Working with the working woman



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I teach them "My Heart's a Little Bird Cage," and we add that to our repertoire. Then we go on to "Nearer, My God, to Thee," "Lead, Kindly Light," "Rock of Ages."

It appears we are a very religious lot on our floor. All the colored girls are Baptists. Miss Cross is an ardent Presbyterian, Annie is an Episcopalian, Edna and Mrs. Reilly are Catholics, but Edna knows all the hymns we daily sing.

And, lo! before many days I am startled by hearing Lucia sing--woebegone Lucia. She sings to no tune whatever and smiles at me, "Sunbeam, Sunbeam, Sunbeam, Sunbeam." So she has learned one English word in sixteen years. That is better in quality than German Tessie did. She told me, at the candy factory, that the first thing she learned in English was "son of a gun."

But as a matter of fact Lucia does know two other words. Once I ironed a very starched nightgown. It was a very, very large and gathered nightgown. I held it up and made Lucia look at it.

Lucia snickered. "Da big-a, da fat-a!" said Lucia.

Mrs. Reilly let out a squeal. "She's learnt English!" Mrs. Reilly called down the line.

"And," I announce, "I'll teach her 'da small-a, da thin-a.'"

Thereafter I held up garments to which those adjectives might apply, and tried to "learn" Lucia additional English. Lucia giggled and giggled and waited every evening to walk down the six flights of stairs with me, and three blocks until our ways parted. Each time I patted her on the back when we started off and chortled: "Hey, Lucia, da big-a, da fat-a!" Lucia would giggle again, and that is all we would have to say. Except one night Lucia pointed to the moon and said, "Luna." So I make the most of knowing that much Italian.

Oh yes, Lucia and I had one other thing in common. One day at the laundry I found myself humming a Neapolitan love song, from a victrola record we have. Lucia's face brightened. The rest of the afternoon I hummed the tune and Lucia sang the words of that song, much to Mrs. Reilly's delight, who informed the floor that now, for sure, Lucia was in love again.

There was much singing on our floor. Irma used often to croon negro religious songs, the kind parlor entertainers imitate. I loved to listen to her. It was not my clothes she was ironing. Hattie, down the line, mostly dwelt on "Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam." Hattie had straight, short hair that stood out all over her head, and a face like a negro kewpie. She was up to mischief seven hours of the nine, nor could Miss Cross often subdue her. Hattie had been on our floor four years. One lively day Irma was singing with gusto "Abide With Me." For some reason I had broken into the rather unfactory-like ballad of "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and Lucia was caroling some Italian song lustily--all of us at one and the same time. Finally Miss Cross called over, "For land's sakes, two of you girls stop singing!" Since Irma and I were the only two of the three to understand her, we made Christian martyrs of ourselves and let Lucia have the floor.

Miss Cross was concerned once as to how I happened to know so many hymns. Green earrings do not look particularly hymny. The fact was, I had not thought of most of the hymns our sixth floor sang since I was knee high. In those long ago days a religious grandmother took me once to a Methodist summer camp meeting, at which time I resolved before my Maker to join the Salvation Army and beat a tambourine. So when Miss Cross asked me how I knew so many hymns, and the negro-revivalist variety, I answered that I once near joined the Salvation Army. "You don't say!" said the amazed Miss Cross.

One day Miss Cross and Jacobs, a Jew who bossed some department which brought him often to our floor, to see, for instance, should they wash more curtains or do furniture covers, had a great set-to on the subject of religion. Jacobs was an iconoclast. Edna left her handkerchiefs to join in. I eavesdropped visibly. Jacobs 'lowed there was no hell. Whereat Miss Cross and Edna wanted to know the sense of being good. Jacobs 'lowed there was no such thing as a soul. Miss Cross and Edna fairly clutched each other.

"Then what is there that makes you happy or unhappy, if it ain't your soul?" asked Miss Cross, clenchingly.

"Oh, hell!" grunted Jacobs, impatiently, after having just argued there was no such place.

Jacobs uttered much heresy. Miss Cross and Edna perspired in anguish. Then I openly joined the group.

Miss Cross turned to me. "I tell you how I feel about Christianity. If a lot of these educated college professors and lawyers and people like that, when they read all the books they do and are smart as they are--if Christianity is good enough for them, it's good enough for me!"

Jacobs was so disgusted that he left.

Whereat Edna freed her soul of all the things she wanted to say about hell and punishment for sins. She went too far for Miss Cross. Edna spoke of thieves and murderers and evildoers in general, and what they ought to get in both this world and the next. Quite a group had collected by this time.

Then Miss Cross turned to us all and said: "We're in no position to pass judgment on people that do wrong. Look at us. Here we are, girls what have everything. We got nice homes, enough to eat and wear, we have 'most everything in the world we want. We don't know what it's like to be tempted, 'cause we're so fortunate. An' I say we shouldn't talk about people who go wrong."

That--in a laundry.

And only Edna seemed not to agree.

* * * * *

To-day at lunch the subject got around to matrimony. Eleanor said: "Any girl can get married, if she wants to so bad she'll take any old thing, but who wants to take any old thing?"

"Sure," I added, cockily. "Who wants to pick up with anyone they can vamp in the Subway?"

Whereupon I get sat upon and the line of argument was interesting. Thus it ran:

After all, why wasn't a man a girl vamped in the Subway the safest kind? Where did working girls get a chance to meet men, anyhow? About the only place was the dance hall, and goodness knows what kind of men you did meet at a dance hall. They were apt to be the kind to make questionable husbands; like as not they were "sports." But the Subway! Now there you were more likely to pick up with the dependable kind. Every girl at the table knew one or several married couples whose romances had begun on the Subway, and "every one of 'em turned out happy." One girl told of a man she could have vamped the Sunday before in the Subway, but he was too sportily dressed and she got scared and quit in the middle. The other girls all approved her conduct. Each expressed deep suspicion of the "sporty" man. Each supported the Subway romance.

I withdrew my slur on the same.

* * * * *

A guilty feeling came over me as the day for leaving the laundry approached. Miss Cross and I had become very friendly. We planned to do all sorts of things together. Our floor was such a companionable, sociable place. It didn't seem square to walk off and leave those girls, black and white, who were my friends. In the other factories I just disappeared as suddenly as I came. After a few days I could not stand it and penned a jiggly note to Miss Cross. Unexpectedly, I was going to have to move to Pennsylvania (that was true, for Christmas vacation). I hated to leave her and the girls, etc., etc. I was her loving friend, "Constance," alias "Sunbeam."

IV

In a Dress Factory

Fingers poke through cold holes in the wool mittens; the old coat with two buttons gone flaps and blows about the knees; dirt, old papers, spiral upward on the chill gusts of a raw winter day. Close your eyes, duck your head, and hurry on. Under one arm is clutched the paper bag with lunch and the blue-checked apron. Under the other the old brown-leather bag. In the old brown-leather bag is an old black purse. In the old black purse are fifty-five cents, a key, and a safety pin. In the old brown bag are also two sticks of Black Jack chewing gum, a frayed handkerchief, and the crumpled list of possibilities. If you should lose the list!

That list was copied from the Sunday World--from the "Female Help Wanted, Miscellaneous." The future looked bright Sunday. Now after four attempts to land jobs had ended in being turned down cold, the future did not look bright at all. Because, you understand, we are going on the assumption that the old black purse in the old brown bag with fifty-five cents and a key and a safety pin were all that stood between us and--well, a number of dismal things. Which was fifty-five cents and a key and a safety pin more than some folk had that Monday morning in New York.

You must know in days of unemployment that it is something of a catastrophe if you do not land the first job you apply for Monday morning. For by the time you reach the second place on the list, no matter how fast you go, it is apt to be filled up from the group who were waiting there from 7.30 on, as you had waited at your first hope. The third chance is slimmer still by far, and if you keep on until 10 or 11 it is mostly just plain useless.

And if you do not land a job Monday, that whole week is as good as lost. Of course, there is always a chance--the smallest sort of hopeless chance--that something can be found later on in the week. The general happening is that you stake your all on the 7.30 to 8.30 wait Monday morning. Often it is 9 before the firm sees fit to announce it wants no more help, and there you are with fifty-five cents and a key and a safety pin--or less--to do till Monday next.

Strange the cruel comfort to be felt from the sight of the countless others hurrying about hopelessly, hopefully, that raw Monday morning. On every block where a firm had advertised were girls scanning their already worn-looking lists, making sure of the address, hastening on. Nor were they deterred by the procession marching away--even if some one called, "No use goin' up there--they don't want no more." Perhaps, after all, thought each girl to herself, the boss would want her. The boss did not.

First, early in the morning and full of anticipation I made for the bindery on West Eighteenth Street. That sounded the likeliest of the possibilities. No need to get out the paper to make sure again of the number. It must be where that crowd was on the sidewalk ahead, some thirty girls and as many men and boys. Everyone was pretty cheerful--it was twenty minutes to eight and most of us were young. Rather too many wanted the same job, but there were no worries to speak of. Others might be unlucky--not we. So our little group talked. Bright girls they were, full of giggles and "gee's." Finally the prettiest and the brightest of the lot peered in through the street doors. "Say, w'at d'ye know? I see a bunch inside! Come on!"

In we shoved our way, and there in the dismal basement-like first floor waited as many girls and men as on the sidewalk. "Good night! A fat show those dead ones outside stand!" And we passed the time of day a bit longer. The pretty and smart one was not for such tactics long. "W'at d'ye say we go up to where the firm is and beat the rest of 'em to it!" "You said it!" And we tore up the iron stairs. On the second flight we passed a janitor. "Where's the bindery?"

"Eighth floor."

"My Gawd!" And up seven flights we puffed in single file, conversation impossible for lack of wind.

The bright one opened the door and our group of nine surged in. There stood as many girls and men as were down on the first floor and out on the sidewalk.

"My Gawd!" There was nothing else to say.

We edged our way through till we stood by the time clock. The bright one was right,--that was the strategic point. For at 8.30 a forelady appeared at that very spot, just suddenly was--and in a pleasant tone of voice announced, "We don't need any more help, male or female, this morning!" Two scared-looking girls just in front of me screwed up their courage and said, pleadingly, "But you told us Saturday we should come back this morning and you promised us work!"

"Oh, all right! Then you two go to the coat room."

Everyone looked a bit dazed. At least one hundred girls and over that many men had hopes of landing a job at that bindery--and they took on two girls from Saturday.

We said a few things we thought, and dashed for the iron stairs. We rushed down pell-mell, calling all the way. By this time a steady procession was filing up. "No use. Save your breath." Some kept on, regardless.

From the bindery I rushed to a factory making muslin underwear. By the time I got there--only six blocks uptown--the boss looked incredulous that I should even be applying at such an advanced hour, although it was not yet 9. No, he needed no more. From there to the address of an "ad" for "light factory work," whatever it might turn out to be. A steady stream of girls coming and going. Upstairs a young woman, without turning her head, her finger tracing down a column of figures, called out, "No more help wanted!"

A rush to a wholesale millinery just off Fifth Avenue--the only millinery advertising for learners. The elevator was packed going up, the hallway was packed where we got out. The girls already there told us newcomers we must write our names on certain cards. Also we must state our last position, what sort of millinery jobs we expected to get, and what salary. The girl ahead of me wrote twenty-eight dollars. I wrote fourteen dollars. She must have been experienced in some branch of the trade. All the rest of us at our crowded end of the entry hall were learners. The "ad" here had read "apply after 9.30." It was not yet 9.30. A few moments after I got there, my card just filled out, the boss called from a little window: "No more learners. All I want is one experienced copyist." There was apparently but one experienced copyist in the whole lot. Everyone was indignant. Several girls spoke up: "What made you advertise learners if you don't want none?" "I did want some, but I got all I want." We stuffed the elevator and went on down.

As a last try, my lunch and apron and I tore for the Subway and Park Place, down by the Woolworth Building. By the time I reached that bindery there were only two girls ahead of me. A man interviewed the younger. She had had a good bit of bindery experience. The man was noncommittal. The very refined middle-aged woman had had years of experience. She no sooner spoke of it than the man squinted his eyes at her and said: "You belong to the union then, don't you?" "Yes," the woman admitted, with no hesitation, "I do, but that makes no difference. I'm perfectly willing to work with nonunion girls. I'm a good worker and I don't see what difference it should make." The man turned abruptly to me. "What bindery experience have you had?" I had to admit I had had no bindery experience, but I made it clear I was a very experienced person in many other fields--oh, many other--and so willing I was, and quick to learn.

"Nothing doing for you."

But he had advertised for learners.

"Yes, but why should I use learners when I turned away over seventy experienced girls this morning, ready to do any work for any old price?"

I was hoping to hear what else he might say to the union member, but the man left me no excuse for standing around.

I ate my lunch at home.

When the next Sunday morning came, again the future looked bright. I red-penciled eleven "ads"--jobs in three different dress factories, sewing buttons on shoes. You see, I have to pick only such "ads" as allow for no previous experience--it is only unskilled workers I am eligible to be among as yet; girls to pack tea and coffee, to work for an envelope company, in tobacco, on sample cards; girls to pack hair nets, learners on fancy feathers, and learners to operate book-sewing machines.

The rest of the newspaper told much of trouble in the garment trades. I decided to try the likeliest dress factory first. I was hopeful, but not enough so to take my lunch and apron.

At the first dress factory address before eight o'clock there were about nine girls ahead of me. We waited downstairs by the elevator, as the boss had not yet arrived. The "ad" I was answering read: "WANTED--Bright girls to make themselves useful around dress factory."

Some of us looked brighter than others of us.

Upstairs in the hall we assembled to wait upon the pleasure of the boss. The woodwork was white, the floor pale blue--it was all very impressive.

Finally, second try, the boss glued his eye on me.

"Come in here." A white door closed behind us, and we stood in a little room which looked as if a small boy of twelve had knocked it together out of old scraps and odds and ends, unpainted.

"What experience you have had?"

He was a nice-looking, fairly young Jew, who spoke with a considerable German accent.

"None in a dress factory, but ..." and I regaled him with the vast amount of experience in other lines that was mine, adding that I had done a good deal of "private dressmaking" off and on, and also assuring him, almost tremblingly, I did so want to land a job--that I was the most willing of workers.

"What you expect to get?"

"What will you pay me?"

"No, I'm asking you. What do you expect to get?"

"Fourteen dollars."

"All right, go on in."

If the room where the boss had received me could have been the work of a twelve-year-old, the rest of the factory must have been designed and executed by a boy of eight, or a lame, halt, and blind carpenter just tottering to his grave. There was not a straight shelf. There was not a straight partition. Boards of various woods and sizes had been used and nothing had ever been painted. Such doors as existed had odd ways of opening and closing. The whole place looked as if it had cost about seven dollars and twenty-nine cents to throw together. But, ah! the white and pale blue of the show rooms!

* * * * *

The dress factory job was like another world compared with candy, brass, and the laundry. In each of those places I had worked on one floor of a big plant, doing one subdivided piece of labor among equally low-paid workers busy at the same sort of job as myself. Of what went on in the processes before and after the work we did, I knew and saw nothing. We packed finished chocolates; we punched slots in already-made lamp cones; we ironed already washed, starched, and dampened clothes. Such work as we did took no particular skill, though a certain improvement in speed and quality of work came with practice. One's eyes could wander now and then, one's thoughts could wander often, and conversation with one's neighbors was always possible.

Behold the dress factory, a little complete world of its own on one small floor where every process of manufacture, and all of it skilled work, could be viewed from any spot. Not quite every process--the designer had a room of her own up front nearer where the woodwork was white.

"Ready-made clothing!" It sounds so simple--just like that. Mrs. Fine Lady saunters into a shop, puts up her lorgnette, and lisps, "I'd like to see something in a satin afternoon dress." A plump blonde in tight-fitting black with a marcel wave trips over to mirrored doors, slides one back, takes a dress off its hanger--and there you are! "So much simpler than bothering with a dressmaker."

But whatever happened to get that dress to the place where the blonde could sell it? "Ready-made," indeed! There has to be a start some place before there is any "made" to it. It was at that point in our dress factory when the French designer first got a notion into her head--she who waved her arms and gesticulated and flew into French-English rages just the way they do on the stage. "Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!"--gray-haired Madame would gasp at our staid and portly Mr. Rogers. Ada could say "My Gawd!" through her Russian nose to him and it had nothing like the same wilting effect.

Ready-made--yes, ready-made. But first Madame got her notion, and then she and her helpers concocted the dress itself. A finished article, it hung inside the wire inclosure where the nice young cutter kept himself and his long high table. The cutter took a look at the finished garment hanging on the side of his cage, measured a bit with his yardstick, and then proceeded to cut the pattern out of paper. Whereupon he laid flat yards and yards of silks and satins on his table and with an electric cutter sliced out his parts. One mistake--one slice off the line--Mon Dieu! it's too terrible to think of! All these pieces had to be sorted according to sizes and colors, and tied and labeled. (Wanted--bright and useful girl right here.)

Next came the sewing machine operators (electric power)--a long narrow table, nine machines at a side, but not more than fourteen operators were employed--thirteen girls and one lone young man. They said that on former piece rates this man used to make from ninety dollars to one hundred dollars a week. The operators were all well paid, especially by candy, brass, and laundry standards, but they were a skilled lot. A very fine-looking lot too--some of the nicest-looking girls I've seen in New York. Everyone had a certain style and assurance. It was good for the eyes to look on them after the laundry thirteen-dollar-a-week type.

When the first operators had done their part the dresses were handed over to the drapers. There were two drapers; they were getting around fifty dollars a week before the hard times. One of the drapers was as attractive a girl as I ever saw any place--bobbed hair, deep-set eyes, a Russian Jewess with features which made her look more like an Italian. She spoke English with hardly any accent. She dressed very quietly and in excellent taste. All day long the two draped dresses on forms--ever pinning and pinning. The drapers turned the dresses over to certain operators, who finished all machine sewing. The next work fell to the finishers.

In that same end of the factory sat the four finishers, getting "about twenty dollars a week," but again no one seemed sure. Two were Italians who could talk little English. One was Gertie, four weeks married--"to a Socialist." Gertie was another of the well-dressed ones. If you could know these dress factory girls you would realize how, unless gifted with the approach of a newspaper reporter--and I lack that approach--it was next to impossible to ask a girl herself what she was earning. No more than you could ask a lawyer what his fees amounted to. The girls themselves who had been working long together in the same shop did not seem to know what one another's wages were. It was a new state of affairs in my factory experience.

The finishers, after sewing on all hooks and eyes and fasteners and doing all the remaining handwork on the dresses, turned them over to the two pressers, sedate, assured Italians, who ironed all day long and looked prosperous and were very polite.

They brought the dresses back to Jean and her helper--two girls who put the last finishing touches on a garment before it went into the showroom--snipping here and there, rough edges all smoothed off. It was to Jean the boss called my second morning, very loud so all could hear: "If you find anything wrong mit a dress, don't look at it, don't bodder wid it--jus' t'row it in dere faces and made dem do it over again! It's not like de old days no more!" (Whatever he meant by that.) So--there was your dress, "ready-made."

Such used to be the entire factory, adding the two office girls; the model, who was wont to run around our part of the world now and then in a superior fashion, clad in a scanty pale-pink-satin petticoat which came just below her knees and an old gray-and-green sweater; plus various male personages, full of business and dressed in their best. Goodness knows what all they did do to keep the wheels of industry running--perhaps they were salesmen. They had the general appearance of earning at least ten to twenty thousand dollars a year. It may possibly have risen as high as two thousand.




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