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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • Nell Nelson Spends a Day Among the Serfs and Bondwomen in the Shops of Little Hell.
  • For Four Hours of Unceasing Toil in a Dirty, Crowded Tailor's Room She is Paid Six Cents.
  • Think of It! Children Get $1 a Week from Men Who Grow Rich at the Expense of Human Life.
  • Factories from Which the Miserable, Helpless Drudges Could Never Escape in Case of Fire.
  • Taskmasters Who Can Not Speak English Holding American Laborers in Grinding Bondage.

It was 7 a.m. by all the whistles in Little Hell when I reached that section of the city in search of an opening in a slop-shop. The streets were crowded with shop hands hurrying to their day's work-men and boys with pipes in their mouths carrying dinner-pails or lunch-baskets; little girls in groups of two and three in beggarly rags; young women and old women, some of them white-haired and stooped with age, wearing shawls about their heads and shoulders and the meanest apologies for shoes. Many girls were bare-headed, and some went through the streets in old skirts and dilapidated waists that had neither collar nor sleeves.

At the corner of Elm and Wesson streets is an immense tailor shop into which the girls fairly swarmed, some going into the main and some into the rear building. Both buildings have three stories, each containing a shop under a different boss. I followed the crowd through both buildings beginning in the basement and going up and up and up the narrow, dirty, covered stairs, stopping on each floor to see the boss and apply for work. No success. The vest shops were full and so were the trousers shops. In the jacket shop there was room for experienced hands only at the munificent salary of $3 a week. The garments were cut and the sewer had the entire making.

As I passed through the crowded rooms I could not help noticing the machine-like way in which everything was done. Not a moment was wasted in greetings or exchange of friendly remarks. Almost at the very instant the girls took their seats the machines were whizzing and whirling and the bright little needles flying through seams, collars, bands, and facings. Cutters clicked their shears and little scissors and pressers sponged leg-seams and collars and moved their heavy gooses under little clouds of steaming vapor. Everywhere it was work, work, work, for barely enough to keep life in the body and virtue in the soul of these hapless children of misery.

The only real misery about these two great shops, containing in all about seven work-rooms and five hundred workers, was the wealth of sunlight and fresh air. On three sides of the buildings were windows through which the heavens smiled. The staircases, which, by the way, were boxed, ran aling the right side of the building, and which, in case of fire, whould have gone up in an instant, leaving the unfortunate inmates with absolutely no means of escape but the windows. I asked one of the bosses where his fire-escape was, and he told me if I has no other business with him to get out.

All the women and girls I talked with lived at home. I was informed that only those living in the neighborhood were engaged, thus doing away with the car-fare item. Some of the little girls were paid $1 a week for tacking on tickets, sewing on buckles to backstraps, and pulling out basting stitches. All other work was paid for by the piece and salaries varying from $2 to $10, according to the skill of the laborer. $4 being a fair average for this season of the year. The worst feature of these shops was the limited room. The girls sat elbow to elbow and the floor was piled with work half an hour after the shop opened.

At 8 o'clock I went to Benson's shop at Hobbie and Chatham streets where some evidences of decency were apparent. Instead of the rude timber generally put in work tables I found those on the main floor planed and grained. Off the shop was a cozy little office, and printed in three different languages were framed copies of rules and regulations. Quoting from the set, the employes were notified that the hours of work were from 7 to 12 and from 1 to 6; any one desiring to leave before would require a permit to do so from the office; any one neglecting to give the firm a three days' notice prior to leaving would forfeit any salary due; every operator was obliged to oil and clean her machine in the morning before using and in the evening after using it.

The prices paid were miserably low. A couple of girls who tacked pockets recieved 80 cents a hundred, and work was kept back so that often the earnings did not exceed $2 a week. Once or twice $18 was recieved in two weeks. Girls who did the flesh basting along the leg seams of pants were paid $1 a hundred; 7 cents was the price paid for finishing the cheaper vests and 9 cents the better ones. Here I met white-haired women who sewed from morning till night to make $5 a week.

The boss didn't need any help, so I tried the retail tailor store of Knute Nelson, 113 Chicago avenue.

Business is dull and we are not doing much up-stairs. You might come in next week if you are idle, but I'll tell you now that you can't earn over 50 cents a day. We are working on vests; make them all by machine. If you can sew well I'll give you 1 cent for joining the collar.

Telling him he would do nothing of the kind I put into Cleveland avenue and came upon the genuine slop-shop. At No. 314 I met Mrs. Schmidt. The family lives up-stairs in a cottage and on the ground floor is the shop, which is entered from the back yard via the kitchen.

In the latter apartment was a splendid, big range, brightly polished. A couple of Sweded were pressing at a side table. In the front room were the machine girls, nice, healthy creatures, selected no doubt for their enduring quality. Nothing but the boards in the floor protected the place from the damp soil, and while everything was scrupulously neat the facilities for rheumatism were largely superior to those for health, comfort, and light. Wages varied. Mr Schmidt was away but his salary sheet was safe in his wife's keeping. Some girls care so much and some not so much, and that's how it is, she said. One of her oldest hands told me she worked like a slave for $4.50 and never get more than $5. He won't let you.

Mr. Huber of 335 Cleveland avenue has not mastered the English language, but knows all about the values of American labor, since he gets it as low as $1 a week.

His establishment is in a rear building adjoining his residence. Ascending a flight of wooden stairs I found myself on a landing, from which one door led to the Huber kitchen and another down four steps to the shop. The sewers numbered possibly thirty, in all stages of poverty. The worked as though salvation depended on industry, and all the time I remained not a word was spoken. The girls made signs when a spool of thread or a skein of twist was wanted. From every window a different house was visible, some of them, being nothing more than sheds, in all of which were young children and mothers.

Huber didn't want any more help. I sought him through his wife, but found him so sullen out of pity for her I took an early dismissal. It made me very unhappy to see the poor girls slaving over their work, ruining their eyes, health, and appearance by the faulty positions in which they sat. It needed no quizzing to learn that the salaries recieved were poor, for there was not a decent pair of shoes nor a tidy dress in the whole assembly.

In the rear of 323 Cleaveland avenue is a two-story wood shed, on the upper floor of which Herr Klein and a half a hundred employes work on shop clothing and make money. That is, Klein makes it. At the foot of the stairs leading from the back-yard is a little kennel, from which a ferocious watch-dog bounded and scared me into a fit. The boss was out on the front sidewalk the foreman told me. He offered to call him, but I protested and, seating myself on the edge of a press-stand, surveyed the room. Gorls all around sewing with slavish speed and convict silence. Everything silent as the tomb but the trembling machines. Girls in calico rags and woolen rags and one with a neat little 3-cent cotton suit and a pink ribbon about her neck. A child of a dozen years or so goes round the room with drinking-water. The four men wear slippers and clay pipes and press without ceasing the cheap John and cottony pants and vests. All the windows are wide open and at the very level of their sills I count the roofs of seven foul-smelling closets.

Klein is middle-aged, with a complexion like pork tenderloin and a limited knowledge of English. He manages to make me understand that I have no show, and I make my farewell appearance and open at Schmallen's 138 Mohawk street. That gentleman uses his wife for a mouthpiece and his kitchen for a factory. Only three girls are at work. Rest laid off till next week. They have pantaloons for the millions about the room, stacked in piles of five feet high, for finishing which girls get 6 cents or 30 cents a day.

At 26 Eugenie street I find another shop in which the girls are packed like cattle in a freight car. The boss doesn't want to try me and I'm glad of it.

I take a walk down Larrabee street. At Olson's, on Sedgwick street near Superior, I am taken. It is just 12 o'clock. I have been tramping through Little Hell and vicinity since 7 o'clock and feel complately done. I take a rest till 12:30 and explore the shop. The building is a story and a half, extending back to the alley, with a frontage of forty feet. In the basement is a livery stable. Mr. Olsen keeps three or more steeds here and rents out a stall or two to a neighbor. Off the stable is a closet for the hands On the floor above the stables are quarters for twenty odd men ans women in a dirty, dark, gloomy place, with bare rafters and smoke-stained, unfinished walls. The machine-tables are set along the window line, leaving the center of the floor for a blazing furnace that supplies the power and mountains of pants ready to be finished. Near the roaring fire is a sink supplied with nothing but a faucet. When it was time to go home my face and hands were coated with dust and dye, but there was neither soap nor towel with which to make myself decent and I had to go unwashed. The upper floor had a slanting roof in which windows were cut to admit the necessary although by no means sufficient light. The heat was simply enfeebling. Before I had half started my No. 33 I was inclined to throw down the gauntlet and go home, but the patient, uncomplaining, suffering girls made me ashamed of myself and I resolved to hold on. The perspiration rolled down their arms and faces and stained the miserable waists they wore at the neck and shoulders.

Yes, it's awful hot up here, my neighbor remarked but this is nothing to the cold. In the winter we work with our cloaks on always till noon, and lots of times I have kept my overshoes on all day.

The boss made me equivocate about my knowledge of the pantaloon trade.

I can't take any but experienced help.

How much?

Where have you worked?

Oh, at Goldsmith's and Julius Stein's and Ellinger's and--

Have you done tailoring?


Well, then, if you're experienced you ought to be worth considerable: Here, take that for a sample, and he handed me a pair of No. 33 striped pantaloons with a roll of red and white waistbands and sent me up-stairs, where, between the stable smell and the evervating atmosphere, I became near collapsing.

I hadn't the faintest idea of how to go about the waist of the garment, but I watched the boss down-stairs and got Matson to let me sit by him. The dear man was bald and untidy, but he basted in the body lining for me, chalked the buttons on the waistband and fly, and did my ripping--which was not trifling. It was 12:30 o'clock when I began, and I worked every moment of the time with a diligence that was positively criminal till the work was done. It was 4:45 o'clock when I handed my first pair of factory trousers to the boss, who looked them over from bottoms to buttons, and said: You'll do the others better.

Yes, sir. How much?

Five cents.

How is that for American labor? Five cents for four hours' work!

I was told by the women who take them home that four pair are as many as they can finish in a day. That is 20 cents, or $1.20 a week. But, oh, the smell of that cellar stable and the heat and the wan faces of the girls that make hideous the very name of Olson.

Nell Nelson.