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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • Nell Nelson Continues to Expose the Salve-Grinding Hell-Holes of Chicago.
  • Graphic Account of Her Experiences in the Filthy Slop Shops of the West Side .
  • No Rest for the Weary and Wretched Women and Children This Side of the Grave.
  • A Day Among the Butcher-Shops and Canned-Meat Factories of the Stock Yards.
  • How Messrs, Armour and Fairbanks Might Brighten the Lives of Their Employes.

The birthright of an American girl may be a glorious attribute on the deck of a trans-atlantic steamship or the floor of a London ball-room, but it is not worth the flop of a brass farthing in the cloak factories of Chicago.

It was high noon by the Jesuit college clock when I got to the rear of 230 West Twelfth street, where David Karasick has his shop. Nobody in but an old man. His face is seamed with wrinkles; he has a big nose the color and texture of a mushroom; his head and half his face is covered with hair of chinchilla shades; his back is humped at the shoulders and his clothes are filthy and worn. I ask for work and am told that no hands are needed. He has a pocket that hangs across his waist and into which he puts rags, pieces of thread, hooks and eyes, pins, buttons, and the empty spools that lie on the floor about the vacant machine-chairs. I watch the silent old man as he drags his loose slippers across the floor, and behold I have the key to wealth! But it doesn't profit me worth a copper. So I survey the premises.

One room, windows on three sides, and all shut. From the north windows I get a view of a two-story hen-house. Filth inside and out. The outlook from the east side is a picture of poverty, squalor, and filth. The buildings have no paint. In some are human beings, in others dumb brutes. Half-washed clothes dangle from window-sills and clothes-lines in tatters and rags. In the yards are heaps of manure and the alleys are foul-smelling and filthy. Along the street move flannel-shirted, horny-handed, sooty-faced men to smoke, to rest, to quarrel, and to dinner. Passing and re-passing all day long and every day—Sunday and Saturday—are young women and old women, youths, maidens, and children, with as many cloaks or coats or pants as they can carry. The garbage boxes are reeking with filth. Some one has thrown ashes or sweepings in the box and neither the swill man nor the ash man will remove the contents. Mayor Roche and Dr. DeWolf, equally ignorant of the manner in which their subordinates discharge their duty, permit this sort of thing to go on till the very neighborhood is polluted and the air poisoned by these reeking masses of corruption.

Oh, it's nothing, I am told, and I see for myself and count from Karasick's window and door eleven of these garbage piles that swarm with maggots and flies. The sun beating down on the cheap pine box has made the wood shrink, and from constant kicking and shaking and probing of the miserable rag-pickers who inhabit this locality the frame-work has been loosened and the wood carried off for fuel, leaving on almost every block one or more naked heaps of decaying matter.

Out of the south windows I look into the kitchen of some dozen wretched families. The children are numerous and almost naked. They are numerous and unclean, so very unclean that it is barely possible to tell their complexion. The mother breaks a loaf in pieces in one house and throws it to the little dirty faces on the doorstep. In another home the children eat from a frying pan and next door all drink from the spout of the teapot. Down in the yard is a pile of filth in which children play and are followed by a lot of chickens. The stable below stairs is locked, but stronger than bolt or hinge is the smell from within, and viler still is the stench from the closets in and about the yard.

At 12:45 o'clock the hands begin to arrive from lunch, first a young Pole, then a Russian, then a German Jew. They wear woolen shirts and do the machine work—do it beautifully, too, and their machines go like the wind. The patriarch in skull cap and slippers goes round the shop looking at one and the other, watching each operator to see that no extra waste of thread is left at the end of the seams. Two more men and then a girl. She does binding, nothing else, and gets $4 a week. At 1 o'clock six young girls are seated at a table in the northwest corner of the shop. They have been running. They are hot, full of fun, and one throws the window up. Like a volley from the enemy roll in the closet and stable smells and I move away to escape it. The boss is three minutes late. He is a slight, meek man of 35, with a shirt the color of brown soap, dark trousers, and a cheap coat. A light beard covers his mouth and chin and the expression in his eye has that soft, quiet, gentle quality sometimes seen in cattle and sheep. I tell him I want work.



You can finish cloaks?


Where have you worked?

A dozen places. Stein's, Ellinger's, Benson's, Olsen's, Newman's, Schlessinger's, Never-Rip, etc.

Here, finish this. I will see what you can do.

How much?

Eight cents, and I pray, Father Abraham, forgive this thy son's oppression.

I am given a chair at the table with the girls. Propped up on slender sticks is a stout cord, on which is a lot of spool-thread—white and black, fine, coarse, and medium. Some more of the philosophy of Mr. Karasick's old father-in-law. The thread is not wasted and the girls are not liable to carry it off. I am given a big cotton and wool, principally cotton, ulster to finish. I work like a lash-driven convict on the facing and collar and cuffs till 4 o'clock, and am almost overcome by the air that floats up from the yard below. It is done and I take it to the boss, who examines it for fully five minutes.

Too fine. Custom work. Don't need so good on such cloaks. You stay?

How much a week?

Five dollars. You Christian?


Work Sunday?"


Then I don't want you. Shop closed Saturday. Shop open Sunday.

How much if I work five days?

No, you must work six days, like all.

Not Sunday. Pay me please.

I get out. Out past the stable-door, past the children in the manure-pile, past the ragged, yellow clothes on the line, past the back doors, past the swill-boxes, and the poor, pale-faced women carrying cloaks to and from neighboring shops till I reach 147 Twelfth street, where Isaac Berliner hires me. His shop is over a rag store and the smell is far-reaching. Mr. and Mrs. Berliner work with the men and girls. There are two rooms, poor light, bad ventilation, low ceilings, disgusting smells from the kitchens, the snarling, faul-finding remarks of the man, the petulance of his wife, and the filthy condition of the place and the revolting contiguity of so many people were something not to be endured. I occupied my chair in the dark, crowded room fifteen minutes and left. Like David Karasick's this shop is open all day Sunday.

In the rear of 441 Taylor street I was offered work by a tailor. He had two small rooms in which men and girls were working like slaves on custom coats. There was a fire in the stove on which the men heated their irons, and two boxes of garbage just outside on the pavement filled the room with their odors.

Leaving the field of cloth and cloaks I applied to E. A. Morris, the confectioner, 81 West Jackson street. The forewoman is a this, bloodless young woman, with wild eyes and unmistakable evidences of overwork.

No, I can't give you a place. You are too big. I want little girls. All these hands have been sent to us by peddlers because they are so very poor. You couldn't live on the salaries we pay. These children get $3 and the old hands up-stairs $4.

The midget laborers were filling pans with chocolate and maple caramels. Young boys cut the sheets of soft, brown saccharine stuff into squares which a dozen little girls transferred to the tins. At deep troughs filled with pop-corn and gum-drops were other children filling small paper bags. Up-stairs the girls worked on stick goods. Their quarters, while rude and bare and hot from the steaming sirup-pots, were light and airy.

At Brougham's packing-house, 80 Jackson street, I applied for work in the canning-room. The foreman was kind. He took me out in the dark, little packing-room, in which the light and breeze were fenced off by walls of tin cans. The girls were pale and thin and very young. But, oh, how they did paint! Each stood near a wall of cans that had just been filled with meat—pressed corned beef, tongue, or ham—still warm. At hand was a pot of japan paint with which the girls brushed the ends and rimsof each can. I told the foreman I knew I could do the work. He tried me. I daubed on the paint, held the brush wrong, and got more color on my hands than on the can. The girls laughed at my awkwardness; so did the foreman. I was chagrined with my failure and asked for some water to clean my hands. The man gave me a benzine bath, and then showed me to a basin of dirty water on the surface of which a hundred or more dead flies were afloat. The quarters in which these girls work are little more than deadly—no sunlight, no free fresh air, no place to sit, and the blue paint smeared over their hands and arms and dripping from the breast and belt of their dresses. Their wages are $5, but each is expected to paint at least fifteen hundred cans per day. Dirty little girls in rags and broken shoes, many of their wrists not thicker than yout two fingers, were in the rear of the shop scouring cans, for which they were paid $3 a week. The hours of toil are from 7 o'clock to 12 annd from 1 o'clock to 5. The girls were gay and inclined to be happy in their dungeon slavery, for, after all, they are better paid than scores of help in the employ of Pardridge, Julius Stein, Ellinger, and Mrs. Wellman.

At the suggestion of the foreman I took a Halsted street car for the stock-yards, and with so much experience presented myself at the Fairbank Canning company. I did not see Mr. N. K., and what is more didn't want to see him. The girls, numbering a hundred or so, were at work up on the second floor in onw of the numerous buildings. They painted and labeled by the piece, getting 5 cents a hundred. Plenty of girls handled 2,500 cans a day, giving them a salary of $7.50 a week. Experienced hands earned $9 and beginners and dryers $4 per week. No provision was made for the comfort of these girls. They swept the greasy floors when necessary, packed the goods, and were jostled and pushed about by the bloody butchers and greasy packers. All worked in cast-off clothing, many literally dripping with paint. A great many of the girls were Irish, but the Swedes and Germans were numerous. I can not understand how they endure the work which, while purely mechanical, requires them to be on their feet from 7 to 5:30 every day, and from all I could learn they do not stand it. Few with whom I talked have been in the yards five years; all wanted to get married, not to have money and nice clothes and theater tickets, but to get rested.

At P. D. Armour's packing-house the girls were paid from 3 cents to 5 cents per hundred for labeling and japanning cans, wages varying from $6 to $9. Beginners received 75 cents a day for two weeks, or until they could handle fifteen hundred cans per day, when they received $6, and were raised to the maximum figure as their skill increased. As at Fairbank's, they were young girls with haggard faces, emaciated figures, and work-weary bodies. At noon they sat in the windows to eat their lunch, and the vessel on the zinc from which they slaked their thirst was nothing more elaborate then a tin can down. It is certainly very good of Mr. Armour to build Sunday-schools, educate struggling artists, buy pictures, and patronize music, but these young women are human if their smells of the slaughtering establishment and a clean sitting-room with neat walls and chairs in which to rest at noon and clean towels for the 6-o'clock toilet would not be wasted charity.

These girls are called tough. Perhaps they are. Perhaps their language is not chaste nor their manners pleasing, but Mr. Armour and Mr. Fairbank know as well as need be known that their hearts are pure and their lives blameless. Considering their origin, their nature, their surroundings, and their associates they are too good to be put on the level they are.


  • Working Nearly a Day On a Cloak to Earn Ten Cents—Girls Who Toll For Three Dollars a Week and Board Themselves.

Another day in a slop—a shop where I get a blinding headache and a dime.

The place of servitude is at 1187 Milwaukee avenue and the proprietors are Mr. and Mrs. Schlessinger and son. It is 9 o'clock when I enter what seems to be a store. On the right is a small office containing a desk and a mountain of cloaks. Two yards back is a long cutting-board at which the father, mother, and son are chalking or cutting out cloth. The old man has the everlasting frosts on his head, and in the wife's hair is more silver than jet. The son is still in the morning of his manhood. His manner is arrogant, his tone harsh, and his treatment of an old Christian, who has come in with a letter, presumably from his wife or daughter soliciting work, is painful to contemplate. I feel like a vagabond when Mrs. Schlessinger demands an explanation for my presence.

I was here yesterday and you told me I might come to work today, I venture to remark.

Oh, yes. You was the one that looked on yesterday and asked all about the wages, hey?

This is overwhelming and I tremble internally, expecting every moment to be seized by my jersey collar and Psyche knot and thrown out in the car-track. I bite my lips to keep my knees from knocking.

When she says Well, you may come this way, I am thankful for my safety and follow. Half-way down the store is a partition some five feet high, hung on both sides with cloaks and jackets, braided sacques and Dutch dresses, which contrivance screens the girls on the opposite side from view. A short distance back is a perfact embankment of work, fringe and inner trimmings. Passing these two fortifications we came into the presence of the "sweaters," all but six of whom are running machines at a tremendous speed.

Girls! Girls! exclaimed Mrs. Schlessinger.

Some of the little engines stop.

Girls! Girls! she says again.

They all stop. And so does my breathing.

This girl has come to work here, Mrs. Schlessinger continues. I aint got no time to learn her. You all help her if you got time.

With this unheard of and unexpected introduction Mrs. Schlessinger leaves me. I find a dusty table near a dirty zinc to put my hat and ask for a machine.

Can you run a machine? the head of the establishment asks.

I tell her a falsehood which I defend by personally arguing that I can do anything that these untutored young foreigners can perform. Determined to try I drop into a chair before a big Household and agony begins. I endeavor to apply my knowledge of the Wheeler & Wilson to the machine. Trouble follows. The wheel is not under the table and is not meant to turn forward. The thread breaks a dozen times in twenty-four minutes, the intervening time being spent in the threading the needle, which, like an equestrienne, has a side seat. I hem and tuck rags to get the stitch. The bobbin gives out, and how to fill it again, thread the shuttle and lace the top cotton gives me much trouble. A little German girl at my left throws an occasional hint of value to me. She has a frightful cold in her head which she frankly confesses she cought the night before in Wicker park. I offer to help her, agreeing th stitch all day if she will only tell me how to put the work together. It's a bargain. I bind the edges of the front, back, and side gores, get the hood in shape, and stitch the pockets. Just as I am beginning to feel like a Household conqueror Mrs. Schlessinger comes along and throws a bundled Dutch dress on my machine-table and tells me to make it. I protest that I had much rather help Annie, fearing I may not get the cloak right.

Just make it. When it aint right you rip it. That's the way we learn the girls.

Of course the string and sleeves, cuffs, hood, pocket laps, collar, fronts, side bodies, back gores, back straps, and three skirt breadths are spread out before me. I seize a bunch of bias binding and I bind and rip and rip and bind till noon, marveling all the time at the work that literally rolls out all about me. Poor Annie's eyes get red; so does her little nose; her face swells, her voice gets husky, and her handkerchief is as wet as a laundry. She has only made two garments working from 7 to 12. I only made 40 cents this morning, she said, but it's this awful cold. I can make six when I work hard. I usually earn $7 a week. Some times it's more, but not often, and some times it's less. I must go home now.

She folds up her work, covers her machine with her apron, has the two dresses entered in her book, and goes off to nurse her cold.

A girl with a complexion like a peach and light blue eyes says she has been working four years. I began at 14 in Zimmerman's factory, she says. There I got so I could make $1 a day easily, but I had awful headaches and the doctor said I must only sew three days in the week. Then I went to the shop every other day for a year, but the pain didn't go away and the doctor said it was the stream power and made me leave. Since I have worked by foot my head is all right. Yes, my parents are living and own a little cottage on Sedgwick street.

The hand girls were all beginners. They were all ages from 11 to 16, earning $1, $2, and $3 a week sewing on buttons, putting in bustles, and filling the inside linings. Most of them were Swedes and unable to speak a word of English. All the hands brought big lunches of bread, sausage, or ham, and fruit pancake. I was hungry enough to devour my worst enemy and not withstanding I interviewed a dozen or more of the diners not a morsel was offered me. There was an hour for noon, but most of the machines were thundering away at 12:30. The closets, two in number, were down in the cellar, and the foulness of the place was sickening. A kerosene lamp, hung four feet from the floor partially lit the dark passage along which were coal-sheds and closets in suites for the several flats in the building.

At 3 o'clock my cloak was not finished. I had pains in my head and back, my ankles ached, my feet were scalded with heat and perspiration from the constant motion of the machine. No need of acting this time. I simply went to Mrs. Schlessinger and told her I had no dinner and was too faint to work another moment.

Didn't you have no lunch? she asked. Why didn't you tell me? I could have given you a cup of coffee.

I thanked her for her good intention, and asked to be paid. Well, that Dutch dress is 20 cents. If you done half you get half pay. That's right, ain't it? I tell you you can't make a living at this; it's too hard for a woman that ain't used to it. I vould like to pay more, for when the girls make I make, don't you see?

For the sake of exit I acqiesced; took my dime, and went out. At the door I met two little Polish children, Polly and Annie Schmidt, who told me they lived at 318 George street, near Carpenter, and could not get work in the shop till they were leven. Both had a basket of greasy, filthy victuals they had picked along the alleyways and into Polly's hamper I dropped Mrs. Schlessinger's bright dime for luck.

Some day soon I shall use the money so kindly sent to the editor of THE TIMES for a shop-girls' shoe and stocking party (and little Polly and her sister shall have a card).

You poor, dependent, neglected girl, who started out in real earnest, without education or training, to earn your own living from the bottom of my heart I pity you. I have been thinking all day where I could send you for aid and instruction, but as I believe in the goodness of woman I do not know where you can find one to succor you. There's Mrs. Tillie M. Carse with ther eloquent, soulful eyes. But she is begging $100,000 for a temperance temple and has no time to give you help or counsel.

Go to see Miss Willard?

She is sympathetic. It will do you heart good to meet her for she will call you dear child when you have told her your errand, and press your hand in her warm palm, and tell you—well, I don't know what she will tell you, for she and Miss Mary Allen West have a heap to do between the Woman's council, the Woman's National league, the Woman's suffrage, the Woman's Christian Temperance union, and the prohibition party. There is Mrs. George Marsh—but she can spare no time from the Industrial school; Mrs. A. A. Carpenter has a big heart, but the Woman's exchange fills it, and so it is with Mrs. Blatchford and Mrs. Hobbs and Mrs. Leander Stone and Mrs. N. K. Fairbank and Mrs. Field and Mrs. Armour and Mrs. J. M. Flower and Mrs. A. L. Coe and Mrs. S. M. Allerton and Mrs. Potter Palmer. They have St. Luke, the Illinois street boarding-house, the Woman's Christian boarding-house, the Decorative Art society, or the Girls' Friendly society, and your case doesn't come under any of these. don't you see?

Mrs. Dr. Clinton Locke is a dear, good woman who has, perhaps, done more real charity for the Chicago poor than any woman on the South side. A few years ago she went slumming—that's what they call it in New York—went out Archer avenue and along Nineteenth, Twentieth, Butterfield, Clark, John's place, Liberty court, and Canalport avenue into the holes and hovels under and above the sidewalk and in and among the stables and woodsheds, where she personally taught ignorant Irish, Polish, Swedish, German, and Italian mothers how to make broth from scraps, gruels from chaff, and tempting cookies from cheap flours. She made them keep account books for her inspection and forced them to buy bones and joints for soup and cheap cuts instead of steaks for their husband's meals. She gave them lessons in drips, taught them how to make a plaster, a petticoat, soft soap, and molasses-cake, helped them smother the fire during the cool days and sift the ashes for cold weather; preached the economy of cleanliness, sobriety, cheerfulness, and industry, and helped many and many a mother to make herself and her family decent. She has done her share of mission-work west of State street, and what you want, poor little machine-slave, is another Mrs. Locke to rise up and teach you how to sew, how to keep your clothes and body neat, how to sit at your work-table, how to care for your health and save your vital energy. You must be taught that profanity, mashes, the midnight picnic, the pop-corn-parties-in-the-park, the Dago lunches, and the insults of the street advances of car men, society men, and factory men are the very ruination of all that is lovely and holy and good in woman. You must be taught that you are not to be herded and driven like cattle nor scourged and robbed like convicts. You must be taught that you are a woman, that you live in America, that you are some account, and that there are hundreds of women who will help you to help yourself and thousands of men who will want no better pastime than to knock down the creature who insults your womanhood.