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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • Startling Experiences of The Times' Lady Reporter in the Factory of Julius Stein & Co.
  • Left in a Foul and Filthy Corner of the Workroom Until Outraged Nature Succumbs.
  • After Hours of Drudgery the Bosses Refuse to Advance Care Fare to a Needy Serf.
  • Vile Air, Brutality, and the Privileges of Earning Barely Enough to Keep Soul and Body Together.
  • Eating Poor Crackers and Working for Two Months in Order to Get a Pair of Shoes.

One of the chance acquaintances I made at the never-rip jersey factory worked three days for Julius Stein & Co., 132 Market street, received 65 cents for her labors about ten days after leaving. One-third of 65 cents is 21 1/3 cents.

That is the way Stein & Co. solve the problem; but the question is one that capital, Christianity, and civilization are intvited to analyze.

Don't never go to Stein's, the little girl said, it's an awful place.

On Saturday I tumbled out of bed at 6 a.m. and donned my factory clothes. On the way down-town the street-car met with an eight-minute obstruction in the shape of a load of bricks, and when I reached the manufacturing establishment of Julius Stein & Co. it was 8:32 o'clock. The elevator took me up one story and I was told to get out. I told the boy at the rope that I wished to go up to the work room.

You're too late, he said. Have to take the freight elevator down at the back of the store.

Down I walked as directed past long tables that towered with ling cloaks, dolmans, ulsters, jackets, and short wraps; past two or three busy, unobserving clerks; past a pair of forbidding-looking men who glared at me from under their black hats and blacker brows; past an earthen-gray stringy crash towel that waved at half-mast above a dirty wash-basin; past a tier of closets that emitted a stifling odor, and on down to the packing-room. I wanted for a big, lusty packer to finish pummelling the mischievious little Swede who ran the elevator and was carried up to the top floor with a box of cloth. When the car landed I found myself at the extreme end of a room 50x180 feet, in an inclosure of wire-fence, packing-boxes, and cutting-boards—beyond and between which I could see perhaps two hundred persons, mostly women, bent over machines, and working as only slaves ever work. The thundering noise made by the machinery deadened every other sound, even that made by the cutters as they ran their heavy shears through the satin and muslin trimmings. Sixteen persons passed me—men in undershirts, trousers, and slippers, with work in their hands; men in business suits, with work in their brains; girls of 13 in rags and death-like pallor, with work in their arms; older and paler girls and still older and paler women, some with white hair and spectacles, carrying work to be pressed, examined, altered, or checked. Nobody noticing me, I asked a pretty little girl who was cutting a bolt of satin into cuff-lining to direct me to the forewoman and was told to go and sit down till she came. I had hardly arranged myself on an empty box when a playful young man capsized my throne and spilled me in a heap of unmade cloaks. My first impulse was for revenge, but remembering that I was a poor girl looking for work I contented myself by betting my damaged left knee and right elbow. While mentally photographing the miserable, little, bullet-headed sappling who caused my trouble, a young woman brought me a chair and placed it in a corner, which convenient spot happened to be off a narrow passage leading to the work-room proper. My nose was not long in the scenting a row of closets that alled the south side of the passageway. Overhead was a pasteboard sign with No admission to the work-room printed in large, black letters. There was no place beyond where I could sit or stand without being in the way unless I went back to the freight elevator, so I resolved to stick it out.

For almost two hours I sat in the dark, filthy place with a handkerchief over my mouth and nose waiting for the forewoman to come and admit me to the shop. I watched the poor girls pass and repass, their broken shoes slipping up and down with every step, and their ragged skirts often catching new gaps from the nails of the packing boxes. Just as I was beginning to get myself in a state of passivity, as prescribed by Mrs. Eddy, and was combating the foul smell of the closets with the wholesome, healthy atmosphere of South Park something in my head seemed to give way and the whole factory turned into a colossal whirligig. The big goose of the presser and the little irons of the press girls began to play tag, and machines, operators, finishers, wire-forms, cutters, examiners, messengers, models, forewomen, teachers, and firm all joined the merry-go-round. To escape being knocked in the head by a two-story press-board I clutched a little stitcher who said: You an't sick, is you?

I guessed I was. Bringing me a tin cup-full of water, she departed, saying: She'd be docked if she didn't go.

An old man with grey hair and glasses showed me to the freight elevator and I was let down to the second story. When I reached the staircase I sat down on the top step to recover. A portly man with a straw hat, full beard, broad shoulders, and a suit of mixed goods, mistaking me for a tramp, came out from the stock and informed me that no peddlers are allowed on the premises. Move off.

I moved off determined to return another day.

  • At Stein's It Will Take You Two Weeks of Hard Labor to Earn $5, and the Bosses Will Treat You with Contumely and Derision.

Boy, don't you take her down! Don't go down!! do you hear? I'll discharge you if you let her escape.

There I was in Stein's freight elevator with my day's work in my arms and the wire screen separating me from the furies of Mrs. Julius Stein, her forewoman, the second assistant, and the bookkeeper.

It was 5:30 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. I had made a big, black cloth cloak all but sewing on the buttons, had resigned my position as slave-stitcher, and had asked to be paid off. I had been refused by the quartet outside of the elevator screen, and so was on my way to the head of the firm, work in arms.

It was a great day for Stein and me, particularly me.

It was another verification of putting a beggar on horseback, of getting a nigger to drive a nigger.

At 7:40 o'clock in the morning I had rolled my hat in my factory jacket, and, stowing the bundle away in one of the holes designed for that purpose by Julius Stein & Co., presented myself at the office, a square of six feet near the center of the work-room inclosed in a wire fence, where the forewoman and an examiner were trying on two models the finished cloaks of the previous day. The models were tall, ratherfine-looking girls. They, I learned, received $8 a week and did nothing but try on and look at themselves in the glass, representing the highest class of factory girls. The forewoman, who jerked these tall, animate figures fore and aft to see the front of a beaver empress, or the back of a seal-plush, mi-lady, was very nicely dressed in a black sateen figured with crosses of white. And, oh, how she talked! In dislocated English, in a shrill, rasping voice, compared to which the notes of a pea-hen would be melodious. My steady gaze annoyed her, and stopping at the hem of a long coat she was inspecting she asked:

Why are you sitting there so much?

I told her I wanted work. Bidding me come along she pushed me with anything but motherly tenderness toward the desk and told Rosy to give me von of them samples.

I took a place with nine others, who were waiting for Rosy to provide them with more work, and fell to studying my neighbors. Rosy, the girl who kept the shop-book, gave out the work and trimmings, and properly checked it all, may have been 14 years old. She was short in stature, work having stunted her growth, and emaciated in face and figure. Her hands were black with dye from handling the bundles of work.

I can't give any of you work till Mary comes back, she said. She's gone down to tell John to send up some.

I placed a small box on the counter containing some graham wafers and a lemon, which, being pushed across the board, attracked Rosy's attention. She uncovered the box.

Look at the lunch, she said, and a bunch of heads came together to see.

And a thimble, said a blonde.

Yes, and scissors. Oh, and the little watch! And whose is it?

Them's awful nice cakes, observed a little creature of about 13 years old.

I offered the child a cracker, and when she refused I pressed it on her till a hungry little friend said: She dasn't. She'll be fired if she eats before the whistle.

When Mary came up I was entered on Rosy's book, given a number, and a Homer.

How much does a Homer pay? I asked.

Rosy didn't know. Neither did Miss Seebert, the teacher. I went to the forewoman and was told to get out of her way. Persisting in knowing what revenue the Homer would bring, the attenuated, corset-cramped forelady asked me to go away and find out any particulars when Mrs. Stein returned. The teacher gave me a chair at a long, low table with fifteen girls on wither side, and asked me where I had worked before. I mentioned the Never Rip factory.

Make cloaks? she asked.

No. Jerseys.

Did you never make a cloak?


Oh, you'll have a hard time!

Thirty pairs of eyes looked at me.

Can you sew? I was asked.

You bet.

This bit of slang captured the teacher and set me on a comfortable plane with my neighbors. Reversing the tactics of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, I began at the hardest task first and got the blonde-haired teacher to show me how to arrange the collar. It was a rolling affair that was attached to a cape and had to be double-faced with satin. The bands were cut on the bins, and novice-like I stretched the first one and had to rip it off. Three times I ripped it and sewed it, and when I showed it to a girl at my right she said: It ain't right. She'll pull it off.

Would you tell me how to fix it? I asked.

Oh, I can't. Go to Miss Seebert. She screamed to Miss Seebert to come. Despairing of her aid I made another attempt.

I'd show you if I had time, my neighbor explained, but I've been on this cloak two and one-half days, and it's only 45 cents.

There are chords in a woman's heart which are struck by accident only— strange, varying strings which, remaining mute to most earnest and passionate appeals, respond at once to the slightest and most casual touch. I sympathized with the poor little woman who turned about and opened her heart to me.

It's an awful hard place to work in, she said. Prices are going down all the time and the girls can hardly earn anything. Yesterday was payday. We're paid the 1st and 15th. I had only $6.10 coming to me for the two weeks. I have the toothache all the time and I am a month at the dentist's. He's filling my teeth with cement and I don't have anything coming to me when I pay him. All I keep out of my wages is 30 cents for car-fare. I live out on Fifteenth and Robey streets and can't always walk in the morning and get here at 7:45. Sometimes I do but I never ride home. If I didn't live home I'd—I'd—I'd—I'd starve. I would. What'd prevent?

Interested in our talk a pretty, brown-eyed girl across the table told us that she had been trying to get a pair of shoes since June. I live at Englewood and have to keep out $1.25 for car-fare, she continued. Monday I took out this 40-cent cloak and it isn't done yet. I took it to the forelady this morning and she said it was all right. Just a minute ago I showed it to her and she ripped all these plaits and pulled the bustle out. I'll not be able to get it done tonight, I know. Last fortnight I made only $4.20.

Here, you girls, stop your talking and do your work or I'll have to fine you, said the teacher.

Your new and I'll excuse you, she said, turning to me, but you musn't talk any more. Where's your collar? Oh! you have the hooks and eyes on the wrong side. Rip them off and put the hooks on the right and the eyes on the left. The press out your seam.

I took my turn at the gas-stove, skirmished round for a piece of paper or a rag large enough for a holder, burned my finger, and came near burning a hole in Homer's neck. When I went back to my chair the little Englewood girl was in tears. She had the fur down the front of her cloak too tight and was ripping it off for the third time. The fur may have been nine-tenths wool, but so uncertain was the hair that the girl had taken a fine comb from her box and was trying to comb up the nap to hide the needle-line. Her companion, Mary, had been in equally hard luck. Five times she took her brown mi-lady to the forewoman and five times came back with it. First the felting was not thick enough; next the color was wrong; the third time the buttons were not plumb; the fourth complaint was lodged against a cresent bustle, Mrs. Stein having expressed a preference for two small square bags, and finally the ornaments on the shoulders and front darts were not straight. Mary was pudgy young Irish maiden on whom the men and the world in general had soured.

What will I do when I'm old? I'll be an old maid and live by myself, she remarked. I'm saving to buy a house for that time. Good Lord, I haven't saved a cent in three years. I'm here now two years, but I'm going to get another place. Here's my third day on the rag of a cloak that only pays 60 cents. Yesterday I got $6.10 for the fifteen days of July. I'm sick of it now. Where do I live? I have a room on Bleeker street. I pay $1.50 a week for it and $1 food. After I take the price of lunches and car-fare from the rest I haven't enough to pay for washing the bedclothes.

The teacher heard the best part of this account, and, coming over to our table, put her arms about the neck of the morose little worker, and said: Don't get blue; you'll do better in a day or two.

At noon the whistle blew and we stopped for lunch. Some of the hands made tea and coffee on the gas stoves, but not a soul left the shop but Mrs. Stein and the models.

You pampered daughters of fashion, you children of ease, you epicureans, who enjoy soups, entrees, fritters, roasts, pastries, could you but see the meal spread out at noon in this factory the chances are there would be a diminution of your fastidiousness.

No. 99 was a pretty, brown-eyed, happy girl with curly hair and a merry, brave, good face. She had two cuts of cherry pie that did not aggregate a surface as wide as her hand. She finished the juicy crust and I insisted on her eating a pair of my graham wafers. Ninety-nine had a headache and was going off for an afternoon in Lincoln park. The girl next to her, who said she was the very devil, devoured two links of Frankfort sausage and a pear. A near neighbor had a slice of brown bread and two tomatoes, and the girl she talked with ate green apples and sodacrackers.

At five minutes past 12 we had eaten, drank, and were at work again. Many of the girls went to the sink to wash their arms, neck, and faces, scour their teacups or coffee cans, and comb their hair. While I was exploring the toilet (?) section two men came in and I scampered. A nice arrangement this, but no one seemed to mind it. If Dr. De Wolfwants to do something for the good of factory girls be will have one of his assistants go over and scent this portion of the Julius Stein & Co.'s estate, for it smells to heaven.

The excellent light that filled the Never Rip company and flooded the workshop of Ellinger's top floor I missed at Stein's, where the ceiling is low and the ventilation and light inadequate. A skylight cuts the center of the roof, but with the curtains drawn to keep out the burning sunlight the machine operators had difficulty in threading their needles.

Please do not take any paper, was the notice rested above a pile of work ready for delivery. It seems the girls were in the habit of going to this pile for bits of paper in which to wrap their lunch box or old shop skirt, and when the searcher found it difficult to look into parcels for the possible spool of 2-cent thread the firm took this method of stopping the practice.

Over the iron sink was a placard warning the girls against throwing any slops into this zinc under penalty of 50 cents.

This rather ambiguous motto being above the hat rack: In order to protect the lunches of our employes no eating is allowed till 12 o'clock. Anyone breaking this rule will be fined.

On the opposite wall hung the literary gem of the factory. Here it is:

Ladies and Gentlemen it is your interest and that of your neighbors that no talking is allowed requested that whoever talks loud is fined 10 cents.

Another legend informed the army of martyrs that Julius Stein & Co. had No goods at retail. Anyone wanting to purchase must ask Mr. Stein. Apropos of the subject I learned that a girl paid $14 for a garment that I feel sure could have been bought for $9 in any retail house. She took it on the easy payment plan, $1 a week, and for three months lived on tea-dust and broken crackers. The tea was 15 cents a pound, she told me, and I got the crackers at a Thirteenth street bakery, two pounds for 5 cents. It was a heavy cloak, though, and I had it on the bed nights. What did I do with my money? Oh! God, but you're fresh. One dollar and fifty cents for the room, 60 cents for three baskets of coal, 30 cents for car-fare, $1 for the housekeeping, and $1 to Stein for the cloak. Sometimes I only made $6 in two weeks and often when it rained or snowed I took the car home, and then I run behind.

  • After Working All Day for 75 Cents the Heartless Managers of the Slave-pen Refuse to Advance Car Fare to a Penniless Factory Hand.

I finished my cloak about 5:20 o'clock and carried it to the desk to see about having it examined. I showed it to Miss Seebert.

Your work is very neat, she said, and you have nice corners. Now I'll try you on a jacket.

Thank you; I guess I won't work anymore. If you will get me the buttons I'll sew them on and go home.

She called me dear, told me to try a month or so, that I could earn $4 a week begore next year, and finally said that she couldn't give me the buttons because the cloak had to go downstairs to the pressers.

Well, I'll wait until it comes up.

But it won't come up maybe for a week, she remarked.

How will I get my pay, then?

You can't get your paid till the 1st. So and see the forelady.

That party told me to go away and let her alone.

But I have no car-fare, I said by way of mollification. Without mollifying a bit, she asked:

What's that to me? I ain't no car company.

I am not going to work here any more. I want to go home. I live far out and must have car-fare. Won't you take my order-ticket and advance me 35 cents?

Tanks. I take no orders from you, and giving her wiry features another twist she left me. Rosy called for the cloak which I hugged in my arms and refused to surrender. I carried my woolly burden to the bookkeeper, told my trouble, and asked for an order for my pay.

I can't give you an order, said that party. We don't pay but twice a week. See Mrs. Stein.

Mrs. Stein runs the shop and runs it with shrewdness. A dozen or fifteen years ago she graduated from a local factory to become the wife of Julius Stein. She has a beautiful home up on Dearborn avenue and several children, all of whom are cared for by competent servants. Mr. Stein manages the business and Mrs. Stein bosses the cutters, the pressers, the finishers, the operators, and the clerks, foremwomen, and models connected with the factory. She is yellow-haired little woman with a sharp voice, a trim, graceful figure, generous jeweled hands, and features that were not addicted to much relaxation. And her eyes! Nothing escape them, sewing or sewers. Nothing goes that is not right—precisely right, to use her own words. Every girl has a number which is put on the cloak she is to make. If there is a flaw or false stitch in the work all Mrs. Stein has to do is to scream out the number on the ticket and the hapless girl advances with more or less timidity for the never-fading tongue-lashing—alias corrections.

While I stood at the bookkeeper's desk with the finished Homer in my arms Mrs. Stein appeared. She was gorgeous in black satin with a goblin blue basque trimmed with gold lace and fastened at the throat with a gold serpentine broaoch. In deference to all this finery I began with some degree of obsequiousness.

I beg your pardon, is this Mrs. Stein?

That's my name, was the answer as she disappeared in a packing box and hauled up a handful of patterns. Seeing that she did not intend to refer to me, I took a tighter grip on Homer and plunged into the fray.

I made this cloak today and wish to sever my relations with your very excellent establishment, I continued.

Then put that cloak over to the presser and go.

I want to be paid.

You can not. Pay days are the 1st and 15th.

I will have my pay now. What do you give for the Homer?

I do not know.

Who does?

Here she screamed to the forewoman to know why she was troubled by such a creature as this. The party addressed labeled me with a few choice epithets in hysterical English, and for an instant I thought Mrs. Stein was going to jump on me.

Give me that cloak! she demanded with heaving breast and swelling nostrils.

Not until you give me my money, I replied.

She called me insolent, beggarly, and worthless, and when I told her that a woman who had been reared a factory girl should have some pity for the class she was a model for the queen of tragedy.

The audience was speechless and the forewoman so affected that she rattled like and agitated bag full of clothes pins. While the lookers on were waiting for something to turn up the elevator ascended and I stepped in the car, still hugging Homer. I was going to see Mr. Stein when his wife raised her voice and jeweled hand and ordered the boy to not to take me down. Homer, the boy, and I stood on the inside of the wire screen and looked out and the three women and the bookkeeper stood on the outside and looked in.

Raise the door, boy. Your number's 101, isn't it? An armistice I thought and answered: You have said it.

Go and sew on the buttons and get you pay—75 cents.

Miss Seebert escorted me to the desk, Rosy counted out thirty-six buttons, and I went back to my chair to button Homer. It was 5:45 o'clock and the hands were beginning to leave. The cashier would be gone, too, in fifteen minutes and it was not possible to sew on three-dozen buttons in that time. However, I had made up my mind not to surrender Homer till I was paid. The teacher, bless her fair hair, came and helped me to space the button-line and we had those sewed on when Mrs. Stein appeared and mentioned her pride at having been factory-born.

You need not put those buttons on. I'll make you a preset of the work.

I declined her offer and was told to go to the desk and get paid. The bookkeeper made out a check and asked for the cloak which I gave up with alacrity. When I got in the elevator the boy asked if I had a pass.


Then I'll have to search you.

For what?

Stolen goods.

I defied him to touch me, and the presence of the bookkeeper averted another war.

At the desk I was identified and received 75 cents for making a $35 cloak. I went upstairs again to Mrs. Stein and threw five nickles on the board for the unfortunate girl who sewed the buttons on my cloak. The rest of my wages I gave to the reacher, the only person connected with the firm of Julius Stein & Co. who showed me any kindness.

The fidelity of the girls passed entirely unnoticed. Not a word of commendation came from the manager or her assistants, who were most prodigal of reproof. By the men and boys these poor, patient, uncomplaining shop girls were pushed about in the elevators, on the stairs, and in the narrow aisles like so many sheep, and three little girls, two Marys and Frances, were made the slaves of everybody.

How these girls live in winter is a mystery. With few exceptions their dresses were poor and insufficient, coarse and shapeless. Many were torn and showed the stitches of thread and cord drawn across the holes.

But worse than broken shoes, ragged clothes, filthy closets, poor light, high temperature, and vitlated atmosphere was the cruel treatment by the people in authority. There are pains that rack a sensitive nature to which no physical agony can be compared and shots from malicious eyes that fatally wound but raise no cry of injury. There are robberies of a gentle life that beggar peace and joy and cuts of hatred that murder forever the sweet faith that belongs to woman's nature.