And if you do not land a job Monday, that whole week is as good as lost. Of course, there is always a chance—the smallest sort of hopeless chance—that something can be found later on in the week. The general happening is that you stake your all on the 7.30 to 8.30 wait Monday morning. Often it is 9 before the firm sees fit to announce it wants no more help, and there you are with fifty-five cents and a key and a safety pin—or less—to do till Monday next.
Strange the cruel comfort to be felt from the sight of the countless others hurrying about hopelessly, hopefully, that raw Monday morning. On every block where a firm had advertised were girls scanning their already worn-looking lists, making sure of the address, hastening on. Nor were they deterred by the procession marching away—even if some one called, "No use goin' up there—they don't want no more." Perhaps, after all, thought each girl to herself, the boss would want her. The boss did not.
First, early in the morning and full of anticipation I made for the bindery on West Eighteenth Street. That sounded the likeliest of the possibilities. No need to get out the paper to make sure again of the number. It must be where that crowd was on the sidewalk ahead, some thirty girls and as many men and boys. Everyone was pretty cheerful—it was twenty minutes to eight and most of us were young. Rather too many wanted the same job, but there were no worries to speak of. Others might be unlucky—not we. So our little group talked. Bright girls they were, full of giggles and "gee's." Finally the prettiest and the brightest of the lot peered in through the street doors. "Say, w'at d'ye know? I see a bunch inside! Come on!"
In we shoved our way, and there in the dismal basement-like first floor waited as many girls and men as on the sidewalk. "Good night! A fat show those dead ones outside stand!" And we passed the time of day a bit longer. The pretty and smart one was not for such tactics long. "W'at d'ye say we go up to where the firm is and beat the rest of 'em to it!" "You said it!" And we tore up the iron stairs. On the second flight we passed a janitor. "Where's the bindery?"
"My Gawd!" And up seven flights we puffed in single file, conversation impossible for lack of wind.
The bright one opened the door and our group of nine surged in. There stood as many girls and men as were down on the first floor and out on the sidewalk.
"My Gawd!" There was nothing else to say.
We edged our way through till we stood by the time clock. The bright one was right,—that was the strategic point. For at 8.30 a forelady appeared at that very spot, just suddenly was—and in a pleasant tone of voice announced, "We don't need any more help, male or female, this morning!" Two scared-looking girls just in front of me screwed up their courage and said, pleadingly, "But you told us Saturday we should come back this morning and you promised us work!"
"Oh, all right! Then you two go to the coat room."
Everyone looked a bit dazed. At least one hundred girls and over that many men had hopes of landing a job at that bindery—and they took on two girls from Saturday.
We said a few things we thought, and dashed for the iron stairs. We rushed down pell-mell, calling all the way. By this time a steady procession was filing up. "No use. Save your breath." Some kept on, regardless.
From the bindery I rushed to a factory making muslin underwear. By the time I got there—only six blocks uptown—the boss looked incredulous that I should even be applying at such an advanced hour, although it was not yet 9. No, he needed no more. From there to the address of an "ad" for "light factory work," whatever it might turn out to be. A steady stream of girls coming and going. Upstairs a young woman, without turning her head, her finger tracing down a column of figures, called out, "No more help wanted!"
A rush to a wholesale millinery just off Fifth Avenue—the only millinery advertising for learners. The elevator was packed going up, the hallway was packed where we got out. The girls already there told us newcomers we must write our names on certain cards. Also we must state our last position, what sort of millinery jobs we expected to get, and what salary. The girl ahead of me wrote twenty-eight dollars. I wrote fourteen dollars. She must have been experienced in some branch of the trade. All the rest of us at our crowded end of the entry hall were learners. The "ad" here had read "apply after 9.30." It was not yet 9.30. A few moments after I got there, my card just filled out, the boss called from a little window: "No more learners. All I want is one experienced copyist." There was apparently but one experienced copyist in the whole lot. Everyone was indignant. Several girls spoke up: "What made you advertise learners if you don't want none?" "I did want some, but I got all I want." We stuffed the elevator and went on down.
As a last try, my lunch and apron and I tore for the Subway and Park Place, down by the Woolworth Building. By the time I reached that bindery there were only two girls ahead of me. A man interviewed the younger. She had had a good bit of bindery experience. The man was noncommittal. The very refined middle-aged woman had had years of experience. She no sooner spoke of it than the man squinted his eyes at her and said: "You belong to the union then, don't you?" "Yes," the woman admitted, with no hesitation, "I do, but that makes no difference. I'm perfectly willing to work with nonunion girls. I'm a good worker and I don't see what difference it should make." The man turned abruptly to me. "What bindery experience have you had?" I had to admit I had had no bindery experience, but I made it clear I was a very experienced person in many other fields—oh, many other—and so willing I was, and quick to learn.
"Nothing doing for you."
But he had advertised for learners.
"Yes, but why should I use learners when I turned away over seventy experienced girls this morning, ready to do any work for any old price?"
I was hoping to hear what else he might say to the union member, but the man left me no excuse for standing around.
I ate my lunch at home.
When the next Sunday morning came, again the future looked bright. I red-penciled eleven "ads"—jobs in three different dress factories, sewing buttons on shoes. You see, I have to pick only such "ads" as allow for no previous experience—it is only unskilled workers I am eligible to be among as yet; girls to pack tea and coffee, to work for an envelope company, in tobacco, on sample cards; girls to pack hair nets, learners on fancy feathers, and learners to operate book-sewing machines.
The rest of the newspaper told much of trouble in the garment trades. I decided to try the likeliest dress factory first. I was hopeful, but not enough so to take my lunch and apron.
At the first dress factory address before eight o'clock there were about nine girls ahead of me. We waited downstairs by the elevator, as the boss had not yet arrived. The "ad" I was answering read: "WANTED—Bright girls to make themselves useful around dress factory."
Some of us looked brighter than others of us.
Upstairs in the hall we assembled to wait upon the pleasure of the boss. The woodwork was white, the floor pale blue—it was all very impressive.
Finally, second try, the boss glued his eye on me.
"Come in here." A white door closed behind us, and we stood in a little room which looked as if a small boy of twelve had knocked it together out of old scraps and odds and ends, unpainted.
"What experience you have had?"
He was a nice-looking, fairly young Jew, who spoke with a considerable German accent.
"None in a dress factory, but ..." and I regaled him with the vast amount of experience in other lines that was mine, adding that I had done a good deal of "private dressmaking" off and on, and also assuring him, almost tremblingly, I did so want to land a job—that I was the most willing of workers.
"What you expect to get?"
"What will you pay me?"
"No, I'm asking you. What do you expect to get?"
"All right, go on in."
If the room where the boss had received me could have been the work of a twelve-year-old, the rest of the factory must have been designed and executed by a boy of eight, or a lame, halt, and blind carpenter just tottering to his grave. There was not a straight shelf. There was not a straight partition. Boards of various woods and sizes had been used and nothing had ever been painted. Such doors as existed had odd ways of opening and closing. The whole place looked as if it had cost about seven dollars and twenty-nine cents to throw together. But, ah! the white and pale blue of the show rooms!
* * * * *
The dress factory job was like another world compared with candy, brass, and the laundry. In each of those places I had worked on one floor of a big plant, doing one subdivided piece of labor among equally low-paid workers busy at the same sort of job as myself. Of what went on in the processes before and after the work we did, I knew and saw nothing. We packed finished chocolates; we punched slots in already-made lamp cones; we ironed already washed, starched, and dampened clothes. Such work as we did took no particular skill, though a certain improvement in speed and quality of work came with practice. One's eyes could wander now and then, one's thoughts could wander often, and conversation with one's neighbors was always possible.
Behold the dress factory, a little complete world of its own on one small floor where every process of manufacture, and all of it skilled work, could be viewed from any spot. Not quite every process—the designer had a room of her own up front nearer where the woodwork was white.
"Ready-made clothing!" It sounds so simple—just like that. Mrs. Fine Lady saunters into a shop, puts up her lorgnette, and lisps, "I'd like to see something in a satin afternoon dress." A plump blonde in tight-fitting black with a marcel wave trips over to mirrored doors, slides one back, takes a dress off its hanger—and there you are! "So much simpler than bothering with a dressmaker."
But whatever happened to get that dress to the place where the blonde could sell it? "Ready-made," indeed! There has to be a start some place before there is any "made" to it. It was at that point in our dress factory when the French designer first got a notion into her head—she who waved her arms and gesticulated and flew into French-English rages just the way they do on the stage. "Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!"—gray-haired Madame would gasp at our staid and portly Mr. Rogers. Ada could say "My Gawd!" through her Russian nose to him and it had nothing like the same wilting effect.
Ready-made—yes, ready-made. But first Madame got her notion, and then she and her helpers concocted the dress itself. A finished article, it hung inside the wire inclosure where the nice young cutter kept himself and his long high table. The cutter took a look at the finished garment hanging on the side of his cage, measured a bit with his yardstick, and then proceeded to cut the pattern out of paper. Whereupon he laid flat yards and yards of silks and satins on his table and with an electric cutter sliced out his parts. One mistake—one slice off the line—Mon Dieu! it's too terrible to think of! All these pieces had to be sorted according to sizes and colors, and tied and labeled. (Wanted—bright and useful girl right here.)
Next came the sewing machine operators (electric power)—a long narrow table, nine machines at a side, but not more than fourteen operators were employed—thirteen girls and one lone young man. They said that on former piece rates this man used to make from ninety dollars to one hundred dollars a week. The operators were all well paid, especially by candy, brass, and laundry standards, but they were a skilled lot. A very fine-looking lot too—some of the nicest-looking girls I've seen in New York. Everyone had a certain style and assurance. It was good for the eyes to look on them after the laundry thirteen-dollar-a-week type.
When the first operators had done their part the dresses were handed over to the drapers. There were two drapers; they were getting around fifty dollars a week before the hard times. One of the drapers was as attractive a girl as I ever saw any place—bobbed hair, deep-set eyes, a Russian Jewess with features which made her look more like an Italian. She spoke English with hardly any accent. She dressed very quietly and in excellent taste. All day long the two draped dresses on forms—ever pinning and pinning. The drapers turned the dresses over to certain operators, who finished all machine sewing. The next work fell to the finishers.
In that same end of the factory sat the four finishers, getting "about twenty dollars a week," but again no one seemed sure. Two were Italians who could talk little English. One was Gertie, four weeks married—"to a Socialist." Gertie was another of the well-dressed ones. If you could know these dress factory girls you would realize how, unless gifted with the approach of a newspaper reporter—and I lack that approach—it was next to impossible to ask a girl herself what she was earning. No more than you could ask a lawyer what his fees amounted to. The girls themselves who had been working long together in the same shop did not seem to know what one another's wages were. It was a new state of affairs in my factory experience.
The finishers, after sewing on all hooks and eyes and fasteners and doing all the remaining handwork on the dresses, turned them over to the two pressers, sedate, assured Italians, who ironed all day long and looked prosperous and were very polite.
They brought the dresses back to Jean and her helper—two girls who put the last finishing touches on a garment before it went into the showroom—snipping here and there, rough edges all smoothed off. It was to Jean the boss called my second morning, very loud so all could hear: "If you find anything wrong mit a dress, don't look at it, don't bodder wid it—jus' t'row it in dere faces and made dem do it over again! It's not like de old days no more!" (Whatever he meant by that.) So—there was your dress, "ready-made."
Such used to be the entire factory, adding the two office girls; the model, who was wont to run around our part of the world now and then in a superior fashion, clad in a scanty pale-pink-satin petticoat which came just below her knees and an old gray-and-green sweater; plus various male personages, full of business and dressed in their best. Goodness knows what all they did do to keep the wheels of industry running—perhaps they were salesmen. They had the general appearance of earning at least ten to twenty thousand dollars a year. It may possibly have risen as high as two thousand.
And Peters—who was small though grown, and black, and who cleaned up with a fearful dust and snitched lead pencils if you left them around.
At present, in addition, there were the sixteen crochet beaders, because crochet beading is stylish in certain quarters—this "department" newly added just prior to my arrival. But before the beaders could begin work the goods had to be stamped, and before they could be stamped Mr. Rogers (he was middle-aged and a dear and an Italian and his name wasn't "Rogers," but some unpronounceable thing the Germans couldn't get, so it just naturally evolved into something that began with the same letter which they could pronounce) had to concoct a design. He worked in the cage at a raised end of the cutting table. He pricked the pattern through paper with a machine, at a small table outside by the beaders, that was always piled high with a mess of everything from spools to dresses, which Mr. Rogers patiently removed each time to some spot where some one else found them on top of something she wanted, and less patiently removed them to some other spot, where still less patiently they were found in the way and dumped some place else. Such was life in one factory. And Ada would call out still later: "Mr. Rogers, did you see a pile of dresses on this table when you went to work?"
Whereat in abject politeness and dismay Mr. Rogers would dash from "inside" to "outside" and explain in very broken English that there had been some things on the table, but "vaire carefully" he had placed them—here. And to Mr. Rogers's startled gaze the pile had disappeared.
If a dress had to be beaded, Mr. Rogers took the goods after the cutter finished his job, and he and his helpers stamped the patterns on sleeves, front and back, skirt, by rubbing chalk over the paper. Upon the scene at this psychological moment enters the bright girl to make herself useful. The bright girl "framed-up" the goods for the beaders to work on. (In fact, you noted she entered even earlier, by helping the cutter tie the bundles according to size and color.)
"Frame-up" means taking boards the proper length with broad tape tacked along one edge. First you pin the goods lengthwise, pins close together. Then you find side boards the desired length and pin the goods along the sides. Then with four iron clamps you fasten the corners together, making the goods as tight as a drum. There is a real knack to it, let me tell you—especially when it comes to queerly shaped pieces—odd backs or fronts or sleeves. Or where you have a skirt some six or eight feet long and three broad. But I can frame! Ada said so.
When I got a piece framed (Now I write those six words and grin) ... "when" ... Two little skinny horses I had to rest the frames upon. The space I had in which to make myself useful was literally about three by four feet just in front of the shelves where the thread and beads were kept. That is, I had it if no one wanted to get anything in the line of thread or beads, which they always did want to get. Whereupon I moved out—which meant my work might be knocked on the floor, or if it was bigger I had to move the work out with me. Or I crawled under it and got the thread or beads myself. If it were a skirt I was framing up I earned the curses, though friendly, of the assemblage. No one could pass in any direction. The beaders were shut in their quarters till I got through, or they crawled under. Or I poked people in the back with the frames while I was clamping them. I fought and bled and died over every large frame I managed to get together, for the frame was larger than the space I had to work in. Until in compassion they finally moved me around the corner into the dressmaking quarters, which tried Joe's soul. Joe was the Italian foreman of that end of things. He was nice. But he saw no reason why I should be moved up into his already crowded space. Indeed, I was only a little better off. The fact of the matter was that the more useful I became the more in everybody's way I got. Indeed, it can be taken as a tribute to human nature that everyone in that factory was not a crabbed nervous wreck from having to work on top of everyone else. It was almost like attempting dressmaking in the Subway. The boss at times would gaze upon my own frantic efforts, and he claimed: "Every time I look at you the tears come in my eis." And I would tell him, "Every time I think about myself the tears come in mine." About every other day he appeared with a hammer and some nails and would pound something some place, with the assurance that his every effort spelled industrial progress and especial help to me.
"All I think on is your comfort, yes?"
"Don't get gray over it!"
Nor will I forget that exhibition of the boss's ideas of scientific management. Nothing in the factory was ever where anyone could find it. It almost drove me crazy. What was my joy then when one day the boss told me to put the spools in order. There was a mess of every-colored spool, mixed with every other color, tangled ends, dust, buttons, loose snappers, more dust, beads, more spools, more dust. A certain color was wanted by a stitcher. There was nothing to do but paw. The spool, like as not, would be so dusty it would take blowings and wipings on your skirt before it could be discovered whether the color was blue or black. I tied my head in tissue paper and sat down to the dusty job of sorting those spools. Laboriously I got all the blacks together and in one box. Laboriously all the whites. That exhausted all the boxes I could lay hands on. I hunted up the boss. "I can't do that spool job decent if I ain't got no boxes to put the different colors in."
"Boxes, boxes! What for you want boxes?"
"For the spools."
"'Ain't you got no boxes?"
"'Ain't got another one."
He hustled around to the spool shelves where I was working.
"Ach, boxes! Here are two boxes. What more you want?"
Majestically, energetically, he dumped my black spools out of one box, my white spools out of the other—dumped them back with a flourish into the mess of unassorted dust and colors.
"Here are two boxes! What more you want?"
What redress had I for such a grievance except to wail at him: "My Gawd! my Gawd! I jus' put those spools in them boxes!"
"Ach, so!" says the boss. "Vell, put um back in again."
With the sweat of my life's blood I unearthed a ragged empty box here, another there, no two sizes the same. After three days of using every minute to be spared from other jobs on those shelves, I had every single spool where it belonged and each box labeled as to color. How wondrous grand it looked! How clean and dusted! I made the boss himself gaze upon the glory of it.
"Ach, fine!" he beamed.
Two days later it was as if I had never touched a spool. The boxes were broken, the spools spilled all over—pawing was again in season. Not yet quite so much dust, but soon even the dust would be as of yore.
"One cause of labor unrest is undoubtedly the fact that the workers are aware that present management of industry is not always 100 per cent efficient."
* * * * *
So then, I framed up. Nor was it merely that I worked under difficulties as to space. Another of the boss's ideas of scientific management seemed to be to employ as few bright and useful girls as possible. He started with three. He ended with just one. From dawn to dewy eve I tore. It was "Connie, come here!" (Ada, the beadwork forelady.) "Connie, come here!" (The cutter.) "Connie, thread, thread, yes? There's a good girl!" (The beaders.) "Connie, changeable beads, yes? That's the girl!" "Connie, unframe these two skirts quick as you can!" "Connie, never mind finishing those skirts; I got to get this 'special' framed up right away!" "Connie, didn't you finish unframing those skirts?" "Connie, tissue paper, yes? Thanks awfully." "Connie, did you see that tag I laid here? Look for it, will you?"
But the choice and rare moment of my bright and useful career was when the boss himself called, "Oh, Miss Connie, come mal here, yes?" And when I got mal there he said, "I want you should take my shoes to the cobblers so fort yes?... And be sure you get a check ... and go quick, yes." Whereupon he removed his shoes and shuffled about in a pair of galoshes.
I put on the green tam. I put on the old brown coat with now three buttons gone and the old fur collar, over my blue-checked apron, and with the boss's shoes under my arm out I fared, wishing to goodness I would run into some one I knew, to chuckle with me. Half an hour later the boss called me again.
"I think it is time you should bring my shoes back, yes?" I went. The cobbler said it would be another five minutes. Five minutes to do what I would within New York! It was a wondrous sensation. Next to the cobbler's a new building was going up. I have always envied the folks who had time to hang over a railing and watch a new building going up. At last—my own self, my green tam, my brown coat over the blue-checked apron, chewing a stick of Black Jack, hung over the railing and for five whole minutes and watched the men on the steel skeleton. All the time my salary was going on just the same.
I was hoping the boss would tip me—say, a dime—for running his errands. Otherwise I might never get a tip from anyone. He did not. He thanked me, and after that he called me "dearie."
Ada's face wore an anxious look when I got back. She was afraid I might not have liked running errands. Running errands, it seemed, was not exactly popular. I assured her it was "so swell watchin' the riveters on the new buildin'" I didn't care about the shoes.
The first day in any new job seems strange, and you wonder if you ever will get acquainted. In the dress factory I felt that way for several days. Hitherto I had always worked with girls all round me, and it was no time before we were chatting back and forth. In the dress factory I worked by myself at chores no one else did. Also, the other girls had the sort of jobs which took concentration and attention—there was comparatively little talk. Also, the sewing machines inside and the riveting on that steel building outside made too much noise for easy conversation.
At lunch time most of the girls went out to eat at various restaurants round about. They looked so grand when they got their coats and hats on that I could never see them letting me tag along in my old green tam and two-out-of-five buttoned coat. My wardrobe had all fitted in appropriately to candy and brass and the laundry, but not to dressmaking. So I ate my lunch out of a paper bag in the factory with such girls as stayed behind. They were mostly the beaders. And they were mostly "dead ones"—the sort who would not talk had they been given a bonus and share in the profits for it. They read the Daily News, a group of some five to one paper, and ate.
By Thursday of the first week I was desperate. How was I ever to "get next" to the dress factory girls? During the lunch hour Friday I gulped down my food and tore for Gimbel's, where I bought five new buttons. Saturday I sewed them on my coat, and Monday and all the next week I ate lunch with Ada and Eva and Jean and Kate at a Yiddish restaurant where the food had strange names and stranger tastes. But at least there was conversation.
Ada I loved—our forelady in the bead work—young, good-looking, intelligent. She rather took me under her wing, in gratitude for which I showed almost immediate improvement along those lines whereon she labored over me. My grammar, for instance. When I said "it ain't," Ada would say, "Connie, Connie, ain't!" Whereat I gulped and said "isn't," and Ada smiled approval. Within one week I had picked up wonderfully. At the end of that week Ada and I were quite chummy. She asked me one day if I were married. No. Was she? "You don't think I'd be working like this if I was, do you?" When I asked her what she would be doing if she didn't have to work, she answered, "Oh, lots of things." Nor could I pin her to details. She told me she'd get married to-morrow only her "sweetheart" was a poor man. But she was crazy about him. Oh, she was! The very next day she flew over to where I was framing up. "I've had a fight with my sweetheart!"
It was always difficult carrying on a conversation with Ada. She was being hollered for from every corner of the factory continually, and in the few seconds we might have had for talk I was hollered for. Especially is such jumpiness detrimental to sharing affairs of the heart. I know only fragments of Ada's romance. The fight lasted all of four days. Then he appeared one evening, and next morning, she beamingly informed me that "her sweetheart had made up. Oh, but he's some lover, I tell you!"
Ada was born in Russia, but came very young to this country. She spoke English without an accent. Never had she earned less than twenty dollars a week, starting out as a bookkeeper. When crochet beading first became the rage, about five years ago, she went over to that and sometimes made fifty dollars and sixty dollars a week. Here as forelady, she made forty dollars. Twenty dollars of that she gave each week to her mother for board and lodging. Often she had gone on summer vacations. For three years she had paid for a colored girl to do the housework at home. I despaired at first of having Ada so much as take notice of the fact that I was alive. What was my joy then, at the end of the first week, to have her come up and say to me: "Do you know what I want? I want you to come over to Brooklyn and live with me and my folks."
Oh, it's wretched to just walk off and leave folks like that!
That same Saturday morning the boss said he wanted to see me after closing time. There seemed numerous others he wanted to see. Then I discovered, while waiting my turn with these others, that practically no one there knew her "price." There was a good deal of resentment about it, too. He had hired these girls and no word about pay. The other girls waiting that morning were beaders. I learned one trick of the trade which it appears is more or less universal. They had left their former jobs to come to this factory in answer to an "ad" for crochet beaders. If after one week it was found they were getting less than they had at the old place, they would go back and say they had been sick for a week. Otherwise they planned to stay on at this factory. Each girl was called in alone, and alone bargained with the boss. Monday, Sadie, just for instance, ahead of me in the Saturday line, reported the conversation she had had with the boss:
"Well, miss, what you expect to get here?"
"What I'm worth."
"Yes, yes—you're worth one hundred dollars, but I'm talking just plain English. What you expect to get?"
"I tell you what I'm worth."
"All right, you're worth one hundred dollars; you think you'll get thirty dollars. I'll pay you twenty dollars."
(Sadie had previously told me under no consideration would she remain under twenty-five dollars, but she remained for twenty dollars.)
My turn. I thought there was no question about my "price." It was fourteen dollars. But perhaps seeing how I had run my legs almost off, and pinned my fingers almost off all week, the boss was going voluntarily to raise me.
"What wages you expect to get here?"
Oh, well, since he thus opened the question we would begin all new. I had worked so much harder than I had anticipated.
"Sixteen dollars a week."
"Ho—sixteen dollars!—and last Monday it was fourteen dollars. You're going up, yes?"
"But the work's much harder 'n I thought it 'ud be."
"So you go from fourteen dollars to sixteen dollars and I got you here to tell you you'd get twelve dollars."
Oh, but I was mad—just plain mad! "You let me work all week thinkin' I was gettin' fourteen dollars. It ain't fair!"
"Fair? I pay you what I can afford. Times are hard now, you know."
I could not speak for my upset feelings. To pay me twelve dollars for the endless labor of that week when he had allowed me to think I was getting fourteen dollars! To add insult to injury, he said, "Next week I want you should work later than the other girls evenings, and make no date for next Saturday" (I had told him I was in a hurry to get off for lunch this Saturday) "because I shall want you should work Saturday afternoon."
Such a state of affairs is indeed worth following up....
Monday morning he came around breezily—he really was a cordial, kindly soul—and said; "Well, dearie, how are you this morning?"
I went on pinning.
"Good as anybody can be on twelve dollars a week."
"Ach, forget it, forget it! Always money, money! Whether a person gets ten cents or three hundred dollars—it's not the money that counts"—his hands went up in the air—"it's the service!"
Yet employers tell labor managers they must not sentimentalize.
A bit later he came back. "I tell you what I'll do. You stay late every night this week and work Saturday afternoon like I told you you should, and I'll pay you for it!"
To such extremes a sense of justice can carry one! (Actually, he had expected that extra work of me gratis!)
During the week I figured out that in his own heart that boss had figured out a moral equivalent for a living wage. There was nothing he would not do for me. Did he but come in my general direction, I was given a helping hand. He joked with me continually. The hammer and nails were always busy. I was not only "dearie," I was "sweetheart." But fourteen dollars a week—that was another story.
Ada was full of compassion and suggested various arguments I should use next week on the boss. It was awful what he paid me, Ada declared. She too would talk to him.
The second week I got closer to the girls. Or, more truthfully put, they got closer to me. At the other factories I had asked most of the questions and answered fewer. Here I could hardly get a question in edgewise for the flood which was let loose on me. I explained in each factory that I lived with a widow who brought me from California to look after her children. I did some work for her evenings and Saturday afternoon and Sunday, to pay for my room and board. Not only was I asked every conceivable question about myself, but at the dress factory I had to answer uncountable questions about the lady I lived with—her "gentlemen friends," her clothes, her expenses. It was like pulling teeth for me to get any information out of the girls.
In such a matter as reading, for example. Every girl I asked was fond of reading. What kind of books? Good books. Yes, but the names. I got We Two out of Sarah, and Jean was reading Ibsen's Doll's House. It was a swell book, a play. After hours one night she told me the story. Together with Ada's concern over my grammar it can be seen that I left the dress factory in intellectual advance over the condition in which I entered.
The girls I had the opportunity of asking were not such "movie" enthusiasts, on the whole. Only now and then they went to "a show." Less frequently they spoke of going to the Jewish Theater. No one was particularly excited over dancing—in fact, Sarah, who looked the blond type of the dance-every-night variety, thought dancing "disgusting." Shows weren't her style. She liked reading. Whenever I got the chance I asked a girl what she did evenings. The answer usually was, "Oh, nothing much." One Friday I asked a group of girls at lunch if they weren't glad the next day was Saturday and the afternoon off. Four of them weren't glad at all, because they had to go home and clean house Saturday afternoons, and do other household chores. "Gee! don't you hate workin' round the house?"
I wonder how much of the women-in-industry movement is traceable to just that.
The first day I was at the dress factory a very dirty but pleasant-faced little Jewish girl said to me, "Ever try workin' at home? Ain't it just awful?" She had made thirty-two dollars a week beading at her last place—didn't know what she'd get here.
I had hoped to hear murmurings and discussions about the conditions of the garment trades and the unions—not a word the whole time. Papers were full of a strike to be called the next week throughout the city, affecting thousands of waist and dress makers. It might as well have been in London. Not an echo of interest in it reached our factory. I asked Sarah if she had ever worked in a union shop. "Sure." "Any different from this?" "Different? You bet it's different. Boss wouldn't dare treat you the way you get treated here." But as usual I was yelled for and got no chance ever to pin Sarah to details.
A group of girls in the dressing room exploded one night, "Gee! they sure treat you like dogs here! No soap, no towels—nothing." The hours were good—8.30 to 12.15; 1 to 5.15. One Saturday Ada and the boss asked the beaders to work in the afternoon. Not one stayed. Too many had heard the tales of girls working overtime and not being paid anything extra.
* * * * *
Wednesday I went back after my last week's pay. When the cashier caught sight of me she was full of interest. "I was writing you a letter this very day. The boss wants you back awful badly. He's out just now for lunch. Can't you wait?"
Just then the boss stepped from the elevator. "Ach, here you are! Now, dearie, if it's just a matter of a few dollars or so—"
I was leaving town. Much discussion. No, I couldn't stay on. Well, if I insisted—yes, he'd get my pay envelope. My, oh, my, they missed me! Why so foolish as to leave New York? Now, as for my wages, they could easily be fixed to suit.... All right, all right, he'd get my last pay envelope.
And there was my pay envelope with just twelve dollars again. "What about my overtime?"
Overtime? Who said anything about overtime? He did himself. He'd promised me if I worked every night that week late I'd get paid for it. Every single night I had stayed, and where was my pay for it?
He shook his finger at my time card.
Show him one hour of overtime on that card!
I showed him where every night the time clock registered overtime.
Yes, but not once was it a full hour. And didn't I know overtime never counted unless it was at least a full hour?
No, he had never explained anything about that. I'd worked each night until everything was done and I'd been told I could go.
Well, of course he didn't want to rob me. I really had nothing coming to me. Each night I'd stayed on till about 6. But they would figure it out and see what they could pay me. They figured. I waited. At length majestically he handed out fifty-six cents.
* * * * *
The fat, older brother in the firm rode down in the elevator with me—he who used to move silently around the factory about four times a day, squinting out of his beady eyes, such light as shown there bespeaking 100 per-cent possession. He held his fat thumbs in the palms of his fat hands and benignly he was wont to survey his realm. Mine! Mine! Mine! his every inch of being said. Nor could his proportion of joy have been greater if he had six floors of his own to survey, instead of one little claptrap back room. It did make him so happy. He wore a kindly and never-changing expression, and he never spoke.
Going down in the elevator, he edged over to my corner. He pinched my arm, he pinched my cheeks. Ach, but he'd miss me bad. Nice girl, I was.
Evidently he, too, had evolved a moral equivalent for a living wage. Little kindly personal attentions were his share for anything not adequately covered by twelve dollars and fifty-six cents.
No. 536 Tickets Pillow Cases
Ah, one should write of the bleachery via the medium of poetry! If the thought of the brassworks comes in one breath and the bleachery in the next, the poetry must needs be set to music—the Song of the Bleachery. What satisfaction there must be to an employer who grows rich—or makes his income, whatever it may be—from a business where so much light-heartedness is worked into the product! Let those who prefer to sob over woman labor behind factory prison bars visit our bleachery. Better still, let them work there. Here at least is one spot where they can dry their tears. If the day ever dawns when the conditions in that bleachery can be referred to as typical of American industrial life, exist the agitator, the walking delegate, the closed and open shop fight.
I can hear a bleachery operator grunting, "My Gawd! what's the woman ravin' over? Is it our bleachery she's goin' on about?" Most of the workers in the bleachery know no other industrial experience. In that community, so it seems, a child is born, attends school up to the minimum required, or a bit beyond, and then goes to work in the bleachery—though a few do find their way instead to the overall factory, and still fewer to the shirtwaist factory. No other openings exist at the Falls.
There is more or less talk nowadays about Industrial Democracy. Some of us believe that the application of the democratic principle to industry is the most promising solution to industrial unrest and inefficiency. The only people who have written about the idea or discussed it, so far, have been either theorizers or propagandists from among the intellectuals, or enthused appliers of the principle, more or less high up in the business end of the thing. What does Industrial Democracy mean to the rank and file working under it? Is it one of those splendid programs which look epoch-making in spirit, but never permeates to those very people whom it is especially designed to affect?
It was to find out what the workers themselves thought of Industrial Democracy that I boarded a boat and journeyed seventy miles up the Hudson to work in the bleachery, where, to the pride of those responsible, functions the Partnership Plan.
What do the workers think of working under a scheme of Industrial Democracy?
What do the citizens of the United States think of living under a scheme of Political Democracy?
The average citizen does not think one way or the other about it three hundred and sixty-five days in the year. Even voting days the rank and file of us do not ponder overlong on democracy versus autocracy. Indeed, if it could be done silently, in the dead of night, and the newspapers would promise not to say a word about it, perhaps we might change to a benevolent autocracy, and if we could silence all orators, as well as the press, what proportion of the population would be vitally concerned in the transition? Sooner or later, of course, alterations in the way of doing this and that would come about, the spirit of the nation would change. But through it all—autocracy, if it were benevolent, or democracy—there would be little conscious concern on the part of the great majority. Always provided the press and orators would keep quiet.
From my own experience, the same could be said of Industrial Democracy. Autocracy, democracy, the rank and file of the workers, especially the women workers, understand not, ponder not.
"Say," chuckled Mamie, "I could 'a' died laughin' once. A fella came through here askin' everybody what we thought of the Partnership Plan. My Gawd! when he got to me I jus' told him I didn't understand the first thing about it. What ud he do but get out a little book and write what I said down. Never again! Anybody asks me now what I think of the Partnership Plan, and I keep my mouth shut, you bet."
Once an enthused visitor picked on me to ask what I thought of working under the Partnership Plan. After he moved on the girls got the giggles. "Say, these folks that come around here forever asking what we think about the Partnership Plan! Say, what any of us knows about that could be put in a nutshell."
And gray-haired Ella Jane, smartest of all, ten years folding pillow cases, said: "I don't know anything about that Partnership Plan. All I know is that we get our share of the profits and our bonuses, and I can't imagine a nicer place to work. They do make you work for what you get, though. But it's all white and aboveboard and you know nobody's trying to put something over on you."
But the general spirit of the place? Could that be traced to anything else but the special industrial scheme of things? One fact at least is certain—the employing end is spared many a detail of management; the shift in responsibility is educating many a worker to the problems of capital. And production is going up.
* * * * *
Have you ever tried to find a spare bed in a town where there seems to be not a spare bed to be had? I left my belongings in an ice cream store and followed every clue, with a helpful hint from the one policeman, or the drug store man, or a fat, soiled grandmother who turned me down because they were already sleeping on top of one another in her house. In between I dropped on a grassy hillside and watched Our Bleachery baseball team play a Sunday afternoon game with the Colored Giants. We won.
And then I took up the hunt again, finally being guided by the Lord to the abode of the sisters Weston—two old maids, combined age one hundred and forty-nine years, who took boarders. Only there were no more to take. The Falls was becoming civilized. Improvements were being installed in most of the houses. Boarders, which meant mainly school-teachers, preferred a house with Improvements. The abode of the sisters Weston had none. It was half a company house, with a pump in the kitchen which drew up brown water of a distressing odor.
The sisters Weston had worked in the overall factory in their earlier years, hours 7 to 6, wages five dollars a week, paid every five to six weeks. Later they tried dressmaking; later still, boarders. I belonged to the last stage of all—they no longer took boarders, they took a boarder. Mr. Welsh from the electrical department in the bleachery, whose wife was in Pennsylvania on a visit to her folks, being sickly and run down, as seemed the wont of wives at the Falls, took his meals at our boarding house, when he was awake for them. Every other week Mr. Welsh worked night shift.
My belongings were installed in the room assigned me, and the younger of the sisters Weston, seventy-three, sat stiffly but kindly in a chair. "Now about the room rent...?" she faltered. Goodness! yes! My relief at finding a place to sleep in after eleven turn-downs was so great that I had completely neglected such a little matter as what the room might cost me.
"What do you charge?" I asked.
"What do you feel you can pay? We want you should have some money left each week after your board's paid. What do you make at the bleachery?"
My conscience fidgeted within me a bit at that. "I'd rather you charged me just what you think the room and board are worth to you, not what you think I can pay."
"Well, we used to get eight dollars a week for room and board. It's worth that."
It is cheaper to live than die in the Falls at that rate. Three hot meals a day I got: breakfast, coffee, toast, two eggs, mush, later fruit; dinner, often soup, always meat, potatoes, vegetables, coffee, and a dessert; supper, what wasn't finished at dinner, and tea. Always there was plenty of everything. Sometimes too much, if it were home-canned goods which had stood too many years on the shelves, due to lack of boarders to eat the same. But the sisters Weston meant the best.
"How d'ya like the punkin pie?" the older, Miss Belle, would ask.
The pumpkin pie had seemed to taste a trifle strange, but we laid it to the fact that it was some time since we had eaten pumpkin pie. "It tastes all right."
"Now, there! Glad to hear you say it. Canned that punkin ourselves. Put it up several years ago. Thought it smelled and looked a bit spoiled, but I says, guess I'll cook it up; mebbe the heat 'n' all'll turn it all right again. There's more in the kitchen!"
But it suddenly seemed as if I must get to work earlier that noon than I had expected. "Can't ya even finish your pie? I declare I'm scared that pie won't keep long."
Mr. Welsh got sick after the first couple of meals, but bore on bravely, nor did the matter of turned string beans consciously worry Mr. Welsh. The sisters themselves were always dying; their faithful morning reports of the details of what they had been through the night before left nothing to the imagination. "Guess I oughtn't ta 'a' et four hot cakes for supper when I was so sick yesterday afternoon. I sure was thinking I'd die in the night.... 'Liza, pass them baked beans; we gotta git them et up."
* * * * *
At six o'clock in the morning the bleachery whistle blows three times loud enough to shake the shingles on the roofs of the one-hundred-year-old houses and the leaves on the more than one-hundred-year-old trees about the Falls. Those women who have their breakfasts to get and houses to straighten up before they leave for work—and there are a number—must needs be about before then. Seven o'clock sees folks on all roads leading to the bleachery gate. At 7.10 the last whistle blows; at 7.15 the power is turned on, wheels revolve, work begins.
It must be realized that factory work, or any other kind of work, in a small town is a different matter from work in a large city, if for no other reason than the transportation problem. Say work in New York City begins at 7.45. That means for many, if not most, of the workers, an ordeal of half an hour's journey in the Subways or "L," shoving, pushing, jamming, running to catch the shuttle; shoving, pushing, jamming, running for the East Side Subway; shoving, pushing, jamming, scurrying along hard pavements to the factory door; and at the end of a day of eight or nine hours' work, all that to be done over again to get home.
Instead, at the Falls, it meant a five minutes' leisurely—unless one overslept—walk under old shade trees, through the glen along a path lined with jack-in-the-pulpits, wild violets, moss—the same five minutes' walk home at noon to a hot lunch, plenty of time in which to eat it, a bit of visiting on the way back to the factory, and a leisurely five minutes' walk home in the late afternoon. No one has measured yet what crowded transportation takes out of a body in the cities.
New York factories are used to new girls—they appear almost daily in such jobs as I have worked in. At the Falls a strange person in town is excitement enough, a strange girl at the bleachery practically an unheard-of thing. New girls appear now and then to take the places of those who get married or the old women who must some time or other die. But not strange girls. Everyone in the bleachery grew up with everyone else; as Ella Jane said, you know their mothers and their grandmothers, too.
It so happened that a cataclysmic event had visited the Falls the week before my appearance. A family had moved away, thereby detaching a worker from the bleachery—the girl who ticketed pillow cases. The Sunday I appeared in town, incidentally, seven babies were born. That event—or those events—plus me, minus the family who moved away and an old man who had died the week before, made the population of the Falls 4,202. Roughly, half that number either worked at the bleachery or depended on those who worked there. Who or what the other half were, outside the little group of Main Street tradespeople, remained a mystery. Of course, there were the ministers of the gospel and their families—in the same generous overdose—apportioned to most small towns. The actual number working in the bleachery was about six hundred and twenty men and women.
Odd, the different lights in which you can see a small town. The chances are that, instead of being a worker, I might have spent the week end visiting some of the "elite" of the Falls. In that case we should have motored sooner or later by the bleachery gate and past numerous company houses. My host, with a wave of the hand, would have dispatched the matter by remarking, "The town's main industry. The poor devils live in these houses you see."
Instead, one day I found myself wandering along the street of the well-to-do homes. What in the world...? Who all ever lived way up here? Whatever business had they in our Falls? Did they have anyone to talk to, anything to do? I laid the matter before Mamie O'Brien.
"Any rich folk living around here?"
"Guess so. Some swell estates round about—never see the people much."
"Are they stuck up?"
"Dunno—na. Saw one of 'em at the military funeral last week. She wasn't dressed up a bit swell—just wore a plaid skirt. Didn't look like anybody at all."
In other words, we were the town. It was the bleachery folk you saw on the streets, in the shops, at the post office, at the movies. The bleachery folk, or their kind, I saw at the three church services I attended. If anyone had dared sympathize with us—called us "poor devils"!
* * * * *
The first morning at the bleachery the foreman led me to the narrow space in the middle of three large heavy tables placed "U" shape, said, "Here's a girl to ticket," and left me. The foreman knew who I was. Employment conditions at the bleachery were such that it was necessary to make sure of a job by arranging matters ahead of time with the manager. Also, on a previous occasion I had visited the bleachery, made more or less of an investigation, and sat in on a Board of Operatives' meeting. Therefore, I left off my earrings, bought no Black Jack, did not feel constrained to say, "It ain't," though saw no reason why I too should not indulge in "My Gawd!" if I felt like it. I find it one of the most contagious expressions in the language. The girls did not seem to know who I was or what I was. Not until the second day did the girl who stood next to me ask my name—a formality gone through within the first five minutes in any New York job. I answered Cornelia Parker. She got it Miss Parks, and formally introduced me around the table—"Margaret, meet Miss Parks—Miss White, Miss Parks." Also all very different from New York. About the only questions asked by any girl were, "You're from New York?" and, "Where did you work before you came here?" Some wondered if I wasn't lonesome without my folks. I didn't have any folks. There was none of the expressed curiosity of the New York worker as to my past, present, and future. Not until the last few days did I feel forced to volunteer now and then enough information so that they would get my name and me more or less clear in their minds and never feel, after their heart-warming cordiality, that I had tried "to put anything over on them." Whether I was Miss Parks or Mrs. Parker, it made no difference to them. It did to me, for I felt here at last I could keep up the contacts I had made; and instead of walking off suddenly, leaving good friends behind without a word, I could honestly say I was off to the next job, promise everyone I'd write often and come again to the Falls, and have everyone promise to write me and never come to New York without letting me know. I can lie awake nights and imagine what fun it is going to be getting back to the Falls some day and waiting by the bridge down at the bleachery for the girls to come out at noon, seeing them all again. Maybe Mrs. Halley will call out her, "Hi! look 'ose 'ere!"
* * * * *
At our bleachery, be it known, no goods were manufactured. We took piece goods in the rough, mostly white, bleached, starched, and finished it, and rolled or folded the finished stuff for market. In Department 10, where most of the girls worked, the west end of the big third floor, three grades of white goods were made into sheets and pillow cases, ticketed, bundled, and boxed for shipping. Along the entire end of the room next the windows stood the operating machines, with rows of girls facing one another, all hemming sheets or making pillow cases. There were some ten girls who stood at five heavy tables, rapidly shaking out the hemmed sheets, inspecting them for blemishes of any kind, folding them for the mangle, hundreds and hundreds a day. At other tables workers took the ironed sheets, ticketed them, tied them in bundles, wrapped and labeled and stacked the bundles, whereupon they sooner or later were wheeled off to one side and boxed. Four girls worked at the big mangle. Besides the mangle, one girl spent her day hand-ironing such wrinkles as appeared now and then after the mangle had done its work.
So much for sheets. There were three girls (the term "girl" is used loosely, since numerous females in our department will never see fifty again) who slipped pillow cases over standing frames which poked out the corners. After they were mangled they were inspected and folded, ticketed, bundled, and wrapped at our three U-shaped tables. Also there, one or two girls spent part time slipping pieces of dark-blue paper under the hemstitched part of the pillow cases and sheets, so that the ultimate consumer might get the full glory of her purchase.
The first week Nancy, a young Italian girl (there were only two nationalities in the Falls—Italians and Americans), and I ticketed pillow cases. At the end of that time I had become efficient enough so that I alone kept the bundler busy and Nancy was put on other work. Ticketing means putting just the right amount of smelly paste on the back of a label, slapping it swiftly just above the center of the hem. There are hundreds of different labels, according to the size and quality of the pillow cases and the store which retails them. My best record was ticketing about six thousand seven hundred in one day. The cases come folded three times lengthwise, three times across, sixty in a bundle. As fast as I ticketed a bundle I shoved them across to the "bundler," who placed six cases one way, six the other, tied the bundle of twelve at each end with white tape, stacked them in layers of three until the pile was as high as possible for safety, when it was shoved across to the wrapper. How Margaret's fingers flew! She had each dozen in its paper, tied and labeled, in the wink of an eye, almost.
In our department there were three boys who raced up and down with trucks; one other who wrapped the sheets when he did not have his arm gayly around some girl; and the little man to pack the goods in their shipping boxes and nail them up. There were two forewomen—pretty, freckled-faced Tess and the masculine Winnie. Over all of us was "Hap," the new boss elected by Department 10 as its representative on the Board of Operatives. It is safe to say he will be re-elected as long as death or promotion spare him. Hap is a distinct success. He never seems to notice anybody or anything—in fact, most of the time you wonder where in the world he is. But on Hap's shoulders rests the output for our entire department. The previous "boss" was the kind who felt he must have his nose in everything and his eye on everybody. The month after Hap and his methods of letting folks alone came into power, production jumped ahead.
But Hap spoke up when he felt the occasion warranted it. The mangle girls started quitting at 11.30. They "got by" with it until the matter came to Hap's notice. He lined the four of them up and, while the whole room looked on with amused interest, he told them what was what. After that they stayed till 12.
Another time a piece-rate girl allowed herself to be overpaid two dollars and said nothing about it. Hap called her into the office.
"Didn't you get too much in your envelope this week?"
"I dunno. I 'ain't figured up yet."
"Don't you keep track of your own work?"
"Yes, but I 'ain't figured up yet."
"Bring me your card."
The girl reddened and produced a card with everything up to date and two dollars below the amount in her pay envelope.
"You better take a week off," said Hap. But he repented later in the afternoon and took it back, only he told her to be more careful.
It was the bundler who took me under her wing that first day—pretty Mamie O'Brien—three generations in the Falls. There was no talk of vamping, no discussions of beaus. Everyone told everything she had done since Saturday noon.
"Hey, Margaret, didjagototha movies Saturday night?"
"Sure. Swell, wasn't it?"
"You said it. I 'ain't ever saw sweller...."
"I seen Edna's baby Sunday. Awful cute. Had on them pink shoes Amy made it...."
"Say, ain't that awful about Mr. Tinney's grandchild over to Welkville! Only lived three hours...."
"They're puttin' in the bathtub at Owenses'...."
"What dya know! After they got the bathroom all papered at Chases' they found they'd made a mistake and it's all got to be ripped down. Bathtub won't fit in." ("Improvements" were one of the leading topics of conversation day in and day out at the Falls.)
"Ain't that new hat of Jess Tufts a fright? I 'ain't never saw her look worse."
Back and forth it went—all the small gossip of the small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else from start to finish. It was all a bit too mild for Mamie, as I later learned—indeed, I began to learn it that day. It was no time before Mamie was asking my opinion on every detail of the Stillman case: Did I think Mrs. Stokes would get her divorce? Did I consider somebody or other guilty of some crime or other? Somebody gets the electric chair to-morrow? Wasn't it the strangest thing that somebody's body hadn't been recovered yet? Whatdyaknow about a father what'll strangle his own child? A man got drowned after he'd been married only two days. And did I think Dempsey or Carpentier would win the fight? "Gee! Wouldn't you give your hat to see that fight?"
Meanwhile I was nearly drowning myself and the labels in paste, at the same time trying to appear intelligent about a lot of things I evidently was most uninformed about; working up an enthusiasm for the Dempsey-Carpentier fight which would have led anyone to believe my sole object in working was to accumulate enough cash to pay the price of admission. And all this time I was feasting my eyes on fresh-faced girls in summer wash dresses, mostly Americans, some Italians; no rouge whatever; not a sign of a lipstick, except on one girl; little or no powder; a large, airy, clean, white room, red-and-white striped awnings at the windows; and wherever the eye looked hillsides solid with green trees almost close enough to touch (the bleachery was built down in a hollow beside a little river). Oh, it was too good to be true, after New York!
Pretty gray-haired, pink-cheeked (real genuine pink-cheeked) Mrs. Hall and I were talking about the bleachery on our way to work one morning. Mrs. Hall had been a forelady in a New York private dressmaking establishment. She had what is called "style and personality." Her wages in New York had been thirty-five dollars a week, and she had much variety and responsibility, which she loved. Circumstances brought her to the Falls. She had never worked in a factory; the very idea had appalled her, yet she must work. One day she went up to Department 10 to see what it was all like. "Why," she said, "it took my breath away! I felt as if I was in one of those lovely rooms where they did Red Cross work during the war. Of course I get only a small amount a week and it's the same thing over and over again, and after what I was used to in New York that's hard. But it never seems like I was in a factory, somehow."
Just so. There was never the least "factory atmosphere" about the place. It used to make me think of a reception, the voice of the machines for the music, with always, always the sound of much talk and laughter above the whir. Sometimes—especially Mondays, with everyone telling everyone else what she had done over the week end, and for some reason or other Fridays, the talk was "enough to get you crazy," Margaret used to say. "Sure it makes my head swim." Nor was the laughter the giggling kind, indulged in when the forelady was not looking. It was the riotous variety, where at least one of a group would "laugh till she most cried"; nor did it make the least difference, whether the forelady was one foot or one hundred away. Like as not the forelady was laughing with the rest. Only once did I ever see authority exerted to curb merriment. On that occasion things reached a climax. All those not directly concerned with the joke became so curious as to what it was all about that one by one the girls left their machines and gathered up one end of the room to laugh with the rest, until production, it was apparent, was at a standstill. Winnie went out and told Hap. Hap merely stepped inside the room, and every girl did "sure get busy." It was the only time even Hap so much as paid the least attention to what went on. All day there was talk, all day laughter, all day visiting a bit here and there, back and forth. Yet in the month of April production had reached the highest point ever, and the month I was there was expected to surpass April. It is significant that with all the fun, the standard of efficiency and production in our bleachery was such that out of eighteen like industries in the country, we were one of the only two running full time. Thirteen were shut down altogether.
That first day I asked Mamie what time work began in the morning. Mamie giggled. "I dunno. Say, Margaret, what time does work begin in the morning?" "Seven-fifteen, I think." Under the Partnership Plan I knew that each operative was allowed a week's vacation on full pay. But every time late, after fifteen times, deducted so many minutes from the vacation, just as any time off without sufficient cause meant that much less vacation.
"Ever been late?" I asked Mamie.
More giggles. "Say, Margaret, she wants to know if I was ever late!" To me: "Ninety-seven times last year—no vacation at all for mine. Ask Margaret how many time she's been late."
Still more giggles. Margaret giggled, I giggled. Margaret had been late one hundred eighteen times. Some of the girls were late practically every day; they were like small boys who would not for the world have anyone think they would try to do in school what was expected of them. Yet there were several girls who were to come into their full week off—the names and dates were posted on the bulletin board; others were given five days, three days, down to a few whose allotment out of a possible week was one-half day. But several of the most boastful over their past irregular record, and who were receiving no vacation at all, claimed they were going to be on time every day this coming year—"Sure." This was the first year the vacation with pay had been granted. I thought of Tessie at the candy factory—Tessie who had been sent speedily home by the pop-eyed man at the door because she was ten minutes late, due to taking her husband to the hospital. Verily, there is no "factory atmosphere" about the bleachery, compared with New York standards. The men, they say, take the whole matter of punctuality and attendance more seriously than the women.
The second day I began my diary with, "A bleachery job is no job at all." That again was by contrast. Also, those first two days were the only two, until the last week, that we did not work overtime at our table. When orders pour in and the mangle works every hour and extra folders are put on and the bundles of pillow cases pile up, then, no matter with what speed you manage to slap on those labels, you never seem to catch up. Night after night Nancy, Mamie, Margaret, and I worked overtime. From 7.15 in the morning till 6 at night is a long day. Then for sure and certain we did get tired, and indeed by the end of a week of it we were well-nigh "tuckered out." But the more orders that came in the more profits to be divided fifty-fifty between Capital and Labor.
(The Handbook on the Partnership Plan reads: "Our profit sharing is a 50-50 proposition. The market wage of our industry is paid to Labor and a minimum of 6% is paid to Capital. After these have been paid, together with regular operating expenses, depreciation reserve, taxes, etc., and after the Sinking Funds have been provided for by setting aside 15% of the next profits for Labor and 15% for Capital, the remaining net profits are divided 50% for Capital and 50% for the operatives, and the latter sum divided in proportion to the amount of each one's pay for the period.... A true partnership must jointly provide for losses as well as for the sharing of profits.... These Sinking Funds are intended to guarantee Capital its minimum return of 6% during periods when this shall not have been carried, and to provide unemployment insurance for the operatives, paying half wages when the company is unable to furnish employment.")
In the candy factory back in New York, Ida, the forelady, would holler from the end of the room, "My Gawd! girls, work faster!" At the bleachery, when extra effort was needed, the forelady passed a letter around our table from a New York firm, saying their order must be filled by the end of that week or they would feel justified in canceling the same. Every girl read the letter and dug her toes in. No one ever said, "You gotta work overtime to-night!" We just mutually decided there was nothing else to do about it, so it was, "Let's work overtime to-night again." It was time-and-a-half pay for overtime, to be sure, but it would be safe to assert it was not alone for the time and a half we worked. We felt we had to catch up on orders. A few times only, some one by about four o'clock would call: "Oh, gee! I'm dead; I've been workin' like a horse all day. I jus' can't work overtime to-night." The chances were if one girl had been working like a horse we all had. Such was the interrelation of jobs at our table.
Except, indeed, Italian Nancy. Whether it was because Nancy was young, or not overstrong, or not on piece rates, or a mixture of the three, Nancy never anguished herself working, either during the day or overtime. One evening she spent practically the entire overtime hour, at time and a half, washing and ironing a collar and cuffs for one of the girls. Nor did any of our table think it at all amiss.
During the day Nancy was the main little visitor from our table. She ambled around and brought back the news. If interesting enough from any quarter, another of us would betake herself off for more details. One day Nancy's young eyes were as big as saucers.
"Say, whatdyaknow! That Italian girl Minna, she's only fifteen and she's got a gold ring on with a white stone in it and she says she's engaged!" We sent Nancy back for more details. For verification she brought back the engagement ring itself. "Whatdyaknow! Only fifteen!" (Nancy herself was a year beyond that mature age.) "The man she's goin' to marry is awful old, twenty-five! Whatdyaknow!" At a previous time Nancy had regaled our table with an account of how, out of a sense of duty to a fellow-countryman, she had announced to this same Minna that she simply must take a bath. "Na," said Minna, "too early yet." That was the end of May.
We were all, even I after the third day, on piecework at our table, except Nancy. Most of the girls in Department 10 were on piecework. There was one union in the bleachery; that was in another department where mostly men were employed—the folders. They worked time rates. With us, as soon as a girl's record warranted it, she was put on piece rates. Nancy and most of those young girls were still, after one or two years, on time rates—around eleven dollars a week they made. There was one case of a girl who did little, day in and day out, but her hair. She was the one girl who used a lipstick. They had taken her off time rates and put her on piecework. She was a machine operator. The last week I was there her earnings were a little over two dollars for the week. She was incorrigible. Some of the machine operators made around thirty dollars a week. The mangle girls earned around twenty-five dollars. Old Mrs. Owens, standing up and inspecting sheets at the table behind me, made from twenty dollars to twenty-five dollars. (Mrs. Owens had inspected sheets for thirteen years. I asked her if she ever felt she wanted to change and try something else. "No, sir," said Mrs. Owens; "a rolling stone gathers no moss.") Mamie, bundler, made around sixteen dollars; Margaret, at our table, went as high once as twenty-five dollars, but she averaged around twenty dollars. My own earnings were twelve dollars and fifty-three cents the first week, fifteen dollars and twenty-three cents the second, eight dollars and twenty-seven cents the third. All the earnings at our table were low that last week—Margaret's were around twelve dollars. For one thing, there was a holiday. No wonder employers groan over holidays! The workers begin to slacken up about two days ahead and it takes two days after the day off to recover. Then, too, we indulged in too much nonsense that last week. We laughed more than we worked, and paid for it. The next week Mamie and Margaret claimed they were going to bring their dinners the whole week to work that noon hour and make up for our evil days. But as gray-haired Ella Jane said, she laughed so much that week she claimed she had a stomach ache. "We'll be a long time dead, once we die. Why not laugh when you get a chance?"
Why not?—especially in a small town where it is well to take each chance for fun and recreation as it comes—since goodness knows when the next will show itself. Outside of the gayety during working hours, there was little going on about the Falls. Movies—of course, movies. Four times a week the same people, usually each entire family, conscientiously change into their best garments and go to the movie palace. The children and young people fill the first rows, the grown folk bring up the rear. Four times a week young and old get fed on society dramas, problem plays, bathing girl comedies. Next day it is always:
"Sadie, did ya saw the show last night? Wasn't it swell where she recognized her lover just before he got hung?"
Just once since movies were has the town been taken by storm, and that was while I was there. It was "The Kid" that did it. Many that day at the bleachery said they weren't going—didn't like Charlie Chaplin—common and pie-slinging; cheap; always all of that. Sweet-faced Mamie, who longs to go through Sing Sing some day—"That's where they got the biggest criminals ever. Wonder if they let you see the worst ones"—Mamie, who had thrilled to a trip through the insane asylum; Mamie, who could discuss for hours the details of how a father beat his child to death; Mamie, to whom a divorce was meat and a suicide drink—Mamie wasn't going to see Charlie Chaplin. All that pie-slinging stuff made her sick.
Usually a film shows but once at the Falls. "The Kid" ran Monday matinee. Monday night the first time in history the movie palace was filled and over two hundred turned away. Tuesday night it was shown to a third full house. Everyone was converted.
As for dancing, once a week, Friday nights, there was a dance at the "Academy." Time was when Friday night's dance was an event, and the male contingent from the largest near-by city was wont to attend. But it cost twenty-four cents to journey by trolley from the largest near-by city to the Falls, fifty cents to attend the dance. Unemployment at the largest near-by city meant that any dancing indulged in by its citizens was at home, minus car fare. Also, the music for dancing at the Falls was not favorably commented upon. So sometimes there were six couples at the dance, once in a great while twenty. The youths present were home talent, short on thrills for the fair ones present.
Indeed, the problem of the Falls was the problem of every small town—where in the world could an up-and-doing girl turn for a beau? The only young men in the place were those married still younger and anchored there, or the possessors of too little gumption to get out. Those left hung over the rail at the end of the Main Street bridge and eyed every female passer-by. It was insult heaped on boredom, from the girls' point of view, that a Falls youth never so much as tipped his hat when spoken to. "Paralysis of the arms is here widespread," Bess put it. "You oughta see 'em in winter," Margaret giggled one Sunday while four of us were walking the streets for diversion. "If you want to know where the gallants of the Falls are in winter, look for a sunny spot. They collect in patches of sun, like some kind of bugs or animals."
As for reading, "Do you like to read?"
"Crazy 'bout readin'."
"What, for instance?"
"Oh, books, movie magazines. Don't ever remember the names of anything. Swell stories. Gee! I cried and cried over the last one...."
Or, "Do much reading?"
"Na, never git time to read."
My old maids never so much as took the newspaper. They figured that if news was important enough they'd hear about it sooner or later, and meanwhile there was much to keep up with at the Falls.
"Can't hardly sleep nights, got so much on my mind," the seventy-sixer would say.
One night she just got nervous fidgets something awful, worrying lest her brother might not get to the Baptist chicken dinner after all, when he'd gone and paid seventy-five cents for his ticket.
Sunday there was church to attend, the Catholics flourishing, the Episcopalians next, four other denominations tottering this way and that. I heard the Baptist minister preach that every word in the Bible was inspired by God, ending with a plea for the family altar.
"Christian brethren, I'm a man who has seen both sides of life. I could have gone one way. It is by the grace of God and the family altar that I stand before you the man I am."
There were thirty-one people in the congregation who heard his young though quavering words, eight of them children, two the organist and her husband, nine of the remainder women over sixty.
The Methodist, that morning, preached on the need of a revival at the Falls, and Mr. Welsh, the electrician, whose wife was resting up in Pennsylvania, thought he was right. Sunday baseball—that day our bleachery team played the Keen Kutters—pained Mr. Welsh. The Methodist minister before this one had been a thorn in the flesh of his congregation. He frankly believed in amusements, disgraced them by saying out loud at a union service that he favored Sunday baseball. Another minister got up and "sure made a fool of him," thank goodness. Where was the renegade now? Called to a church in a large Middle West city where they have no more sense than to pay him twice what he was getting at the Falls.
That night I heard a visiting brother at the Methodist church plead for support for foreign missions, that we might bring the light of the ideal Christian civilization under which we live to the thirsty savages in dark places. He poured his message to an audience of twenty-one, ten of them gray-haired women, one a child.
All the ministers prayed long for Harding and were thankful he was a child of God.
Three of us girls rowed up the lake one night and cooked our supper and talked about intimate things. It was a lake worth traveling miles to see. It was one block from the post office. Mamie had been to the lake twice in all her life. It was good for canoeing, rowing, fishing, swimming, and, best of all, just for the eyesight. Yet to the great majority it did not exist.
The bleachery, through its Partnership Plan, ran a village club house on Main Street. The younger boys, allowing only for school hours, worked the piano player from morn till night. There was a gymnasium. Suppers were given now and then. It was supposed to be for the use of the girls certain days, but they took little or no advantage of it.
Otherwise, and mostly, when the weather permitted, up and down the street folk sat on their front porches and rocked or went inside and played the victrola.
"Gawd! If I could shake the Falls!" many a girl sighed. Yet they had no concrete idea what they would shake it for. Just before I came the bleachery girls were called into meeting and it was explained to them that Bryn Mawr College was planning a two months' summer school for working girls. Its attractions and possibilities were laid forth in detail. It was explained that Vassar College and a woman's club were making it possible for two bleachery girls to go, with all expenses paid. Out of 184 eligible girls four signed up as being interested. One of those later withdrew her name. The two chosen were Bess and Margaret, as fine girls as ever went to any college. There was much excitement the Saturday morning their telegrams came, announcing Bryn Mawr had passed favorably upon their candidacy. Bess especially was beside herself. "Oh, it's what I've longed to have a chance to do all my life!" She had clutched a New Republic under her arms for days containing an article about the summer school. Both Margaret and Bess had spent a couple of years at West Point during the war as servants, for a change. They had worked for the colonel's wife and loved it. "Gee! the fun we had!"
Yet it was no time before Main Street characteristics came to the front.
Only four girls had so much as expressed an interest in the Bryn Mawr scheme. Within a week after the two girls received the telegrams, tongues got busy. Margaret looked ready to cry one afternoon.
"Hey! what's the matter?"
"My Gawd! This place makes you sick. Can't no one let a person get started enjoyin' themselves but what they do their best to spoil it for you!" Her hands were wrapping pillow case bundles like lightning, her head bent over her work. "Don't I know I ain't nothin' but a factory girl? Don't I know I probably won't ever be nothin' but one? Can't a person take a chance to get off for two months and go to that college without everybody sayin' you're tryin' to be stuck up and get to be somethin' grand and think you won't be a factory girl no more? I don't see anything I'm gettin' out of this that's goin' to make me anything but just a factory girl still. I'm not comin' back and put on any airs. My Gawd! My Gawd! Why can't they leave you alone?"
I asked two of the Falls men I knew if their sex would have acted the same as the girls, had it been two men going off for a two months' treat. "You bet," they answered. "It's your darn small-town jealousy, and not just female at all."
Suppose, then, on top of all the drawbacks of small-town life, the girls had to work under big-city factory conditions? At least there was always the laughter, always the talk, always the visiting back and forth, at the bleachery.
My last day on the job witnessed a real event. Katie Martin was to be married in ten days. Therefore, she must have her tin shower at the bleachery. Certain traditions of that sort were unavoidable. At Christmas time the entire Department 10 was decorated from end to end until it was resplendent. Such merrymaking as went on, such presents as were exchanged! And when any girl, American or Italian, was to be married, the whole department gave her a tin shower.
Katie Martin inspected and folded sheets. She was to marry the brother of young Mrs. Annie Turner, who ticketed sheets. Annie saw to it that Katie did not get to work promptly that noon. When she did appear, all out of breath and combing back her hair (no one ever wore a hat to work), there on two lines above her table hung the "shower." The rest of us had been there fifteen minutes, undoing packages, giggling, commenting. Except old Mrs. Brown's present. It was her first experience at a tin shower and she came up to me in great distress. "Can't you stop them girls undoin' all her packages? 'Tain't right. She oughta undo her own. I jus' won't let 'em touch what I brought!" Ever and again a girl would spy Mrs. Brown's contribution. "Hey! Here's a package ain't undone." "No, no, don't you touch it! Ain't to be undone by anybody but her." Poor Mrs. Brown was upset enough for tears.
There were a few other packages not to be undone by anybody but her, because their contents were meant to, and did, cause peals of laughter to the audience and much embarrassment to Katie. On the lines hung first an array of baby clothes, all diminutive size, marked, "For little Charlie." Such are the traditions. Also hung seven kitchen pans, a pail, an egg-beater and gem pans; a percolator, a double boiler and goodness knows what not. On the table stood six cake tins, more pots and pans, salt and pepper shakers, enough of kitchenware to start off two brides. Everybody was pleased and satisfied. Charlie, the groom-to-be, got a friend with a Ford to take the shower home.
The last night of all at the Falls I spent at my second Board of Operatives' meeting, held the first Friday night of each month. The Board of Operatives is intended to represent the interests of the workers in the bleachery. The Board is elected annually by secret ballot by and from the operatives in the eleven different departments of the mill. Margaret and Bess went, too, on request from above, that they might appear more intelligent should anyone ask at Bryn Mawr about the Partnership Plan. ("My land, what would we tell them?" they wailed.) The Board meetings are officially set down as open to all the operatives, only no one ever heard of anyone else ever attending. The two girls were "fussed" at the very idea of being present, and dressed in their best.
The president, elected representative from the starch room, called the meeting to order from his position at the head of the table in the Village Club House. Every member of the Board shaves and puts on his Sunday clothes, which includes a white collar, for the Board meeting. It is no free show, either. They are handed out two dollars apiece for attending, at the end of the meeting, the same idea as if it were Wall Street. The secretary reads the minutes of the Board of Management. ("The Board of Management was set up by the Board of Directors in July, 1919, as a result of a request from the Board of Operatives for more than merely 'advisory' power which the Board of Operatives then enjoyed in reference to matters of mill management, wages, working conditions, etc. The Board of Management consists of six members, three of whom are the treasurer, the New York agent, and the local manager, and three of whom are elected by the Board of Operatives from their number.... The Board of Management is authorized to settle and adjust such matters of mill management as may arise....") The Company statement, up to March 31, 1921, was read. There followed a report from the Housing Committee—first a financial statement. Then it seemed somebody wanted to put somebody else out of a house, and there were many complications indeed arising therefrom, which took much discussion from everyone and bitter words. It looked as if it would have to be taken to court. The conclusion seemed to be that the Board felt that its executive secretary, chosen by the management, though paid out of the common funds, had exceeded his authority in making statements to tenants. We girls rather shivered at the acrimony of the discussion. Had they been lady board members having such a row, half of them would have been in tears. Next, old Mrs. Owens, who shook sheets behind me, wanted to buy a certain house on a certain avenue—company house, of course. Third, one Mr. Jones on Academy Street wants us to paper his kitchen—he will supply the paper. And there followed other items regarding paint for this tenant, new floor for that, should an old company boarding house be remodeled for a new club house or an apartment house; it was decided to postpone roofing a long row of old company houses, etc.
The operative from the folding and packing room was chairman of the Housing Committee, a strong union enthusiast. The representative from the mechanical department reported for the Recreation and Education Committee; all the night school classes had closed, with appropriate final exercises, for the season: the children's playground would be ready for use July 1st. The man from the "gray" room and singe house reported for the Working Conditions Committee. Something about watchmen and a drinking fountain, and wheels and boxes in the starch room; washing facilities for shovelers; benches and back stairs.
The Finance Committee reported a deficit on the mechanical and electrical smoker. Much discussion as to why a deficit and who ought to pay it, and what precedent were they setting, and all and all, but it was ordered paid—this time. Webster's bills were too high for papering and painting company houses. He was a good worker, his plaster and his paper stuck where they belonged, which hadn't been the rule before. But it was decided he was too costly even so, and they were going back to the company paperers—perhaps their work would stick better next time. A report from the Board of Directors was discussed and voted upon.... The minutes of the Board of Operatives were posted all through the mill. Did anyone read them? If so, or if not so, should the Board of Management minutes also be posted? It was voted to postpone posting such minutes, though they were open to any operative, as in the past.
Under Old Business was a long discussion on health benefits and old-age pensions. For some months now the bleachery has been concerned on the subject of old-age pensions. Health benefits have been in operation for some time. The question was, should they pay the second week for accident cases, until the state started its payments the third week?
Under New Business the resignation of the editors of Bleachery Life was read and accepted. Acrimonious discussion as to the running of the Bleachery Life. Again we girls shivered. It was announced a certain rich man who recently died had left the Village Club House five hundred dollars—better write no letter of thanks until they got the money. Should the new handbook be printed by union labor at considerably greater expense, or by an open shop? Unanimously voted by union labor. More health-benefit discussions under New Business. It was voted to increase the Board of Management by two additional members—one operative, one from the employing side. Election then and there by a secret ballot. The operative from the "gray" room and singe house was elected over the man from the office force by two votes. Some further housing discussions, and at 11.15 P.M. the meeting adjourned.
"Say, I'm for coming every time." Perhaps we three girls will have started the style of outside attendance at the meetings.
Whether a wider participation of operatives, a deeper understanding of Industrial Democracy and the Partnership Plan, develops or not, certainly they are a long step on the way to some sort of permeation of interest. For the next morning early, my last morning, as I started work, I heard toothless old Mrs. Holley call over to aged Mrs. Owens, whose husband even these days is never sober: "Hi, Mrs. Owens, what do ye know habout hit! Hain't it grand we got out over five million five hundred thousand yards last month?"
"I say it's grand," grinned Mrs. Owens. "More 'n a million over what we done month before."
"Hi say—over fifteen million the last three months. Hi say we're some bleachery, that's what hi say!"
No. 1470, "Pantry Girl"
Perhaps, more strictly speaking, instead of working with the working woman, it was working with the working man. Hotel work is decidedly co-educational! Except, indeed, for chambermaids and laundry workers, where the traditionally female fields of bed-making and washing have not been usurped by the male. Even they, those female chambermaids and launderers, see more or less of working menfolk during the day. So it might be thought then that hotel work offers an ideal field for the growth of such normal intercourse between the sexes as leads to happy matrimony. No need to depend on dance halls or the Subway to pick up a "fella." No need for external administrations from wholesome social workers whose aim is to enable the working man or woman to see something of the opposite sex.