The Blight on the Easter Lilies
EDWIN MARKHAM IN COSMOPOLITAN
Mr. Markham author of “The Man with the Hoe” describes how the holiday seasons are made times of dread and weariness by the cruel demand for child labor.
IN John Bunyan's famous allegory the Interpreter led Pilgrim into a room where he saw water pouring on a fire, and yet the fire was not put out. Then the Interpreter led him to the other side where someone was pouring oil that continually fed the flames; and then he understood.
For years the shame and sorrow oí the tenements have smouldered or blazed in our great cities. We have tried by the outpouring of purse and preachment to drown the iniquity; yet continually it is fed by some vast social waste, by a vast system of industrial injustice which some day must be set right.
To get the full feel of the misery and mockery of life in the tenements one must look into the grim courts where young and old are goaded on by the demands of the holiday preparations. Christmas excepted, our Easter festival lays more burdens on many of our workers than are laid by any other in all the round of the year. That idyllic springtime festival, whether the scholar sees in it only the triumphant memory of the resurrection in the angel-hovered garden; or sees in it an apostolic perpetuation of the Jewish Passover with Christ presented as the paschal lamb; or sees in it a perpetuation of the Saxon fire-feast of Estera, goddess of morning and spring, with Christ represented as the bright sun of righteousness— whichever view is chosen, this immemorial vernal festival has always stood for joy at the wonder of renewed life, life re-arisen—of "life again, light again, love again.” But alas ! this larger, lovelier meaning has well-nigh faded out for our armjr of Easter workers. This generation of the colossal factory and the multitudinous store and the teeming tenement-house has thrown a cloud on the joy even of the Christmas season. "Christmas,” says the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, "has come to be the product, not of Christ-
ian zeal, but of commercial enterprise.” Easter is blighted by the same, mist. It has come to be a season of unnecessary work and of of overwork.
We ought to work only in making things of use or beauty; yet hundreds of Easter workers spend long, hard hours making flimsy cards and tawdry books—long hours shaping and painting glass eggs, paste chickens, plaster rabbits. And thousands of us crowd into the stores to buy these unbeautiful, unmeaning trinkets, to be sent to persons supposed to expect them—a multitude of baubles made in weariness, selected with irk, carried with grievance, and received with regret.
To thousands of those who depend on the almanac and the fashion-plate for light and leading, Easter means only a time of changing styles—a date on which to display new spring gowns and bonnets—a sort of national millinery onening. But to the workers in the shadow, to the workers who display these bright adornings, it means only a blind rush and tug of work that make this solemn festival a time of dread and weariness. They might truly say in tears, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.”
It is not upon the clerks and carriers, however, that the heaviest weight of the Easter season presses. It is upon the makers of flowers and hats and garments. Especially heavy is the pressure on the child worker.
The match-girl and the chimney-sweep are no longer the types of childish oppression. They are obsolete in those old forms, but our sweat-shop children have more than filled their places in every large city. In our tenement homes, licensed or unlicensed, where the garment finishing is done—the tenement homes where every finger must fly till the task is over—it is there, out of reach of legal protection, that thousands of children are robbed ‘of sleep and health, of play and school, to sew for city and nation.
Even if a tenement child goes to school of its own will, or is forced there by the truant officer or by the “cruelty lady,” it must none the less work be fore and after school to help in the season’s rush.
Mr. Scott Nearing in his report tells of one square of twenty-two houses in Philadelphia, in eighteen of which clothing of various sorts is finished for “uptown” tailors. On sunny days the steps are lined with little girls tugging at bastings, or sewing on buttons; and the street—Fairhill is its melodious name—sometimes swarms with children struggling to and fro with loads of garments. Philadelphia, by the way, has now retrograded to a “wide-open” town in sweat-shops. No inspector may now “intrude” upon a home to see if the children are being exploited in filth, or the public is exposed to pestilence. The reason alleged is that “the prying into home life unduly wounds the pride of the sweated workers.” The visit of the undertaker now and then to families of sewers and buyers is still allowable.
It was in this city of “brotherly love” that an eleven-year-old boy, driven last year from a tailor’s shop to school, was at once replaced by another eleven-year-old boy imported from Europe for the purpose. It was also in this considerate city that an armful of coats was tracked from a fashionable shop to a sweated home, from which, a half-hour before, a child in the last stage of scarlet fever had been removed. Had the coats arrived a little sooner they would have been found very serviceable for covering the dying child. Now they would only be flung upon the infected bed.
In these sweat-shop homes any garment from a cotton wrapper to a lace evening robe may be manufactured. Hats and gloves are sewed in some; children’s clothes are made in others; but men’s and boys’ garments head the list in numbers.
Embroidery for caps and blouses and cloaks is a sort of work that needs the eyes and fingers of children. Little hands must keep big cushions of needles threaded and ready for the machines. Each needle is a tiny, glinting thing, an inch long, with a hole in the middle.
Two thousand of these a day are sometimes threaded by a child under constant strain on the nerves. It does not seem to ease the aching eyes and trembling hands to know that the favorite designs for embroidery happen to be the anchor of hope and the eagle of our American liberty.
The dirt and the disease and the distress that are the accompaniments of much of this sweat-shop sewing have been described again and again from the platform by such able and courageous women as Jane Adams of Chicago and Mrs. Maude Nathan, Mrs. Florence Kelley, and Miss Lily Foster of New York.
Mrs. Lillian Betts, long a loving neighbor of the tenements, tells of investigating a number of cases where tenement people had applied for licenses to sew at home. The investigation disclosed pitiful need of the privilege petitioned for. One woman was a widow now forced to leave home to sew in a factory. Her children were the home-keepers. A tiny girl was rubbing and wringing at the family washing down in the reeking courtyard among a bevy of rag-pickers. A little boy was caring for the baby in the dark, musty rooms upstairs, where lately the water pipes had burst and flooded everything. The mother wanted to sew here in order to care for the baby while the children went to school and the boys sold papers morning and evening. This was her pitiful plea—to be allowed to work at home so that her children might have a better chance. And yet the stench and filth of her wretched “home” the danger of infecting a hundred homes from her grimy, germ-laden walls and floors, made “home work” impossible under the law. The woman must continue to go to the factory, leaving behind her the unguarded and unmothered older children to care for the baby and the house.
But even more calamitous than cases like this is the plight of widows unable to work themselves, who must not only keep their children from school, but must send them out into the breadfight—out to factory or mill or mine, to become the wage-earners of the home. God knows, the widow’s need
is often great; and in denying to mothers the right to work at home for their helpless young, and in denying to little children the right to work for needy mothers, the law seems to set a cruel foot upon the neck of the broken poor. But for the larger good of humanity these denials must be: the public and the child must be protected. Still, we ought to have an order of things where this protection would not be at the expense of the mother and the child, of the widow and the fatherless —that class so tenderly commended to our hearts by the beautiful compassion of prophet and apostle.
Society supports its indigents, incompetents and criminals. Why should not society come also to the rescue of the worthy mother and child, anticipating want and illness and crime ? A sort of scholarship fund is, in some cities, already provided for children who would otherwise have to work. This dole of a few dollars is given to the family in place of the little sum the child could earn. This dole, if given by the state, would insure the beginnings of an education for the child and perhaps secure for him a sound body. And this help would cost society no more in the long run than to support him, and his offspring at a later day, in almshouse or in hospital. All widows in need—yes, all worthy families in need—ought to be given this added bolt against the wolf.
Ladies’ collars, such as are piled high on the counters at Easter time and make dainty finish for many an Easter gown, are a ceaseless product of the tenements. Women and girls slowly dying of tuberculosis, others just going down-with fever or coming home from the hospital—such workers, young and old, can stitch at these light, airy things. Dr. Annie Daniels, twenty years a worker among the poor of New York, tells of a little girl of eight, just home from a siege of diphtheria at a hospital and scarcely able to walk across the room, yet stitching diligently at fancy collars, A woman in Newark, New Jersey—one of many—was last year earning her living making fancy collars at ten to fifteen cents a dozen. When, in the busy season, she worked till one
or two in the morning, she made three and a half dozens a day.
New York demands a half-million neckties daily, and at holiday times the number swells. Designers and dyers in the new silk-mills make a special effort to produce new holiday effects. Twentyseven new shades, running from birchbark to mahogany, were the contribution of 1905 to this one beauty-spot left of the vanished pomp of man’s attire.
The secretary of the Hebrew Trades estimates this year that four hundred children are working on neckwear on the East Side alone. Many necktie firms employ the workers in a hundred tenement homes at prices skinned down by the middleman far below the factory’s narrow margin. It is little that is left, for the Committee on Female Labor a few years ago reported necktie-making to be one of the poorestpaid, closest-shaved, and most fine-ridden of all the needle trades.
I recommend that the necktie, this last vestige of man’s vanity, be flung to the waste pile with his purfled hose, his frilled sleeves, and his beribboned periwig, if the folded or flowing lustres of this neck-adornment must cost little children so many hours of weary work. Let men inaugurate a cravatless age, let them fling by this last furbelow, if by so doing they can break one fetter of the bonds laid on little children.
As usual with tenement work, homefinished neckties run every risk of carrying infection from the epidemics lurking or raging in these pest-haunted places. Doctor Daniels tells of a house quarantined by the health officer for scarlet fever, where, nevertheless, during the three weeks of the children’s seclusion, neckties were brought in and taken out three times a week. In “The Ink Pot,” that dark, high tenement known so well to the undertaker and the sweat-master, Mr. Ernest Poole found the necktiemakers busy at their benches. One man, with his little daughter as a helper, was three years coughing out his life over hundreds of stylish cravats. Yes ; dying hands sometimes linger over our cravats long before our own hands tie them.
But with all this dark record there is no other Easter preparation where chil-
dren are so cruelly overworked as in the making of artificial flowers. This craft is simpler than tie-making or collarmaking. As in the old times babes of three were often made to hold candles for English weavers, so with us babes of three are sometimes used to straighten out leaves for flower sprays. Children a little older can twist green tissue-paper around tubes for stems ; and a mite of six can become expert at dipping a stem into a pot of glue and sticking it into the little bubble of glass that is going to be a grape or a cherry in the evolution down the table. The child must be careful, however, not to press too hard on this fragile glass globule, as it breaks easily and cuts the fingers, and may, by an inadvertent rub, get into the eyes.
Italian families have almost a monopoly on artificial-flower work, a trade which has the bad eminence of being the very poorest paid of the sweated trades —worse even than the notorious “pants” finishing. A little family of dark-eyed poverilla—a mother and her children— working at artificial blossoms make a pretty sight ; and the work is not harder than making willow whistles in the field. Stringing flower petals might be a labor for Titania and the fays. Yes ; but a chi,d soon tires even of blowing thistle-down and picking daisies under the June skies, even though he may have the grass for a cushion and the butterfly for a companion. And these little artificial-flower-makers, if too young to go to school, must sit all day at their tables in the “rush” for the Easter season, repeating some one unvarying motion hour after hour, week after week. If they go to school, they must work mornings till school-time and work evenings till they fall asleep ; even longer, perhaps, if their elders can arouse them from their noddings.
These flower-makers, many of them, are children who know grass only as “something to keep off of.” “Consider the lilies,” would mean to them only a command to inspect a bunch of stark paper effigies on the shelf. “Go lovely rose !” would mean only the sending forth of a handful of colored and crumpled cambric. This chopped and dyed
rag-work is all that many of these children know of the glory of the flowers and the splendor of the grass. “Gimme a flower, please,” called a little worker to me as I passed him last fall with a bundle of bronzed oak leaves from the golden hills. I gave him a spray. ‘What is it ? Did youse make it ?” he asked, with shining eyes, and a kind of awe in his voice. “Oak lif, oak lif,” he marinured after me, as if I had given him apples of Hesperides. Poor little beauty-hungry child he was, from the land where Shelley lies among the violets.
I lately visited a factory where a group of girls were making artificial roses. They were working ten hours a day, some of them getting only a dollar and a half a week. The petals, chopped by the “boss” out of cambric, sateen, and velvet, were doled out by the “forelady.” The girls sat at a long table, each with eyes riveted on her own pile. With swift, deft movements, using the little finger of one hand to dip and paste, each girl crumpled two or three bits of cloth about a bit of wire for a centre ; strung on five petals, each with a touch of paste from the alert little finger ; shaped and patted the whole into a little nest ; slipped the pivotal wire into a hollow green tube ; and hooked the finished flower to dry on a flower-hung line in front of her. Swiftly, rhythmically, the ever-flying fingers darted through the motions, keeping time to the unheard but clamorous metronome of need. Many of the girls had inflamed eyes and the strained look of headache—conditions that follow the workers in cheap dyed goods. The faces were dulled, the gaze was listless. Here was another illustration of the tragedy in our civilization— the work that deadens the worker. Will some one ever come with the wisdom to mix leisure and interest into the worker’s life ?
The factories are not far from the home shops. Stand here for a few minutes and you will see the workers coming and going with big square boxes of flowers or the materials for flowers. Let us follow one of these slaves of Flora, big or little, and we will come to a tenement, squalid and filthy. Let us enter one. We go up dark, grimy stair-
ways into a two-room or a three-room apartment, supplied with a dim light from the air-shaft or the reeking court. Here remnants or beginnings of meals are always in sight, there being no stowaway places ; here clothes and kettles hang amicably on the walls together, there being no closets.
A mother and her children are hard at work—all except an unbusinesslike baby that wrnstes precious time sleeping in a stuffy chamber not larger than your bathroom. Let us watch the daisy of Wordsworth taking form in cheap cambric ; for only the cheapest flowers are made in the tenements. A child picks up the pep, a sort of pin that has a soft yellow head to represent the stamens and pistils. This he sticks through two of the white cambric petals. Another child thrusts the lower end of the pep into glue ; still another pushes it into the hollow stem, and low, the daisy is in full flower ! The mother weaves the blossoms into wreaths. Another child counts the wreaths or ties single flowers into bunches. This little accountant would not need to go into the higher calculus to reckon up the pennies earned by the whole family. Each child earns two cents an hour ; the help of the mother raises the average to three cents an hour. Four cents a gross is the sweat-master’s pay for the work. The mother puts in sixty hours a week, and the children put in ail of their hours out of school. This combined family struggle brings in four dollars a week. Housekeeping and school-going are mere episodes in their brute struggle for existence. The whole aim of life for all these workers is the flowTer-making ; and the whole end of flower-making is four dollars a week. To them the whole meaning of this lighted universe is—four dollars a week !
Another family in this tenement is making pansies. One girl is brilliant with the awful bloom of consumption ; the others are sallow, and all are silent. In the “season” they work till one o’clock in the morning, and six dollars a week is the pay for their all of life. Truly, “Pansies are for thoughts” when
the pansies come from a forcing-house like this !
Apple blossoms and forget-me-nots are being made in anothet part of J his giirny tenement. The children and the mother get sixteen cents for a dozen wreaths— four hours’ work. Violets bloom in other grimy rooms. “Do you like to make these lovely things ?” asked a visitor, watching a girl whose fingers were flying around the purple petals. “No, I hate them,” was the reply. “I wish God had never made real flowers for us to copy them.” Alas, that beauty should be so dissevered from joy !
This toil of the little children at the flower-tables would be a pretty sight, if we could forget all the losses that go with the sorry gains. For some of them are losing for life their school-chance ; and all of them are losing their playchance, which carries with it their chance for a sound body. Ignorance, joylessness, disease—this, too often, is the litany of their woes. The child is itself a flower, and should not give its bright color of youth to an effigy of bloom, made only to stick into an Easter hat. The child is itself a flower, and should be out bobbing and dipping in the bright breeze. When one knows the tragedy behind the flaunting festoons of our Easter Vanity Fair, the robberies of the children that go to the prospering of these vampire blossoms, then the flower on the hat loses “all the graces of a flower,” as the delicate aigret loses its charm when one remembers that it has been murderously plucked from a mother birdf
New York city makes four-fifths of all the artificial flowers worn on the hats of America. And Mr. Leroy Scott, to whose report I am indebted, has made an estimate showing that seventy-four per cent, of all persons working in New York on artificial flowers are children under fourteen ; and that more than half of these are ten or under ten. What a tragedy in the name of beauty ! What loveliness wasted to make a simulacrum of loveliness ! Surely, friends, the sprays and garlands of the blaster blossoms are blighted by some drear mist from the gardens of death.