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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • Nell Nelson Investigates the Boston Store and Is Shocked at What She Finds.
  • A Basement That on a Hot Day Is So Stifling It Reminds One of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
  • Hundreds of Ill-Fed, Wan-Faced Children Working from 7:45 Until 6:30.
  • And Receiving in Exchange for the Terrible Drudgery and Hard Labor a Miserly $2 or $3 a Week.
  • The Managers Make Haste to Explain, but Their Explanation Scarcely Betters the Matter.

For dismal surroundings, economy of comforts, and heartless treatment, to the Boston store belongs the palm.

I did not work in that establishment although I tried very hard to do so. I was in the store at 8 o'clock on Friday morning as arranged with Mr. Hillman, who had partially promised to hire me. One of the girls in the hosiery department he had said is sick, and if she doesn't come back Friday morning I will try you.

I could not find the gentleman, although I hunted the main floor and the floors above and below. My plan of fluctuation was to take the elevator up one story and walk down, then ride up two and walk down the third flight, in that way I took in the entire store and a great part of the employes. I began at the bottom and spent a full hour in the basement, where I saw so much and suffered so much that the upper floors had no surprises for me. In the first place the atmosphere was almost unendurable.

Hot! It must have been 100 degrees above!

Out in the open air not a breeze was stirring and the heat was sizzling. Down where I was I could not see a single opening to admit the air, fiery as it was, excepting the open door at the extreme southeast corner of the floor, leading up a short flight of steps to the sidewalk. About this doorway so many goods were piled and draped and hung that the passage of air was obstructed. There must have been forty, and there may been eighty, clerks, cash boys, and girls on this floor and five times that number of customers surged in and out under the glaring rays of gas-jets and electric burners. Babies squirmed and cried under the suffocating heat; children screamed and fretted; men and women fanned and wiped their faces, but the little cash-girls and the languid clerks endured their prison uncomplaining. Add to the heat from gas-jets, electric lights, and machinery, the exhalations from so many people, the moldy smell from the damaged goods, the dampness of the freshly mopped floor, the fumes from a stray disinfectant, and the mildew and earthy odor that lurked in dark corners, and you have some idea of the quarters in which customers are invited to look for bargains and where helpless, honest, freeborn American men and women, boys and girls are forced to work for clothes and bread.

What about the soul? It's mockery to mention it to these slaves in such a dungeon.

On a rude plank door painted black is the work Ladies. The irony of it! Serfs would be less impertinent and bond-women or drudges better than either.

The door yields to my touch and I enter the toilet and cloak room. The atmosphere is so intense and the effluvia so offensive that I am almost stifled. A window about eighteen inches square has been cut in the side of the staircase leading from the street, and here I stand, my face turned up to the clouds of dust that float in from the feet and skirts of the passing customers. By and by I get accustomed to the foulness and turn round to explore the place. The floor is black and wet from recent mopping; the janitor has swept all the previous day's rubbish in from the basement and it forms a big pile behind the door. There is only one gas-jet in the room and I do not see the wet sweepings until I have stepped in them. On either side of the inclosure are the cloak-boxes, communication to which is afforded by a window a foot square. A young and very pretty colored woman is in one section and in the opposite window is a little boy possibly 13 years old. All the female help pass their hats, wraps, and lunches through these windows, and they are put in a cubby-hole the number of which corresponds to the number of the clerk. The smell of mold forcibly assails the senses, and mingled with the foul odor from the adjoining closets the effect on the lunches must be left to the imagination. On the east side of the partition is the toilet inclosure, built like the rest, under the pavement. But for the perforated coal-hole covers overhead the place would be pitch dark. It is damp, dirty, and smelly, the stone sidewalk forming the ceiling and gray flagstones the floor. The closets, four or five in number, have not even the luxury of doors, and in a space at one end is a dirty little iron sink into which runs a stream of water. As only two girls can approach the narrow trough for water at a time it is not hard for the reader to understand how great a luxury this single stream of clear, cool water is to the slave-girls. At one time I counted twenty-eight girls in this filthy little hole, which is unfit for cattle and in which no man would water a faithful dog.

When I had accustomed myself to the deadly smell that pervaded the place it was 9:30 o'clock and the girls were beginning to come in to wash their hands and clean up after arranging their stock. About the little mirror were seven girls, some combing their hair, some dressing it, and all trying to get a peep at their wan faces. The closets were crowded, and while three young girls were washing at the sink five moved about with bits of soap in their hands, their arms and faces covered with lather. The soap may have been furnished by the house, but of the absence of towels I am positive. Most of the girls had their own comb, soap, and towel, and where do you suppose they carried them?

In the bosom of their dresses.

I cautioned a girl who had opened the front of her waist against putting the we towel so near her breast, but she only laughed and said nothin'll hurt me.

But it is wet and may cause a lung trouble.

Indeed it won't. I used to put it here all last winter and it didn't hurt me. When it was awful cold I wore it home and I never even had a cold. As she spoke she folded the little towel, and laying it against her under-waist buttoned her dress and went to the hole in the north cloak-box for a glass of lemonade. I told her I was very thirsty and asked for a drink.

Oh, you have to pay. It's 3 cents a glass.

The colored girl and her little white slave had a bucket full of the beverage—a very excellent article, by the way—which they retailed at the price stated. The ebony vender refused to sell to me till I convinced her that I expected to begin in the hosiery stock as soon as Mr. Hillman came down. The girl with the wet damask in her bosom drained her glass to the last drop, ate the slices of lemon rind and pulp, and with the help of her finger transferred every gram of undissolved sugar to her mouth. She lapped the mouth of the glass with her tongue and when the boy took it from the ledge it was as dry as could be. I could not get her to confide her salary, but she said: It ain't nothing like $5. For two years I only got $3, but now I have more.

I found a girl named Bessie in the closetroom lying against the wall, the very picture of death. Her face had no more color in it than a china cup, her lips were blue, dark lines increased the brilliancy of her big blue eyes, and her hands were cold and clammy. She told me she was aweful sick, but her mother made her come because she didn't want her to lose her place.

The floor walker 'ud leave me go home if I ast him, but I haven't any car-fare and I don't want to walk. I lost my tea money and all comin down in the cars this morning. I was asleep. I offered to pay her car-fare.

No; if I ride in the air I'll be better before I get to the bridge.

I bought her a glass of lemonade and gave her tea pennies for a week, after which we became quite confidential.

I get $2 a week here and give it to my mother to buy meat. Sometimes I ride home, but them's the days that I don't buy tea, 'cause it costs too much for both. The tea is 3 cents a cup and the car fare, if you ride both ways, is 10 cents, and that's 13 cents.

Seventy-eight cents subtracted from $2 would leave a precious small sum for meat.

The most I ever spent is 50 cents a week. That's how much mother let's me keep out. Oh, they're kind of good to us. Last night when it rained Mr. Hillman gave nickels to the cash-girls that didn't have car fare nor gossamers. But I guess he'll keep it out of their wages payday. Some of the clerks don't be good to us. They pull us everywhere and push us when we don't go fast, and we never dast ride in the elevator. The clerks can, but the cash-girls has to walk. They don't fine us if we come late, though, and they do the clerks, some 15 cents and some 25 cents, and if any of us is sick we lose the whole day out of our wages. The one I like most is Miss Gannon; she is awful good; she puts three lumps in the tea, and trusts the girls when they haven't any tea pennies.

A larger girl, possibly 13, showed me her odd shoes. I'm wearing this one with the tipes to break it in. I have to stand all day and my feet are so sore I can hardly bear a new shoe. I got these new ones in June. Oh, they'll las till Christmas I guess. My salary is $5 a week, but I don't save anything. My mother takes it all for the groceries. I don't know what I'm going to do. Clerking is very hard but I can't sew or I'd go and work in a neck-tie factory where girls get $10. Do housework? No, I wouldn't like to live out. I can't cook, anyway. I could mind the children, but nurse girls only earn $12 a month. Yes, I know they have their board. No, not their washing. If you don't help the kitchen girls whenever they tell you you have to do your own washing, and I'd rather than have them bossing me.

A mite of a cash girl who wore broken slippers said she had better shoes at home, but it was so hard running all day that she couldn't wear them.

One of a cluster of girls from the grocery floor who were earning $3 and $3.50 a week said: People talk bad about the Boston store, but it's as good as any of them. We needn't be at the store till 8 in the morning, and they never fine us if we're late. Lots of times when I've been sick the floor-walker has told me to go out and walk round, and if I didn't feel better when I came back he would let me go home. If it rains Mr. Netcher lends us car-fare. He never said to pay him back, but I always did. We get p. ms. too, and las week I made 80 cents extra. At noon we can take 40 minutes and go where we like. We girls always go to Cooper & Siegel's, and eat in the basement. At the Fair they give you a dinner for 25 cents, and whenever we have a lot of p. ms. we eat there.

Why don't you eat up-stairs in the lunch room? I asked.

Well, 'cause the benches haven't any backs, and its nicer to go out for a change.

Like the wards of Jarndyce, caged up in this place of abomination that the heavenly compassion of the proprietors have provided for their hapless ladies, I met hope, youth, squalor, want, disease, despair, woe, cunning, innocence, rags, beauty, bravery, and industry variously personified in all stages of miserable girlhood and womanhood. Much of the talk I heard was coarse, indictive of ignorance and low breeding, but I saw no evidence of depravity or viciousness. One hears a great deal about the purchase of the shop-girl, but the insinuations are as false as they are base. The skeptic has only to look at the garb to admit their virtue. Vice is better dressed. I spent an hour or more on the main floor watching the swarming customers joggle one-another and haggle with the young girls who waited on them. So many people in the densely-stocked, over-crowded, ill-vertilated room polluted the atmosphere, making the strong weak and the weak sick. Every available foot of space was utilized, some of the counters consisting of common pine bows on the side of which emaciated children in [MISSING TEXT] ured fringes, trimmings, ribbons, and cheap [MISSING TEXT] . One of these troughs, filled with Hamburg edging, was placed between the two elevators, and the little girls in charge were knocked and pushed about by the hurrying crowd in a most unseemly manner. I did not see any girl sitting down nor any provision for a momentary rest. There was no mistaking the poverty of the [MISSING TEXT] in which these hapless young creatures [MISSING TEXT] for their garments were old and shabby and in many cases unclean, unkempt, and unsoliable. Worse than their clothes was the unkempt condition of the hair and person of some young girls. As in the adjoining establishment I saw girls waiting on customers in their stocking feet. I saw the floor-walkers push and drag the young girls about and the managers bully and drive both. One of these dignitaries, a tall, argus-eyed blonde with bent shoulders and a drooping head was the right man in the right place. Everybody dispersed at his coming. His scowl was something torturing, and had I been a subordinate and given the choice of the lash and one of his glances of [MISSING TEXT] I should have taken the former. There was another head, a tall, compactly-built brunette, almost as formidable, who had a pair of eyes that seemed to burn holes in everything and everybody contemplated.

The same sweltering crowd harassed the clerks on the second, third, and fourth floors, and on the fifth the sight of so many little dredges selling groceries or handling goods made one feel ashamed of the civilization that fostered such a condition of woman. The youngest girls in many instances wore big check aprons to screen rather than save the worthless little dresses beneath. It was harrowing to see these children, boys of 10 and 12 and fragile girls of 11, 12, 13, and 14, carrying boxes of soap, starch, and candles, packages of buckwheat, salt, and hominy, and cans filled with oils, sirups, vinegars, and the like. The men in charge had no hesitancy in demanding these transfers, calling Maggie and Mary as often as John or Dick to make the [MISSING TEXT] . I saw one little boy of slight build with a sweet but very sad face dragging a bag of coffee that would have been a strain on the muscles of a strong man, and a little Swede girl who said she was 13 in March hhad a box full of canned vegetables in her arms, the the weight of which made her blush in the face.

There is a ruin of youth and beauty which is more appalling than age, and into such ruin has the youthful grace, vigorous beauty, and the charm of gladness and trust of these immature lives fallen. There was no [MISSING TEXT] , no merry bantering, and no semblance of childish glee among the little serfs.

A bridge of sighs spans the alley on the fifth floor bringing the two stores of Messes C. W. & E. Pardridge into communication. Across this covered passage in the Pardridge store proper is a small room in the rear of the floor which is used as a cafe by the female help of the Boston store. The furnature consists of two narrow tables and three long benches extending the length of the apartment. The benches have no rung or rest for the back and here the young women and check-girls sit at noon over their lunch. On the wall is an expansive sheet of ecru paper bearing this inscription:

Female clerks and check-girls: You are requested not to eat on the stairs or anywhere else. You will keep to the right coming up, and to the left going down. You will not talk on the way nor take hold of each other's hands, but walk by yourselves. Anyone breaking this rule will be discharged.

Apropos of signs I forgot to say that in the basement where the cloak-room is designated this notice appeared in bold relief:

The girl who took the silk umbrella Saturday is known. If it is not returned at once she will have to take the consequences.

Another less conspicuously placed sign read:

All female employes will be ready for work at 7:45 a. m., under penalty.

Miss Gannon, who has charge of the kitchen is the good angel of the place. She is a plump, nice-looking person of splendid presence, with mild eyes, a firm face, sweet voice, and a heart brimful of motherly tenderness. She makes tea and lemonade which, with fresh milk, is retailed at 3 cents a glass. The tea has cream in it and the three lumps of sugar that go with each cup are a gastronomical treat to the little ones, who drink the Japan first and save the sugar cubes for dessert.

When I found Mr. Hillman he called his assistant, the glowering brunette with the fiery eyes, who told me he had no openingtold it, too, with a degree of positiveness that left no room for argument. With this summary dismissal after waiting nearly two hours I rode up to the top floor to see if I could not find an opening in the grocery store. Mr. Silver was hung up in a side gallery midway between the ceiling and floor with a dozen or more perspiring clerks. It did not take me long to discover that I was being pursued, for I had not been engaged two minutes with the head of the mailing department, a most arbitrary, red-haired, narrow-chested creature of [MISSING TEXT] , before Messrs. Hillman and Netcher sent him word to appear at once. Before leaving Mr. Silver said he would hire me if I had references that would satisfy him as to my honesty and respectability, but when he returned from the one [MISSING TEXT] interview with the managers a great change had come over him.

No, I can't hire you until I know something about you. You are a stranger to me. I will want you to fill the country ordersm and there will be plenty of chances for a dishonest girl to steal gloves, handkerchiefs, jewelry, and other articles that can be secreted in the pocket. I must have a letter from some firm or corporation.

I offered to furnish a letter from a minister, but it was declined as no good. On the promise that I should be engaged as soon as I produced the indorsement of a firm or corporation I withdrew and returned in an hour with the following:

CHICAGO, Aug. 3, 1888, TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: This is to certify that the bearer is a young lady who has worked in our costume department during the production of The Crystal Slipper and is thoroughly trustworthy and efficient and we can recommend her to any similar positions. THOMAS W. PRIOR.

[MISSING TEXT] 's Manager and Treasurer Chicago Operahouse.

After perusing it Mr. Silver called a little girl and pinning my letter to a note of his own sent it to Mr. Hillman. The dignitary appeared and in a very ambiguous style declined my services. I learned afterword that A Ellinger, the cloak manufacturer, had warned the Boston store, and while I was off getting my letter that benevolent man had furnished a description.

It is a little singular that while the Boston store refused to give me a position as clerk a most urgent [MISSING TEXT] was sent to THE TIMES requesting that a reporter be sent to examine the books and methods of the concern. By way of inducement a voluminous account accompanied the [MISSING TEXT] relative to salaries, rules, etc. NELL NELSON.