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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • The Times Lady Reporter spends a Day in Goldsmith's Tailor Shop at 258 Rumsey Street.
  • And While Life shall Last She Will Not Forget the Misery, the Squalor, the Horrors of the Place.
  • Children 13 Years Old Working from Noon Till Night on Heavy Coats and Trousers.
  • Paying $3.50 a Week for Heavy Work Without Speaking and Pulled for Being Sick or Late.

Never so long as reason reigns shall I forget the day I worked in JL. Goldsmith's tailor-shop, and never when I pray shall I forget to add God help the shop girls.

Thursday morning I stepped from an Ogden avenue car and walked down Market street in search of work. It was boiling hot and carried my brown veil on the breeze, and a small pasteboard box containing a cracker and a lemon, a paper of needles, a thimble, and a pair of scissors. On the way I met two unhappy looking girls of whom I made labor inquiry. One had sewed carpet at $5 a week for the Chicago Carpet company but was out of employment. The other said she earned $6 a week in W.D Brothers' cravat department. Her kid was sick and the forewoman had let her off for the day.

The first clue I got to a place was a wooden sign with Sewing Girls Wanted that hung below the north window of 155 Market street, where Messrs. Hart, Abt & Marx manufacture clothing. I read the sign and entered the main store-a nice, big, clean, cool place. A little girl sat the big type-writer making such clatter with her letters that it was useless to try to call her. In the office were two gentlemen. One was the very prototype of Munkaesy's Jesus Crist and he addressed for work.

The gentleman that attends to the work is not here just at present. Take a seat a moment. I thanked him and looked at the vacant chair. It wouldn't do. It was too conspicuous. I knew the credit man in the building opposite and didn't care to be seen in my factory togs, so I went in a dark corner, where I stood, first on one foot and then on the other, for exactly forty minutes. Nobody came. Finally he with the Nazarene face appeared and said: I'll go up and see if we want any more help. Again I said Thank you, and watched him as he walked to the back of the store.

No, he didn't have a halo, but a monstrous pair of pedal extremities that curled up like an old-fashioned skate.

When he got to the back of the store he simply retraced his steps and told me We have all the girls we need.

Why don't you take the wooden sign in the window down?

A sneer made his face a hideous thing. I apologized to the Hungarian painter.

Supposing you take it in, he said following me to the doorstep.

Why should I?

And for what purpose, please, should I take that sign in?

For Christian charity, but Christian charity is not in your line. I then went over to Messrs. Spitz, Landaner & Co. There I encountered the manager of the work room and the most contemptuous treatment it was possible for a man to show a hapless woman. Suffice it to say Hart, Abt & Marx were avenged.

At A. L. Singer & Co.'s 178 Market street, I received the most courteous consideration. The manager took my name, or rather a name and address, and said he would give it to any of his patrons who needed help. Then he wrote me a letter of which the following is a copy:

H. Goldsmith 258 Rumsey st. - Sir: This girl wants work, I don't know what she can do, but I think you can use her.Respectfully,

A. L. Singer per Steins

Rumsey street is two blocks west of Ashland avenue. It begins at Division street and runs south for a quarter of a mile or so over heaps of yellow clay, rubbish, and holes. The road is almost impassable for teams, and only the residents of the locality can take the upheavals and depressions of the sidewalk for a block without getting seasick. Filth of every description litters the ground, and following the line where a curbstone should be are garbage-boxes where the children mold mud pies during the day, where the men sit and smoke their pipes after the day's work is done, and where now and then old termagants backbite their neighbors and tear each other's hair. Some of the cottages are so low that the chimneys barely reach above grade, and all swarm with children, pale, eager, dirty little creatures, that root about in the yellow clay and fresh dumping's like the dogs they play with. Poor children, it is not their mothers' fault that they are wild and unkempt for thelanguid parents give all their strength to the shop work in order to half feed and partly clothe them. I had only walked a few blocks in this deep rutted street in search of H. Goldsmith before being convinced that I was not in a district of protuberant optimists.

The first woman I made inquiry of was carrying a bucket of sawdust from a neighboring ale-house. She didn't know the name, but when I mentioned coats she grew loquacious.

Oh, yes, the slave hole it's called; that's the sheeny tailor's! Don't you go to him, my dear; he'll grind the marrow from your bones. Go to service, girl, go to service. You can have a cot in my room till you find a place. I was with him one fortnight and worked my eyes most blind and he paid me $1.75. No, I'm from England but I never had harder times in the old country than now. There I was paid 3 shilling for lodgings and here they cost me $4. She told me she got the sawdust for sweeping out a corner dram-shop and used it to boil her tea kettle with.

The grandaunt of her quite overpowered me. Instead of a hole I found myself entering a large two-story red brick house still in process of construction. I ascended the front steps and after the maneuver of the celebrated king of France marched down again to the basement to the shop into the presence of H. Goldsmith, I handed him my letter and while he read it I took him in optically. He was unctuous little fellow, with kinky hair, cunning brown eyes, hatchet features and a small mustache the color of roasted coffee. He was attired in two shirts a neither one of chocolate flannel and a linen one a few shades lighter a pair of check pantaloons, carpet slippers, and a huge gold ring of masonic design. He read the letter with a cigar in his mouth, the smell of which combined with the flavor of his feet and the exhalations of his toilet was something preponderant.

He asked me what I had worked at and after a few gasps I gave him some of my history, slightly distorted.

I was told to take off my hat and while doing so he stepped back out in the entry and vacated a hook among the factory girls wraps, but as I did not care to take the changes of tempting the gather snipes and going home bare-headed I declined his attention and hung them up in a corner on the floor. Already, sewing box in hand, I faced the gaping silent throng and was pointed to a chair at a long table about which ten girls were sewing with a speed and silence that was terrible to contemplate. They were cotton dresses of the poorest quality, some of them open at the neck, and nearly all rolled to the elbow. The youngest were four little girls of 13 one of whom was operating two basting and fourth finishing a blue cloth cloak. One large Irish hand, possibly 23 sat at the upper end of the table. Of the rest 13 years would be a fair average age. One poor girl, who was very lame, had a machine, and it make my heart ache to watch her pale face and follow her thin little hands guide coat after coat under the needle. All the girls were pale and haggard, some were very pretty, some few had color in their cheeks but it was the heat flashes not the healthy glow of youth and physical strength.

In all there were twenty girls, eight men, and two boys-poor young fellows in their teens, with mealy complexions, wild eyes, hollow cheeks, and sunken chests. Neither weighed a hundred pounds but both pressed goods with heavy feet and were called and pushed about by the boss and the assistant. The men worked in slippers and undershirt without straps or suspenders to keep their trousers in place and the girls wore heavy peg shoes. I noticed some of the machine hands worked the foot-plate in their stocking feet.

I had taken all this in when the boss came near my chair and threw a plaid sack coat in my lap and without a word walked away. There was a nice predicament I thought as I looked the garment over. I asked the little yellow haired Swede girl at my right where to begin, but she looked at me and resumed her felling without a word of reply. Then I asked a big, yellow-haired, dough-faced German girl on my left and received the same kind of response. Instantly I realized their position. Compulsory silence.

I put twist in my needle, squeezed on my thimble, and selected the side-seam up the farmer satin lining, for if there is any one kind of needle work that I pride myself on it is felling. Well, I felled an hour, up one seam and down another, around the collar, and along the bottom of the coat. Then I stitched and tacked the tail pockets, took a deep breath, and settled back in my chair to take a rest. I didn't take it long, though. Before I could reel off two lines of Hood's Song of the Shirt the boss was at my elbow looking over my work with his nasty smelly cigar so near my face that I was obliged to pull back to escape being burned.

Take smaller stitches, he said. Don't fell through. You haven't though. Now put in the sleeve-lining, I did. In a great deal less I was told to rip it out. I put it in a second time did Penelope's work. The third time was not a charm and when his unction's honor, who had been watching me all the time, neared my chair I politely asked him to show me how to arrange the fullness. He grabbed the coat, shook the muffy thing in my face dropped the stitches from his two-for-a nickel to my hair, and observed: I don't think you'll do. I want experienced hands and pay $3.50 a week.

Well, he showed me how tailors put in sleeve linings, and I showed the merits of his teaching. In future I shall never let a coat-sleeve go about my waist without wanting its owner to unbutton and let me see where the lining is falled and how the top seam is felled.

At noon we had forty minutes for I will not say dinner, because no one had anything that could be so designated unless it were Boss Goldsmith, and he went home. Most of the men had nothing to eat. I only saw two with a lunch. The girls had black bread and a can of cold coffee, which they consumed with evident relish. Not more than five minutes was spent over the repast. I devoured my crackers and gnawed at my lemon by way of dessert. In a hurry to get at my work as soon as possible to make up for lost time I threw the sucked Messina under the table and in a few moments saw a little stitcher pick it up and hide it in her pocket.

By a series of questions I got the following information from a pretty Jewess who had been in the shop for three years and was getting $4.50 a week. She said regarding the salary. Oh. I don't care, Goldsmith won't pay anymore. My mother has money and doesn't mind so long as I learn to sew. I am 15 in October. I've been here at 12 and don't know how much longer I will have to stay. Goldsmith thinks women are cows that must be driven. So he drives us. We have to be at work at 7 in the morning and stay till 6 in the evening.

Half-holiday Saturday?


What if you are sick?

If you're sick pulls you. He pulled one for 20 cents for being late last week. He pulls if someone comes late, and he pulls if we talk.

That's why I could not get my neighbors to tell me how to start my work.

Rosy told me she was 13, that her father peddled tests, and that she was the eldest of five sisters and two brothers. She had been in the shop two years and was getting $2.25 a week.

Another girl whom I dare not indicate said: These beggarly Jews and Swedes are robbing honest girls of a living. Most of them have homes and are willing to work for free. I live with my mother and brother and can not make any more than enough to pay our rent $10 a month. I would leave my family but my mother needs me. Goldsmith is an awful hard man. He steals my hire from me and I spend for glitter and silk whenever I get a chance.

During the noon hour the girls played in the front street and afterward amused themselves in the backyard with the men. At 12:13 o'clock we come back into the shop and five minutes later the place was noisy with flying shuttles, clicking needles, and the whizzing wheels of the spinning machinery. The young heads and pretty shoulders bent over coats and faces were so low that they almost touched the sewing in the owner's clothes. The clatter of the machinery was deafening and every now and then shop responded with the heavy hot iron wielded by Goldsmith in the back room. Nobody had any [MISSING TEXT] on hand the work instead [MISSING TEXT] instead [MISSING TEXT] the cutter there [MISSING TEXT] to the trimmer, who in turn threw it to the baster and so it moved from hand to machine going the bound of the thirty odd workers with suchrapidity that the air seemed filled with flying coats. The room was low and with every passage of coat tail muffy clouds of lint seemed floating about in space. Add to that poor light bad ventilation, the exhalations of so many people, the smell of due from the cloth, and the noxious odor of that ever-consuming cigar and you have materials for the make-up of Mr. Goldsmith's coat-shop. All afternoon we serve sewed; sewed incessantly without uttering a syllable or resting a moment. Goldsmith was building the third story of the house, and every hour or so he left the shop in care to an assistant and went up to look after the carpenters. During these intermittent spells the girls took advantage of the substitute and hummed. They didn't sing, they hummed sounds and hymns, marches, and waltzes, and when the sub was not looking that actually whispered.

But the absentee possessed marvelous powers of ubiquitousness and very little time was wasted in this manner. There are some people you will always know were in the room without seeing them. This hard-headed, godless little Jew was a character of that sort. We could feel his presence and corresponding heaviness of atmosphere. Whenever he caught sight of a momentary idler he would glide up to her elbow and mutter a single verb - work! She worked.

At 5 o'clock I was so tired I didn't know what to do with myself. My hair was matted with moisture and dusted with lint, and my head throbbed with pain.

I perspired at every pore, and the steels in my corsets rusted all the front of my nice Hamburg under waist. I threw the big brown chinchilla overcoat. I had finished on the floor and for a period of three minutes fell into a state of voluptuous inertia. With my sixth sense I saw the boss pick up the garment and another overcoat came flying across the table and dropped all over me. I threaded my needle preparatory to finishing my ninth garment, began a light callisthenic movement of my right arm to scatter the pain and limber up my elbow. I went through perhaps seven motions, with my chair tilted back by the way of stretching my lower extremities when I was interrupted by the benevolent young tailor and his incombustible cigar.

Grabbing the frame of my chair he jammed it down all fours and told me to get to work.

How much am I going to get for this work? I inquire, after recovering from my astonishment and the sudden shock of gravitation.

Do you want to know? he asked with a contemptibly significant laugh.

If you please.

Well, just finish that coat and at 6 o'clock I'll tell you.

I won't finish any more. There's your coat. Pay me.

Pay you! For what?

For seven hours' work. For finishing eight coats.

Without further notice of me than an insolent sneer he picked up the coat, walked back to his cutting-board and began to draft out collars. I went back to the cutting-board, too, and stood at his side till commanded to get out of his way. I stepped back enough to give him elbow room, but did not leave the table.

How long do you expect to annoy me by your presence?

I expect to remain where I am till you pay me for my seven hours' work.

Your day isn't up yet. We don't quit till 6 o'clock and its only ten minutes after 5.

I told him I did not want to work for him another minute and demanded my pay.

Well do you want to know what I'd pay you?


One dollar and fifty cents a week and you ain't worth 75 cents.

You told me when I started that I would get $3 at least if I could sew.

And you can't. All day you have been sitting up in your chair with your shoulders straight and your chair back as if you had a rocking-chair. There's what I value you at, and he threw a 25 cent piece at me. At first I hesitated about touching the money, and, as I looked at him to see whether he was serious or not my eyes rested on the heavy gold ring he wore.

Oh, you're a B'nai B'rith man I see. Will you favor me with your card?

What for?

I want to send this money to the society for the orphans which you represent with my compliments.

Get out of this shop or I'll put you out. Begging him not to go to that trouble I got. On my way out I took my box containing my sewing weapons from the table, and before I had gone two yards the humane proprietor of the establishment challenged me.

I made a pert remark about scorning to take any of his belongings that were not disinfected and proceeded toward the door, behind which I had stowed my hat and jacket. Debating whether I had better take in the vest cellar on the corner of Rumsey and Division streets or go back to the office and write my copy I stood at a machine table and tossed in my day's earnings. The first throw was heads, the second heads, and before I could reckon the third the angry boss informed me in an orotund quality of voice that that's good American money and if you don't want just hand it back to me. Not deigning to notice the man I pinned on my hat, and this worthy member of the slave-driving fraternity used the opportunity every low-lived wretch has to insult a friendless, helpless working-girl. It may gratify H. Goldsmith to know that his cowardice had the desired effect. But I told him he would hear from me again and I mean to keep my word. I know personally several members of B'nai B'rith and I am sure that they at least do not know the character of this man, if they know he is a member.

Whatever opinions I may have entertained about the dignity of labor, respectable poverty, and the absurdity of fine feathers my experience as a factory hand has unfitted me for future service, since in no place I worked did I see any incentive to decency, honesty, or respectability, or any promise of success that did not carry with it the downfall of, blindly climbing hope.

- Nell Nelson