Meanwhile a sharp, incessant pain had grown out of what was in the first ten or fifteen minutes a tired feeling in the arms—that excruciating, nerve-torturing pain which comes as a result of a ceaseless muscular action that knows no variation or relaxation. To forget it, I began to watch the eight others at our particular table. There were four Italians, all stupid, uninteresting-looking girls, of anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years old; there was a thin, narrow-chested girl, with delicate wrists and nicely shaped hands, who seemed far superior to her companions, and who might have been pretty had it not been for the sunken, blue-black cavity where one eye should have been; there was a fat woman of forty, with a stiff neck, and of a religious temperament, who worked in a short under-petticoat and was stolidly indifferent to the conversation round her; the others were the two old dames—she who had initiated me, and her sprightlier though not less ancient crony, Mrs. Mooney. Both fairly bristled with spite and vindictiveness toward everything in general, and us new-comers in particular, and each sustained her flagging energies with frequent pinches of snuff and chunks of coffee-cake which they drew from inexhaustible pockets. My attempts at conversation with these two having been met with chilling silence, and as Mrs. Mooney had given me several painful thrusts with her sharp elbow when I happened to get too close to her, I took care to keep a safe distance, puzzled as to wherein I might have offended, and lapsing into a morbid interest in the gossip flying thick and fast around me.
The target of scandal was "the queen," a big, handsome blonde girl of about twenty-five, who in a different environment and properly corseted and gowned would have been set down unquestionably as "a voluptuous beauty." Here in the laundry, in stocking-feet and an unbelted black shirt-waist turned far in at the neck, she was merely "mushy," to use the adjective of her detractors. The queen owed her nickname to the boss, with whom she was said to "stand in," being "awful soft after him." She was a sort of assistant to the foreman, bossing the job when he was not around, and lending a hand in rush hours with true democratic simplicity such as only the consciousness of her prestige could warrant her in doing. Now she was assisting the black men load a truck, now helping a couple of girls push it across the floor, now helping us dump it on the table—laughing and joking all the while, but at the same time goading us on to the very limit of human endurance. She had been in the "Pearl" for seven years, slaved harder than any of us, and she looked as fresh and buoyant as if she never had known what work was. I rather liked the queen, despite the fact that I detected in her immediately a relentless task-master; everybody else seemed to like her, notwithstanding the malicious things they said about her.
"Tired?" asked the one-eyed girl. "Yes, it's hard work, but it's steady. You're never out of a job if you're a steady shaker that can be relied on."
There was cheerfulness in her tone, and both the old women stopped talking.
"Did yez come in the barber's wagon?" Mrs. Mooney asked. On being assured that we had not, she proceeded to establish amicable relations with the one-eyed girl and me by telling us she was glad we "weren't Ginnies, anyway."
"Whatever happened to yer eye?" inquired the other crone of my companion.
Unresentful of the blunt inquisitiveness, the girl responded cordially with her little story—glad, apparently, to have a listener.
"It was something I caught in the hospital when I had appendicitis three years ago. When I was discharged my appendicitis was well, but my eye had took sore. The doctor he says when he seen it, 'That eye's too far gone, and it's got to come out, or the poison 'll spread to the t'other eye, and then you won't have no eyes at all.' My mother she didn't know nothing about it till it was all over. She'd have carried on awful if she'd knowed it. But it didn't hurt a bit. I went under chloroform, and when I come out of it I jist thought I'd been having a long sleep in a big brass bedstead, with hem-stitched sheets and things like that," and she pointed to the hotel linen we were all shaking.
"That's the way with them hospitals," said Mrs. Mooney, sympathetically, and proffering the heroine of the story a chunk of spice-cake.
"You'd been better to ha' stayed at home. Poor folks don't have no chanst in them high-toned places."
"Why don't you take off yer shoes like us, and let yer feet spread out?—it'll rest them," suggested Mrs. Mooney, now passing me a peace-offering of coffee-cake, and tightening her mouth in a grim determination to be civil.
Indeed, the one-eyed girl's story had wrought a transformation in these two sullen old women. All that was human in them had been touched by the tale of physical suffering, and we now met on common ground—the common ground of brute sympathy which one animal feels for another in distress.
The work was now under full blast, and every one of the hundred and twenty-five girls worked with frenzied energy as the avalanche of clothes kept falling in upon us and were sent with lightning speed through the different processes, from the tubs to the packers' counters. Nor was there any abatement of the snowy landslide—not a moment to stop and rest the aching arms. Just as fast as the sweating negroes could unload the trucks into the tubs, more trucks came rolling in from the elevator, and the foaming tubs swirled perpetually, swallowing up, it would seem, all the towels and pillow-cases and napkins in Greater New York. Above the orchestra of noise I distinguished a faintly familiar voice, which I could not place until I heard:
"And it was nothing but pop I had that day—I hadn't had nothing but rotten old pop all day!"
From the girl's argument it was hard to determine whether she was more grieved at not having had stronger potations than pop on that fatal occasion, or at the implied aspersions upon her character for sobriety. Looking up, I saw that she was in one of the truck-teams. She had her one hand and arm strained against the rear of the sodden load, which she was urging forward with her hip. The load happened to be for our table, and as we dumped it out I asked her if there wasn't anything easier she could do. She responded cheerily:
"No. You've got to have two hands to run the mangles, and you've got to have two hands to shake, and you've got to have two hands to tie up, but you can push a truck with one hand." Which statement of the case, combined with the cripple's optimism, made us laugh—all except the one-eyed girl, espying whom, the maimed girl suddenly changed the tone of levity with which she treated her own misfortune, and asked in a lowered voice: "What's the matter with yer eye?" And the hospital infection tale was repeated.
Could a duchess have claimed greater grace than that poor, unlettered, uncouth creature's delicate perception of that subtle principle of courtesy, which allowed her to jest over her own misfortunes, but which prompted a gentle hesitation in speaking to another about hers!
In the excruciating agony of the hours that followed, the trucks became a veritable anodyne for the pains that shot through my whole body. Leaning over their deep sides was a welcome relief from the strained, monotonous position at the tables. The one-eyed girl had likewise discovered the anodyne, and remarked upon it once as we dived into the wet freight.
"It's so funny how one kind of pain sort of eases up another," she said; "I always feel good every time I see the truck coming, though trucking's far harder work than shaking if you had to do it steady. I wonder why it is. It was the same way with my eye. When it was getting better and just ached a little bit, steady, all the time, I used to wish I could have real hard jumping toothache, just for a change."
"God love ye, and it's so," fervently exclaimed Mrs. Mooney.
The day was terrifically hot outdoors, and with the fearful heat that came up through the floor from the engine-room directly under us, combined with the humidity of the steam-tilled room, we were all driven to a state of half-dress before the noon hour arrived. The women opened their dresses at the neck and cast off their shoes, and the foreman threw his suspenders off his shoulders, while the colored washers paddled about on the sloppy floor in their bare black feet.
"Don't any men work in this place except the foreman?" I asked Mrs. Mooney, who had toiled a long time in the "Pearl" and knew everything.
"Love of Mary!" she exclaimed indignantly; "and d' ye think any white man that called hisself a white man would work in sich a place as this, and with naygurs?"
"But we work here," I argued.
"Well, we be wimmin," she declared, drawing a pinch of snuff into her nostrils in a manner that indicated finality.
"But if it isn't good enough for a man, it isn't good enough for us, even if we are women!" I persisted.
She looked at me half in astonishment, half in suspicion at my daring to question the time-honored order of things. Economics could make no appeal to her intelligence, and shooting a glance out of her hard old black eyes, she replied with a logic that permitted no gainsaying.
"Love of Mary! if yez don't like yer job, ye can git out. Sure and we don't take on no airs around here!"
At twelve the noise ceased, and a shrill whistle ushered in the half-hour's respite. The effect of that raucous shriek was as solemn, as awe-inspiring, for the first moment, as the ringing of the Angelus bell in a Catholic country-side. For one moment everybody stood motionless and mute, the women with arms akimbo on aching hips, the black washers with drooping, relaxed shoulders. Each tortured frame seemed to heave with an inaudible "Thank God!" and then we slowly scattered in all directions—some to the cloak-room, where the lunches were stored along with the wraps, some down the stairs into the street.
On this day the one-eyed girl and I found a bundle of clothes large enough for two to sit on, and shared our lunch. For half a ham sandwich she gave me a piece of cold sausage, and I gave her a dill pickle for a greasy doughnut. The inevitable bottle of "pop" neither of us was able to open until the foreman came along and lent his assistance. He lingered a moment to talk the usual inanities that pass between a democratic foreman and a couple of new girls. Under his jovial exterior there seemed to be a vein of seriousness, amounting almost to sadness when one looked at his well-modeled face and his steady gray eyes. Tall and pale and prematurely bent, he had a certain distinction, as if he had been cut out for better things. His manner had lost all the easy familiarity of a few hours before, and he asked us in the kindest tone possible how we liked the work, and heartened us with the assurance that it wouldn't be nearly so hard in a few days, telling us to "stand slack-like" and see if it didn't make the pain in our backs better. By slack-like he meant stoop-shouldered, as everybody grows sooner or later in a laundry.
The foreman's hygienic lecture was interrupted by the warning rumble of the awakening machinery, and we scurried back to our table to make practical test of his theory. We followed it to the letter, but, like every other palliative of pain, it soon lost its virtue, and the long afternoon was one of unspeakable agony. There were now not only aching backs and arms and legs, but feet parboiled to a blister on the burning floors. The air was rent with lamentations, and before long my side-partner and I had also shed our shoes. By four o'clock everybody had sunk into a state of apathetic quiet, and even the exuberant Queen lost something of her vivaciousness, and attended strictly to the business of goading us on to our tasks.
"We're two days behind with them hospital sheets," she screamed to one relay; "S—— Hotel Barber Shop got to go out to-night," which information brought groans from Mrs. Mooney.
"Mother of God!" she cried. "Sure and that means nine o'clock to-night."
"Aren't we going to get out at six?" asked the one-eyed girl, while I glanced dismally at the never-ending train of trucks that kept rolling out upon the washers' platform, faster now than at any other time of the day.
"God love ye! dearie, no," returned Mrs. Mooney. "Ye'll never get outside this shop at six any night, unless ye're carried out dead. We're in luck to get out as early as eight."
"Sure, every night exceptin' Saturday, and then it's twelve to half-past one."
"Oh, that's not so bad if you have a half-holiday."
"Half-holiday!" echoed Mrs. Mooney. "Will ye listen to that! A half-holiday, indeed!" Then the mocking voice grew kinder. "Sure and it's every minute of twelve o'clock or a half-hour into Sunday mornin' afore you ever see the outside of this place of a Saturday in summer-time, with all the washin' and ironin' for the summer hotels and the big bugs as is at the sea-shore."
"Youse ain't got no kick coming," said one of the Ginney girls. "Youse gets six cents an hour overtime, and youse 'll be mighty glad to make that exter money!"
Mrs. Mooney glared viciously at the interlopers. "Yes, and if it wasn't for the likes of yez Ginnies that 'll work for nothing and live in pig-pens, the likes of us white people wouldn't have to work nights."
"Well I made ninety-six cents' overtime last week," spoke up the silent fat woman in the under-petticoat, "and I was thankful to the Lord to get it."
Of the two hours or more that followed I have only a hazy recollection of colored men bending over the pungent foam, of straining, sweating women dragging their trucks round and round the great steaming-room. I remembered nothing whatever of the moment when the agony was ended and we were released for the day. Up to a certain dim borderland I remember that my back ached and that my feet dragged heavily over the burning floor, two pieces of boiling flesh. I do remember distinctly, however, suddenly waking up on Third Avenue as I was walking past a delicatessen store, and looking straight into the countenance of a pleasant-faced woman. I must have walked right into her, for she seemed amused, and went on her way laughing at something—probably my look of surprise as the impact brought me suddenly to full consciousness. A clock was hanging in the delicatessen-store window, and the hour-hand stood at nine. A cooling sea-breeze was blowing up from the south, and as I continued my walk home I realized that I had just passed out of a sort of trance,—a trance superinduced by physical misery,—a merciful subconscious condition of apathy, in which my soul as well as my body had taken refuge when torture grew unbearable.
IN WHICH IT IS PROVED TO ME THAT THE DARKEST HOUR COMES JUST BEFORE THE DAWN
The next morning I asked Mrs. Mooney what time it was when we left the laundry the evening before, and she said half-past eight. Then I recounted the strange experience of the trance, which did not arouse the interest I had expected.
"That's nothing. That's the way we all get sometimes," she declared. "If we didn't get into them trance-spells there'd be none of us workin' here at all, at all."
"Yes, indeed," said a prayerful voice. "Praise God, it's one of his blessid pervisions to help us bear our crosses."
"I don't think the Lord's got much to do with our breaking backs or feet, do you?" asked the one-eyed girl, as we turned to unload a truck. "Now I'm not an unbeliever, and I believe in God and Jesus Christ, all right; but I sometimes think they don't do all these things that the Methodists and Salvation Army says they do. Somehow, I don't believe God knows anything about my eye or that one-armed girl's getting hurt in the roller. I used to believe everything I heard the evangelist say, but I don't think no more that religion is what it's cracked up to be." A few moments later she asked if I was a Protestant, too, and receiving an affirmative, proceeded to express herself on the superior merits of that form of faith as compared with the Catholic, against which she had all the narrow-minded ignorance and superstition which, strange to say, only too often characterize the better element of the class to which she belonged. This girl's unreasonable prejudice against something of which she knew not the first thing presented a paradox universal in her world. The Catholic Church as an institution was her enemy, and the enemy of all Protestants. "If they could kill you, and not be found out by the law, they'd do it just as quick as wink, because the priest would bail them out of hell for a dollar and a quarter." And yet, when it came to the concrete and personal, she had to admit that all the Catholics she had ever known were "just about as good as Protestants."
This religious discussion was carried on in a low voice, with many side-glances toward the Catholic side of the table, as if danger threatened were they to hear a word of it. I knew, however, that there was nothing to fear from that quarter. There was only one religious conscience there, and that belonged to the one-eyed girl herself. From innumerable other instances I had met with before I had come to this generalization: that bigotry and bitter prejudices in matters of faith, deplorable as they at first seem to be, mark a distinct step in the social evolution and moral development of the ignorant and degraded. Nobody else at that table was far enough along to worry herself with principles of faith.
"I think the Salvation Army's a kind of good religion," she continued; "only they—" but I heard no more; we were interrupted by a flurry of interest in the front, which spread quickly to our region, as a portly man in an automobile coat and Panama hat made his way by the mangle-machines and the tables. The foreman, diffident and uncertain, was walking by his side; and from the peremptory and numerous instructions he was receiving, it became patent that his companion was the "boss." Everybody looked hastily, stealthily, at the Queen, who hid her pleasure under a very transparent veil of dissembling, as she helped us unload a truck. Never before had I heard the queen laugh so merrily, and never before had I realized what a superb, handsome animal she was. There was a certain rhythmic movement as she raised and lowered her body over the truck. The excitement of the moment added a deeper color to her always splendid rose-and-white complexion, upon which the steam-laden atmosphere distilled perpetually that soft dewiness characteristic of the perfect complexion of young children or of goddesses. And like a goddess the queen appeared that moment,—an untidy, earth-chained goddess, mirthful, voluptuous.
"She thinks she's mighty fine, don't she?" whispered my one-eyed friend.
The boss halted at the truck, and the queen looked up with ill-feigned surprise, as if she hadn't known for five minutes that he was in the room. He seemed the personification of prosperous, ignorant vulgarity, and his manner, as he swept his eye carelessly over his queen's subjects, was one of good-natured insolence. He didn't tarry long, and if guilty of the gentle dalliance of which he was accused, it was plain to be seen that he did not allow it to interfere with the discipline of the "Pearl."
At lunch-time the one-eyed girl and I went off to the same corner as before, and no sooner had we begun to divide our pickles and sandwiches than in sauntered the foreman, munching alternately from a cylinder of bologna sausage in one hand and a chunk of dry bread in the other.
"Well, how goes it?" he asked pleasantly, dropping his long, lank frame upon a bundle of hotel table-linen. "Did you try my advice about standin' slack-like?"
We replied to his question while the one-eyed girl carved a dill pickle and a sweet pickle each into three portions.
He related how he had come to the "Pearl" six years ago, and had worked himself up to his present job, which was not to be sneezed at, he said, considering that eighteen dollars a week wasn't to be picked up every day—and steady work, too, no layoffs and no shut-downs. He emphasized the fact, evidently very important in his mind, that he wasn't married, that he had not met any girl yet that would have him, which my companion insisted couldn't possibly be true, or if it was, then none of the girls he had ever asked had any taste at all. He lived at home with his mother, whom he didn't allow to "work out" since he'd been big enough to earn a living for her. There was a sister, too, at home, who had a job in a near-by manufactory; but she was engaged, and going to be married in her "intended's" vacation. Then, the foreman thought, he'd have to get a wife himself, if he could find anybody to have him. And she wouldn't have to work, either—not on your tintype! She would live at home with his mother, and darn his socks and sew on his buttons, and she'd have no washing or ironing to do, as he got his all done for nothing in the "Pearl." That perquisite went along with the eighteen dollars a week. Oh, she'd have things as nice as any hard-working young fellow could give her.
"Would she have to be purty?" asked the one-eyed girl, who seemed unusually interested in this hypothetical wife, and who took such a lively interest in the foreman and his plans that I felt my heart sink in pity for the poor maimed creature. Was she hanging breathless on the foreman's reply to this question? If so, there was a certain comfort in the gallant answer.
"No, I should say not," he replied, as I thought with gentle consideration of her to whom he was speaking; "I don't think I could ever trust a wife who was a ten-thousand-dollar beaut'. She'd want to gad too much. I don't think looks count for much; and I'd think she was pretty, anyway, if I was terrible stuck on her. Them things don't make much difference only in story-papers. But there's one thing she would have to be, and that is handy at doing things. I wouldn't marry a lazy girl, and I wouldn't marry a girl that wasn't a working girl."
The engines began to give out a warning rumble, and the foreman scrambled somewhat reluctantly to his feet, and stretching out his long arms, started off.
"Say, that feller's clean, dead gone on you," remarked my companion, closing her hand over mine in a pressure that was full of congratulation and honest delight.
I scouted the idea, but nevertheless I became suddenly conscious of a complete change in his manner from the easy familiarity of the morning before. Instead of the generic name of "Sally," or the Christian name which on better acquaintance he applied to the other girls, he had politely prefixed a "Miss" to my surname. There had come, too, a peculiar feeling of trust and confidence in him—a welcome sensation in this horrible, degraded place; and it was with gratefulness that I watched him disappear in the steamy vista, throwing off his suspenders preparatory to plunging into the turmoil of the afternoon's work now under way.
"Sure thing he is, I'd bet my life on it," she insisted, as we, too, hurried back to the table and took up our towels and napkins once more. "There's no mistakin' them signs, and you'd be a little fool if you wasn't to help him along. Men's all sort of bashful, some more 'n others, and it's a good thing to help along. I like the looks of that fellow—he'd be awful silly and soft with his wife."
There was gentle solicitude in the voice, and looking up, I was almost startled with the radiance of the girl's face—the face of a good woman who loves, and who takes a generous interest in the love affairs of another. As we leaned over the truck and began to haul out its wet freight, she whispered to me:
"I know all about it because I've been there myself. I've got a gentleman-friend, too, and he's awful nice to me. He's been going with me five years, and he didn't shake me when I lost my eye. Lots of fellows I know would have backed out. That's what I like about that foreman. I think he'd do just the same by a girl he loved as Jim did to me. We'd have been married this long time, only Jim's got his hands full with a crazy mother, and he says she'll never go to any asylum s' long's he's able to keep her; and so Jim's aunt she lives with them and tends his mother, and it takes 'most all Jim makes, because his mother's sick all the time, too, and has to have the doctor and be humored. But I like a man that's good to his mother. Jim isn't overly strong, either, and is likely to break down."
Late in the afternoon my partner was overcome by an attack of sick-headache, and dropped with nausea and exhaustion. Mrs. Mooney and the Queen helped her to her feet.
"It's them pickles and them rotten cold lunches you girls eat," declared Mrs. Mooney, who was fond of talking on the nutritious properties of food. "Now I says, the Lord only give me one stummick, and when that's wore out he'll never give me another, and I can't never buy one with no money, and I never put anything in that stummick at noon but a good cold beer and a good hot plate of soup, and that's what you ought to do. Only cost you five cents for the both of them together, down to Devlin's place. We go there every day," jerking her head in the direction of her crony, "and you can go along if ye have a mind to."
In accordance with this invitation, we became patrons of Devlin's the very next day. Promptly at twelve we hurried out, sleeves still rolled up and our damp aprons unremoved. There was no time for making a toilet, Mrs. Mooney insisted, as Devlin's was three blocks away, and we had only a half-hour. Across Lexington, across Third Avenue, and down one block, we came to a corner saloon, and filed in the "ladies' entrance." The room was filled with workmen drinking beer and smoking at the little round tables, and when they saw us each man jumped up, and grabbing his glass, went out into the barroom. Commenting upon this to Mrs. Mooney, she explained as we seated ourselves:
"Sure, and what'd ye expect! Sure, and it's a proper hotel ye're in, and it's dacent wurrkin'-men that comes here, and they knows a lady when they see her, and they ups and goes!"
In response to Mrs. Mooney's vigorous order, "Six beers with the trimmin's!" a waiter appeared presently with a steaming tray.
"Now eat that, and drink that, and see if they don't go to the spot," cried the old woman, gaily, and we all fell to, with table manners more eager than elegant. Whatever the soup was made of, it seemed to me the best soup I had ever eaten in New York, and I instantly determined never again to blame a working man or woman for dining in a saloon in preference to the more godly and respectable dairy-lunch room. We all ate ravenously, and I, who never before could endure the sight or smell of beer, found myself draining my "schooner" as eagerly as Mrs. Mooney herself.
"My! but that braces me up," she declared, sighing deeply and licking the froth from her lips; "it's almost as good as whisky." It was a propitious moment to ask questions, and I inquired how long she had worked at the "Pearl."
"Eighteen months, off and on. I gets the rheumatism and stay home sometimes. I believe in taking care of yer back. I says, I've only got one back, and when that's wore out the Lord ain't going to give me another. So I stay home; but it's so lonesome I'm always mighty glad to get to work ag'in."
The long, long days sped by, their torture relieved by such comfort as we could find in the gossip of the table, and in daily excursions to Devlin's, where I had become a regular patron. The foreman, too, added a little variety to the monotony by coming to our table sometimes, and shaking clothes for a few moments with us, while he gossiped with the one-eyed girl and me, which unusual proceeding filled her romantic soul with all sorts of happy anticipation. On Saturday morning, after he had come and gone, she whispered ecstatically: "That fellow is stuck on you, and I'll bet he'll be askin' you to go to the theayter with him—just see if he don't!"
But alas for woman's dreams! The next day we saw the boss coming across the floor, this time alone. He sauntered up to our table, began to fling jokes at us all in a manner of insolent familiarity, and asked the names of the new faces. When he came to me he lingered a moment and uttered some joking remarks of insulting flattery, and in a moment he had grasped my bare arm and given it a rude pinch, walking hurriedly away. In a few moments the foreman came back and motioned me to go with him, and I followed to the front of the room, where the boss stood smoking and joking with the wrappers. The foreman retired a respectful distance, and the boss, after looking me over thoughtfully, informed me that I was to be promoted Monday morning to the wrappers' counter.
"And now run away, and be a good girl the rest of the day," he concluded, with a wave of the hand, and I rushed back to the table, more disgusted with the man and his manner than I was thankful to him for my promotion to a job that would pay me five dollars a week.
"Didn't I tell you so!" exclaimed my friend, amid the excited comments and questions of the others at the table. "That's some of the foreman's doing, and I'm real glad for you—it's nothing more than what I've been expectin', though."
This opinion was not shared, however, by the rest of my companions, who repeated divers terrible tales of moral ruin and betrayal, more or less apocryphal, wherein the boss was inevitably the villain. I now found myself suddenly the cynosure of all eyes, the target of a thousand whispered comments, as I moved about the workroom. The physical agony of aching back and blistered feet was too great, though, for me to feel any mental distress over the fact—for the moment at least. In the awful frenzy of the Saturday-afternoon rush, greater than that of any other day of the week, I did not care much what they thought or said about the boss and me.
I was shaking my towels and napkins, and trying to look as indifferent as I believed I felt, when the foreman beckoned me again, and stepping aside, thrust a piece of yellow wrapping-paper into my hand.
"Read it when nobody's looking," he said in a low voice; "and don't think wrong of me for meddling in what's not my business"; and he was off again.
A few minutes later I read:
"You'd better give up this job. It's no place for a girl that wants to do right. Come back Monday and get your money; and I wouldn't stay to-night after six o'clock, if I was you, but go home and rest. If you can't get a job as good as this inside of a day or two, I think my sister can get one for you in her place; but you won't stay here if you take my advice.
"P.S. Please don't show this, or I'd lose my job; and be sure to come Monday evening for your money."
I made at once for the cloak-room. When I emerged, a moment later, it was to find the narrow passage obstructed by one of the big soiled-linen trucks, over which "J. P." bent industriously, as if he hadn't another thought in the world beyond the sorting of table-cloths and napkins. Suddenly he lifted up his lank frame, and seeing one of his workpeople making her escape, he called out:
"It's not six o'clock yet!"
"I don't care if it isn't; I am going home," I replied promptly.
"What's the matter?" he asked in a loud voice, and then, as he drew near, added in an undertone:
"You read my note?"
"Yes," I replied.
"S'pose you kind of wonder at me doing it?" he went on, moving with me toward the staircase.
"No; I guessed right away," I answered.
We had now reached the top of the stairs leading to the street door, and were out of ear-shot of the busy workroom. The curious faces and craning necks were lost to us through an interposing veil of steam. The foreman grasped my extended hand in a limp, hasty clasp as I began to move down the steps.
"You guessed part, but not all," he whispered, turning away.
I dragged myself to the end of the block and turned into Lexington Avenue just as the six-o'clock whistles began to blow. So much I remember very distinctly, but after that all is an indistinct blur of clanging street-cars, of jostling crowds. I do not know whether I had lost my senses from the physical agony I was enduring, though still able to perform the mechanical process of walking, or whether it was a case of somnambulism; but I know that I walked on, all unconscious of where I was going, or of my own identity, until I came in collision with some one, and heard a feminine voice beg my pardon. Then a little cry, and two arms were thrown about me, and I looked up into the smiling face of Minnie Plympton—Minnie Plympton as large as life and unspeakably stunning in a fresh shirt-waist and sailor-hat. She was smiling at me like a princess issuing from her enchantment in a rose-bush; and lest she should vanish as suddenly as she had appeared, I clutched wildly at her arm, trembling and sobbing at this delicious awakening from the horrible nightmare that had been my existence for so many days.
We were standing on the corner of Lexington Avenue and a cross-town thoroughfare, and ever after must that spot remain in my mind as the actual turning-point of my fortunes—indeed, the very turning-point of my whole life. As I look back upon that beautiful June evening, I again hear the rumble of the elevated trains in the street beyond, and again I hear the clang of the electric cars as they swirl out of the avenue into the street. Probably every man and woman who ever came a stranger to a great city has his or her own particular secret and holy place where angels came and ministered in the hour of need. I do not doubt it, but I do often wonder whether every such person visits his sacred place as often as I visit mine. I go to mine very often, especially in summer-time, about six o'clock, when, amid the roar and the turmoil and the banalities of the real and the actual, I recall the wondrous tale of the Burning Bush. For there God appeared to me that evening—the God who had hidden his face for so long.
"Why, you look as weak as a kitten—you look sick!" Minnie declared. "You need a good cup of tea and to be put to bed, and I'm going to be the one to do it for you!"
I was half dazed as Minnie Plympton bundled me into a passing electric car; and then, with my head leaning comfortably on Minnie Plympton's plump shoulder, and with Minnie Plympton's strong arm about my aching body, I was jolted away somewhere into a drowsy happiness.
Three years have elapsed since that last day in the "Pearl Laundry" and my providential meeting with Minnie Plympton.
The events of those three years may be recounted in almost as few sentences, for prosperous working girls, like happy nations, have no history. And we have been very prosperous, Minnie Plympton and I. We, I say, because from the moment of our unforeseen meeting in the hurly-burly of that street corner, the interests of Minnie Plympton's life and of mine were to become, for the succeeding year, almost inseparable.
I said we have both been very prosperous. But Minnie Plympton has been more than that: she has been successful—successful in the only real way a woman can, after all, be successful. Minnie is married. She is the wife of an enterprising young business man, and the mother of a charming baby. She has been married nearly two years, and lives in a pretty cottage in a peaceful suburb. It was what the world would call a good match, and Minnie declares she is perfectly happy. And no doubt she is, else that honest creature would not be so bent upon making matches for everybody else.
As for myself, I have been merely prosperous—prosaically and uninterestingly, though none the less agreeably, prosperous. I do not know whether I am happy or not. I am still a working girl, and by all the portents of the dream-book I am foredoomed eternally to remain a wage-earner in spite of all Mrs. Minnie's good offices. For I was born on a Saturday; and "Saturday's child must work for its living."
Now, I do not care to be accused of a superstitious faith in dream-books, but I do want to say that I have found all sorts of inspiration in a philosophical acceptance of that oracle attaching to my unfortunate birthday. If Saturday's child must work for her living, why not make the best of it? Why not make the most advantageous terms possible with Fate? why not work with, and not against, that inexorable Forelady, in cooperation with her plans and along the lines of her least resistance?
This I have tried to do. How I have done it, and what the results have been, I shall now try to sketch with not more attention to tedious details than I feel justified in assuming may be of some help and encouragement to other strugglers.
I became a stenographer and typewriter, earning twenty dollars a week. I worked hard for my money, and the day was still a long day. I went to work at nine o'clock in the morning, and while I was supposed to get off at five, and sometimes did, I was often obliged to work till six or seven.
And this I called prosperity? Yes; for me this was prosperity, when I remembered the circumstances of my beginnings.
When I met Minnie Plympton on the street corner, that hot summer night, I was "dead broke," not only in purse, but in body and spirit as well. She took me home with her to the two small rooms where she was doing light housekeeping, and where we continued to live together until her marriage a year later broke up our happy domestic partnership. A few weeks after Minnie took me home with her I got a position in the notion department of one of the large stores. I received only four dollars a week; but, as our rent was small and our living expenses the very minimum, I was able to meet my half of the joint expenditure. I worked four months at selling pins and needles and thread and whalebone and a thousand and one other things to be found in a well-stocked notion department; and then, by a stroke of good luck and Minnie Plympton's assistance, I got a place as demonstrator of a new brand of tea and coffee in the grocery department of the same "emporium." My new work was not only much lighter and pleasanter, but it paid me the munificent salary of eight dollars a week.
But I did not want to be a demonstrator of tea and coffee all my life. I had often thought I would like to learn shorthand and typewriting. The demonstrator of breakfast foods at the next counter to mine was taking a night course in bookkeeping; which gave me the idea of taking a similar course in stenography. And then the Long Day began in earnest. I went to night-school five nights out of every week for exactly sixty weeks, running consecutively save for a fortnight's interim at the Christmas holidays, when we worked nights at the store. On Saturday night, which was the off night, I did my washing and ironing, and on Sunday night I made, mended, and darned my clothes—that is, when there was any making, mending, or darning to be done. As my wardrobe was necessarily slender, I had much time to spare. This spare time on Sunday nights I spent in study and reading. I studied English composition and punctuation, both of which I would need later on when I should become a stenographer. I also brushed up on my spelling and grammar, in which, I had been informed—and correctly—the average stenographer is sadly remiss.
As for reading, which was the only recreation my life knew, it was of a most desultory, though always mercenary sort. I read every book I could get out of the circulating library which, from its title or general character as summarized in the newspaper reviews, I thought might help me to solve the problem of earning a good livelihood. The title of one book particularly attracted me—a book which was so much in demand that I had to wait a whole six months before I succeeded in getting it through the slow and devious process peculiar to circulating libraries. That book was "Up from Slavery," and it brought home to me as nothing else could have done what was the real trouble with myself and all the rest of the struggling, ill-paid, wretched working women with whom I had come in contact during my apprenticeship. What that trouble was I shall revert to later.
When I had thoroughly learned the principles of my trade and had attained a speed of some hundred and odd words a minute, the hardest task was yet before me. This task was not in finding a position, but in filling that position satisfactorily. My first position at ten dollars a week I held only one day. I failed to read my notes. This was more because of fright and of self-consciousness, however, than of inefficiency. My next paid me only six dollars a week, but it was an excellent training-school, and in it I learned self-confidence, perfect accuracy, and rapidity. Although this position paid me two dollars less than what I had been earning brewing tea and coffee and handing it over the counter, and notwithstanding the fact that I knew of places where I could go and earn ten dollars a week, I chose to remain where I was. There was method in my madness, however, let me say. I had a considerate and conscientious employer, and although I had a great deal of work, and although it had to be done most punctiliously, he never allowed me to work a moment overtime. He opened his office at nine in the morning, and I was not expected before quarter after; he closed at four sharp. This gave me an opportunity for further improving myself with a view to eventually taking not a ten-dollar, but a twenty-dollar position. I went back to night-school and took a three months' "speed course," and at the same time continued to add to my general education and stock of knowledge by a systematic reading of popular books of science and economics. I became tremendously interested in myself as an economic factor, and I became tremendously interested in other working girls from a similar point of view. Of science and economics I knew nothing when I started out to earn my living.
One day I answered an advertisement calling for the sort of stenographer I now believed myself to be. It brought a response signed with the name of a large religious publishing house. I got the position, beginning with a salary of fifteen dollars a week, which was to be increased to twenty dollars provided I could fill the position. That I should succeed in doing so, there was evident doubt in my employers' minds, and no wonder! For I was the fifth to attempt it.
My work consisted for the most part in taking dictation from the editor of the periodical published weekly by the house—letters to contributors, editorials, and special articles. Also, when it was found that I had some intelligent, practical knowledge of grammar and English—and here was where my studies of the preceding year bore fruit—I was intrusted with the revision and correction of the least important of the manuscripts, thus relieving the busy editors of one of their most irksome tasks.
One day I had occasion to mention to the editor some of the strenuous experiences I had undergone in my struggle to attain a decent living. He was startled—not to say a little shocked—that a young woman of apparently decent birth and upbringing should have formed such an intimate acquaintance with the dark side of life. Inspired by his sympathetic interest, I boldly interviewed the editor of a well-known monthly magazine, with the result that I immediately prepared two papers on certain of my experiences; and, to my surprise and delight, they were accepted.
And, somehow, with the appearance of those two articles—the first fruits of authorship—part of the horror and loathing of that unhappy period of servitude fell away from me; the sordid suffering, the hurt to pride, the ineffaceable scar on heart and soul I felt had not been in vain. I can now look back upon the recent, still vivid past without a shiver; for there is comfort in the thought that what I have undergone is to be held up to others as a possible lesson and warning.
And now a word as to the verity of this narrative. Have I actually been through all that I have described? Yes, and more; and in other cities beside New York.
Yet for the sake of unity the order of things has been somewhat changed; and no record is given of many weeks, and even months, when life flowed uneventfully, if not smoothly, on.
"But," says the thoughtful reader, "do your sordid experiences of some two or three years ago match conditions of to-day?" and I answer: Generally speaking, they do; because lately I reinforced memory by thorough investigation.
I went further than that: when it came to me to write this little book—that is so absolutely a transcript from real life—I voluntarily labored, a week here, a week there, at various trades allied to those that previously had been my sole means of livelihood, and all the time living consistently the life of the people with whom I was thus temporarily associated.
There were, of course, many little points that when I was a worker in earnest I had not eyes to see, but which my recent conscious study brought out in proper perspective.
Yet it was as a working girl that I learned to know most of the characters that people this book, and which give to it any value it may possess.
For obvious reasons, I have been obliged to give fictitious names to factories and shops in which I worked; and I have, in most cases, substituted for the names of the streets where the factories were located the names of streets of like character.
The physical conditions, the sordid wretchedness of factory and workshop, of boarding-and lodging-house, I have not in any wise overstated.
As to moral conditions, I have not been in every instance so scrupulously truthful—that is, I have not told all the truth. For it is a truth which only too often will not bear even the suggestion of telling. Only in two or three instances—for example, in my account of Henrietta Manners—have I ventured to hint definitely at anything pertaining to the shame and iniquity underlying a discouragingly large part of the work-girls' world. In my magazine articles I was obliged to leave out all reference to this tabooed topic. The attitude of the public, especially the American public, toward this subject is a curious mixture of prudery and gallantry. It bridles at anything which impeaches the traditional honor and chastity of the working girl. The chivalry of American men—and my experience in workshop, store, and factory has proved to me how genuine and deep-rooted that chivalry is—combined with our inherent spirit of democracy, is responsible for the placing of the work-girl, as a class, in a light as false and ridiculous as that in which Don Quixote was wont to view the charms of his swineherd lady, Dulcinea. In the main, our notions of the woman who toils do more credit to our sentiments and to the impulses of our hearts than they do credit to our heads or to any serious desires we may cherish for her welfare. She has become, and is becoming more and more, the object of such an amount of sentimentality on the part of philanthropists, sociological investigators, labor agitators, and yellow journals—and a goodly share of journalism that prides itself upon not being yellow—that the real work-girl has been quite lost sight of. Her name suggests, according to their imaginations, a proud, independent, self-reliant, efficient young woman—a young woman who works for her living and is glad of it. One hardly dares criticize her, unless, indeed, it be to lecture her for an ever-increasing independence of her natural male protectors and an alleged aversion to babies.
That we should cling so tenaciously to this ideal is to our honor and glory. But fine words butter no parsnips; nor do our fine idealizations serve to reduce the quota which the working-girl ranks contribute to disreputable houses and vicious resorts. The factories, the workshops, and to some extent the stores, of the kind that I have worked in at least, are recruiting-grounds for the Tenderloin and the "red light" districts. The Springers and the "Pearl Laundries" send annually a large consignment of delinquents to their various and logical destinations. It is rare indeed that one finds a female delinquent who has not been in the beginning a working girl. For, sad and terrible though it be, the truth is that the majority of "unfortunates," whether of the specifically criminal or of the prostitute class, are what they are, not because they are inherently vicious, but because they were failures as workers and as wage-earners. They were failures as such, primarily, for no other reason than that they did not like to work. And they did not like to work, not because they are lazy—they are anything but lazy, as a rule—but because they did not know how to work.
Few girls know how to work when they undertake the first job, whether that job be making paper boxes, seaming corset-covers, or taking shorthand dictation. Nor by the term, "knowing how to work," do I mean, necessarily, lack of experience. One may have had no experience whatever in any line of work, yet one may know how to work—may understand the general principles of intelligent labor. These general principles a girl may learn equally well by means of a normal-school training or through familiarity with, and participation in, the domestic labor of a well-organized household. The working girl in a great city like New York does not have the advantage of either form of training. Her education, even at the best, is meager, and of housework she knows less than nothing. If she is city-born, it is safe to assume that she has never been taught how to sweep a room properly, nor how to cook the simplest meal wholesomely, nor how to make a garment that she would be willing to wear. She usually buys all her cheap finery at a cheap store, and such style and taste as she displays is "ready made."
Not having learned to work, either at school or at home, she goes to the factory, to the workshop, or to the store, crude, incompetent, and, worst of all, with an instinctive antagonism toward her task. She cannot work, and she does not work. She is simply "worked." And there is all the difference in the world between "working" and "being worked." To work is a privilege and a boon to either man or woman, and, properly regulated, it ought to be a pleasure. To be worked is degrading. To work is dignified and ennobling, for to work means the exercise of the mental quite as much as the physical self. But the average working girl puts neither heart nor mind into her labor; she is merely a machine, though the comparison is a libel upon the functions of first-class machinery.
The harsh truth is that, hard as the working girl is "worked," and miserable as her remuneration is, she is usually paid quite as much as she is worth.
For her incompetency she is not entirely to blame; rather is it a matter of heredity and environment. Being a girl, it is not natural to her to work systematically. The working woman is a new product; in this country she is hardly three generations old. As yet she is as new to the idea of what it really means to work as is the Afro-American citizen. The comparison may not be flattering to our vanity, but, after a reading of Booker Washington's various expositions of the industrial abilities of the negro, I cannot but be convinced that the white working woman is in a corresponding process of evolution, so far as her specific functions for labor have been developed.
Conditions in the "Pearl," from the view-point of mere physical labor, were the most brutal in all my experience; but, from what I can learn, the "Pearl" is no worse than many other similar establishments. Young women will work in such places only as a last resort, for young women cannot work long under conditions so detrimental to bodily health. The regular workers are old women—women like Mrs. Mooney and her cronies. The steady workers at the "Pearl" were, with the exception of the "queen," all old women. Every day saw the arrival of a new force of young hands who were bound to "play out" at the end of three or four days' apprenticeship, if not sooner. I played out completely: I didn't walk a step for a week after I went home with Minnie Plympton that Saturday night. Which was all in accord with Mrs. Mooney's prediction the first day: "You won't last long, mind ye; you young uns never do. If you ain't strong as an ox it gits in your back and off ye go to the 'orspital; and if you're not able to stand the drivin', and thinks you're good-lookin', off you goes to the bad, sooner 'n stay here."
I would like to dwell for a moment upon the character and personality of her whom I have more than once referred to as the "queen." The queen had worked, I was told, for seven years in the laundry, and she was, as I saw and knew her in those days, as fresh as the proverbial daisy. She seemed the very embodiment of blithesome happiness. In the chapter dealing with the laundry I had occasion to speak of her voluptuous beauty. Her long years of hard labor—and she labored harder than any one else there—seemed to have wrought no effect upon her handsome, nerveless body. Her lovely eyes, her hair, her dazzling complexion and perfect features, were all worthy the reputation of a stage beauty. She was kind; in her rough, uncouth way, she was kind to everybody—so kind, in fact, that she was generally popular, though envied as enjoying the boss's favor. And, as may be imagined, her influence, during those seven years, upon the underfed, underpaid, ignorant, unskilled green hands who streamed into the "Pearl" every morning must have been endless for evil.
On the subject of morality I am constrained to express myself with apparent diffidence, lest I be misinterpreted and charged with vilifying the class to which I once belonged. And yet behind my diffidence of expression I must confess to a very honest and uncompromising belief, founded upon my own knowledge and observation, that the average working girl is even more poorly equipped for right living and right thinking than she is for intelligent industrial effort. One of the worst features of my experience was being obliged to hear the obscene stories which were exchanged at the work-table quite as a matter of course; and, if not a reflection of vicious minds, this is at least indicative of loose living and inherent vulgarity. The lewd joke, the abominable tale, is the rule, I assert positively, and not the exception, among the lower class of working girls with whom I toiled in those early months of my apprenticeship. The flower-manufactory in Broadway was the one glorious exception. I do not attempt to account for this exception to the general rule, unless it be explainable upon the logical theory that the skill necessary for the making of artificial flowers is found only in a vastly superior class of girls. The flower-girls I met at Rosenberg's were, without exception, wholesome-minded and pure-hearted. They knew how to cook, as they had ample opportunity of proving at our luncheons and dinners during those four busy, happy weeks. I never met factory-girls in any other line of employment who knew how to make a cup of tea or coffee that was fit to drink. The flower-girls gave every evidence of having come from homes which, humble though many of them must have been, were nevertheless well-ordered and clean. The girls I met in other places seemed never to have lived in homes at all.
In the telling of the obscene story, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, were equally guilty.
That the responsibility for these conditions of moral as well as physical wretchedness is fundamentally attributable to our present socio-economic system is a fact that has been stated so often before, and by writers who by right of specialized knowledge and scientific training are so much better equipped to discuss social economics than I may ever hope to be, that I need not repeat the axiom here. Nor would it be any more becoming for me to enter into any discussion of the various theories upon which the economists and the social reformers base their various projects for the reconstruction of the present system. Personally I have a strong prejudice in favor of the trades-union. I believe that working women should awaken as quickly as possible to the advantages to be derived from organization of the industries in which they are employed. But I seem to be alone in my cherished desire. The women and girls I have worked with in New York do not view the trades-union as their more progressive and enlightened sisters of Chicago and the West generally choose to regard it. Chicago alone shows a roster of nearly forty thousand women and girls who are organized into unions of their own, officered by themselves and with their own feminine "walking delegates." I recently spent four weeks among these trades-unions, numbering thirty-five distinct women's organizations, and I found, everywhere I went, the same enthusiasm for, and the same superior degree of intelligence regarding, the aim and object of the organization idea.
As for the working women of New York, they have so far refused to countenance the trades-union. New York has no woman's trades-union. A small percentage of women workers belong to labor organizations, it is true; but it is merely as auxiliaries to the men's unions, and where they work at trades that have been thoroughly organized for the benefit of the men workers. They belong to these unions always under protest, not of their own volition; because they are obliged to do so in order to be permitted to work at their trades in competition with men who are organized.
For this reason, owing to the blindness of the workwoman to the benefits to be derived from organization,—and because, moreover, it has not yet been proved that the trades-union, carried to its logical conclusion, is likely to be a panacea for the industrial woes of the sex which does favor and support it—it seems to me rather idle to urge its wider adoption under the protest of those most vitally concerned—the women workers themselves. The idea of organized labor will have to grow among the ranks of women workers just as the idea has grown into the consciousness of her father and brother.
We have a great and crying need for two things—things which it is entirely within the power of a broad-minded philanthropy to supply. The most urgent of these needs is a very material and unpoetic one. We need a well-regulated system of boarding-and lodging-houses where we can live with decency upon the small wages we receive. We do not want any so-called "working girls' homes"—God forgive the euphemism!—which, while overcharging us for the miserable accommodations, at the same time would put us in the attitude of charity dependants. What the working girl needs is a cheap hotel or a system of hotels—for she needs a great many of them—designed something after the Mills Hotels for working-men. She also needs a system of well-regulated lodging-houses, such as are scattered all over the city for the benefit of men. My experience of the working girls' home in which I lived for many weeks, and from my observation and inquiries regarding a number of similar "homes" which I have since visited, justifies me in making a few suggestions regarding the general plan and conduct of the ideal philanthropic scheme which I have in mind.
First and most important, there must be no semblance of charity. Let the working girls' hotel and the working girls' lodging-house be not only self-supporting, but so built and conducted that they will pay a fair rate of interest upon the money invested. Otherwise they would fail of any truly philanthropic object.
As to their conduct as institutions there should be no rules, no regulations which are not in full operation in the Waldorf-Astoria or the Hotel St. Regis. The curse of all such attempts in the past has been the insistence upon coercive morality. Make them not only non-sectarian, but non-religious. There is no more need of conducting a working girls' hotel or lodging-house in the name of God or under the auspices of religious sentiment than there is necessity for advertising the Martha Washington Hotel or any fashionable bachelor-apartment house as being under divine guidance.
A clean room and three wholesomely cooked meals a day can be furnished to working girls at a price such as would make it possible for them to live honestly on the small wage of the factory and store. We do not ask for luxuries or dainties. We do not get them in the miserable, dark warrens where we are now obliged to sleep, and we do not get them at the unappetizing boarding-house tables where countless thousands of us find sustenance. I do not know—I suppose nobody does know—how many working girls in New York City live in lodging-and boarding-houses. But they are legion, and very few of them are contented with that life.
The most important necessity of the model working woman's hotel or lodging-house would be, not a luxurious table, not a dainty sleeping-room, but a parlor! The number of young girls who go wrong in a great city like this for want of the various necessities of a parlor must make the angels in heaven weep. The houses where the poorly paid girl lives have no accommodations for the entertainment of her male friends. If the house is conducted with any respect for the conventions, the girl lodger must meet her young man on the "stoop" or on the street corner. As the courtship progresses, they must have recourse either to the benches of the public parks, provided the weather be favorable, or else to the light and warmth of the back room of a saloon. The average cheap lodging-house is usually conducted, however, with but scant regard for the conventions, and the girl usually is forced to adopt the more convenient and, as it would seem to her, really more self-respecting habit of receiving her company in her room. And either one of these methods of courtship, it is evident, cannot but be in the end demoralizing and degrading to thoughtless young people, however innocent they may be of any deliberate wrong-doing. In the model lodging-house there should be perfect liberty of conduct and action on the part of guests—who will not be "inmates" in any sense of the word. Such guests should have perfect liberty to go and come when they please at any hour of the day or night; be permitted to see any person they choose to have come, without question or challenge, so long as the conventions of ordinary social life are complied with. Such an institution, conducted upon such a plan and managed so that it would make fair returns to its promoters, cannot fail to be welcomed; and would be of inestimable benefit as an uplifting and regenerative force with those for whom it is designed.
The other need is for a greater interest in the workwoman's welfare on the part of the church, and an effort by that all-powerful institution to bring about some adjustment of her social and economic difficulties. I am old-fashioned enough to believe in the supreme efficacy of organized religion in relation to womanhood, and all that pertains to womanhood. I believe that, in our present state of social development, the church can do more for the working girl than any of the proposed measures based upon economic science or the purely ethical theory. Working women as a class are certainly not ripe for the trades-union, as I have already intimated; and the earnest people of the "settlements" are able to reach but a small part of the great army of women marching hopelessly on, ungeneraled, untrained, and, worst of all, uncaring.
Few are they who, like Tolstoi, can gracefully stoop to conquer; and those who shall be ordained to revolutionize conditions will rise from the ranks, even as did Booker T. Washington. This, of course, is the ultimate object of settlement work: to prepare the leaven for the loaf.
But a live and progressive church—a church imbued with the Christian spirit in the broadest and most liberal interpretation of the term—can do for us, and do it quickly and at once, more than all the college settlements and all the trades-unions that can be organized within the next ten years could hope to do. And for this reason: the church has all the machinery ready, set up and waiting only for the proper hand to put it in motion to this great end. The Christian church has a vast responsibility in the solution of all problems of the social order, and none of those problems is more grave or urgent than the one affecting the economic condition of the wage-earning woman. It is curious that the church, in this age, should choose to regard its primary function with such evident apathy. The first business of the church in the past was the adjustment of social difficulties. The gospel of Jesus Christ was preeminently a social gospel, and when the church ceases to be a social force it will have outlived its usefulness.
There are those who believe that the church has outlived that primal usefulness. I do not believe so. For men, perhaps, it has; but not for women—certainly not for working women. We do not as a sex, we do not as a class, flatter ourselves that we have got along so far in race development that we have no further need of organized religion. In all my experience of meeting and talking, often becoming intimately acquainted, with girls and women of all sorts, I have never known one, however questionable, to whom the church was not, after all, held in respect as the one all-powerful human institution.
And yet, unless they were Catholics, mighty few went to church at all, and most of them were resentful, often bitter, toward the church and hostile toward all kinds of organized religion. They accused the church of not doing its duty toward them, and they declared that organized religion was a sham and a hypocrisy.
The only activity exerted by the church in the direction indicated partakes too strongly of the eleemosynary nature to make it acceptable to any save the most degraded—the weak-chinned, flabby-natured horde of men and women who rally instinctively to the drum-taps of the street-corner Salvationist, or seek warmth and cheer on cold winter nights, and if possible more substantial benefits, from the missions and "church houses."
I have no quarrel to pick with the Salvation Army, nor with the city missions, as institutions. Both have done too much good for that "ninety and nine" which the church forgets. But it is a pity that the work of the Salvation Army and of the city missions is sometimes relegated to the control of such incompetent and unworthy persons as Henrietta Manners and "Brother" Mason. Since my brief acquaintance with those aspiring reformers, I have investigated and found that both were prominent workers and "guides" in the respective religious movements to which they claimed allegiance; I also found that there were other Henrietta Mannerses and not a few "Brother" Masons interested in the same good work. It is the part of charity and justice to assume that their superior officers were totally ignorant of their real characters.
But why should these sacred duties be relegated to the Henrietta Mannerses and the "Brother" Masons? Are there not enough intelligent, conscientious Christian men and women among the churches who would consider it not only a duty, but a precious privilege, to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ into the dark places? It is not wise to set a thief to catch a thief, and it is worse than useless to encourage the weak, not to say the depraved, to carry the gospel to their kind.
In the days when I could see no silver lining to the clouds I tried going to a Protestant church, but I recognized very shortly the alienation between it and me. Personally, I do not like to attend Salvation meetings or listen to the mission evangelists. So I ceased any pretension of going to church, thus allying myself with that great aggregation of non-church-going Protestant working women who have been forced into a resentful attitude against that which we should love and support. It is encouraging, however, to find that the church itself has, at last, begun to heed our growing disaffection and alienation:
"The fact must be admitted that the wage-workers of this country are largely outside the churches. This breach has been steadily widening; conditions are worse now than they were ten years ago. One of the strongest reasons for this is the fact that the churches have not recognized so clearly as they ought the equities of this conflict. It is a grave failure. They ought never to have suffered such an alienation to occur between themselves and the people who constitute the very bone and sinew of our civilization," says a prominent preacher and reformer.
"How can the Christian church clear herself of the charge that the very people who heard her Lord gladly turn in multitudes from her threshold? There is need of sober thought and deep humiliation, that this most grave social problem may find a solution which shall bring honor to the church and peace to society."
Obviously the fundamental need of the worker of either sex is education. She needs to be educated, this work-girl. She does not need a fancy education; but she does need a good education, so that upon her entrance into the workshop she will be able to read and write and add up a column of figures correctly and with ease. This she seems not to be able to do under present conditions. And there are other things, even more important than the "three R's," which she should be taught. She should be taught how to work—how to work intelligently. She should be trained young in the fundamental race activities, in the natural human instinct for making something with the hands, or of doing something with the hands, and of taking an infinite pleasure in making it perfect, in doing it well.
I have no technical knowledge of pedagogics; I must admit that. My criticism of the public-school system I base entirely upon the results as I have seen them in the workshops, the factories, and the store in which I worked. During this period I had opportunity for meeting many hundreds of girls and for becoming more or less acquainted with them all. Now, of all these I have not yet discovered one who had not at some time in her earlier childhood or girlhood attended a public school. Usually the girl had had at least five years' continuous schooling, but often it was much more. But, great or small as the period of her tuition had been, I never met one whose knowledge of the simplest rudiments of learning was confident and precise. Spelling, geography, grammar, arithmetic, were never, with them, positive knowledge, but rather matters of chance and guess. Even the brightest girls showed a woeful ignorance of the "three R's." In only one thing did I find them universally well taught, and that was in handwriting. However badly spelled and ungrammatical their written language might be, it was invariably neatly and legibly—often beautifully—executed. But if these girls, these workmates of mine, learned to write clear and beautiful hands, why were they not able also to learn how to spell, why were they not able to learn the principles of grammar and the elementary knowledge of arithmetic as far at least as long division? That they did not have sufficient "apperceiving basis" I cannot believe, for they were generally bright and clever.
It is true that the public schools are already teaching manual training, and that kindergartens have enormously increased lately. These facts I know very well. I also know how much ignorance and senseless prejudice the pioneers of these educational reforms have had to overcome in the introduction of the newer and better methods. The point I wish to make carries no slur upon the ideal which the best modern pedagogy is striving for; it is, on the contrary, an appeal for the support and furtherance of that ideal on the part of intelligent citizenship generally, and of conscientious parenthood particularly. I believe firmly in the kindergarten; I believe that the child, whether rich or poor, who goes to kindergarten in his tender years has a better chance in life, all else being equal, than the child who does not. I do not know how long the free kindergarten system has obtained to any degree in New York City, but I do know that I have as yet found only one working girl who has had the benefit of any such training in childhood. She was "Lame Lena" at Springer's box-factory; and in spite of her deformity, which made it difficult for her to walk across the floor, she was the quickest worker and made more money than any other girl in the shop.
Tersely put, and quoting her own speech, the secret of her success was in "knowing how to kill two birds with one stone," and, again, "makin' of your cocoanut save your muscle." These formulae were more or less vague until further inquiry elicited the interesting fact that "lame Lena," had had in childhood the privilege of a kindergarten training in a class maintained by some church society when the free kindergarten was not so general as it is now.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that had this lame girl's workmates enjoyed the privilege of the same elementary training, they might have shown an equal facility in the humble task of pasting and labeling and tissuing paper boxes. "Lame Lena" knew how to work; she knew how to husband every modicum of nervous energy in her frail, deformed body; and thus she was able to make up—more than make up—for her physical inferiority. "Lame Lena" brought to her sordid task a certain degree of organizing faculty; she did the various processes rhythmically and systematically, always with the idea in view of making one stroke of the arm or the hand do, if possible, a double or a triple duty. The other girls worked helter-skelter; running hither and thither; taking many needless journeys back and forth across the floor; hurrying when they were fresh to the task, dawdling when they were weary, but at all times working without method and without organization of the task in hand, and without that coordination of muscular and mental effort which the kindergarten might have taught them, just as it had certainly taught "Lame Lena."
The free kindergarten movement is not yet old enough to begin to show its effects to any perceptible degree in the factory and workshop. Henrietta Manners and Phoebe Arlington and little Angelina were born too soon: they did not know the joy of the kindergarten; they did not know the delight of sitting in a little red chair in a great circle of other little red chairs filled with other little girls, each and all learning the rudimentary principles of work under the blissful delusion that they were at play. These joys have been reserved for their little sisters, who, sooner or later, will step into their vacant places in the box-factory. What was denied Angelina it is the blessed privilege of Angelina's baby to revel in.
Angelina's baby—the little baby that she kept in the day-nursery when we worked together at Springer's—now goes to a free kindergarten. I happen to know this because not long ago I met Angelina. She did not recognize me—indeed, she had difficulty in recalling vaguely that I had worked with her once upon a time; for Angelina's memory, like that of a great majority of her hard-worked class, is very poor,—a fact I mention because it is very much to the point right here. My solicitous inquiry for the baby brought forth a burst of Latin enthusiasm as to the cunningness and sweetness of that incipient box-maker, who, Angelina informed me, goes to kindergarten in a free hack along with a crowd of other babies. But Angelina, bless her soul! is down on the kindergarten. She says, with a pout and a contemptuous shrug, "they don't teach you're kid nothing but nonsense, just cutting up little pieces of paper and singing fool songs and marching to music." Angelina admitted, however, that her bambino was supremely happy there,—so happy, in fact, that she hadn't the heart to take her away, even though she does know that it is all "tomfoolishness" the "kid" is being taught by a mistaken philanthropy.
It is fair to suppose that in the factory and workshop of every description the kindergarten is bound to work incalculable results. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the kindergarteners themselves can quite realize how well they are building—can fully comprehend the very great need in the working woman of the identical principles which they are so patiently and faithfully inculcating into the tender minds of these forlorn babies gathered up in the courts and alleys.
Another important thing looking to the well-being of the working girl of the future would be the wide dissemination of a better literature than that with which she now regales herself. I have already outlined at some length the literary tastes of my workmates at the box-factory. The example cited is typical of other factories and other workshops, and also of the department-store. A certain downtown section of New York City is monopolized by the publishers and binders of "yellow-backs," which are turned out in bales and cart-loads daily. Girls fed upon such mental trash are bound to have distorted and false views of everything. There is a broad field awaiting some original-minded philanthropist who will try to counteract the maudlin yellow-back by putting in its place something wholesome and sweet and sane. Only, please, Mr. or Mrs. Philanthropist, don't let it be Shakspere, or Ruskin, or Walter Pater. Philanthropists have tried before to reform degraded literary tastes with heroic treatment, and they have failed every time.
That is sometimes the trouble with the college-settlement folk. They forget that Shakspere, and Ruskin, and all the rest of the really true and great literary crew, are infinite bores to every-day people. I know personally, and love deeply and sincerely, a certain young woman—a settlement-worker—who for several years conducted an evening class in literature for some girl "pants-makers." She gave them all the classics in allopathic doses, she gave them copies of "A Crown of Wild Olive" and "The Ethics of the Dust," which they read dutifully, not because they liked the books, which were meaningless to their tired heads, but because they loved Miss —— and enjoyed the evenings spent with her at the settlement. But Miss —— did not succeed in supplanting their old favorites, which undoubtedly she could have done had she given them all the light, clean present-day romance they could possibly read. It is a curious fact that these girls will not read stories laid in the past, however full of excitement they may be. They like romance of the present day, stories which have to do with scenes and circumstances not too far removed from the real and the actual. All their trashy favorites have to do with the present, with heroes and heroines who live in New York City or Boston or Philadelphia; who go on excursions to Coney Island, to Long Branch, or to Delaware Water Gap; and who, when they die, are buried in Greenwood over in Brooklyn, or in Woodlawn up in Westchester County. In other words, any story, to absorb their interest, must cater to the very primitive feminine liking for identity. This liking, this passion, their own special authors have thoroughly comprehended, and keep it constantly in mind in the development of their plots.
This taste for better literature could be helped along immeasurably if still another original-minded philanthropist were to make it his business that no tenement baby should be without its "Mother Goose" and, a little later, its "Little Women," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Robinson Crusoe," and all the other precious childhood favorites. As it is, the majority know nothing about them.
But, after all, the greatest factor in the ultimate development of the working girl as a wage-earning unit—the most potent force for the adjustment of all the difficulties besetting her at every turn, and for the righting of all her wrongs, social, economic, or moral—will be the attitude which she herself assumes toward the dispassionate consideration of those difficulties to be adjusted, and of those wrongs to be righted.
At the present time there is nobody so little concerned about herself and her condition as the working woman herself. Taking everything into consideration, and in spite of conditions which, to the observer viewing them at a distance great enough to get a perspective, seem irreconcilably harsh and bitter—in the face of all this, one must characterize the working woman as a contented, if not a happy woman. That is the great trouble that will have to be faced in any effort to alleviate her condition. She is too contented, too happy, too patient. But not wholesomely so. Hers is a contentment, a happiness, a patience founded, not in normal good health and the joy of living and working, but in apathy. Her lot is hard, but she has grown used to it; for, being a woman, she is patient and long-suffering. She does not entirely realize the tragedy of it all, and what it means to herself, or to her children perhaps yet to be born.
In the happy future, the working girl will no longer be content to be merely "worked." Then she will have learned to work. She will have learned to work intelligently, and, working thus, she will begin to think—to think about herself and all those things which most vitally concern her as a woman and as a wage-earner. And then, you may depend upon it, she will settle the question to please herself, and she will settle it in the right way.
 "The Church and Social Problems," by Rev. Washington Gladden, D.D. ("International Quarterly.")