Working with the working woman

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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":


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.

True, I had only the candy factory as a basis of comparison, as far as working experience went. But I have been through factories and factories of all sorts and descriptions, and nothing had I ever seen like the brassworks. First was the smell--the stale smell of gas and metal. (Perhaps there is no such smell as stale metal, but you go down to the brassworks and describe it better!) Second, the darkness--a single green-shaded electric light directly over where any girl was working, but there were areas where there were no workers. Up the end of the floor, among the power presses, all belts and machines and whirring wheels, there were only three or four shaded lights. Windows lined both sides of the floor, but they had never been washed since the factory was built, surely. Anyhow, it was dark and rainy outside. The walls once had been white, but were now black. Dim, dirty, uneven boxes containing brass parts filled the spaces between the long tables where the foot presses stood. Third, the noise--the clump of the foot presses, the whirring of the pattern cutters--one sounded ever like a lusty woodpecker with a metal beak pecking on metal; rollings and rumblings from the floor above; jarrings and shakings from below.

Two-thirds of the entire floor was filled with long tables holding the foot presses--tables which years ago were clean and new, tables which now were worn, stained, and uneven, and permanently dirty. On each side of each long table stood five black iron presses, but there seemed to be never more than one or two girls working at a side. Each press performed a different piece of work--cut wick holes, fitted or clamped parts together, shaped the cones, and what not, but with only two general types of operation so far as the foot part went. One type took a long, firm, forward swing on the pedal; the other a short, hard, downward "kick." With the end of the pressure the steel die cut through the thin brass cone, or completed whatever the job was. As the pedal and foot swung back to position the girl removed the brass part, dropping it in a large box at her right. She kept a small bin on the table at the left of the press filled with parts she was to work on. Around the sides of the floor were the table workers--girls adjusting parts by hand, or soldering.

The other third of the floor was taken up with the machine presses, which mostly clicked away cutting patterns in the brass parts to hold the lamp chimney. In a far corner were the steaming, bleaching tubs where dull, grimy brass parts were immersed in several preparations, I don't know what, to emerge at last shining like the noonday sun.

The cold little girl with no hat, a strange, somewhat unsociable, new person, and I stood there waiting one hour. Some one took our names. The experienced feeling when they asked me where I had worked last and how long was I there, and why did I leave! At the end of an hour the forelady beckoned me--such a neat, sweet person as she was--and I took my initial whack at a foot press. If ever I do run an automobile the edge of first enjoyment is removed. A Rolls-Royce cannot make me feel any more pleased with life than the first ten minutes of that foot press. In ten minutes the job was all done and there I sat for an hour and a half waiting for another. Hard on a person with the foot-press fever. The times and times later I would gratefully have taken any part of that hour and a half to ease my weary soul!

Be it known, if I speak feelingly at times of the weariness of a foot press, that, though nothing as to size, I am a very husky person--perhaps the healthiest of the eight million women in industry! It was a matter of paternal dismay that I arrived in the world female instead of male. What Providence had overlooked, mortal ability would do everything possible to make up for--so argued a disappointed father. From four years of age on I was taught to do everything a boy could or would do; from jumping off cars while they were moving to going up in a balloon. A good part of my life I have played tennis and basketball and hockey, and swum, and climbed mountains, and ridden horseback, and rowed, and fished. I do not know what it is to have an ache or a pain from one end of the year to the other. All of which is mentioned merely because if certain work taxes my strength, who seldom has known what it is to be weary, what can it do to the average factory worker, often without even a fighting physical chance from birth on?

The jobs on our third floor where the girls and women worked concerned themselves with lamps--the old-fashioned kind, city folks are apt to think. Yet goodness knows we seemed during even my sojourn to make more lamp parts than creation ever had used in the heyday of lamps. Well, all but five per cent of farm women still use kerosene lamps, so the government tells us. Also fat Lizzie informed me, when I asked her who in the world could ever use just them lamp cones I made some one particular day, "Lor', child, they send them lamps all over the world!" She made a majestic sweep with both arms. "Some of 'em goes as far--as far--as Philadelphia!" Once we were working on a rush order for fifty thousand lamps of one certain kind. Curiosity got the better of me and I took occasion to see where the boxes were being addressed. It was to a large mail-order house in Chicago.

The first noon whistle--work dropped--a rush for the washroom. Let no one think his hands ever were dirty until he labors at a foot press in a brassworks. Such sticky, grimy, oily, rough blackness never was--and the factory supplies no soap nor towels. You are expected to bring your own--which is all right the second day when you have found it out and come prepared.

The third floor had seemed dark and dismal enough during the morning; at noon all lights are turned off. Many of the workers went out for lunch, the rest got around in dismal corners, most of them singly, and ate by their machines, on the same hard seats they have been on since a quarter to 8. What a bacchanal festival of color and beauty now appeared the candy-factory whitewashed lunch room with the marble-topped tables! The airy sociability of it! I wandered about with my lunch in my hand, to see what I could see. Up amid the belts and power machines sat one of the girls who began that morning--not the cold, hatless one.

"You gonna stick it out?" she asked me.

"Sure. I guess it's all right."

"Oh gee! Ain't like no place I ever worked yet. Don't catch me standin' this long."

She did stand it four days. Minnie suggested then she stick it out till Christmas. "You'll need the money for Christmas y'know, an' you might not get the next job so easy now."

"Damn Christmas!" was all the new girl had to say to that.

"Sure now," said Irish Minnie, "an' she's takin her chances. It's an awful disgrace y'know, to be gettin' presents when y'ain't got none to give back. Ain't it, now? I'd never take no chances on a job so close to Christmas."

I talked to five girls that noon. None of them had been there longer than a week. None of them planned to stay.

All afternoon I worked the foot press at one job. My foot-press enthusiasm weakened--four thousand times I "kicked"--two thousand lamp-wick slots I make in the cones. Many of the first five hundred looked a bit sad and chewed at. The "boss" came by and saw that I was not one hundred per cent perfect. He gave me pointers and I did better. Each cone got placed over a slanted form just so; kick, and half the slot is made. Lift the cone up a wee bit, twist it round to an exact position, hold it in place, kick, and the other half is cut. The kick must be a stout kick--bing! down hard, to make a clean job of it. The thing they gave you to sit on! A high, narrow, homemade-looking, wooden stool, the very hardest article of furniture under the blue canopy of heaven. Some of them had little, narrow, straight backs--just boards nailed on behind. All of them were top heavy and fell over if you got off without holding on. By 4.30 standing up at the candy job seemed one of the happiest thoughts on earth. What rosy good old days those were! Dear old candy factory! Happy girls back there bending over the chocolates!

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