THE STORY OF A SEAMSTRESS WHO LAID DOWN HER NEEDLE AND BECAME A STRAWBERRY-GIRL.
WRITTEN BY HERSELF.
I QUITTED the sewing-school on a Friday evening, intending to put my things in order the following day : for Monday was my birthday, — I should then be eighteen, and was to go with my father and select a sewing-machine.
As before mentioned, he had usually employed all his spare time in winter, when there was no garden-work to be done, in making seines for the fishermen. These were very great affairs, being used in the shad-fishery on the Delaware ; and as they were many hundred yards in length, they required a large gang of men to manage them. This employment naturally brought him an extensive acquaintance among the fishermen, by whom he was always invited to participate in their first hauling of the river, at the breaking up of winter. As he was quite as fond of this exciting labor as we had been of fishing along the ditches, he never failed to accept these invitations. He not only enjoyed the sport, but he was anxious to see how well the seines would operate which he had sat for weeks in making. In addition to this, there was the further gratification of being asked to accept of as many of the earliest shad as he could carry away in his hand. It was a perquisite which we looked for and prized as much as he did himself. This recreation was of course attended with much exposure, being always entered on in the gusty, chilly weather of the early spring.
The morning after my quitting school saw him leaving us by daybreak to go on one of these fishing-excursions, taking my brother with him. It was in April, a cold, raw, and blustering time, and they would be gone all day. I had put my little matters in order,— though there was reaily very little to do in this way, as neither my wardrobe nor chamber was crowded with superfluities,— and having decided among ourselves where the machine should stand, I sat down with my mother and sister to sew. The weather had changed to quite a snow-storm, with angry gusts of wind ; but our small sitting-room was warm and cheerful. We drew round the stove, and discussed the events of the coming week. We were to try the machine on the work which my mother and sister then had in the house, — for Jane had long since left school, and was actively employed at home. She had gone through a similar training with myself. I was to teach both mother and her the use of the machine ; and we had determined, that, as soon as Jane had become sufficiently expert as an operator, she was to obtain a situation in some establishment, and our earnings were to be saved, until, with father’s assistance, we could purchase machines for her and mother. We made up our minds that we could accomplish this within a year at farthest. Thus there was much before and around us to cheer our hearts and fill them with the brightest anticipations. It seemed to me, that, if I had been travelling in a long lane. I was now approaching a delightful turn,—for it has been said that there is none so long as to be without one.
We had dined frugally, as usual, and mother had set away an ample provision for the two absentees, who invariably came home with great appetites. Our work had been resumed around the stove, and all was calm and comfortable within the little sitting-room, though without the wind had risen higher and the snow fell faster and faster, when the door was suddenly opened, and as suddenly shut, by the wife of a neighbor, who, with hands clasped together, as if overcome by some terrible grief, rushed toward where my mother was sitting, and exclaimed,—
“ Oh, Airs. .Lacey ! how can I tell you ? ”
“What is it?” eagerly inquired my mother, starting from her seat, and casting from her the work on which she had been engaged. “What is it? Speak! What has happened ? ” she cried, wild at the woman’s apparent inability to communicate the tidings she had evidently come to relate.
Regaining her composure in some measure, the latter, covering her face with her hands, and bursting into tears, sobbed out, —
“ He’s drowned ! ”
“Oh! which of them?” shrieked my mother, wringing her hands, and every vestige of color in her cheeks supplanted by a pallor so frightful that it struck dismay to my heart.
A mysterious instinct had warned her, the moment the woman spoke the first words, that some calamity had overtaken us.
“ Which of them ? ” she repeated, with frantic impetuosity. “Is it my husband or my son ? Speak ! speak ! My heart breaks ! ”
“Your husband, Mrs. Lacey,” the woman replied ; and as if relieved from the crushing burden she had thus transferred from her own spirit to ours, she sank back exhausted into a chair.
“Oh! when, where, and how?” demanded my mother. “ Are you sure it is true ? Who brought the news ? ”
“ Your own son, Ma’am ; he sent me here to tell you,” answered the woman.
The door opened at the moment, and Fred, accompanied by several of the neighbors, entered the room. Crying as if His heart would break, he called out, —
“ Oh, mother ! it’s too true, — father is gone ! ”
I his confirmation of the withering blow broke her down. I saw that she was tottering to a fall, and threw my arms round her just in time to prevent it. We laid her on the settee, insensible to everything about her.
As the news of our great bereavement spread, the neighbors crowded in, offering their sympathy and aid. It was very kind of them, but, alas ! could do nothing towards lightening its weight. The story of how my dear father came to his untimely end was at length related to us. He had gone out upon the river in a boat from which a seine was being cast, and by accident, no one could tell exactly how, had fallen overboard. Being no swimmer, and the water of icy coldness, he sank immediately, without again coming to the surface. Strong arms were waiting to seize him, upon rising, but the deep had closed over him.
I know not how it was, but the prostration of my poor mother seemed to give me new strength to bear up under this terrible affliction. Oh ! that was a sad evening for us, and the birthday to which all had looked forward with so much pleasure as the happiest of my life was to be the saddest. Morning — it was Sunday — brought comparative calmness to my mother. But she was broken down by the awful suddenness of the blow. She wept over the thought that he had died without her being near him, — that there had been no opportunity for parting words, — that she was not able to close his dying eyes. She could have borne it better, if she had been permitted to speak to him, to hear him say farewell, before death shut out the world from his view. Then there was the painful anxiety as to recovering the body. It had sunk in deep water, in the middle of the river, and it was uncertain how far the strong current might have swept it away from the spot where the accident occurred. The neighbors had already begun to search for it with drags, and all through that gloomy Sunday had continued their labor without success ; for they were not watermen, and therefore knew little of the proper methods of procedure.
Days passed away in this distressing uncertainty. Our pastor, Mr. Seeley, missing Fred and Jane from Sundayschool, as well as myself from the charge of my class, and learning the cause of our absence, came down to see us. His consolations to my mother, his sympathy, his prayers, revived and strengthened her. Finding that her immediate anxiety was about the recovery of the body, he told her that the bodies of drowned persons were seldom found without a reward being offered for them, and that one must be promised in the present case. This suggestion brought up the question of payment, and for the first time in our affliction it was recollected that my father had always persisted in carrying in his pocket-wallet all the money he had saved, and thus whatever he might have accumulated was with him at the time of his death. Following, nevertheless, the advice of our excellent pastor, a reward of fifty dollars was advertised, and just one week from the fatal day the body was brought to our now desolated home. But the wallet, with its contents, had been abstracted. The little fund my mother had always managed to keep on hand was too small to meet this heavy draft of the reward in addition to that occasioned by the funeral, so that, when that sad ceremony was over, we found ourselves beginning the world that now opened on us incumbered with a debt of fifty dollars.
But though borne down by the weight of our affliction, we were far from being hopelessly discouraged. It is true that my young hopes had been suddenly blasted. The bright pictures of the future which we had painted in our little sitting-room the very morning of the day that our calamity overtook us had all faded from sight, and were remembered only in contrast with the dark shadows that now filled their places. The cup, brimming with joyous anticipations, had been dashed from my lips. My birthday passed in sorrow and gloom. But I roused myself from a torpor which would have been likely to increase by giving way to it, and put on all the energy of which I was capable. I felt, that, while I had griefs for the dead, I had duties to perform to the living. The staff on which we had mainly leaned for support had been taken away, and we were now left to depend exclusively on our own exertions. I saw that the condition of my mother devolved the chief burden on me, and I determined that I would resolutely assume it.
I had Fred immediately apprenticed to an iron-founder in the neighborhood; and thenceforward, by his weekly allowance for board, he became a contributor to the common support. My knowledge of the sewing-machine secured for me a situation in a large establishment, in which more than thirty other girls were employed in making bosoms, wristbands, and collars for shirts ; and I gradually recovered from what at first was the bitter disappointment of having no machine of my own.
I have seen it stated in the newspaper, that, when some cotton had been imported into a certain manufacturing town in England, where all the mills had long been closed for want of a supply from this country, the people, who were previously in the greatest distress, went out to meet it as it was approaching the town, and the women Wept over the bales, and kissed them, and then sang a hymn of thanksgiving for the welcome importation. It would give them work ! It was with a feeling akin to this that I took my position in the great establishment referred to, having also succeeded in obtaining a situation for my sister, whom I instructed in the use of the machine until she became as expert an operator as myself.
The certainty of employment, even at moderate wages, relieved my mind of many domestic cares, while the employment itself was a further relief. It was, moreover, infinitely more agreeable than working for the slop-shops, or even for the most fashionable tailors. Our duties were defined and simple, and there was no unreasonable hurry, and no night-work : we had our evenings to ourselves. As usual with sewing-women, the pay was invariably small. The old formula had been adhered to, — that because the cost of a sewing-woman’s board was but trifling, therefore her wages should be graduated to a figure just above it. She was not permitted, as men are, to earn too much. My sister and I were sometimes able to earn eight dollars a week between us, sometimes only six. But this little income was the stay of the family. And it was well enough, so long as we had no sickness to interrupt our work and lessen the moderate sum.
They paid off the girls by gas-light on Saturday evening. As we had a long walk to reach home, the streets through which we passed presented, on that evening, an animated appearance. A vast concourse of work-women, laborers, mechanics, clerks, and others, who had also received their weekly wages, thronged the streets. There were crowds of girls from the binderies, mostly well dressed, and sewingwomen carrying great bundles to the tailors, many of them, without doubt, uncertain as to whether their work would be accepted, just as we had been in former days. As the evening advanced, the shops of all descriptions for the supply of family - stores were crowded by the wives of workmen thus paid off, and the sewing-girls or their mothers, all purchasing necessaries for the coming week, thus immediately disbursing the vast aggregate paid out on Saturday for wages.
The quickness with which I secured employment on the sewing-machine, because of my having qualified myself to operate it, was a new confirmation of my idea that women are engaged in so few occupations only because they have not been taught. Employers want skilful workers, not novices to whom they are compelled to teach everything. But what was to be the ultimate effect on female labor of the introduction of this machine had been a doubtful question with me until now. I worked so steadily in this establishment, the occupation was so constant, as well as so light, with far more bodily exercise than formerly when sitting in one position over the needle, and the wages were paid so punctually, with no mean attempts to cut us down on the false plea of imperfect work, that I came insensibly to the conclusion that a vast benefit had been conferred on the sex by its introduction. Yet the apprehensions felt by all sewing-women, when the new instrument was first brought out, were perfectly natural. I have read that similar apprehensions were entertained by others on similar occasions. When the lace - machines were first introduced in Nottingham, they were destroyed by riotous mobs of hand-loom weavers, who feared the ruin of their business. But where, fifty years ago, there were but a hundred and forty lace-machines in use in England, there are now thirty-five hundred, while the price of lace has fallen from a hundred shillings the square yard to sixpence. Before this lace-machinery was invented, England manufactured only two million dollars’ worth per annum, and in doing so employed only eight thousand hands ; whereas now she produces thirty million dollars’ worth annually, and employs a hundred and thirty thousand hands. It has been the same with power-looms, reapers, threshingmachines, and every other contrivance to economize human labor. I am sure that my brother would be thrown out of employment, if there were no steamengine to operate the foundry where he is at work, and that, if there were no sewing-machines, my sister and myself would be compelled to join the less fortunate army of seamstresses who still labor so unrequitedly for the slop-shops.
To satisfy my mind on this subject, I have looked into such books as I have had time and opportunity to consult, and have found evidence of the fact, that, the more we increase our facilities for performing work with speed and cheapness, the more we shall have to do, and so the more hands will be required to do it. The time was when it was considered so great an undertaking for a man to farm a hundred acres, that very few persons were found cultivating a larger tract. But now, with every farming process facilitated by the use of labor-saving machines, there are farms of ten thousand acres better managed than were formerly those of only a hundred acres. There would be no penny paper brought daily to our door, unless the same wonderful revolution had been made in all the processes of the paper-mill, and in the speed of printing-presses. If I had doubted what was to be the consequence of bringing machinery into competition with the sewing-women, it was owing to my utter ignorance of how other great revolutions had affected the labor of different classes of workers.
This doubt thus satisfactorily resolved, it very soon became with me a question for profound wonder, what became of the immensely increased quantity of clothing which was manufactured by so many thousands of machines. I could not learn that our population had suddenly increased to an extent sufficient to account for the enlarged consumption that was evidently taking place. I had heard that there were nations of savages who considered shirts a sort of superfluity, and who moved about in very much the same costume as that in which our primal mother clothed herself just previously to indulging in the forbidden fruit. But they could not have thus suddenly taken to the wearing of machine-made shirts. There was a paragraph also in our paper which stated that the usual dress in hot weather, in some parts of our own South, was only a hat and spurs. This, however, I regarded as a piece of raillery, and was not inclined to place much faith in it. But I had never heard that any other portion of our people were in the habit of going without shirts or pantaloons. If such had been the practice, and if it had on the instant been renounced, it would have accounted for the sudden and unprecedented demand which now sprang up for these indispensable articles of dress. Or if the fashion had so changed that men had taken to wearing two shirts instead of one, that also might account for it, — though the wearing of two would be considered as great an eccentricity as the wearing of none.
I found that others with whom I conversed on the subject were equally surprised with myself. Even some who were concerned in carrying on the establishment in which we were employed could not account for the immediate absorption of the vastly increased quantities of work that were turned out. Few could tell exactly why more was wanted than formerly, nor where it went. The only fact apparent was that there was a demand for thrice as much as before sewing-machines were brought into use. My own conclusion was eventually this, — that distant sections of our country were supplied exclusively from these manufactories in the great cities, which combined capital, energy, and enterprise in the creation of an immense business. Yet I could not understand why people in those distant sections did not establish manufactories of their own. They had quite as much capital, and could procure machines as readily, while the population to be supplied was immediately at their doors.
I had always heard that the South and West had never at any time manufactured their own clothing. I knew that the Southern women, particularly, were so ignorant and helpless that they had always been dependent on the North for almost everything they wore, from the most elaborate bonnet down to a pocket pin-cushion, and that the supplying of their wardrobes, by the men - milliners of this section, was a highly lucrative employment. As it is a difficult matter to divert any business from a channel in which it has long flowed, I concluded that our Northern dealers, having always commanded these distant markets, would easily retain them by adapting their business to the change of circumstances. They had the trade already, and could keep it flowing in its old channels by promptly availing themselves of the new invention.
They did so without hesitation, — indeed, the great struggle was as to who should be first to do it,— and not only kept their business, but obtained for it an unprecedented increase. In doing this they must have displaced thousands of sewing-women all over the country, as their cheaper fabrics enabled them to undersell the latter everywhere. I know that this was the first effect here, and it is difficult to understand how in other places it should have been otherwise. These sewing-women must have been deprived of work, or the consumers of clothing must have immediately begun to purchase and wear double or treble as much as they had been accustomed to. I do not doubt that the consumption increased from the mere fact of increased cheapness. I believe it is an invariable law of trade, that consumption increases as price diminishes. If silks were to fall to a shilling a yard, everybody would turn away from cotton shirts. As it was, shirts were made without collars, and the collars were produced in great manufactories by steam. They were made by millions, and by millions they were consumed. They were sold in boxes of a dozen or a hundred, at two or three cents apiece, according to the wants of the buyer. He could appear once or twice a day in all the glory of an apparently clean shirt, according to his ambition to shine in a character which might be a very new one. Judging by the consumption of these conveniences, it would seem, that, if one had only a clean collar to display, it was of little consequence whether he had a shirt or not.
To digress a moment, I will observe, that, when I first saw these ingenious contrivances to escape the washerwoman’s bill, as well as the cuffs made by the same process for ladies’ use, they both struck me so favorably, while their cheapness was so surprising, that my curiosity was inflamed to see and know how they were made. In company with my sister, I visited the manufactory. It was in a large building, and employed many hands, who operated with machinery that exceeds my ability to describe. They took a whole piece of thin, cheap muslin, to each side of which they pasted a covering of the finest white paper by passing the three layers between iron rollers. The paper and muslin were in rolls many hundred feet long. The beautiful product of this union was then parted into strips of the proper width and dried, then passed through hot metal rollers, combining friction with pressure, whence it was delivered with a smooth, glossy, enamelled surface. The material for many thousand collars was thus enamelled in five minutes. It was then cut by knives into the different shapes and sizes required, and so rapidly that a man and boy could make more than ten thousand in an hour. Every collar was then put through a machine which printed upon it imitation stitches, so exactly resembling the best work of a sewing-machine as to induce the belief that the collar was actually stitched. Two girls were working or attending two of these machines, and the two produced nearly a hundred collars per minute, or about sixty thousand daily. The button-holes were next punched with even greater rapidity, then the collar was turned over so nicely that no break occurred in the material. Then they were counted and put in boxes, anti were ready for market.
Besides these shirt-collars, there was a great variety of ladies’ worked cuffs and collars, adapted to every taste, and imitating the finest linen with the nicest exactness, but all made of paper. Some hundreds of thousands of these were piled up around, ready for counting and packing, sufficient, it appeared to me, to supply our whole population for a twelvemonth. They were sold so cheaply, also, that it cost no more to buy a new collar than to wash an old one. Like frictionmatches, they were used only once and then thrown away ; hence, the consumption being perpetual, the production was continuous the year round.
I inquired of the proprietor how he accounted for the immense consumption of these articles, without which the world had been getting on comfortably for so many thousand years.
“Why,” said he, “we have been fortunate enough to create a new want. Perhaps we did not really create the want, but only discovered that an unsatisfied one existed. It is all the same in either case. Any great convenience or luxury, heretofore unknown to the public, when fairly set before them is sure to come into general use. It has been so, in my experience, with many things that were not thought of twenty years ago. I have been as much puzzled to account for the unlimited consumption of cuffs and collars as you are to know why so much more clothing is used now than before sewing-machines came into operation. But the increased cheapness of a thing, whether old or new, and the convenience of getting it, are the great stimulants to enlarged consumption, — and as these conditions are present, so will be the latter.”
“ But when you began this business, did you expect to sell so many ? ” I inquired.
“We did not,” he replied, “and are ourselves surprised at the quantity we sell. Besides, there are several other factories, which produce greater numbers than we do. But when I reflect on the extent to which the business has already gone, I find the facts to be only in keeping with results in other cases. I have thought and read much on the very subject which so greatly interests you. Some years ago I was puzzled to account for the immensely increased circulation of newspapers, — rising, in some instances, from one thousand up to forty thousand. I knew that our population had not grown at one tenth that rate, yet the circulation went on extending. One day I asked a country postmaster how he accounted for it. ‘ Why,’ he replied, ‘ the question is easily answered ; — where a man formerly took only one paper, he now takes seven. Cheap postage, and the establishment of news-agents all over the country, enable the people to get papers at less cost and with only half the trouble of twenty years ago. The power of production is complete, and the machinery of distribution has kept pace with it. The people don't actually need the papers any more now than they did then, but the convenience of having them brought to their doors induces them to buy six or seven where they formerly bought only one. That’s the way it happens.’ ”
“ Then,” continued my polite and communicative informant, “look at the article of pins. You ladies, who use so many more than our sex, have never been able to tell what becomes of them. You know that of late years you have been using the American solid-head pins, which were produced so cheaply as immediately to supersede the foreign article. Now,” said he, with a smile, “ don't you think you use up six pins where you formerly used only one ? Careful people, twenty years ago, when they saw one on the pavement, or on the parlor-floor, stopped and picked it up ; but now they pass it by, or sweep it into the dust-pan. Is it not so, and have not careful people ceased to exist ? ”
I confess that the illustration was so full of point that some indistinct conviction of its truth came over me ; it was really my own experience.
“So you see,” he continued, “that, while of all these new and cheaply manufactured articles there is a vast consumption, there is also a vast waste. People — that is, prudent people — generally take care of things according to their cost. You don’t wear your best bonnet in the rain. It is precisely so with our cuffs and collars. We sell them so cheaply that some people wear three or four a day, while a careful person would make one suffice. When the collar was attached to the shirt, it served for a much longer time ; what but cheapness and convenience can tempt to such wastefulness now ? My family, at least the female portion, use these articles about as extravagantly, and I think your whole sex must be equally fond of indulging in the same lavish use of them, — otherwise the consumption could not be so great as you see it is.”
I could not but inwardly plead guilty to this weakness of indulging in clean cuffs and collars, — neither could I fail to recognize the soundness of this reasoning, which must have grown out of superior knowledge. It gave me new light, and settled a great many doubts.
“ I suppose, Miss,” he resumed, as if unwilling to leave anything unexplained, “ you use friction - matches at home ? Now you know how cheap they are, two boxes for a cent. But I remember when one box sold for twenty-five cents. People were then careful how they used them, and it was not everybody who could afford to do so. The flint and tinder-box were long in going out of use. But how is it now? Instead of one match serving to light a cigar, the smokers use two or three. They waste them because they are cheap, carrying them loose in their pockets, that they may always have enough, with some to throw away.
“Take the article of hoop-skirts. Women did very well without them, and looked quite as well, at least in my opinion. But some ingenious man conceived the idea of tempting them with a new want, and they were at once persuaded into believing that hoop-skirts were indispensable to a genteel appearance. They were adopted all over the country with a rapidity that outstripped that of the cuffs and collars, — not, perhaps, that as many were manufactured, because, if that had been the case, they could not have been consumed, unless each woman had worn two or three. And they may in fact wear two or three each, — I don’t know how that is, — but look at the waste already visible. Every week or two, new patterns are brought out, better, lighter, or prettier than the last; whereupon the old ones are thrown aside, though not half worn. Why, Miss, do you know that your sex are carrying about them some thousands of tons of brass and steel in the shape of these skirts ? As to the waste, it is already so large as to have become a public nuisance. An old hat or shoe maybe given away to somebody, — an old scrubbing-brush may be disposed of by putting it into the stove ; but as to an old skirt, who wants it ? You cannot burn it; the very beggars will not take it; and hence it is thrown into the street, or into the alley close to your door, where it continues for months to trip up the feet of every wayfaring man quite as provokingly as it sometimes tripped up those of the wearer. It is the waste of hoop-skirts, as much as anything else, that keeps the manufacture so brisk.
“ Then, again,” he continued, as if expanded by the skirts he had just been speaking of, “look at the long dresses which the ladies now wear. See how the most costly scuffs are dragging over the pavement, sweeping up the filth with which it is covered. To speak of the foul condition into which such draggletailed dresses must soon get is positively sickening. If a dozen of them were thrown into a closet and left there for a few hours, I have no doubt they would burn of spontaneous combustion.”
I was half inclined to take fire myself at hearing this, but remained silent, and he proceeded.
“ See, too, what a constant fidget the wearers are in, under the incumbrance of a dress so foolishly long as to require the use of both hands to keep it at a cleanly elevation. I presume the ladies wear these ridiculous trains because they think they look more graceful in them. But do you know. Miss, that our sex feel the most profound contempt for a woman who is so weak as to make such an exhibition of folly ? It might do for great people, at a great party, — but in dirty, sloppy, muddy streets, by servant-girls as well as by fashionable women, it is considered not only indecent, but as evincing a want of common sense. Moreover, the quantity of material destroyed by thus dragging over the pavement is very great. It must amount to thousands of yards annually, and it appears to me that the more it costs per yard, the more of it is devoted to street-sweeping. Here is wastefulness by wholesale.”
“ But do you think the same remarks apply to the case of the greatly increased amount of clothing that is now manufactured by the sewing-machines ? ” I inquired.
“ Certainly, Miss,” he responded. “ There are not a great many more people in this country now to he clothed than there were three years ago ; yet at least three times as much clothing is manufactured. The question is as to how it is consumed. I do not suppose that men wear two coats or shirts, or that any ever went without them. But the increased cheapness has led to increased waste, exactly as in the case of pins and matches. Clothing being obtainable at lower prices than were ever known before in this country, it is purchased in unnecessary quantities, just like the newspapers, and not taken care of. Thousands of men now have two or three coats where they formerly had only one. It is these extra outfits, and this continual waste, that keep up the production at which you are so much astonished. The facts afford you another illustration of the great law of supply and demand,—that as you cheapen and multiply products or manufactures of any kind, so will the consumption of them increase. If pound-cake could be had at the price of corn-bread, does it not strike you that the community would consume little else ? The cry for pound-cake would be universal,— it would be, in fact, in everybody’s mouth.”
“ But,” I again inquired, “ will this extraordinary demand for the products of the sewing-machine continue? I have told you that I am a sewing-girl, and hence feel a deep interest in learning all I can upon the subject.”
“ Judging from appearances, it must,” was his reply. “ We are the most extravagant people in the world. We consume, per head, more coffee, tea, and sugar, jewelry, silks, and cotton, than the people of any other country on the face of the earth. Our women wear more satins and laces, and our men smoke more high-priced cigars, than those of any other part of the world. They eat more meat, drink more liquor, and spend more in trifles. And it is not likely that they contemplate any reformation of these lavish habits, at least while wages keep up to the present rates. Were it proposed, I think that coats and shirts would be about the last things the men would begin with, and paper cuffs and collars among the last the women would repudiate. They are fond enough of changing their clothes, but have no idea of doing without them.”
“ I notice,” I observed, “that you employ girls in your establishment, several being occupied in feeding the stampingrollers. Could a man feed those rollers more efficiently than a girl ? or would they turn out more work in a week, if attended by a man than by a girl ? ”
“ Not any more,” he answered.
“ Do the girls receive as much wages as the men ? ” I added.
“About one third as much,” he replied.
“ But,” I suggested, “if they perform as much work as men could, why do you pay them so much less ? ”
“Competition, Miss,” he answered. “ There is a constant pressure on us from girls seeking employment, and this keeps down wages. Besides, those whom we do employ come here wholly ignorant of what they are required to do. Some have never worked a day in their lives. It requires time to teach them, and while being taught they spoil a great deal of material. It is a long time before they become really skilled hands. You can have no conception of the kind of help that offers itself to us every week. Parents don’t seem to educate their daughters to anything useful; and our girls nowadays appear to have little or nothing to do in-doors. Formerly they had plenty of household duties, as a multitude of things were done at home which even the poorest old woman never thinks of doing now. The baker now makes their bread ; the spinning, the weaving, the knitting, and sewing are taken out of their hands by machinery ; and if women want work, they must go out and seek it, just as those do who apply to us. Machinery has undoubtedly effected a great revolution in all home-employments for women, compelling many to be idle ; and not being properly encouraged to adopt new employments in place of the old ones, they remain idle until forced to work for bread, and then go out in search of occupation, knowing no more of one half the things we want them to do than mere children.”
“ But when they become skilled,” I again asked, “you do not pay them as high wages as you pay the men, though they do as much and as well ? ”
“ Women don’t need as much,” he replied. “ They can live on less, they pay less board, have fewer wants, and less occasion for money.”
“ But don’t you think,” I rejoined, “ that, if you gave them the money, they would find the wants, and that the scarcity of the former is the true reason for the limitation of the latter? Do not working-women live on the little they get only because they are compelled to ? ”
“ It may be so,” he answered. “Our wants are born with us,—and as one set is supplied, another rises up to demand gratification. But they offer to work for these wages, and why should we give them more than they ask ? ”
“ But how is it with the women with families, the widows ? ” I suggested. “ Have they no more wants than young girls ? If the fewer necessities of the girls be a reason for giving them low wages, why should not the more numerous ones of the widows be as potent a reason for giving them better wages ? ”
“ Competition again, Miss,” he responded. “ The prices at which the girls work govern the market.”
There was no getting over facts like these. Let me look at the subject in whatever aspect I might, it seemed impossible that female labor should be adequately paid by any class of employers. But on the present occasion this was an incidental question. The primary one, why so much more sewing was required for the people now than formerly, was answered measurably to my satisfaction. I thought a great deal on this subject, because now, since the loss of our main family-dependence, I was more interested in its solution. I think I settled down into accepting the foregoing facts and opinions as embodying a satisfactory explanation ; and although not exactly set at ease, yet the conclusion then embraced has not been changed by any subsequent discovery.
The gentleman referred to may have been altogether wrong in some parts of his argument, but I was too little versed in matters of trade, and the laws of supply and demand, to show wherein he was so. It seemed to me a strange argument, that the consumption of things was to be so largely attributed to wastefulness. But I suppose this must be what people call political economy, and how should I be expected to know anything of that ? I knew that in our little family the utmost economy was practised. I have turned or fixed up the same bonnet as many as four times, putting on new trimmings at very little expense, and making it look so different every time that none suspected it of being the old bonnet altered, while many of my acquaintances admired it as a new one, some of them even inquiring what it cost, and who was the milliner that made it. We never thought of giving one away until it had gone through many such transformations, nor, in tact, until it was actually used up, at least for me. Even when mine had seen such long and severe service, my sister Jane fell heir to it, though without knowing it, — for she had more pride than myself, and was much more particular about her good looks. Hence, when the thing was at all feasible, my veteran bonnet was transformed, in private, into a very fair new one for her. She had been familiar with my head-gear for so many years that I often wondered how she failed to detect the disguises I put upon it; and I had as much as I could do to keep from laughing, when I brought to her what we invariably called her new bonnet. As she grew older, she became more exacting in her tastes, and at the same time foolishly suspicious of the mysterious origin of her new bonnets,—just as it they were any worse for my having worn them for years ! I presume her mortification will be extreme, when she comes to read this. As to old clothes, they were nursed up quite as carefully, though Jane had her full inheritance of both mine and mother’s. When entirely past service, they were cut up into carpet-rags, from which we obtained the warmest covering for our floors. Thus practising no wastefulness ourselves, it was difficult to understand how the national wastefulness could be great enough to insure the prosperity of a multitude of extensive manufacturing establishments. But our premises were very humble ones from which to start an argument of any description.
Yet, when the attention of an inquiring mind is directed toward any given subject, it is astonishing how, if only a little observation is practised, it will unfold and expand itself. In my walks to and from the factory there lay numerous open lots or commons, all of which afforded abundant evidence of the extent to which this public wastefulness was carried. Heretofore I had passed on without noticing much about them. But now I observed that they were heaped up with great piles of coal-ashes, from which cropped out large quantities of the unburnt mineral, as black and shining as when it came from the mines. There were thousands of loads of this residuum, in which many hundred tons of pure coal must have been thus wastefully thrown away. In other parts of the city the same evidence of carelessness existed, so that the waste of a single city in the one article of coal must be enormous. Then, over these commons were scattered, almost daily, the remains of clothing, old hats, bonnets, and the indestructible hoop-skirts, of which the collar - maker had complained as being in everybody’s way, as much so when out of use as when in. Somebody had been guilty of wastefulness in thus casting these things away. But though losses to some, they were gains to others. By early daylight the rag-pickers came in platoons to gather up all these waifs. The hats, the bonnets, and the clothing were quickly appropriated by women and children who had come out of the narrow courts and hovels of the city in search of what they knew was an every-day harvest. These small gatherings of the rag-pickers amounted to hundreds of dollars daily. Then there was another class of searchers after abandoned treasure, in the persons of other women and children, who, with pronged or pointed sticks, worked their way into the piles of ashes, and picked out basketfuls of coal as heavy as they could carry, and in this laborious way provided themselves with summer and winter fuel.
There was living near us a man who made a business of gathering up the offal of several hundred kitchens in the city, as food for pigs. I know that he grew rich at this vocation. He lived in a much better house than ours, and his wife and daughters dressed as expensively as the wealthiest women. They had a piano, and music in abundance. He had several carts which were sent on their daily rounds through the city, collecting the kitchen-waste of boarding-houses, hotels, and private families. The quantity of good, wholesome food which these carts brought away to be fed to pigs was incredible. It was a common thing to see whole loaves of bread taken out of the family swill-tub, with joints of meat not half eaten, sound vegetables, and fragments of other food, as palatable and valuable as the portion that had been consumed on the table. It seemed as if there were hundreds of families who made it a point never to have food served up a second time. The waste by this thriftlessness was great. I doubt not that some men must have been kept poor by such want of proper oversight on the part of their wives, as I know that it enriched the individual who gathered up the fat crumbs which fell from their tables. I think it must be quite true that “fat kitchens make lean wills.”
These slight incidental confirmations of the theory of national wastefulness came under my daily notice. I had heretofore overlooked them, but now they attracted my attention. Then I had only to direct my eye to other and higher fields of observation to be sure that it had some foundation. The streets, the shop-windows, were eloquent witnesses for it. The waste of clothing material consequent on the introduction of hoop-skirts was seen to be prodigious. It was not only the poor thin body that was now to be covered with finery, but the huge balloon in which fashion required that that body should be enveloped. I thought, now that the subject was one for study, that I could see it running through almost everything.
This wastefulness, then, was to be the ground on which the sewing-woman was to rest her hopes of continued employment. It might be good holding-ground in times of high general prosperity, when money was abundant and circulation active ; but how would it be when reverses of any kind overtook the nation ? As extravagance was the rule now, it occurred to me that so would a stringent economy be the rule then. The old hats that were usually thrown away upon the commons would be rejuvenated and worn again, — the parsimony of one crisis seeking to make up for the wastefulness of another; for when a sharp turn of hard times comes round, everybody takes to economizing. There are older heads and more observant minds than my own, that must remember how these things have worked in bygone years. These have had the experience of a whole lifetime to enable them to judge: I was a mere inquirer on the threshold of a very brief one.
Our employment at the factory kept us comfortable. In time we were able to earn something more than when we began. Our good pastor had lent us the money with which to pay the reward for recovering my dear father’s body; and as my mother had a great dread of being in debt, we had practised a most rigid economy at home in order to save enough to repay him. This we did, a few dollars at a time, until we had finally paid the whole. Though he frequently came down to see my mother in her loneliness, yet he never alluded to the matter of the loan, and actually declined taking any part of it until it was almost forced
upon him. He even offered, on one occasion, to increase the loan to any extent that my mother might think necessary for her comfort, and in various ways manifested a strong disposition to do everything for us that he could. We had all been favorite pupils in his Sunday school, where I had soon been promoted to the position of a teacher. Finding, also, that we were fond of reading, he had lent us books from his own library, and even invited me to come and select for myself. I sometimes accepted these invitations, and occasionally chose books on subjects that seemed to surprise him very much. But, after all, are not a few books well chosen better than a great library?
The lending of the money at the time we were in so much distress was of inexpressible value to us. But as everyday life is a leaf in one’s history, so was this pecuniary experience in ours. I had innocently supposed that the chief value of money was to supply one’s own wants, but I now learned that its highest capacity for good lay in its power of ministering to the necessities of others. I have read that in prosperity it is the easiest thing to find a friend, but that in adversity it is of all things the most difficult. I know that in trouble we often come off better than we expect, and always better than we deserve. But men of the noblest dispositions are apt to consider themselves happiest when others share their happiness with them. Our pastor lent us this little sum of money at a time when it was of the utmost value to us ; but it was done in a way so hearty, and so unobtrusive, as to add immeasurably to the obligation. Indeed, I sometimes think that a pecuniary favor which is granted grudgingly is no favor at all.
Still, while at work in the factory, there were many things to think of, and some inconveniences to submit to. The long walks to it were unpleasant in stormy weather, and occasionally we were compelled to lose a day or two from this cause. But then the out-door exercise in fine weather was beneficial to health, and we were spared the public mortification of carrying great bundles of made-up clothing through the streets : for, let a sewing-girl feel as independent as she may, she does not covet the being everywhere known as belonging to that class of workers. Her bundle is the badge of her profession. My sister had a great deal of pride on this point. She was extremely nice about her looks. There was a neat jauntiness in her appearance, of which she seemed to be fully conscious ; and as she grew up to womanhood, I think it became more apparent in all her actions. She was really a very attractive girl, — certainly so to me, — and she must have been more so to the other sex, as I noticed that the men about the establishment were more courteous to her than they were to me. Even our employer treated her with a deferential politeness that he did not extend to others, and when paying us our wages, always had a complimentary remark for Jane, as if seeking to win the good opinion of one who seemed to be a general favorite.
But I confess that during all the time we were working in the factory I sighed for the possession of a machine of my own, so that I could be more at home with my mother in her loneliness : for when we left her in the morning we carried our dinners with us, leaving her to her own thoughts during the whole day. The grief at my father’s loss had by no means been overcome, for with all of us it was something more than the shadow of a passing cloud. Personally, I cared nothing for the carrying of a bundle through the streets, even though it made proclamation of my being a sewing-girl. Then as to exercise or recreation, I could have abundance in the garden. As it was, I still continued to see it kept in order. Fred was very good in doing all I wanted. He would rise early before breakfast, and do any digging it required, and in the evening, after returning from the foundry, would attend to many other things about it as they needed. I was equally industrious ; and now that it was wholly left for me to see to, my fondness for it increased, while I came to understand its management more thoroughly than when my father was sole director. The more I had to do, the more I learned. Then there were times when I rose in the morning feeling so poorly that it was a tax upon both spirits and strength to tramp the long distance to the factory; yet it would have been no hardship to work at a machine at home, or to do an hour’s gardening. I think my earnings could have been made quite as large as they were at the factory, as the owner of a machine generally received a little more pay than when working on one belonging to her employer; and I felt quite sure that there would be no difficulty in obtaining abundance of work. My doubts on this point had been pretty well settled.
But we had no hundred and thirty or forty dollars to lay out for a machine now, and there was no prospect of our being able to save enough to purchase one. Hence I never even hinted to my mother what my wishes were, as it would only be to her a fresh anxiety. I did mention the subject to my sister, but she did not seem to favor my plans. She was a great favorite at the factory, and why should not the factory be as great a favorite with her? I have no doubt that our pastor, who was as wealthy as he was generous and good, would have promptly loaned us, or even me, the money; but he had heard nothing of the fact that my father’s sudden death had alone prevented my obtaining a machine, nor during his frequent visits to our house did we ever mention what we had then expected or what I now so much desired. Besides, it would be a great debt, so large that I should have hesitated about incurring it. We had been a long while in getting clear of the other, and the apparent hopelessness of discharing one nearly three times as great, and that, too, from my individual earnings, was such, that in the end I concluded it would be better for me to avoid the debt by doing without the machine, than to have it only on condition of buying it on credit.