As the Working Girl Sees It
The Daily Experience of Those who Earn Their Living in Shops and Factories—Opportunities When Properly Appreciated Lead to Promotion and Liberal Wages—The Thoughts, Conversation and Pastimes of the Frivolous Ones—Child-Labor Strongly Denounced.
Elizabeth Howard Westwood in the Craftsman Magazine.
A LITTLE while ago I read an interesting book called "The Tragedy of the Wage Earner. It was written
by a lady who said she had given up pleasure and wealth to bring a little happiness into the wretched lives of the women who were prisoners of toil. She made a kind of fairy story out of it and pretended that the “time clock” was a three-headed dog that snarled every time you put your card in and bit you if you were late. She made believe that the factory was a big dungeon and the noises of the machinery were groans of the prisoners. She said that paper boxes and silk waists were made out of blood. She thought the foreman was a cruel monster who crushed women and little children to pieces and then ate their flesh dripping with gore. It was an awfully sad story and I cried myself to sleep over it, and dreamed all night that I was fighting with a big fiery-eyed dragon that was trying to smother me to death.
When I told the girls about it at the factory, they said “hot air” and “guff,” and Mayme Carrol, who goes to a club at a settlement, said there was two gangs of working girls—the kind rich ladies . lake stories out of and just the common, ordinary, everyday ones like all of us.
The only way I am like her kind of wage earner is that I was born to work. She calls it a heritage. My mother and my grandmother and their mothers way back were peasants in Germany, and there wasn’t anything they didn’t do from milking cows to weaving cloth. When I got through the grammar school, my father said I didn’t have to work unless I wanted to, he was
making big enough wages to keep me, and I could do as I pleased. But mother said, "Nonsense,” she wasn’t going to have me putting on airs walking the streets and getting into bad company. I was going to earn my money and put it into a bank so when 1 got married I’d have something to start on the way my sisters did. If I had. stayed home I’d have been cured soon enough I guess, for Jennie Luke and Sadie Grady who thought they were too good to work with the rest of us in the silk factory got so sick of having nothing to do that vhey came and begged the forelady to take them on. It was all right in the summer when they could go to places every day, but in the winter they couldn't stand it; they were so lonesome they wanted the work.
Most of the girls hated the forelady, she was too strict, they said, but she and I got on real well, and I often think of the things she used to tell me. I was messenger girl in the office and I used to go out and buy lunch at the bakery round the corner for her and the bookkeeper. The bookkeeper wore a lace waist and lots of rings and was as stuck up as if she’d been a school teacher. But sometimes the forelady used to ask me to eat my lunch with her on the second landing, and she’d give me one of her cream puffs. One day she was real mad at two spinners who said they wouldn’t stay another day in that factory and be bossed around by such a slob.
“That’s just the way with them girls,” she told me. “They think it’s smart to be so independent. They started in to work here for three dollars and fifty cents a
week and they’ve raised themselves to six dollars. Now just because I called them down for being late :>o much, they're going to quit. They won't be making that in a new place for a long time. If they was like me, with a sick sister and two children to look after, they’d think twice before they kicked a good job. Not that I'd stay in a place if there was a good reason for leaving. I've seen times when 1 was glad enough to get out and begin again.”
I didn't know what she meant then, but I've found out since. Why I've known lots of girls that never stayed at one job more’n two or three months. They were so touchy they couldn't stand being called down, and they didn't care whether they learned or not. But when the foreman got fresh or a customer with a llashy shirt stud asked them to go out to dinner they’d think it was real funny. I've never seen the time yet when 1 couldn't get something to do, if the men got too fresh ; nor I haven’t any patience with a girl who is afraid to give up a four-dollar jub at box-making when her boss don't pay her extra for night work and keeps back her wages. But just the same when she's found work she likes she'll never get to be a forelady unless she sticks at it.
Mrs. Jenkins used to tell me that I was smart enough to do real well if I kept at business and wasn't too full of notions. She said I was young enough to try different kinds of work and see which I liked best. You could work a lot better and get more out of life if you just liked the thing you were doing. She said there wasn’t anything she liked better than the sound of the looms and the rattle of the wheels. She just loved to see the shuttles fly back and forth like lightning, leaving a little inch of silk every time until before you knew it your piece was finished and you had yards and yards of silk readv to go right to the stores. She said life always seemed just like that to her. and the kind of pattern you got on your silk didn't depend on anything but how your loom was harnessed. That's how Mrs. Jenkins felt about weaving and she said I’d know it quick enough when I found my own work. I’d like it so much that I'd think twice before I married and left it. Pretty soon the silk mill where I was working shut down for two months and our bunch got other places.
After I left the mill, I was sort of home-
sick for it at first. I'd got to feel at home there, and I missed Mrs. Jenkins and all the spinners and even the stuck-up bookkeeper. Not that I didn’t like the store where we all got places. I was stock girl in the jewelry department, and it was as good as reading a novel to hang the necklaces on the show rods and to fill trays with rings and pins. And the customers might have been duchesses and countesses. They looked like the kind I read about in “The Marriage of Lady Algernon.” It was a high-toned department store and we got the carriage trade. There was always lots doing; every day had something exciting.
I used to like to hear the salesladies talk. They had lots of gentlemen friends and always went to balls Saturday nights and spent most of their money for clothes. We stock girls all went in a bunch. We had our lunch together and used to tell each other everything.
But I hadn’t been there long when I knew it wasn’t the place for me. I kept wanting to do something with my hands and do it better than anybody else and have it all for my own. Now it was different with Jennie Luke. From the first day she went into that store she was just fascinated with it. One Sunday when we’d been there a few weeks we took a walk together in the Park and Jennie said that she’d decided she wasn’t going to be satisfied until she got to be a buyer. She just laid awake, at night thinking about it and planning how some day she’d go to Paris and spend thousands and thousands of dollars buying hats or dresses. Then when she’d brin'g them home they’d sell better than any other store’s. Would you believe it, that is just what has happened. Before she’d worked there two months she got to be a saleslady in the children’s wear department. She was so quick and so pleasant that she made more sales than some of the old girls and she went to work and learned everything she could about the business. She got promoted right along. They took to her ; she always had so many good ideas for making dresses sell. She got to be head of stock and then assistant buyer, and two years ago when the buyer left she took her place and now she has five thousand dollars a year and a lot more ofif commissions. That just shows what you can do if you like your work, the way Mrs. Jen-
kins said. It’s funny, Sally Grady was just the other way. She wasn’t the same girl when a fellow was around, she’d show off so. She got in with the bleachv blonde crowd right away, and Jennie and I couldn’t do anything with her. Everybody knew what they were with their face paint and their hair dye and the decent girls wouldn’t be seen with them. Mrs. Jenkins told me before I left the mill that I mustn’t ever have gentlemen friends where I worked.
“You have your friends outside,” she said, “and make them come and see you at your house when your mother and father are around, and they’ll always treat you square. But a fellow don’t think any more than the dirt under his feet of a girl he can be free with in the store and meet on the street corners.” We told Sally that, but it didn’t make any difference. I don’t know where she is now, and her family haven’t heard from her for years.
Then some of our bunch went into a candy factory, but most of the girls there were such a tough lot and talked so nasty that I didn't like it. The very noon I left there I passed a sign that said, “Wanted— Girls on Caps. Paid while Learning.” The place looked bright and nice and I liked the girls who were going in the door. So I walked into the office and got a place to begin right away.
I often think of that afternoon when I saw the long workroom for the first time. It was all so clean and pretty with the heaps of lace and silk and ribbons and the big piles of white boxes full of finished caps. They were just lovely. And the girls were so happy. They sang all the time just as if they were at home, and didn't stop when the foreman came around. They were real kind, too, and my learner who showed me how to run lace didn't holler when I made a mistake and spoiled a ruffle. She just learned me how to work my machine so I wouldn’t get in a snarl and said I’d be doing fine soon.
Well, I liked making caps and before I’d been at it long I knew I’d found the trade for me. You didn’t get laid off when business was slack; it was steadv work all the year round and I didn’t miss a day in three years. We didn’t have to begin work till eight o’clock and we got through at five, and on Saturday at three. Then the pay was good. I got six dollars a week when
1 was just a lace runner. After I got to be a lining hand I went on piece work and so 1 made thirteen and fourteen dollars a week. Why, if a girl couldn’t earn ten dollars she wasn’t much use. The boss was real pleasant. He knew most of the girls by name and he used to give us presents on Christmas. On Hallowe'en we always had a party with big cakes and cider.
When I left to marry Jim, Mr. Halstein gave me a silver cake basket and told me that if I ever had to work again there’d be a place for me there. So after Jim and little Hans were taken off in one week with the diphtheria I came back again. ’Twasn’t that Jim was a bad provider. I got enough from his lodge to keep me and Gretta and I had money saved of my own. But I got awful restless thinking of how, if I’d just got another doctor, perhaps Jim wouldn’t have died and ’twasn't as if I’d ever marry again. I'm not like lots of women. If I can’t have the man I want, I won’t take anyone. Then I was young and strong and I didn’t see any reason w hy I shouldn’t be making money and saving it against the time when we were sick or Gretta was grown and wanted pretty things. My mother didn’t have any home now. Lather was dead and all the children off and married, so she was real glad to come and look after Gretta and make things pleasant for me when I got home after work.
’Twasn’t long before I was made a foreladv at twenty dollars a week. That’s ten vears ago and* I’m there yet. There’s been lots of changes. The business has grown and we’ve beaten most of our old rivals. Our workroom is almost twice as large as when I first came. We’ve changed foremen twice and we have nearly two hundred girls. I’ve seen girls come and go—all kinds, too, some of them downright bad. some of them silly, some real nice and bright and bound to come to success. Most of them are good-hearted, though, if you get them the right way. I know my girls pretty well. T hire them and pay them and discharge them, and they come and tell me about their fellows and their troubles at home. But even the best of them with real good sense don’t think about anything but new hats and how to .fix their hair, and what thev’rc going to do that night. They’d rather have a fellow that will treat them to soda water and take them to the theatre than a raise in salary any day. They are
just like the real rich ladies I’ve heard about who don’t care for anything but clothes and a good time. Lots of them get big wages and you d think they d go to night schools and learn some more or that they’d fix up their homes real tasty and study how to cook and sew. It don't cost much to do any of them. But they don t. Thev walk the streets and go out with their crowd. It’s hard enough to get them to save their money.
There’s one thing I won’t ever do and that’s to take girls who haven't got their working papers, no matter how short I am for help. • Taint that I’m afraid of getting caught by the factory inspector. Land, no ! Alfthe factories I know use little children, some of them nine or ten. but I never heard of one being fined. I think it s a shame to let children work. There ain’t much I can do to stop it, but I ain’t going to miss the chance 1 have.
Once when I hadn’t been forelady very long, a smart looking girl came in and asked "for a job. She said she was sixteen, and didn’t need working papers, but I knew better. As I found out later she was just twelve. I gave her a good lecture and told her to go back to school that very afternoon. Would you believe it, she just broke down and cried. She hadn’t any mother or father and her aunt wouldn't keep her any longer. Of course I knew she could get work at the next place she went, but my heart kind of went out to her, she was so little not to have any home and she looked so pinched and hungry. And I thought of Gretta left like that. Well. I just up and took her home with me. I sent Rose to school and fed her and clothed her just like my own. If I’d been looking for a reward, which I wasn’t, I’d have had it time and again. Why, Rose just made the older sister for Gretta that she needed, and she’s been lots of company for me. I don’t know what we’d have done all these years without her. She was real bright and when she got through grammar school, I made her go to the high for a year. But she didn’t care for books and wanted to get to work. So I took her in the factory and she makes bigger wages than any girl there, instead of the six dollars a week she’d have got raised to by now if she d gone to ore of those factories where they give little girls two dollars to begin on.
She’s paid me back in good board all I
ever spent on her, I guess I couldn’t be prouder of her if she was Gretta. When she marries Jennie Luke’s nephew next summer the factory will lose one of the best girls it ever had.
Yes, I like my work and I can’t think of anything that would make me give it up except if Jim came back to life. It has sort of grown on me as the years have gone by until it’s part of me just like Gretta. I don’t know anything that makes me happier than to come into the factory a nice spring morning when the air just makes you feel like waking up and doing things. The floor is all swept up and the machines are clean. The cutter has bolts of muslin ready to cut out into summer caps and the girls’ have stacks of work piled up by them ready to begin on. Out in the office the mail is piled up on the desk with a lot of orders, and the salesmen write that our caps sell the best in the market.
When I bid good-morning to the girls on a morning like that, they’ll say, “Oh, now don’t you wish you was rich and didn’t have to work this morning and could just go riding off to the country in a grand automobile ?”
And I say, “Nonsense, I wouldn’t change places with the King of England. It s just a grand day to work. I’ve got too many new girls to break in to be thinking of automobiles and if I get all my orders filled and out to-night I guess I’ll be happier than all the millionaires going.” It is just grand to work then and I feel as if there weren’t anything I couldn’t do.
The boss has been real good to me. He’s raised my salary every year since I was forelady. In the summer he gives me a month’s vacation with pay. Then when business isn’t so rushed he often lets me take an afternoon off to go shopping or anything. Once when I had the pneumonia he sent his own doctor to pull me through and his wife used to come real often and bring flowers and sometimes books. Then, too, what I say goes, and the girls know there ain’t any use of getting him to take their side when I have gwen them an order.
There’s lots of cpieer things that happens ro me. One day a young lady came to see me at the factory and tried to get me to make my girls join a union. She was dressed real nice and she said she had been to a college and knew all about the trials
and injustices of a working woman. I didn’t know just what she meant, hut l said it was hard enough work to get the girls to spend the money they did make in a sensible way, and if she wanted the job of teaching them how to earn more she was welcome to it. And at that she Hared up and said I didn’t have the interests of the Cause at heart and wasn’t willing to help my sisters in distress. I got mad in my turn, and I told her she could just get out of that factory and stay out. I haven’t anything against unions if women want them, and have the time for them. I knowlots of women want to he bosses. But I’ve never seen the time yet when we’ve had all the hands we wanted, and if a girl hasn’t gumption enough to find a good place she won’t do much in a union.
A lew years ago I moved over near a night school and I've taken lots of evening courses, but it’s kind of hard work when I’m busy all day and that’s the only time I have at home with Gretta and mother. Still I’m going to keep at it till I’ve taken all the regular courses and then when Gretta goes to high school in a year or so I can help her with her lessons.
The other night I’d been working late after the girls left, filling up my stock. It was getting dark when I came down the stairs, and the streets were full of people hurrying home to hot suppers and an evening when they could do what they pleased. It was just the kind of night I like best of all, when it’s still w-arm, but you can kind of feel fall in the air ; you know the hot summer’s over ; the girls are all back from their vacations; everything’s starting up regular for the winter.
I stopped by the old church to get some chestnuts for Gretta, they were the first of the season. The chestnut vendor’s stove
was hot and his torch was blowing in the wind and giving things a (p'.eer look. Just as 1 got my change there wa> a toot and down the street came a big automobile, the children and the dogs clearing the way for it. Right on the front seat was a lady in beautitul clothes. She wasn't paying any attention to the people next to her, she was just leaning forward and looking about kind of eager. As the automobile slowed up for a truck, a torch threw a big spot of light on the lady and I looked right in her face. And in a minute I knew she felt just the way I did. Wasn’t it funny now, slic’d been riding in an automobile all day long, dressed in silks and satins, with all the money she wanted, servants to wait on her, and nothing to do but to have a good time ; here was I making caps every day from morning to night, year in and year out, with a mother and a little girl depending on what I earned and just my own hands between us and charity. And yet we felt just the same. As this Hashed over me she turned and we looked right in each other's eyes and she knew it too. We smiled across at each other, and then the automobile was off. I haven’t ever seen her since, but I often think of her, so sweet and pretty, just like a fairy in all that dirt, and she feeling just like me. But she don’t know a bit about my kind of life and I don’t know about hers.
That’s just the way with the “tragedy of the wage earner.” 1 guess that the rich lady who wrote it don't know any more about the good times my girls have than they do about her kind of troubles. Ever since that night in the fall I've known that cap-making and automobiles haven't got anything to do with how people feel inside. If that lady or I was to write a book, I guess they'd high read about the same.