THE STORY OF A SEAMSTRESS WHO LAID DOWN HER NEEDLE AND BECAME A STRAWBERRY-GIRL.
WRITTEN BY HERSELF.
MY experience as a seamstress thus far subjected me to mere trials of temper, or mortifications of personal pride, but never to the calamities which sometimes fall so heavily on others in a like position. Hence, while spared the latter, I was too much disposed to magnify the former : for, let our trials be few and light as they may, we are generally prone to consider them the greatest that could befall. The griefs of others, their losses, their calamities, as has often been well said, we can all bear with surprising fortitude : it is only our own that we are disposed to regard as unendurable But in this time of discouragement there were cases brought to my notice, the severity of which fairly humbled me in the dust, filling my heart with thankfulness at the exemption extended to us, and showing me that afflictions are really great or insignificant only by comparison.
One sleety wintry night the low wail of a new-born infant was heard issuing from a bundle of ragged clothing which some poor creature had laid down on the door-step of a house in a small by-street not many squares from our own. The house was occupied in part by a man named Varick, who had a wife and several children. This man had been an industrious mechanic, but had for two years been pursuing the downward path to ruin, a confirmed victim of the bottle, He had been forced by the destitution thus brought upon himself to abandon a snug abode in a decent street for the squalor of a rickety shell in a mean locality, and was now prostrate on his bed, dying of rapid consumption. By what mysterious providence a new-born babe should thus be sent to such a man’s door is beyond my comprehension. But the wife of Varick, softer of heart than its mother, took in the shivering waif, adopted it in place of one only a few weeks older, which she had buried two days previous, and resisted all urgency of the few friends she had to send it to the almshouse.
My mother had long known Mrs. Varick. She regarded her with great interest, and had frequently visited the family, watching the progress of her husband’s decline, and sympathizing with her in her incessant labor as a seamstress. Varick did nothing but drink, — she did nothing but work. The trials, the sufferings, the absolute privations which she underwent for two years, it would be difficult to describe. Her domestic labors, with the care of a sick husband, watching him by night as well as by day, left her little time or energy to devote to the needle. Yet she toiled unceasingly for the shops. Scanty indeed were their prices, scantier were her earnings, and scantier still the daily fare which the poor needlewoman was able to set before her children. Many times they cried themselves to sleep with hunger. I doubt not that the dying husband shared in these privations, as well as suffered for want of many comforts which his situation demanded. Strangely enough, in the midst of this accumulated misery, the woman’s heart went out with an unconquerable sympathy for the foundling so unexpectedly left at her door. So far from proving an additional incumbrance, it seemed to be a positive comfort.
Hearing of the circumstance, my mother went immediately to see the family, taking me with her. They were quartered in a single large room of an old frame - house which was crowded with tenants of all descriptions. We found Varick on his bed, evidently very near his end. But, alas ! the unhappy man expressed the utmost horror of dying. He made no request for spiritual aid or counsel, — no mention of religion, no reference to eternity. The Saviour’s name, or any allusion to the salvation which came by him, never passed his lips. Every thought was of the earth, — how to live, not how to die. I shuddered as I saw and heard him. At intervals he reached out his hand impatiently for a vial of medicine, then inquired when the doctor would come. His whole dependence was on the arm of flesh. Neither wife nor visitor ventured to direct his attention to the fact of his rapidly approaching end ; for he was stubborn and repulsive. The door seemed to be shut, no more to be opened, — we could do nothing for him.
Yet while this horrible scene was passing before us, there were loud noises in the next room, penetrating the thin board partition at the head of Varick’s bed. A drunken brawl was going on, with oaths and imprecations that alarmed all but the sick man and his wife, with now and then a sharp pounding on the partition, as if some one’s head were being violently beaten against it. Overhead another similar disturbance occurred. Then there was a crowd of squalid faces peering in at the windows at us ; for decent visitors were rare in the depraved locality of that forlorn tenant-house. Altogether, the scene sickened and almost frightened me.
My mother gave Mrs. Varick a basket filled with simple comforts she had brought with her ; and we were about taking our leave, when the door opened, and a religious-looking man, dressed in black, entered the room, bowed to us, spoke familiarly to Mrs. Varick, and approached the bedside of the dying man. Presently he sank upon his knees, and in language most appropriate to the spiritual hardness and destitution of poor Varick, invoked the Throne of Grace in his behalf. Though the outcries and turmoil around and above were continued, yet I lost no word of this deeply affecting prayer. It touched my heart and heightened the solemnity of the occasion. My own supplications went up in silence to the mercy-seat on behalf of the dying man.
I knew that my mother’s would be equally fervent; and from the reverential responses of the sobbing wife, it was clear to me that hers were not withheld.
She was standing very near to me when the minister rose to his feet. Turning to her, he said in a low voice, —
“ Madam, I perceive that you are to have a funeral here very shortly. I am an undertaker, and shall be glad to take charge of furnishing the coffin and whatever else may be needed.”
He put a card into her hand, and left us. I cannot describe the revulsion of feeling which this uncouth and abrupt transition from spiritual to carnal things occasioned in my mind. The shock was so violent as to dissipate at once the solemn impression which the man’s excellent prayer had made. The heartstricken wife could make no reply, except by tears. It was well that the dying man was unable to catch the mercenary drift of the religious exercises he had heard.
That night he died. When we reached there the next morning, several of the low crowd who herded in other apartments of this great tenement-house were already offering to bargain with the widow for her husband’s clothes. The thing was so inexpressibly shocking that my mother interposed and compelled them to desist and leave us alone. By degrees we learned more ot the actual condition of the family. It appeared that Varick had in better days become a member of a beneficial society which allowed forty dollars to a widow for the funeral expenses of her husband. The harpies of the tenement-house had become acquainted with this circumstance, and while one set was seeking to obtain possession of the dead man’s clothes, another was practising every art to steal from the widow the little beneficiary fund with which he was to be buried. Through all her difficulties the poor needle - woman had managed to pay the society’s dues, foreseeing what the end would be, and she was now entitled to draw the forty dollars. My mother immediately obtained from her an order for the money, drew it, kept it from the rapacious set who watched for it, and made it an efficient means of immediate comfort.
The ministerial undertaker was of course present at the funeral. He was evidently as keen after business as he was powerful in prayer. When the hour for moving from the house had arrived, he approached the widow and whispered to her that he could not think of letting the coffin leave the premises until some one had become surety for the payment of his bill ! My mother and myself both sat near the widow, and heard this extraordinary and illtimed demand. I was amazed and disgusted at the indecency of the man in not urging it at the proper time, and pressing it at so improper a one. But my mother told him to proceed, and that she would pay the bill.
All these enormities were new things to me. I had seen nothing, I had imagined nothing, so every way terrible as came within my notice under the squalid roof of this poor needle - woman. But my mother had long been in the habit of penetrating into the abodes of the sick and destitute ; and though shocked by the new combination of religion and trade which she here witnessed, yet she regarded it only as a fresh development of the selfishness and hypocrisy of human nature. This poor woman and her family must Jive. How, thought I, is she to do so in this season of declining prices of the only work she is able to perform? If she could survive such a crisis so uncomplainingly, and be willing to take to her bosom the helpless foundling left upon her doorstep, what cause was there for me to complain ? Sorrows gathered all round her pathway, while only blessings clustered about mine. I learned a lesson of thankfulness that has never been forgotten. If there had been need of such exhibitions of positive distress as teachers of contentment, others were not wanting within my little circle. One of my cousins, a girl of my own age, ambitious to support herself, had been successful in obtaining a situation as saleswoman in a highly fashionable shop, where the most costly goods were sold in large quantities, and to which, of course, the most dashing customers resorted. I always thought her a truly beautiful girl. She was tall and eminently graceful, her face expressing the virtue and intelligence of her mind : for I cannot understand that true beauty can exist without these corresponding mental harmonies, any more than a shadow without the substance.
My taste in such matters may be defective, because it lacks the cultivation which fashion gives. Such as I possess is altogether natural. To my primitive apprehension, therefore, the attractions of a finely formed neck or arm receive no addition from being encircled by chains of gold or bracelets of pearls. When charmed with the appearance of a beautiful woman in simple robes, who is there, if told that the profuse expenditure that would have been required to cover her with brilliants had been employed in charity,— that she had used it as a fund to relieve the wants of the needy, to minister to the sick, to comfort the widow, to support and educate the destitute orphan, — who is there that would not feel the loftier emotions of his nature mingling with his admiration ?
At home my cousin had been seated at her needle, but in her new employment she found herself compelled to stand. There was neither bench nor chair nor stool behind the counter, on which she could for a moment rest a body which had never been accustomed to so long-continued and unnatural a strain upon its powers. It was the peremptory order of the wealthy proprietor that no girl employed in the shop should on any occasion sit down. There were soft stools for the repose of customers who had money to spend, but not even a block for the weary saleswoman who had money to earn. The rich lady, who had promenaded the street until fatigued by the exertion of displaying her new bonnet over miles of pavement, came in and rested herself while pricing goods she did not intend to buy. There was a seat for all such. The unoccupied saleswoman had been seeking relief from the strain upon her muscles by leaning back against the shelves, but on the entrance of a customer she must be all obsequiousness. While she might have rested, she was unfeelingly forbidden to do so. Now the customer must be waited on, no matter how completely she may be overcome by fatigue or prostrated by lassitude. Either was sufficient to destroy her spirits ; the combination of the two, springing from a fixed cause, was sure to undermine her health.
My cousin suffered keenly from this almost unexampled cruelty. She came home at night worn out by the strain upon her muscular system. Her spine was the seat of a chronic uneasiness. All day she was upon her feet, being allowed no other rest than such as she might get by leaning against the shelving. At the week’s end she was fairly overcome. Sunday was hardly a day of recreation, because she was rarely free from pain induced by this unintermitted standing. All this was suffered for the sum of four dollars a week. It is true that she had earned less at her needle, but then her health had been remarkable for its robustness. Her increased earnings now were the price of that health.
Nor were others among the saleswomen less dangerously affected than herself. Some, of feeble organization, quickly broke down, under this unnatural discipline, and abandoned the shop, sometimes rendered temporary invalids, sometimes permanently disabled, while but few returned to fill their thankless places. Reading, while in the shop, whether employed or not, was out of the question, as that also was strictly prohibited. There was therefore no recreation either of body or mind, even when it might have been harmlessly permitted. It was either work or absolute idleness, but in no case rest or relaxation.
Under this monstrous system of torture my cousin at length broke down so completely that she, too, was compelled to leave the establishment. Her resolute spirit led her to endure it too long. When she did give up, it was in the hope that entire rest would bring relief. But it never came. Her physical organization, strong as it was by nature, had been so deranged that recuperation was impossible. Medicine could do nothing for her. A curvature of the spine had been established, — she soon became unable to sit up, — and at this writing she lies comparatively helpless in her bed, still beautiful in her helplessness. Her health was permanently ruined by the barbarism of a man so destitute of sympathy for a working-girl as to deny her the cheap privilege of sitting down when she could do him no good by standing up. Yet the great establishment is still continued, with all its gorgeous display of plate-glass windows, its polished counters, its wealth of costly goods, and its long array of tortured saleswomen.
These instances of complicated affliction among needle-women by no means embrace all that came under my notice. They were so numerous that it was impossible for me to avoid seeing and feeling that no such grief had been permitted to come over me. I trust that my heart was sufficiently grateful for this immunity, — for I became satisfied, that, if we were to thank God for all His blessings, we should have little time to complain of misfortunes.
I know that I endeavored to be so. I labored to take a cheering view of what we then considered a very gloomy prospect. And this disposition to contrast our condition with that of others, while it taught me wisdom, brought with it a world of consolation. I saw that there was a bright side to everything,—that the sky was oftener blue than black ; and my floral experiences in the garden taught me that it was the sunshine, and not the cloud, that makes the flower. It became my study to look only on the bright side of things, convinced, that, if the present were a little overcast, there was a future for us that would be all delightful. I was full of hope ; and the eye of hope can discover a star in the thickest darkness, a rainbow even in the blackest cloud.
Hence I went cheerfully to learn the art of operating a sewing-machine, in which I soon became so expert as to prove a profitable pupil. There were from a dozen to twenty learners beside myself, some few of whom were educated and agreeable girls, the daughters of families moving in genteel circles, who had come there with a sensible ambition to acquire a thorough knowledge of the art. With these I formed a very pleasant acquaintance, so that my apprenticeship of a few weeks, instead of being a dull and lifeless probation, calculated to depress my spirits, was really an agreeable episode in my quiet career, cheering by its new associations, and invigorating by reason of the unmistakable evidences occurring almost daily that a sewing-girl was probably the last machine whose labor was to become obsolete.
The fame of these schools for female operatives went all over the country, and attracted crowds of visitors. Some of these were fine ladies of superficial minds, who came from mere curiosity, so as to be able to say that they had seen a sewing-machine. I was often struck with the shallow, unmeaning questions which these butterflies of fashion propounded to us. Some of them made the supercilious, but disreputable boast, that they had never taken a stitch in the whole course of their lives. But the great throng of inquirers consisted of women who had families dependent on their needles, and of young girls like myself, obliged also to depend upon the labor of their fingers. All such were deeply interested in the new art, and their inquiries were practical and to the point. They expressed the same astonishment, on seeing the rapidity with which the machine performed its work, that I had felt when first beholding it.
With so great a throng continually around us, asking questions, stopping the machines to examine the sewing, and begging for scraps with a row of stitches made in them, which they might take away to inspect at leisure, as well as to exhibit to others, there were days when the pupils were able to produce only a very small amount of work. But we soon discovered that this deficiency made but little difference to our teacher. The school was in reality a mere showshop, a place of exhibition established by the machine-makers, in which to display and advertise their wares more thoroughly to the public. We pupils were the unconscious mouthpieces of the manufacturers. We paid the teacher for the privilege of learning to work the machines, and the manufacturers paid her a commission for all that she disposed of. Between the two sets of contributors to her purse she must have done a profitable business. She was at no expense except for rent, as the manufacturers loaned her the machines, while we did all the work. She had more orders for the latter than we could get through with, as the demand from the tailors was so urgent as to show very plainly that the great proportion of all the future sewing was to be done by the machine instead of by hand.
When I first went into this schoolroom I noticed a number of unemployed machines arranged in one part of it. After a week’s apprenticeship, I observed some of them leaving the room every day, while new ones came in to occupy the vacant places. The first had been sold, the last were also to be disposed of, and this active sale continued as long as I remained. The fact was very apparent, that this public exhibition of the capacity of the new machine was operating on the community as the most efficient mode of advertising that could have been adopted. The machines went everywhere, over city and country, even at the monstrous prices demanded for them. Many fashionable ladies became purchasers, thinking, no doubt, that clothing could be made up by merely cutting it out and placing it before the machine.
Thus the most ingeniously potent agencies were invoked to bring the new invention rapidly and extensively into use. Its real merit happened to be such that it fulfilled all the promises with which it had been presented to the public. Hence it became a fixture in every great establishment where sewing-women were usually employed. As the latter acquired a knowledge of the machine, each of these establishments became a school in which new hands were converted into skilful operatives, until the primary schools, like that where I had been instructed, were abandoned from lack of pupils.
But I picked up a great many useful ideas at the school, besides acquiring, as already remarked, a new and assured confidence in the future prospects of the sewing-woman. It seemed clear to my mind, that, under the new order of things, the needle was still to be plied by her ; whatever work it was to do would be superintended and directed by her. It was in reality only a new turn given to an old employment. Moreover, it struck me that more ot it would be called for than ever, because I had noticed that the speed of the machine in making stitches had already led to putting treble and quadruple the usual number into some garments. Having achieved the useful, it was quickly applied to the ornamental. Clothing was not to be made up, in the future, as plainly as it had been in the past. Hence the prospect of more work being required involved the probability of a greater demand for female labor. But whether it was to be more remunerative, — whether the sewing-girl who might turn out ten times as much in a day as she formerly did would receive an increase of wages in any degree proportioned to the increase of work performed, was a problem which the future alone could solve. I did not believe that any such measure of justice would be accorded to her. It would be to the men, but not to the women. Yet I was willing to take the future on trust, for it now looked infinitely brighter than ever.
Among the pupils of this school was a young lady of twenty, whose affable and sociable disposition won strongly on my admiration, while her robust good sense commanded my utmost respect. The machines we operated were close to each other, so that I had the good fortune to have constant opportunities of conversing with her. Her name was Effie Logan, and she was one of three daughters of a merchant who had acquired an ample competency. In company with his wife, he came once or twice a week to visit the school and see his daughter at work. With great consideration for me, Miss Effie introduced me to her parents, at the same time adding some highly complimentary explanations as to who I was, and how attentive I had been in teaching her to use the machine. This adoption of me as her friend established a sort of good feeling in the parents toward me, so that at each visit to the school they greeted me in a way so cordial as greatly to attach me to them. It was an unexpected kindness from an entirely new quarter, and increased my affection for Miss Effie.
Her parents, it appeared, were having all their children taught an art or profession of some kind. One of the daughters, having a talent for drawing, was learning the art of engraving on wood. The youngest, being passionately fond of flowers, and possessed of great artistic genius, was a regular apprentice in an artificial-flower manufactory. Miss Effie, the eldest, had had her musical talent so cultivated under a competent master, that she was now qualified to act as organist in a church, or to teach a class of pupils at the piano ; but not satisfied with this, she had insisted on being instructed in the use of the sewing-machine. Both she and her parents seemed so wholly free from the false pride which wealth so frequently engenders in the American mind, that she came, without the least hesitation, to a public school, and sat down as a learner beside the very humblest of us. When her parents came to inspect her work, I am certain they were gratified with all they saw of what she was doing.
I confess that the whole conduct of this family was as great a surprise to me as it was a comfort and encouragement. Mrs. Logan always made the kindest inquiries about my parents, but in the politest way imaginable, — no impertinent questions, but such as showed that she felt some interest in me. I think that Effie must have spoken very favorably of me to her parents when at home, but I could not understand why, as I was not near so affable and pleasant in my manners as she was. But an intimacy had grown up between us ; she had won my whole confidence; and as confidence usually begets confidence, so she probably took to me from the force of that harmony of thought and feeling which comes spontaneously from communion of congenial souls.
One day the teacher of the school had been called out on other business, leaving me to attend to visitors and customers. The throng that morning was so great that it was full two o’clock before I found time to sit down, hungry enough, to the slight dinner I had brought with me in a little basket. I had taken only the first mouthful, when Miss Effie came in from dining at home. She drew her chair close up to me, her sweet face blooming with the roses of perfect health, and her bright eyes sparkling with animation and intelligence. Much as I admired and loved her, I thought she had never before looked so perfectly beautiful.
“ Lizzie,” she said, taking in her hand a spool of cotton to adjust on her machine, “how I like this work! Pa intends to buy me a machine as soon as I have completed my apprenticeship here. He don't believe there is any real gentility in the idleness of a girl who, because she happens to be rich, or to have great expectations, chooses to do nothing but fritter away her time on company and parties and dress and trifles unworthy of a sensible woman. He has brought us all up to think as he does. He, tells us that every woman should be so educated, that, if at any time compelled by reverse of fortune to support herself, she would be able to do so. Why, he made us all learn the old story of the Basket-Maker before we were ten years old. It was only last week that he said there was no knowing what might happen to us girls,— you know, Lizzie, there are three of us, — that some day we might possibly be married.”
I am sure that the faintest of all innocent blushes rose up from the halfconscious heart of the truly lovely speaker as she uttered the word, giving to her cheeks a tinge of crimson that added new beauty to the soft expression which her countenance habitually wore.
“Possibly, did you say, Miss Effie ? ” I interposed. “ You might have said probably, — but would have been nearer the truth, if you had said certainly.”
“ Oh Lizzie, how you talk ! ” she rejoined ; and there was an unmistakable deepening of her blushes. But in a moment she resumed : —
“ Pa remembers how his mother was left a widow with five young children, but with neither trade nor money, and how both she and he had to struggle for a mere subsistence, she at keeping boarders, and he as apprentice to a mean man, who gave him only the smallest weekly pittance. He says that we shall never go out into the world as destitute of resources as his mother was, and so we all have what may really be called trades. My brother is in the counting-house, keeping the books, and is provided for. But you don't know how we have all been laughed at by our acquaintances, and sneered at by impudent people, who, though not at all acquainted with us, undertake to prescribe what we should and what we should not do. They call us work-women ! With them, work of any kind is regarded as degrading, especially if done by a woman, and more especially if she is to be paid for it.”
“Ah, Miss Effie, you have touched the weak spot of our national character,” I responded. “ Yes,” she resumed, “ it is the misfortune of American women to entertain the idea that working for a living is dishonorable, and never to be done, unless one be driven to it by actual want. Why, even when positively sufering for want of food and fuel, I have known some to conceal or disguise the fact of their working for others by all sorts of artifice. To suffer in secret was genteel enough, but to work openly was disgraceful ! A girl of my acquaintance was accidentally discovered to be selling her work at a public depository, and forthwith went to apologizing for doing so, as if she had been guilty of a crime, instead of having nobly striven to earn a living. The ridiculous pride of another seduced her into a falsehood : she declared that the work she had been selling for her own support was for the benefit of a church. This senseless pride exists in all classes. From the sham gentility it spreads to the daughters of workingmen. They are educated to consider work as a disgrace, and hence the idle lives so many of them lead. It is the strangest thing imaginable, that parents who rose from poverty to independence by the hardest kind of bodily labor should thus bring up their children. No such teaching was ever given to me. I can sit here at my machine, and look the finest lady of my acquaintance in the face. She may some day wish that she had been my fellow-apprentice.”
Where do our girls learn this notion of its being disgraceful for a woman to support herself ? ” I inquired.
“ Learn it ? It is taught them everywhere,” she responded. “ I sometimes think it is born with them. They drink it in with their mother’s milk. They grow up with it as a daily lesson, — the lesson of avoiding work, and of considering it delicate and genteel and refined to say that they never cooked a meal, or swept the parlor, or took a stitch with the needle, actually priding themselves upon the amount of ignorance of useful things that they can exhibit. They make the grand mistake of assuming that sensible men will admire them for this display of folly. So they drag on until there occurs a prospect of marriage, when they suddenly wake up to a consciousness of their utter unfitness to become the head of a family. Why, I know at this moment a young lady of this description, who expects in a few months to become a wife, and whose cultivated ignorance of household duties is now the ridicule of her mother’s cook and chambermaid. The prospect of marriage alarmed her for her total ignorance of domestic duties. She had never made her own bed, or dusted the furniture ; and as to getting up a dinner, she knew even less than a squaw. She is now vainly seeking to acquire, within a few months, those branches of domestic knowledge which she has been a whole life neglecting and despising. She hated work : it was not genteel. Yet she is eagerly plunging into marriage with the first man who has offered himself, foolish enough, no doubt, to suppose that in her new position she will have even less to look after. Formerly, she did nothing : now, she expects to do even less.
“ But what,” continued Miss Effie, “ is this poor creature to do, if death or poverty or vice should overtake her husband, and she should be thrown on her own slender resources ? She is driven to seek employment of some kind, — to attend in a shop, (for somehow that is considered rather more genteel than most other occupations.) or to sew, or to fold books, or do something else. But she knows nothing of these several arts ; and employers want skilled labor, not novices. She once boasted that she had never been obliged to work, and now she realizes how much such absurd boasting is worth. What then ? Why, greater privation and suffering, because of her total unfitness for any station in which she might otherwise obtain a living, — the extremity of this destitution being sometimes such that she is driven to the last shame to which female virtue can be made to submit.”
“ You say, Miss Effie, that these foolish lessons are taught by the mothers ; but do the fathers inculcate no wiser ones ? Have they nothing to say as to the proper training of their daughters ? ” I inquired, deeply interested in all she said. She knew a great deal more than I did. And why should she not know more ? Was she not full two years older ?
“ The fathers do, in many cases, teach better lessons than these ; but their good effects are too commonly neutralized by the persistent vanity and pride of the mothers. Even the fathers are too neglectful of the future welfare of their daughters. The sons are suitably cared for, because of the generally accepted understanding that every man must support himself. They are therefore trained to a profession, or to some useful branch of business. But the daughters are expected to be supported by their future husbands, hence are taught to wait and do nothing until the husbands come along. If these conveniences should offer within a reasonable time, and do well and prosper, the result is agreeable enough. But no sort of provision is made for the husband’s not showing himself, or, if he does, for his subsequent loss by death, or for his turning out either unfortunate or a vagabond. Even the daughter’s natural gifts, often very brilliant ones, are left uncultivated. If she has a talent for music, she receives only a superficial knowledge of the piano, instead of such an education as would qualify her to teach. No one expects her to work, it is true ; but why not fit her for it, nevertheless ? Another develops a talent for nursing, the rare and priceless qualification of being efficient in the sick-room. Why not cultivate this talent, and enlarge its value by the study of medicine ? The parents are rich enough to give to these talents the fullest development. They do so with those of their sons ; why refuse in the case of their daughters ? Our sex renders us comparatively helpless, excluding us from many avenues to profitable employment where we should be at all times welcome, if the unaccountable pride of parents did not shut us out by refusing to have us so taught that we could enter them. The prejudice against female labor begins with parents ; and the unreflecting vanity and rashness of youth give it a fatal hold on us. My parents have never entertained it. They have taught us that there is more to be proud of in being dependent solely on our own exertions than in living idle lives on either their means or those of any husband who may happen to have enough of his own.”
“It is very odd, Miss Effie,” I replied, “ for you to entertain these opinions, they are so different from those of rich people ; and it is very encouraging to me to hear you express them. But I should have expected nothing less noble from you, you are so good and generous.”
“Why, Lizzie, what do you mean ? ” she exclaimed. “It is not goodness, but merely common sense. What brought me here to be a pupil in this school? Not the desire to do good to others, but to improve myself, — a little selfishness, after all.”
“But,” I inquired, “will this unnatural prejudice against the respectability of female labor ever die out ? You know that I am to be a sewing-girl, not from choice, like you, but from necessity. You learn the use of a machine only as a prop to lean upon in a very remote contingency ; I, to make it the staff for all my future life. You will continue to be a lady, — indeed, Miss Effie, you never can be anything else,—but I shall be only a sewing-girl. The prejudice will never attach to you, but it will always cling to me. How cruel it seems that the world should consider as ladies all who can afford to be idle, and all working-women as belonging to a lower class, because God compels them to labor for the life He has given them ! ”
“ Dear Lizzie,” she exclaimed, in tones so modulated to extreme softness as to show that her feelings had been deeply touched both by the matter and the manner of my inquiry, “you must banish all such thoughts from your mind. Fur His own wise purposes, God has placed you in a position in which you have a mission of some kind to fulfil. That position is an honorable one, because it requires you to labor, and it is none the less honorable because others are not required to do so. They also have their several missions, which we cannot understand. If it be regarded as mean for women to work, it is in the pride of man that so false a standard of respectability has been set up, not in the word or wisdom of God. To which shall we pay the most respect ? The former, we know, brings constant bitterness ; the latter, we know equally well, is unchangeably good. As it is our duty to submit to it here, so, through the Saviour, is it our only trust hereafter. It is not labor that degrades us, but temper, behavior, character. If all these be vicious, can mere money or exemption from labor make them respectable ? You know it cannot.
“You,” she continued, in a tone so impressive, that, even amid the clatter of twenty machines around me, not a word was lost,—“ you may be sure that this prejudice against women working for their own support will never die out. It is one of those excrescences of the human mind that cannot be extirpated. It is a distortion of the reasoning faculty itself, unworthy of a sensible person, and is generally exhibited only by those who, while boasting ot exemption for themselves, have really little or nothing else to boast of. It is the infirmity of small minds, not a peculiarity of great ones. Prejudices are like household vermin, and the human mind is like the traps we set for them. They get in with the greatest facility, but find it impossible to get out. Beware of entertaining them yourself, Lizzie. Shum everything like repining at what you call your position as a sewing-girl. Take care of your conscience, for it will be your crown. Labor for contented thoughts and aspirations, for they will bring you rest. Your heart can be made happy in itself, if you so choose, and your best happiness will always be found within your own bosom.” “ Do not misunderstand me, Miss Effie.” I replied ; “ I was not repining, but merely asking an explanation. My mother has sought to teach me not only contentment, but thankfuless for for my condition.”
“ Indeed,” she responded, “both you and I have abundant cause for thankfulness to God for the multitude of mercies He is extending to us. You know how this poor girl behind us, Lucy Anderson, is situated,” raising her hand and pointing over her shoulder toward a thin, pale girl of seventeen, who was working a machine.
“ I do not know her history,” I answered.
“Well,’’ said Miss Effie, “that girl’s mother was a washerwoman. She did the heavy washing for a very rich man’s family. They put her into an open shed, on a cold, damp pavement. This work she had been doing for them for several years, in the same bleak place, and in all weathers. While warm and comfortable herself, the pampered mistress of the family gave no thought to the dangerous exposure to which she subjected this slave of the washtub. Thus working all day, in thin shoes, on damp bricks, and while a penetrating easterly rain was falling, the poor woman was next morning laid up with the worst form of rheumatism. Medicine and nursing were of no avail. She became bedridden, — the disease attacked all the joints of her frame, ossification succeeded, and in the end she was unable to move either her body or limbs. Every joint was stiff and rigid. The vital organs alone were spared. For twelve years she has been in that condition, — she is so now, — my mother saw her only yesterday. Can you imagine anything more terrible ? Poor, dependent on her daily earnings, with young children around her, and a widow, only think of her agonies of mind and body ! Yet. among the vital powers still left to this afflicted woman, was the power to approach the Throne of Grace in prayer so acceptable that the answer was that peace which passeth all understanding. The body had been disabled ; but the mind had been quickened to a new and saving activity, — she had drawn nearer to God.”
What could I do but listen in mute attention to this heart - awakening recital ? I looked round at Lucy Anderson in lively sympathy with what I had heard. How little did her appearance give token of the deep domestic grief that must have settled upon her young heart ! How deceptive is the human countenance ! Though pale and fragile, yet her face sparkled with cheerfulness.
Miss Effie went on with her story ; — she was mistress of the art of conversation ; and conversation is sometimes a serious matter; for there are persons with whom an hour’s talk would weaken one more than a day’s fasting, — but not so with Miss Effie. She resumed by saying, —
“Would you believe that the rich family in whose service this poor washerwoman destroyed her health have never called, nor even sent, to know how she was getting on ? When she first failed to take her usual two-days’ stand at the washtub, they inquired the reason of her absence, but there all concern ended. They sought out a new drudge ; the gap was filled to their liking, and the world moved on as gayly as aforetime. They gave up no personal ease or comfort that they might see or minister to the suffering woman ; they denied themselves no luxury for her sake. Yet the money they spent in giving a single party would have kept this family for a twelvemonth. The cost of their ostentatious greenhouse would have paid for a nurse, and educated the two orphan boys until able to go to trades. They had seen these twin boys tied to the washtub in their own bleak shed, that the mother might pursue her labor without interruption ; yet as they gave no thought to the widow, so the orphans never intruded on their recreations. Now, Lizzie, such people are unprofitable servants in the sight of God. And of the ostrich were to strip off their feathers, the silkworm their dresses, the kid their gloves, and the marten demand his furs, what would be their state in the sight of man ? Bare unto nakedness ! This unlawful love for lawful things is one of the besetting snares of the great enemy of souls.”
If I had ever been addicted to repining, or had had no lessons to teach me how wrong the habit was, here was a new one to induce contentment. But I had been preserved from all such temptations. The strong good sense displayed by Miss Logan in our frequent conversations not only informed my understanding on a variety of subjects, but gave my thoughts a new turn, and powerfully encouraged me to perseverance. She infused into me new life and cheerfulness. Such women are the jewels of society. Their strong minds, regulated by a judicious education at the hands of sensible parents, become brilliant as well as trustworthy guides to all who may be fortunate enough to come within the circle which they illuminate. It is such women that have been, and must continue to be, the mothers of great men. Mind must be transmissible by inheritance, and chiefly from the mother; else the histories of statesmen, heroes, and distinguished men in the various walks of life, would not so uniformly record the virtues of the women from whose maternal teachings their eminence was to be traced.
The company of sewing-girls collected together in this school-room was of course a very miscellaneous one. The faces were changing almost daily, some by expiration of their apprenticeship, and some by being sent away as troublesome, incompetent, or vicious. All who left us had their places immediately filled from a list of candidates which the teacher had in a book, so that, while one throng of learners was departing, another was entering. If one could have gone into the domestic history of all the girls who came and went even during my short stay, he would have found some experiences to surpass anything that has ever occurred to me. I do not know how it happened, but most of these girls were quite desirous of making my acquaintance, and of their own motion became extremely sociable.
I was sociable in return, from an instinct of my nature. I never lost anything by thus meeting them halfway in the endeavor to be polite and affable, but on the contrary learned much, gained much, and secured invaluable friends. Nor did I ever repel the amicable approaches even of the most humble, as I very early discovered that none were so ignorant as not to be able to communicate some little item ot knowledge to which I had been a stranger.
There was a lady among these pupils who was in many respects very different from all the others. I think her age must have been at least thirty-five. I did not ask if it were so ; and as she never mentioned it herself, that circumstance was hint enough for me to remain silent. I never could understand why so many women are so amusingly anxious to conceal their age, sometimes becoming quite affronted when even a conjecture is hazarded on the subject. This lady was unmarried ; perhaps that may have been one reason for her unwillingness to speak of her age. But was not I unmarried, and what repugnance have I ever felt to avowing mine ?
However, Miss Hawley was extremely sociable with me, though certainly old enough to be my mother, and made me the depositary of many incidents in her life. She was the eldest of three sisters, all orphans, all unmarried, all dependent on themselves for a living and all, at one time, so absurdly proud, that, in the struggle to keep up appearances, and conceal from their acquaintances the fact that they were doing this or that thing for a maintenance, they subjected themselves to privations which embarrassed much of their efforts, while they failed to secure the concealment they sought. Though women of undoubted sense and excellent education, yet they acted as foolishly as the ostrich, which, when hunted to cover, thrusts his head into a bush, and is weak enough to think that his whole body is concealed, when it stands out not only a target, but a fixed one, for the hunter’s rifle. So these women took it for granted, that, if they ran to the cover of a chamber from which all visitors should be excluded, their acquaintances would be ignorant of how they occupied their time, or by what means they lived.
Yet they could not fail to be aware that everybody who knew anything of them knew their history also, — that it was notorious that their father, a merchant, had died not worth a cent, and that they had been compelled to abandon the fine house in which he had kept up a style so expensive as greatly to increase the hardship of their subsequent destitution. Like a thousand others, he had lived up to the limit of his income. No doubt, all of them might have been well married, but for the lavish habits as to fashion and expenditure in which they indulged themselves. These might be afforded by their father so long as his annual gains continued large. But the many worthy young men who visited and admired them refused to entertain the idea of marriage with girls whose mere personal outfit cost a sum equal to the year’s salary of a first-class clerk, or the annual profits of one who had just commenced business for himself. They held that the girl whose habits were so expensive should bring with her a fortune large enough to support them, or remain as she was, taking the sure consequences on her own shoulders, and not throwing them on theirs. They were in fact afraid of girls who manifestly had no prudence, no economy, and who appeared to be wholly unconscious that the only admiration worth securing is that of the good and wise.
But the vices of the old mode of living clung to them in their new and humbler abode, keeping them slaves to a new set of appearances. They had never done any work of consequence, hardly their own sewing. What was even worse, they had been brought up to consider work, for a lady, disgraceful. Women might work, but not ladies ; or when the latter undertook it, they ceased to be such, and certainly so, if working for a living. No pride could have been more tyrannous or absurd than this. For a whole year after their father’s death,it ruled them with despotic supremacy. They prided themselves on doing nothing, and subsisted on the sale of trinkets, jewelry, and books, which they had acquired in palmier days. The circle of acquaintances for whose good opinion they submitted to these humiliating sacrifices knew all the while that the life they were living was a sham ; but they themselves seemed wholly unconscious of it, as well as of the light in which it was regarded by those about them.
Why should such a woman come to a school like this, where a willingness to work was a condition of admission, and that work to be done in public ? What could bring about so strange a reversal of thought and habit ? One of her sisters had recently died, after a protracted illness, during which her heart had been mercifully smitten with a conviction of the hollowness and sinfulness of her previous life. Its idle, trifling, aimless tendency had been set before her in all its emptiness. She saw that she had been living without God, bound up in the love of temporal things, and so effectually ensnared by worldly pride that her whole fear had been of man, instead of her Creator. Thus in mercy called to judgment, that grace, of whose saving efficacy we have the divine assurance, brought repentance of sin, and led her to the Saviour, and, abasing herself at his cross, the heavy burden was lifted from her heart. Her condemnation of the frivolous lives that she and her sisters had been leading was so earnest and impressive, that, aided by the continual prayers of a truly contrite heart for pardon for herself and awakened consciences for them, they also were brought to Christ. This mighty transformation accomplished, her mission seemed to be fulfilled, and she passed into the unseen world in peaceful assurance of forgiveness and acceptance. Thus, though our lots are cast in places seemingly diverse and barren, each has his own specific duty to perform, some appointed mission to fulfil, though exactly what it is may not be apparent to us. As fellow-workers in the world, if we make it our chief study to do the Master’s will, that which is thus required of us will in His own time so unfold itself to our spiritual understanding that we cannot be deceived respecting it.
1 am satisfied that between the functions of life, as developed in the material and moral world, there is an analogy as instructive as it is beautiful. It overcomes external circumstances by the power of an invisible law. Philosophers have discovered that the human body maintains a uniform temperature, whether it shiver in the snow-hut of the Esquimaux, or drip with perspiration in the cane-fields of the tropics. But let life depart, and it falls to that of the surrounding objects. Decay immediately begins. So, when religious vitality is maintained in the heart, the corrupting influences of the world remain inoperative. This vitality having been infused into the heart of Miss Hawley, the fervor of her spirit rose to a higher temperature than that of all surrounding objects. She could no longer assimilate with them.
If her strong personal pride, her obsequious deference to appearances and the opinion of the world, were henceforth overcome or kept in subjection, it was only as she took up the cross in obedience to the convictions of duty. She told me it was the hardest trial of her life to come to this public school; it was the greatest cross to her natural affections she had ever experienced. But the bitterness of the cup had now measurably passed away from her. Strength came with animating promptitude as the answer to prayer. Her spiritual life became more healthy and vigorous as her approaches to the mercy-seat were humble and frequent. Cheerfulness became an ever-present attendant. She had put all pride behind her, and because of her abasement had risen above the world. Henceforth she was to support herself by her own acknowledged labor. She had been so changed by the grace of God in her heart, that she regarded with astonishment the secret insincerities she had formerly been guilty of in seeking to conceal the extent ot the necessity to which she had been reduced.
I have never seen nor heard of her since I left the school; but the remembrance of her subdued and patient spirit cannot soon be effaced.
How true it is, as some one has beautifully said, that infinite toil would not enable us to sweep away a mist, but that by ascending a little we may often look over it altogether,—and that so it is with our moral improvement ! We wrestle fiercely with vicious habits that would have no hold on us, if we ascended to a higher moral atmosphere. Another has declared that at five years of age the father begins to rub the mother out of his child ; that at ten the schoolmaster rubs out the father; that at twenty a trade or a profession rubs out the schoolmaster; that at twenty - five the world rubs out all its predecessors, and gives a new education, till we are old enough and wise enough to take religion and common sense for our pastors, when we employ the rest of our lives in unlearning what we have previously learned.
The contrast between the two ladies with whom I was thus fortunate enough to become intimately acquainted was so remarkable that it could not fail to make an impression on me. It was evident that education, the training which each had received at the parental fireside, had led them into widely divergent paths of thought and conduct. Both were possessed of sterling good sense ; both had lived in affluence; both, so for as mere school-learning was concerned, had been thoroughly educated. Had Miss Logan received the same training as Miss Hawley, it may be fairly assumed that she would have fallen a victim to the same pride and folly ; and had the latter been trained at home as carefully and as sensibly as the former, who can doubt, that, with the same substratum of good sense, she would have proved as great a comfort to herself and as shining an example to others ?
I am sure it was a lesson to me, convincing me anew, that, where faith and works do not go together, both are wanting, and that, if they once part company, each of them must die.
When, at the termination of my brief apprenticeship, the time came for me to leave the school and to part from Miss Effie, —she to go to her elegant home, I to the little old brick house in the fields, and with prospects so entirely different from hers, — I am sure it was the hardest trial I had yet been called upon to bear. I should never see her again. I had no longings for the life she led ; for as yet I had harbored no other thought than that of perfect contentment with my own. But her society was so delightful, the tone of her mind so lofty, her condescension so grateful, her whole manners so captivating, that I looked upon her as my guide, philosopher, and friend, and I cried bitterly when I left her.