The White Slaves of Free America: BEING AN ACCOUNT OF THE SUFFERINGS, PRIVATIONS AND HARDSHIPS OF THE WEARY TOILERS IN OUR GREAT CITIES as recently exposed by Nell Nelson of the Chicago Timesby John T. McEnnis
Book Location: Harvard University Library Date: 1888
John T. McEnnis (1854-1896) was the city editor of the Chicago Daily Globe. The paper was owned and published by staunch Democrat, and rather notorious, Michael McDonald. Theodore Dreiser worked as a reporter for the Globe and recounts his experiences in his autobiographical book, Newspaper Days. Dreiser covered the 1892 Democratic Convention. Unfortunately, the paper folded in 1893.
John T. McEnnis was a strong advocate of labor reform. In this excerpt from White Slaves of America, McEnnis recounts a day in the life of a poor working girl as reported by Nell Nelson.
The working girls in the morning are going to work–
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
From “Working Girls” by Carl Sandburg
A DAY IN A CHICAGO TAILOR-SHOP
NEVER, so long as reason reigns, writes Nell Nelson, shall I forget the day I worked in a Market-street tailor-shop, and never when I pray shall I forget to add “God help the shop girls.”
Thursday morning I stepped from an Ogden avenue car and walked down Market street in search of work. It was boiling hot, and I carried my brown veil on the breeze, and a small pasteboard box containing a cracker and a lemon, a paper of needles, a thimble, and a pair of scissors. The first woman I made inquiry of was carrying a bucket of sawdust from a neighboring ale-house. She didn’t know by name the shop I was looking for, but when I mentioned coats, she grew loquacious. “Oh, yes, the `slave hole’ it’s called; that’s the sheeny tailor’s! Don’t you go to him, my dear; he’ll grind the marrow from your bones. Go to service, girl, go to service. You can have a cot in my room till you find a place. I was with him one fortnight and worked my eyes `most blind, and he paid me $1.75. No, I’m from England, but I never had harder times in the old country than now. There I paid 5.. for lodgings, and here they cost me $4.” She told me she got the sawdust for sweeping out a corner dram-shop, and used it to boil her tea-kettle with.
Instead of a “hole” I found myself entering a large two-story red brick house still in process of construction. I ascended the front steps, and, after the maneuver of the celebrated king of France, marched down again to the basement-to the shop-into the presence of the proprietor. I handed him my letter, and while he read it I took him in-optically. He was an unctuous little fellow, with kinky hair, cunning brown eyes, hatchet features, and a small mustache the color of roasted coffee. He was attired in two shirts-a nether one of chocolate flannel and a linen one a few shades lighter-a pair of check pantaloons, carpet slippers, and a huge gold ring of Masonic design. He read the letter with a cigar in his mouth, the smell of which, combined with the flavor of his feet and the exhalations of his toilet, was something preponderant.
He asked me what I had worked at, and, after a few gasps, I gave him some of my history, slightly distorted. I was told to take off my hat, and while doing so he stepped back out in the entry and vacated a hook among the factory girls’ wraps, but, as I did not care to take the chances of tempting the gutter snipes and going home bare-headed, I declined his attention and hung them up in a corner on the floor. All ready, sewing-box in hand, I faced the gaping, silent throng, and was pointed to a chair at a long table, about which ten girls were sewing with a speed and a silence that was terrible to contemplate. They wore cotton dresses of the poorest quality, some of them open at the neck, and nearly all rolled to the elbow. The youngest were four little girls of thirteen, one of whom was operating, two basting, and the fourth finishing a blue cloth cloak. One large Irish hand, possibly twenty-five, sat at the upper end of the table. Of the rest fifteen years would be a fair average age. One poor girl, who was very lame, had a machine, and it made my heart ache to watch her pale face and follow her thin little hands guide coat after coat under the needle. All the girls were pale and haggard, some were very pretty, some few had color in their cheeks, but it was the hectic flush, not the healthy glow of youth and physical strength.
In all we were twenty girls, eight men, and two boys-poor young fellows in their teens, with mealy complexions, wild eyes, hollow cheeks, and sunken chests. Neither weighed a hundred pounds, but both pressed goods with heavy irons, and were cuffed and pushed about by the boss and his assistant. The men worked in slippers and undershirts, without straps or suspenders to keep their trousers in place, and the girls wore heavy peg shoes. I noticed some of the machine hands worked the foot-plate in their stocking feet.
I had taken all this in when the boss came near my chair and threw a plaid sack coat in my lap and without a word walked away. Here was a nice predicament, I thought, as I looked the garment over. I asked the little yellow-haired Swede girl at my right where to begin, but she looked at me and resumed her “felling” without a word of reply. Then I asked a big, yellow-haired, dough-faced German girl on my left, and received the same kind of response. Instantly I realized their position. Compulsory silence.
I put twist in my needle, squeezed on my timble, and selected the side-seam in the farmer satin lining, for if there is any one kind of needle work that I pride myself on it is “felling.” Well, I felled an hour, up one seam and down another, around the collar, and along the bottom of the coat. Then I stitched and tacked the tail pockets, took a deep breath, and settled back in my chair to take a rest. I didn’t take it long, though. Before I could reel off two lines of Hood’s “Song of the Shirt,” the boss was at my elbow looking over my work with his nasty-smelling cigar so near my face that I was obliged to pull back to escape being burned. “Take smaller stitches,” he said. “Don’t `fell’ through. You haven’t, though. Now put in the sleeve-lining,” and he left me muttering inwardly, “Put in the sleeve-lining.” I did. In a great
deal less time I was told to rip it out. I put it in a second time, and a second time did Penelope’s work. The third time was not a charm, and when his unctuous honor, who had been watching me all the time, neared my chair I politely asked him to show me how to arrange the fullness. He grabbed the coat, shook the “muffy” thing in my face, dropped the ashes from his two-for-a-nickel in my hair, and observed:
“I don’t think you’ll do. I want experienced hands,” and although mute I thought-” You monster, to talk about experienced hands, and pay $3.50 a week!”
Well, he showed me how tailors put in sleeve linings, and I showed the merits of his teaching. In future I shall never let a coat-sleeve go about my waist without wanting its owner to unbutton and let me see where the lining is fulled and how the top seam is felled.
At noon we had forty minutes, for-I will not say dinner, because no one had anything that could be so designated. Most of the men had nothing to eat. I only saw two with a lunch. The girls had black bread and a can of cold coffee, which they consumed with evident relish. Not more than five minutes were spent over the repast. I devoured my crackers and gnawed at my lemon by way of desert. In a hurry to get at my work as soon as possible, to make up for lost time, I threw the sucked Messina under the table, and in a few moments saw a little stitcher pick it up and hide it in her pocket.
By a series of questions I got the following information from a pretty Jewess who had been in the shop for three years and was getting $3.50 a week. She said, regarding the salary: “Oh, I don’t care. The boss won’t pay any more. My mother has money and doesn’t mind so long as I learn to sew. I am fifteen in October. I came here at twelve, and don’t know how much longer I will have to stay. The boss thinks women are cows, that they must be driven. So he drives us. We have to be at work at seven in the morning and stay till six in the evening.”
“Half holiday Saturday?”
“What if you are sick?”
“If you’re sick he `pulls’ you. He `pulled’ me for twenty cents for being late last week. He `pulls’ all the hands when they come late, and he `pulls’ if we talk.”
That’s why I could not get my neighbors to tell me how to start my work. Rosy told me she was thirteen, that her father peddled fish, and that she was the eldest of five sisters and two brothers. She had been in the shop two years, and was getting $2.25 a week. Another girl, whom I dare not indicate, said: “These beggarly Jews and Swedes are robbing honest girls of a living. Most of them have homes and are willing to work for nothing. I live with my mother and brother, and can not make any more than enough to pay our rent, $10 a month. I would go in a family, but my mother needs me; she is sick. The boss is an awful hard man to work for. He steals my hire from me, and I steal his cotton and silk whenever I get a chance.”
During the noon hour the girls played in the front street, and afterwards amused themselves in the back yard with the men. At 12:45 o’clock the “boss” came into the shop, and five minutes later the place was noisy with flying shuttles, clicking needles, and the whizzing wheels of the roaring machinery. Fair young heads and pretty shoulders bent over heavy coats, and faces were so low that they almost touched the sewing in their owners’ laps. The clatter of the machines was deafening, and every now and then the shop resounded with the heavy hot irons wielded by the pressers in the back room. Nobody had any time to hand the work, instead of which the cutter threw it to the trimmer, who in turn threw it to the baster, and so it moved from hand to machine, going the round of the thirty odd workers with such rapidity that the air seemed filled with flying coats. The room was low, and with every passage of coattail muffy clouds of lint seemed floating about in space. Add to that poor light, bad ventilation, the exhalations of so many people, the smell of dye from the cloth, and the noxious odor of that ever-consuming cigar, and you have material for the makeup of this particular coat-shop. All afternoon we sewed; sewed incessantly, without uttering a syllable or resting a moment. The “boss” was building the third story of the house, and every hour or so he would leave the shop in care of an assistant and go up to look after the carpenters. During these intermittent spells the girls took advantage of the substitute and hummed. They didn’t sing; they hummed songs and hymns, marches and waltzes, and when the sub was not looking they actually whispered.
But the absentee possessed marvelous powers of ubiquitousness, and very little time was wasted in this manner. There are some people you would always know were in the room without seeing them. This hardheaded, godless little Jew was a character of that sort. We could feel his presence and a corresponding heaviness of atmosphere. Whenever he caught sight of a momentary idler he would glide up to her elbow and mutter a single word-work! She worked.
At 5 o’clock I was so tired I didn’t know what to do with myself. My hair was matted with moisture and dusted with lint, and my head throbbed with pain. I perspired at every pore, and the steel in my corsets rusted all the front of my nice Hamburg underwaist. I threw the big brown chinchilla overcoat I had finished on the floor, and for a period of three minutes fell into a state of voluptuous inertia. With my sixth sense I saw the “boss” pick up the garment, and the next moment another overcoat came flying across the table and dropped all over me. I threaded my needle preparatory to finishing my ninth garment, and began a light calisthenic movement of my right arm to scatter the pain and limber up my elbow. I went through perhaps seven motions, with my chair tilted back by way of stretching my lower extremities, when I was interrupted by the benevolent young tailor and his incombustible cigar.
Grabbing the frame of my chair, he jammed it down on all fours, and told me to “get to work.”
“How much am I going to get for this work?” I inquired, after recovering from my astonishment and the sudden shock of gravitation.
“Do you want to know?” he asked, with a contemptibly significant laugh.
“If you please.”
“Well, just finish that coat, and at 6 o’clock I’ll tell you.”
“I won’t finish any more. There’s your coat. Pay me.”
“Pay you! For what ?”
“For seven hours’ work; for finishing eight coats.”
“Without further notice of me than an insolent sneer, he picked up the coat, walked back to his cutting-board and began to draft out collars. I went back to the cutting-board, too, and stood at his side till commanded to “get out of his way.” I stepped back enough to give him elbow room, but did not leave the table.
“How long do you expect to annoy me by your presence?”
“I expect to remain where lam till you pay me for my seven hours’ work.”
“Your day isn’t up yet. We don’t quit till 6 o’clock, and it’s only ten minutes after 5.”
I told him I did not want to work for him another minute, and demanded my pay.
“Well, do you want to know what I’d pay you?”
“One dollar and fifty cents a week, and you aint worth 75 cents.”
“You told me when I started that I would get $3, at least if I could sew.”
“And you can’t. All day you have been sitting up in your chair with your shoulders straight and your chair back as if you had a rocking-chair. There’s what I value you at,” and he threw a 25-cent piece at me. At first I hesitated about touching the money, and, as I looked at him to see whether he was serious or not, my eyes rested on the heavy gold ring he wore.
“Oh, you’re a B’nai Brith man, I see. Will you favor me with your card?”
“I want to send this money to the society for the orphans which you represent, with my compliments.”
“Get out of this shop or I’ll put you out.” Begging him not to go to that trouble, I got.
Whatever opinions I may have entertained about the dignity of labor, respectable poverty and the absurdity of fine feathers, my experience as a factory hand has unfitted me for future service, since in no place that I worked did I see any incentive to decency, honesty, or respectability, or any promise of success that did not carry with it the downfall of blindly climbing hope.
NOTE: The book was sold in many department and book stores in 1888 for 25 cents. I believe “Nell Nelson” to be a pseudonym.