of her French-heeled shoes with a piece of cardboard. It evidently was too much for her nerves. She is no more.
The sign reads, "Saturdays 8-12." When Saturday came around Ida hollered down the room, "Everybody's gotta work to-day till five." The howl that went up! I supposed "gotta" meant "gotta." But Lena came up to me.
"You gonna work till five? Don't you do it. We had to strike to get a Saturday half holiday. Now they're tellin' us we gotta work till five—pay us for it, o' course. If enough girls'll stay, pretty soon they'll be sayin: 'See? What ud we tell ya? The girls want to work Saturday afternoons'; and they'll have us back regular again." In the end not a girl in our room stayed, and Ida wrung her hands.
Monday next, though, Ida announced, "Everybody's gotta work till seven to-night 'cause ya all went home Saturday afternoon. Three nights a week now you gotta work till seven." To stand from 1 to 7! One girl in the room belonged to some union or other. She called out, "Will they pay time and a half for overtime?" At which everyone broke into laughter. "Gee! Ida, here's a girl wants time and a half!" Tessie, Mrs. Lewis, Sadie, and I refused to work till 7. Ida used threats and argument. "I gotta put down your numbers!" We stood firm—6 o'clock was long enough. "Gee! You don't notice that last hour—goes like a second," argued Ida. We filed out when the 6-o'clock bell rang.
The girls all fuss over the hour off at noon. It takes at best twenty minutes to eat lunch. For the rest of the hour there is no place to go, nothing to do, but sit in the hard chairs at the marble-topped tables in the whitewashed room for half an hour till the bell rings at 12.50, and you can sit on the edge of a truck upstairs for ten minutes longer. They all say they wish to goodness we could have half an hour at noon and get off half an hour earlier at night.
* * * * *
A tragedy the first pay day. I was so excited when that Saturday came round, to see what it would all be like—to get my first pay envelope. About 11.30 two men came in, one carrying a wooden box filled with little envelopes. Girls appear suddenly from every place and crowd around the two men. One calls out a number, the girl takes her envelope and goes off. I keep working away, thinking you are not supposed to step up till your number is called. But, lo! everyone seems paid off and the men departing, whereat I leave my work with beating heart and announce: "You didn't call 1075." But it seems I was supposed to step up and give 1075. I get handed my little envelope. Connie Parker in one corner, 1075 in the other, the date, and $6.81. Six dollars and eighty-one cents, and I had expected fourteen dollars. (I had told Ida at last that I thought I ought to get fourteen dollars, and she thought so, too, and said she'd "speak to the man" about it.) I clutched Ida—"only six dollars and eighty one cents!" "Well, what more do ya want."
"But you said fourteen dollars."
It seems the week goes Thursday to Thursday, instead of Monday to Saturday, so my first pay covered only three days and a deduction for my locker key.
At that moment a little cry just behind me from Louisa. Louisa had been packing with Irene—dark little, frail little Yiddish Louisa; big brawny bleached-blond Irene.
"I've lost my pay envelope!"
Wan little Louisa! She had been talking to Topsy, Fannie's helper. Her envelope had slipped out of her waist, and when she went to pick it up, lo! there was nothing there to pick—fourteen dollars gone! There was excitement for you. Fourteen dollars in Wing 13, Room 3, was equal to fourteen million dollars in Wall Street. Everybody pulled out boxes and searched, got down on hands and knees and poked, and the rest mauled Louisa from head to foot.
"Sure it ain't in your stocking? Well, look again."
"What's this?"—jabbing Louisa's ribs—"this?"
Eight hands going over Louisa's person as if the anguished slip of a girl could not have felt that stiff envelope with fourteen dollars in it herself had it been there. She stood helpless, woebegone.
Ida rose Napoleon-like to the rescue. "I'll search everybody in the room!"
Whereat she made a grab at Topsy and removed her. "They" say Topsy was stripped to the breezes in Ida's fury, but no envelope.
Topsy, be it known, was already a suspicious character. That very week Fannie's purse had disappeared under circumstances pointing to Topsy. Which caused a strained relationship between the two. One day it broke—such relationship as existed.
Fannie up at her end of the boxes was heard to screech down the line to where Topsy was sorting chocolate rolls:
"How dare you talk to me like that?"
"I ain't talkin' to you!"
"You am. You called me names."
"I never. I called you nothin', you ole white nigger."
"You stand lie to me like that and call me names?"
"Who say lie? I ain't no liar. You shut up; you ain't my boss. I'll call you anythin' I please, sassin' me that way!"
"I didn't sassed you. You called me names."
"I don't care what I called you—I know what you is." Here Topsy gathered all her strength and shouted up to Fannie, "You're a heifer, you is."
Now there is much I do not know about the world, and maybe heifer is a word like some one or two others you are never supposed to set down in so many letters. If so, it is new to me and I apologize. The way Topsy called it, and the way Fannie acted on hearing herself called it, would lead one to believe it is a word never appearing in print.
"You—call—me a heifer?" shrieked Fannie. "I'll tell ya landlady on ya, I will!"
"Don' yo' go mixin' up in my private affairs. You shut yo' mouth, yo' hear me? yo' heifer!"
"I ain't no heifer!"
Fortunately Ida swung into our midst about then and saved folk from bodily injury. A few days later Fanny informed me privately that she don't say nothin' when that nigger starts rowin' with her, but if she jus' has her tin lunch box with her next time when that nigger starts talkin' fresh—callin' her a heifer—her!—she'll slug her right 'cross the face with it.
So Topsy was searched. When she got her garments back on she appeared at the door—a small black goddess of fury. "Yo' fresh Ida, yo'—yessa—yo' jus' searched me 'cause I'm black. That's all, 'cause I'm black. Why don't you search all that white trash standin' there?" And Topsy flung herself out. Monday she appeared with a new maroon embroidered suit. Cost every nickel of thirty-eight dollars, Fannie informed me. In the packing room she had a hat pin in her cap. Some girl heard Topsy tell some other girls she was going stick that pin in Fannie if Fannie got sassin' her again. Ida made her remove the hat pin. In an hour she disappeared altogether and stayed disappeared forever after. "Went South," Fannie told me. "Always said she was goin' South when cold weather started.... Huh! Thought she'd stick me with a hat pin. I was carryin' a board around all mornin'. If she so much as come near me I was goin' to give her a crack aside the head."
* * * * *
But there was little Louisa—and no longer could she keep back the tears. Nor could ever the pay envelope be unearthed. Later I found her sitting on the pile of dirty towels in the washroom, sobbing her heart out. It was not so much that the money was gone—that was awful enough—fourteen dollars!—fourteen dollars!—oh-h-h,—but her mother and father—what would they do to her when she came home and told 'em? They mightn't believe it was lost and think she'd spent it on somethin' for herself. The tears streamed down her face. And that was the last we ever saw of Louisa.
Had "local color" been all we were after, perhaps Wing 13, Room 3, would have supplied sufficient of that indefinitely, with the combination of the ever-voluble Lena and the ever-present labor turnover. Even more we desired to learn the industrial feel of the thing—what do some of the million and more factory women think about the world of work? Remaining longer in Wing 13 would give no deeper clue to that. For all that I could find out, the candy workers there thought nothing about it one way or the other. The younger unmarried girls worked because it seemed the only thing to do—they or their families needed the money, and what would they be doing otherwise? Lena claimed, if she could have her way in the world, she would sleep until 12 every day and go to a show every afternoon. But that life would pall even on Lena, and she giggled wisely when I slangily suggested as much.
The older married women worked either because they had to, since the male breadwinner was disabled (an old fat Irishwoman at the chocolate dipper had a husband with softening of the brain. He was a discharged English soldier who "got too much in the sun in India") or because his tenure of job was apt to be uncertain and they preferred to take no chances. Especially with the feel and talk of unemployment in the air, two jobs were better than none. A few, like Mrs. Lewis, worked to lay by toward their old age. Mrs. Lewis's husband had a job, but his wages permitted of little or no savings. Some of her friends told her: "Oh, well, somebody's bound to look out for you somehow when you get old. They don't let you die of hunger and cold!" But Mrs. Lewis was not so sure. She preferred to save herself from hunger and cold.
Such inconveniences of the job as existed were taken as being all in the day's work—like the rain or a cold in the head. At some time they must have shown enough ability for temporary organization to strike for the Saturday half holiday. I wish I could have been there when that affair was on. Which girls were the ringleaders? How much agitation and exertion did it take to acquire the momentum which would result in enforcing their demands? Had I entered factory work with any idea of encouraging organization among female factory workers, I should have considered that candy group the most hopeless soil imaginable. Those whom I came in contact with had no class feeling, no ideas of grievances, no ambitions over and above the doing of an uninteresting job with as little exertion as possible.
I hated leaving Tessie and Mrs. Lewis and little Pauline. Already I miss the life behind those candy scenes. For the remainder of my days a box of chocolates will mean a very personal—almost too personal for comfort!—thing to me. But for the rest of the world....
* * * * *
Some place, some moonlight night, some youth, looking like a collar advertisement, will present his fair love with a pound box of fancy assorted chocolates—in brown paper cups; and assured of at least a generous disposition, plus his lovely collar-advertisement hair, she will say yes. On the sofa, side by side, one light dimly shining, the nightingale singing in the sycamore tree beside the front window, their two hearts will beat as one—for the time being. They will eat the chocolates I packed and life will seem a very sweet and peaceful thing indeed. Nor will any disturbing notion of how my feet felt ever reach them, no jarring "you heifer!" float across the states to where they sit. Louie to them does not exist—Louie, forever on the run with, "Louie, move these trays!" "Louie, bottoms!" "Louie, tops!" "Louie, cardboards!" "Louie, the truck!" "Louie, sweep the floor! How many times I told you that to-day!" "Louie, get me a box a' ca'mels, that's a good dope!" "Louie, turn out them lights!" "Louie, turn on them lights!" "Louie, ya leave things settin' round like that!" "Louie, where them covers?" and then Louie smashes his fingers and retires for ten minutes.
Nor is Ida more than a strange name to those two on the sofa. No echoes reach them of, "Ida, where them wax papers?" "Ida, where's Fannie?" "Ida, where them picture tops?" "Ida, ain't no more 'coffees.' What'll I use instead?" "Ida! Where's Ida? Mike wants ya by the elevator." "Ida, I jus' packed sixty; ten sixty-two is my number." "Ida, Joe says they want 'drops' on the fifth." "Ida, ain't no more trays." "Ida, gimme the locker-door key. 'M cold—want ma sweater. (Gee! it 'u'd freeze the stuffin' outa ya in this ice box!)"
Those chocolates appeared in a store window in Watertown, and that's enough. Not for their moonlit souls the clang of the men building a new dipper and roller in our room—the bang of the blows of metal on metal as they pierce your soul along about 5 of a weary afternoon. Lena's giggles and Ida's "Lee-na, stop your talk and go to work!... Louie, stop your whistlin'!... My Gawd! girls, don' you know no better n' to put two kinds in the same box? ... Hey, Lena, this yere Eyetalian wants somethin'; come here and find out what's ailin' her.... Fannie, ain't there no more plantations?... Who left that door open?... Louie, for Gawd's sake how long you gonna take with that truck?... Lena, stop your talkin' and go to work...."
And 'round here, there, and every place, "My Gawd! my feet are like ice!" "Say, len' me some of yo'r cardboards—hey?" "You Pearl White [black as night], got the tops down there?" "Hey, Ida, the Hungarian girl wants somethin'. I can't understand her...."
Those two sit on the sofa. The moon shines on the nightingale singing in the sycamore tree. Nor do they ever glimpse a vision of little Italian Pauline's swift fingers dancing over the boxes, nor do they ever guess of wan Louisa's sobs.
286 On Brass
Sweetness and Light.
So now appears the candy factory in retrospect.
Shall we stumble upon a job yet that will make brass seem as a haven of refuge? Allah forbid!
After all, factory work, more than anything so far, has brought out the fact that life from beginning to end is a matter of comparisons. The factory girl, from my short experience, is not fussing over what her job looks like compared to tea at the Biltmore. She is comparing it with the last job or with home. And it is either slightly better or slightly worse than the last job or home. Any way round, nothing to get excited over. An outsider, soul-filled college graduate with a mission, investigates a factory and calls aloud to Heaven: "Can such things be? Why do women stay in such a place?"
The factory girl, if she heard those anguished cries, would as like as not shrug her shoulders and remark: "Ugh! she sh'u'dda seen ——'s factory where I worked a year ago." Or, "Gawd! what does she think a person's goin' to do—sit home all day and scrub the kitchen?"
And yet the fact remains that some things get too much on even a philosophical factory girl's nerves. Whereat she merely walks out—if she has gumption enough. The labor turnover, from the point of view of production and efficiency, can well be a vital industrial concern. To the factory girl, it saves her life, like as not. Praise be the labor turnover!
If it were not for that same turnover, I, like the soul-filled college graduate, might feel like calling aloud, not to Heaven, but to the President of the United States and Congress and the Church and Women's clubs: "Come quick and rescue females from the brassworks!" As it is, the females rescue themselves. If there's any concern it's "the boss he should worry." He must know how every night girls depart never to cross those portals again, so help them Gawd. Every morning a new handful is broken in, to stay there a week or two, if that long, and take to their heels. Praise be the labor turnover, as long as we have such brassworks.
Before eight o'clock of a cold Monday morning (thank goodness it was not raining, since we stood in shivering groups on the sidewalk) I answered the Sunday-morning "ad":
GIRLS AND WOMEN
between 16 and 36; learners and experienced assemblers and foot-press operators on small brass parts; steady; half day Saturday all year around; good pay and bonus. Apply Superintendent's office.
The first prospects were rather formidable—some fifty men and boys, no other girl or woman. Soon two cold females made their appearance and we shivered together and got acquainted in five minutes, as is wont under the circumstances. One rawboned girl with a crooked nose and frizzled blond hair had been married just two months. She went into immediate details about a party at her sister-in-law's the night before, all ending at a dance hall. The pretty, plump Jewess admitted she had never danced.
"What?" almost yelled the bride, "Never danced? Good Gawd! girl, you might as well be dead!"
"You said it!" I chimed in. "Might as well dig a hole in the ground and crawl in it."
"You said it!" and the husky bride and erstwhile (up to the week before) elevator operator at twenty-three dollars a week (she said) gave me a smart thump of understanding. "Girl, you never danced? It's—it's the grandest thing in life!"
The plump Jewess looked a little out of things. "I know," she sighed, "they tell me it 'u'd make me thin, too, but my folks don't let me go out no place."
Whereat we changed to polishing off profiteers and the high cost of living. The Jewish girl's brother knew we were headin' straight for civil war. "They'll be comin' right in folks' homes and killen 'em before a year's out. See if they don't." I asked her if she'd ever worked in a union shop. "Na, none of that stuff for me! Wouldn't go near a union." Both girls railed over the way people were losing their jobs. Anyhow, the bride was goin' to a dance that night, you jus' bet.
At last some one with a heart came out and told the girls we could step inside. By that time there were some ten of us, all ages and descriptions. What would a "typical" factory girl be like, I wonder. Statistics prove she is young and unmarried more than otherwise, but each factory does seem to collect the motleyest crew of a little of everything—old, young, married, single, homely, stupid, bright, pretty, sickly, husky, fat, thin, and so on down the line. Certain it is that they who picture a French-heeled, fur-coated, dolled-up creature as the "typical factory girl" are far wide of the mark. The one characteristic which so far does seem pretty universal is that one and all, no matter what the age or looks, are perfectly willing to tell you everything they know on short acquaintance. At first I felt a hesitancy at asking questions about their personal lives, yet I so much wanted to know what they did and thought, what they hoped and dreamed about. It was early apparent that sooner or later everything would come out with scant encouragement, and no amount of questioning ever is taken amiss. They in turn ask me questions, and I lie until I hate myself.
The plump Jewess was the first interviewed. When she heard the pay she departed. The elevator bride and I were taken together, and together we agreed to everything—wages thirteen dollars a week, "with one dollar a week bonus" (the bonus, as was later discovered, had numerous strings to it. I never did get any). Work began at 7.45, half hour for lunch, ended at 5. The bride asked if the work was dangerous. "That's up to you. Goin' upstairs is dangerous if you don't watch where you put your feet. Eh?" We wanted to start right in—I had my apron under my arm—but to-morrow would be time. I got quite imploring about beginning on that day. No use.
The bride and I departed with passes to get by with the next morning. That was the last I saw of the bride—or any of that group, except one little frozen thing without a hat. She worked three days, and used to pull my apron every time she went by and grin.
The factory was 'way over on the East Side. It meant gettin' up in the dark and three Subways—West Side, the Shuttle, East Side which could be borne amicably in the morning, but after eight and three-quarter hours of foot-press work, going home with that 5-6 rush—that mob who shoved and elbowed and pushed and jammed—was difficult to bear with Christian spirit. Except that it really is funny. What idea of human nature must a Subway guard between the hours of 5 and 6 be possessed of?
At noon I used to open my lunch anxiously, expecting to see nothing but a doughy mass of crumpled rye bread and jam. Several times on the Subway the apple got shoved into my ribs over a period where it seemed as if either the apple or the ribs would have to give in. But by noon my hunger was such that any state of anything edible was as nectar and ambrosia.
I am thinking that even a hardened factory hand might remember her first day at the brassworks. Up three flights of stairs, through a part of the men's factory, over a narrow bridge to a back building, through two little bobbing doors, and there you were admitted to that sanctuary where, according to the man who hired you, steady work and advancement to a rosy future awaited one.