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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • The Times Lady Reporter, in the Guise of a Factory Bondwoman, IsInsulted by a Scoundrel.
  • Accosted by a Well-Dressed Brute Who Tries to Thrust His BlightingFriendship on Her.
  • Human Monsters Who Lure from Virtue's Path the Half-Starved Victims ofMan's Cupidity.
  • Manufacturers Who Pay Their Serfs the Miserly Sum of Eighty Cents forMaking a Dozen Shirts.
  • A Big Collar and Cad Maker of Troy N.Y Astonished at the State ofAffairs in Chicago.

On Thursdaymorning when I started to renew myfactorylife I discovered after getting on a South-sidecar that I did not have a cent in mypocket. In putting on myshop-girldisguise I had left mypurse at home. When the conductor asked for the fair I had none to give him. It was very hot, the clouds threatened rain, and the shop was at so great a distance that I did not feel as if I couldwalk. I concluded to throw myself on the generosity ofthe conductor and told him I had forgotten mypurse. He looked ugly and told me to get off.Just as he placed hiswhistle to hislips to signal the gripmanto stop a distinguished, well-dressedman paid myfare. I thanked him for hiscourtesy and told him if he would give mehiscard I would send him the money he had so kindly paid.

He smiled and said: A merebagatellemiss, and not worth mentioning.

At Eighteenth street I left the car to go to a vestmaker'splace at 2155 Archeravenue. I was crossing the threepoints where State and Nineteenth streets intersect when whoshould come abreast but mybenefactor. Instead ofraising hishat he jauntily cocked hislefteye and came so close to me that the sleeve of my never-rip jersey was pressed againstthe waist-line of hislight-graysuit.

Aha, here we areagain!

Although I distinctly heard everyword of hisremark I said: I beg yourpardon, with as much of theNewportchill as I could affect.

Come, come, now, he said withincreasedgayety, moving hiswaistband still closer to myjersey.

Oh, you are the gentleman to whom I am indebted for car-fare. You want yourmoney I suppose; if you will give meyourcard I will write you an order.

Do you work in this neighborhood?

No sir.

Where, then?


Where are you going?

For work.

What kind?

Anykind. May I have yourcard? I am in somethingof a hurry.

Mayn't I have yours? heasked.

Certainly; I haven't mycase, but if you will lend me a pencil I will write you one.

With pleasure, mydear.

You are mistaken, sir. That is notmyname.

Ha, ha, ha! I see you are a littlemischievous, but for all that you are mydear, producing threeinches of Faber.

A cardplease?

Bless me, I had forgotten, andthe natty-sack-coat was ransacked for a suitablecard.

Ah, here-this will do, I hope, in lieu ofsomethingmoreconventional, carefully placing on mysewing-box a smallcard with the address down.I reversed the pasteboard and read on the back:

DR. Charles Gilman Smith.

Office Hours___________


Dr. Smith! I knowhim quite well.

Oh, you do, eh? in a tone thatleft no doubt that his stock in me had dropped. I wrote:


The Times.

and handed it to mycompanion, who read it with eyes that seemed to have been wired open. While he crushed thedoctor'scard in hislefthandhisright pulled out a splendidgoldwatch, and with a most abrupt Didn't think it wasso late, have an engagement at 9:45, was offwith more alacrity than is conducive to grace. I looked after him, admiringthe cut of hiscoat, the swing of histrousers, the polish ofhisshoes, and the magnificentcarriage of head and shoulders, and thought:

May the lord deliverus workinggirls. I also thought that I shouldlike to meet mycarfriend when I had my suffocatingveil off and my goodclothes on. Won't Dr.Smith inveigle him to his Statestreetoffice and present me? I was to give him back hisnickel and leadpencil.

When I reached the shop at 2155Archer avenue the tailor told me he onlywanted onevestmaker and had hired her twohours ago, I then went over on Cottage Grove avenue, borrowed 25cents from mydressmaker and rode down to Lake street to get work ina feather dusterfactory. There may have been work, but there was noelevator and I was toohot and tired to go up fiveflights of stairs to lookfor it. I chose a cigar factoryon Randolph near Dearborn street withbut threepairs of stairs to climb andlearned in the salesroom that they had all the help they needed. I tried Gomezacross the street, who had nowork, but enoughgoodness of heart to give mea chair and a letter to twocigarmakers of hisnationality. I went to see F.Garcia at 20th Clark street. He asked me if Icould strip and I told him I could. When he wanted to know where I hadworked I owned up that I didn't know anything at allabout the business but was anxious to learn and get work. He didn't know how a sewinggirl would do at the fillers but you might go and talk with someof the help, for you may not be satisfied to try even.

He showed me the way across the hall toan emptyroom. The floor was litteredwith rags and paper and the dust was heavy on the walls and wood-work and in onecorner was a good-sizedash-pile. Garcia rappedfor entrance, but there was so much noise within that the door remained fast. Whenthe Spaniard left me I turned the knob and came upon a bigboy who was tickling hislaborers. The girls were flying around the emptyroom and theirpursuer had both screeching. The fun came to a stop the momentI went in and the youngpeople gladly told me all I cared to know aboutthe business. All they did was to strip – just pull thestem or mid-rib from the leaf and put it in a book-filler. Icould get $4 a week and steadywork and the nextyear$5. Myinformant, a littlegirl of 15years, has been in the shoptwoyears and earned $5.30 a week. Shetold me she was the oldesthand in the shop: that shecould strip as fast as a man, and put the ribbonbands about the cigarsbefore they were boxed.

At 12:15 o'clock I went into the shop and was given a chair in front of a barrel filled with inches of tobacco called hands and lined with gunny-cloth.There was a littletinpail of brownwater for wetting I don't know what nearmychair, and on the otherside a pineboardthree feet long and sixteen inches wide. When the tobaccoleaves were stripped and laid on the board itwas thubbed a book-filler and carried off to the next room. In the shopwith this were some eighteen men or more rolling the fillers, putting onthe wrappers, shaping the cigars with a broadknife and seeming the ends.Along the tablessome of the men were smoking and others chewing, some with theirhats on and all in theshirt-sleeves. There were negroes, Swedes, a Chinaman, Germans, and Spaniards, whose influence on the lives of the younggirls, while not reallyharmful, could hardly be called beneficial. I stripped leaves enough to enable me to take the socialcondition of the inmates,the badlight, impureatmosphere, the chokingsmell of the tobacco, andthe photographs and prints cut fromsensationalpapers that were tacked on the smoke-stainedwalls.

From the cigarfactory I went to the Excelsior Underwear Company, 199 and 201 Fifth avenue and satfor half an hour while the forewomanscolded a pale-facedgirl who wore mourning. Shehad brought back a dozen chemises for which the house paid $2, but the work was soiled in the making-machine oil havingwet the cotton – and the forewoman refused to take it.

What shall I do? She asked the woman, with a voice as sad asherface.

What does anybody dowith dirty things? You will have to pay for laundering the garments of the greasy sewing and clean thethread.

Then the girl was left alone by the manager, who went up to the other end of the counter to get trimmings for six dozen chemises thata tall young Swede girl was waiting for. The forewoman wore a blue dress of plaid design with a Marseilles vest buttoned in it, and of seven rings on her left hand six were set with whatappeared to be diamonds. She had jewels at herchin and in herears and hair. She measured off the lace edgings and the tape insertion andgave minute directions about the fullness and the finish. The six dozen garments were bundled up by Mr.Hyman, the proprietor, and the elevator carried her and herload to the pavement below.The seamstress told me she lived at home and with the help of hermother made $12 a week.

It is very hard work though, she said We sew day and night. I had rather do itthan work down in a shop for I have more self-respect. All the girls are not good, and very few are in a position to go with respectable people. They go with bad company and theirlanguage is bad. Sometimes in the winter they dance till daylightand go from the hall to the shop.I don't blame them. The life of a girl who had nothing todepend on but herneedle is a best a hard one. Still I don't like to be with a crowdof factory girls if I can help it.The manager and superintendent obliged to be strict, but very seldom make anydistinction in the treatmentof a nice girl and one who is not so nice. I don't think I cantell you how many ways there are to insult a girl. I have had a foreman just give me a lookas I passed in to mymachine or handed in mysewing that made me wish I was dead. Thenthere are the spiteful things the girls say about you and the cutting remarks of the forewoman that make you feel like fainting. The cashier may have a grudge andif he doesn't hold yourwages back till all the other hands are paid hell will throw itat you, make you take ragged bills, or give – you aweek's pay in change. A cashier in a Jackson street cravat factory once rubbed hishand across mychin to feel mywhiskers, he said, and because I got angryand said I would report him he saved up all the silver that had holes and plugs and made me take it. My salary was $3.25 that week, and some of the silver couldn't pass. I took it to a bankand the cashier was kind enough togive me good money for it. Plenty of times the forewoman hashad me discharged for being stuck up.

Prices here range from 20 cents to $2 a dozen. It depends on the material. Children's drawers pay 20cents a dozen, but there are nobutton holes to work. Some shirts are$2 some$4 and some$1.70 but most of them only pay 20 cents. Everything is done by machine including button holes and gussets. The bosoms and bands are ready to go in. Corset-covers pay 40 cents and 20 cents each, but they have to be trimmed and the holes worked by hand. This is a mean shop, so far as prices go, but theyare all alike in that particular. You have to find your own thread and you are constantly being suspected of keepingback short ends of trimmings.

I asked the forewoman for stitching and was given shirts at 80 cents a dozen to do. I had to pay 50cents for the use of the machineand 25 cents for a spindle of thread. I told the forewoman I had left mypurse at home, but she saidit was alright you can have it takenout of your wages. I asked her what the machine cost, but she doesn't know, and when I venturedthat the expiration of the patient hadreduced the old place$15 to about $12 she told me shereckoned I didn't know what I wastalking about. The room where we worked wasabout eighteen feet wide and ten feetdeep with toilet closets built out from the walls. The machines encircled thethree walls and in the middle of thefloor were the boxes of work. One girl wasstitching wrist-bands, another had button-hole machine and was getting 50 cents a hundred. A thirdwas making tucked drawers at 20 centsa dozen and I had a shirt at 60 cents which I failed to finish all three hours, being unable to manage a machine.

-Nell Nelson.