Studies of Factory Life: Among the Women

This is part two in a four-part series. Read  part one here, part three here,
and part four here.

Mr. Edward Atkinson says that there are two things “very much needed in these days,” and the first is “for rich men to find out how poor men live.” The individual manufacturer can do little to ameliorate or alter the workings of the present industrial system, but if each were to do that which he can, the aggregate effort would greatly ameliorate and alter the system. If manufacturers possessed an intimate knowledge of the daily experience of their operatives, it would waken a sympathy which must constrain them to do all they could to benefit them, and to try constantly to find methods in which to do more. By way of promoting this intimate acquaintance, it has seemed to me well to make the effort to approach as closely as possible to the daily existence of the operatives, and to describe their homes in this paper. There are some results of tenement ownership by the manufacturers which, while they affect the material fortunes of the male operatives, also influence very decidedly the conditions in which the stream of ordinary life moves for the women and children. When a whole village or a large portion of it belongs to one man or to one company, whose function of landlordism is only accessory to another business, it is true that sanitary regulations may be enforced on a wholesale scale; but in addition it is unfortunately true that the large and varied demands of the whole business occasionally make sanitary neglect quite possible, and cause unsavory corners to be overlooked. No moral excuse can be made for such carelessness, but it is probable that the women and children are at least as secure from the dangers arising from such neglect as they would be if the houses were owned by many different landlords, who would not act in concert as to such matters. The village institution as at present administered, and perhaps inevitably, renders removal from town to town so easy as to foster a nomadic spirit which is inimical to domestic thrift; still, it affords a probability of shelter in any place to which an operative family wish to go, actuated by the hope of getting easier work or better pay, and this feature of the system must often be a decided comfort to anxious souls and weary bodies. If a family has in it members who can work, it is pretty sure of being able to obtain in any village a dwelling within convenient distance of the mill in which they are to be employed. This probability, so cheering to those who need the home, must be held to offset, in a measure, the pain which, as has been intimated in a former paper, is sometimes caused when a family which is no longer able to contribute to the factory service is obliged to vacate in favor of new-comers, and to seek some less loved or more expensive residence. The mill tenements are cheap. No land-lords except the mill proprietors would maintain the rents at such a low rate. They do it, not, it is to be feared, from motives of humanity, but because it is to their interest to attract a population which can furnish them workers; and they are the more able to afford it, because they are certain of being paid out of the wages of their help. Each mill-owner wants his property together, so that the oversight of it all may be easier; and he also desires to have his tenements, if possible, nearer to his own factory than any other, in order that stray members of the force will not be likely to seek less convenient employment. Such proximity of dwelling and working places could hardly be secured by any other system at all harmonious with the general institutions of property and business that distinguish the society of this age.

The land near the mills is now so valuable that the workers can, unfortunately, seldom be householders. Or if they did come into possession, they would probably soon become landlords themselves, using their property to bring in to them a money income. All owners except the manufacturers would lack alike the security as to payment of house-dues, and the motive for trying to accommodate the operative class as tenants. Rents would be raised, and the mill families driven to seek homes in the distant suburbs. The land now occupied for tenements would probably be diverted largely to business purposes, and this would accelerate the removal of the factory population to habitations less convenient for their use than their present ones.

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It is of some importance to a fourteen-year-old girl, as she trembles on the verge of womanhood, whether she must walk a mile or only a few rods, before half past six in the bitter-cold mornings of winter, as she goes every day to her labors. It concerns her, moreover, somewhat that her often too scanty wages shall not be worn away in paying carfare, when the distance is such that she cannot walk it, or the cold is too fearful for prolonged exposure. The weary mother, also, who has housework as well as millwork to do, is glad that she needs not to consume much of her time in going from one scene of labor to another. The women who inhabit factory tenements, while they may have troublesome neighbors, or even drunken ones, are reasonably safe from the danger of having to live in any house in which liquor is sold. So much alleviation to their lot is secured by this dubious system of tenement ownership by the manufacturers.

A long acquaintance with factory-village life has brought to my knowledge some incidents and phases of experience among the women, which I propose to relate in order to illustrate their condition. They will not all be found to bear directly on what is called the labor question, but they go to show how the people live and feel, out of whose needs and wishes, whose hopes and ideals, the labor movement has sprung.

First let us consider briefly the history of a woman who shall be called Hannah. She was of Irish birth, but came to this country when a child. She married a man who was intemperate, and after a while he left her, and died away from home. The oldest of her three children, a girl, developed epilepsy when only five or six years old. Hannah had two unmarried sisters. She kept house, and they lived with her, worked in the mill, and handed over to her their wages as if she had been their mother, or as if the family were constituted like some Russian peasant households, and she were its head. She had a bachelor brother, who, though he sometimes assisted her generously, did not make a common home and common purse with her, as the girls did. “My sisters,” said she once, “might have saved hundreds of dollars but for helping me.”

After several years one of the sisters died of consumption. She had been described to me as a fresh young girl, with beautiful hair. She looked like a worn old woman, as she lay on her death-bed. The last scene was a touching one. Hannah sat mourning in the kitchen, but in the tiny chamber a number of neighbors gathered about the couch. One woman read prayers aloud. A brown garment lay on the bed, and once some one lifted the gown and touched it to the lips of the dying girl. It was to be her shroud, and it had been blessed by the priest. Why she was expected to kiss her own burial-robe I do not know, and can only fancy the significance of the strange, sad rite.

After her death, Hannah went herself to work in the mill. She and her remaining sister did their housework at night and in the morning. This rendered it difficult for them to be very economical about their food, as they were obliged to cook such viands as could be made ready in a short time, and the sister Ellen had to have meat. She could not work on bread and tea. They used, perforce, beefsteak at sixteen or eighteen cents the pound, in preference to cheaper meats that can be stewed, but which require long half-days of preparation.

Two of the children attended school, but the epileptic child could not be admitted, and it was difficult to know what to do with her. Sometimes her mother left her locked all day in the house. Sometimes she allowed her to wander at will. The village folks all became familiar with the figure of the crazy child. She was very crazy by the time she was ten years old, but she was straight and lithe, and carried herself with unusual grace. Her motions were quick and silent. Her dark hair was commonly tangled, and she had pathetic, beautifully shaped eyes. Hannah was very anxious about her. She trembled when any one came near her in the mill, lest he had come to tell bad news of the little one. Her forebodings of evil experience naturally increased as the helplessly ignorant girl grew towards womanhood. The mother’s health began to fail under the strain of anxiety, hard work, and exposure to the weather as she went to and from the mill, and she showed symptoms of consumption. She could not wear very heavy clothing while at work in the factory, and when she came out into the cold winter air her shawl protected only her shoulders, and her thin skirts did not prevent her limbs from being chilled even in the short walk she took to her home. This is, I believe, the way many factory women dress and how they injure their health, and the knowledge of this fact may serve as a hint, to philanthropic persons, of a good subject for popular instruction. These women really do not know how to clothe themselves. They do not even know that they need different clothing from what they have. They suffer with that curious submissiveness characteristic of their sex whenever dress is in any way the cause of their pain, and they do not think of altering the shape of a garment in order to insure comfort, any more than their well-to-do, well-laced sisters think of it. The gift of a long, thickly lined cloak, which protected limbs as well as body, actually marked a turning-point in Hannah’s life. She ceased to have violent coughs, and grew stronger.

She was a very honest woman. The epileptic child needed expensive medicine. Sometimes it was given her, but the merest hint was sufficient to let her know if any particular bottle was not intended as a gift. She never failed to save up her money and pay the debt as soon as she could.

At times the Mission Fathers came to a neighboring church, and then Hannah took her afflicted daughter to them, hoping, perhaps believing, that they might cure her. But no such miracle was ever wrought. The terrible malady continued to prey steadily on the young life. One of its effects was to release the child from all consciousness of rank or caste, though she seemed to know something of race prejudices; for she surprised me once by asking wildly “what made the Yankees hate the Irish so.” She did not sit, like Mordecai, at the gate, but stole silently and swiftly through the unguarded door of her richest neighbor, and appeared by his side as readily as by the hearth of the poorest man or woman. She came up fearlessly to whomever she would, and stood or walked in such company as she desired, without hesitation. Thus I remember her standing one autumn day in the garden, under the arch of grapevines, while she said, “Do you know what I am wishing all the time? That I was in heaven, where I’d never be sick any more.” Two or three days afterwards, she went on to the railroad just as the cars came along. Some one shouted to her, but she paid him no heed. The engineer saw her, and vainly tried to stop the train. She knelt down between the rails, — she was only a child eleven years old, — and as she knelt, looking at the engine, she put up her hands as if praying, and waited quietly till it struck her.

Her mother mourned, but her death was a blessing, and after that Hannah’s fortunes mended somewhat. Relieved of her constant anxiety, she grew brighter and younger looking. She began to lay by a little money. Thirty dollars were saved out of her own and her sister’s wages in the course of a year or two. Then the tidings came that an uncle had died in a neighboring State, leaving a small property. She and her sister were among the heirs, some of whom lived in Ireland, and had never been in this country. Hannah’s lawyer wrote her that the property was mostly real estate, and if divided equally among the relatives would yield her and her sister together a little more than a hundred dollars. But he told her that if any of the heirs living in America chose to protest, the proceeds of the real estate might be prevented from going to the Irish heirs. If this were done, the sisters would have a much larger sum, about five hundred dollars. It was more than these women could hope ever to amass, or to obtain in any other way that life on this earth, in this century, made possible to them. Hannah did not hesitate at all. She said at once that she did not think it would be fair to keep her Irish cousins from receiving their portion, and she relinquished for herself, for her sister, and her children what must have seemed to her a fortune, and instructed her lawyer to let the property be divided equally.

Hannah’s two remaining children have grown up to be a comfort to her. The boy, however, has been delicate, and in consequence of his illnesses she has had to use some of the money she had laid by. The daughter does not earn very large wages, but she is employed in labeling the cloth made in the mill, and works in a nice room. “It does not seem like working in the mill,” the mother said, with pardonable satisfaction. The girl is fond of music. Her father’s family contain some persons who are professional musicians in a small way, and Hannah, with the help of the bachelor uncle, has bought for her a second-band piano.

This is the history of a woman who has perhaps done her very best under the conditions in which life has placed her. Let us now consider briefly a factory family who have not done the best they could.

About ten years ago, a kindergartner, in a Rhode Island village, found two little girls in the street, who informed her that their father and mother were both at home sick in bed. Investigation revealed the fact that both parents were drunk, and further acquaintance with them established the additional fact that both were habitual drunkards. The father died in the course of a few years, and after that the family came directly under my own observation.

Mrs. Phelan is a woman of dissolute, haggard appearance; a shattered rather than a depraved looking person. She is not without ability. She usually keeps her floors in a condition approaching neatness, as such people understand neatness. She draws the line of effort, however, at her kitchen door, and her entry and staircase are dirty and foul.

Six or seven years ago, one of her sons was ill, and he was carried to a hospital. Learning there that he must submit to an operation, he became frightened, and insisted on being taken immediately home, and he has been ill ever since, and practically bedridden. A year or two after this, a grown-up daughter, named Mary, died of consumption. During her last days she begged me to talk to her sister Maggie, a young married woman, and urge her never to drink. Soon after Mary’s death, Mrs. Phelan’s oldest son, a man about twenty years old, a hard drinker, fell a victim to consumption, and died. A little longer period elapsed, and then the youngest child, Katie, a pretty, delicate little creature, twelve years old, gave up her work in the mill, and lay down to wait for death. There was something terrible in the way these young creatures accepted death as their natural portion. They were passive and hopeless from the first. But more fearful was the neglect from which they suffered because of Mrs. Phelan’s drinking. When sober she is a home-keeping body, but when there is illness in the house she wanders about all the time, drinking and rehearsing her woes, and neglecting to care for her children, sick or well. Yet when some charitable persons thought that Katie would be more comfortable in the almshouse, which was on a pleasant farm, the mother would not let her go, and the child did not want to go. So after lingering some months, never having a room nor a bed to herself during all her weary illness, the little one died at last.

During these years the married daughter, Maggie, stayed at her mother’s a good deal of the time, so that she could leave her babies under her care while she was at work in the mill. Her husband seemed to be neither very good nor very bad. His own mother was a rough, drinking termagant, who had a habit of seizing her grown-up daughters by the hair, and striking them with such things as the stove-lifter. One of those daughters, by the way, though inefficient, was a most gentle, unselfish girl, whose history would serve to suggest a doubt as to who may be the fittest to survive, under a strict application of the law of evolution.

I do not know the exact details of Maggie’s life, but she bore several children, and endured the frightful double burden which poverty joined to maternity lays on working women. It is quite common for mothers to work in the mill till a very short time before their children are born, and somewhat less common for them to go back very soon afterwards. I have been told of one woman that she went to work when her baby was only five days old. I have known of one case where the mother had moved from another town and had worked a day or two by the time that, according to her statements and to appearances, her baby was two weeks old. This woman was a worthless creature, who willfully neglected her children, and it will not do to hold society wholly to blame for all the miseries in individual lives, even when those lives have been brought under heavy pressure from social and economic institutions. Still, if the noblest men and women are to be called the “products” of our civilization, is it not necessary to admit this wretched mother to a place as also a product of that same civilization?

Maggie’s health finally failed, and she quit work, according to the mill phrase, and prepared to die. She had had a hard life, and she turned dry, sad eyes on her visitor one day, while she was still able to sit up and to sew a little for her children. “There’s no cure for me,” she said. “It’s leaving them four young ones I mind.”

There was money enough coming into the family at this time to make them quite comfortable but for Mrs. Phelan’s intemperance. There was a son who would not work, and whom the mother would shelter and feed in spite of much advice to turn him out; but Maggie’s husband earned good wages, and there was another sister, Lizzie, a fifteen-year-old girl, who was industrious. The Associated Charities also helped, but nothing could bring comfort into this house. After Maggie took to her bed, lying in one room, while her bedridden brother lay in another near by, there would often be no one in the house for hours together, but the little children, to do anything for either sufferer. Mrs. Phelan was drinking worse than ever, and roaming about. When she was at home she was idle. Poor Lizzie generally went to the mill without eating any breakfast, and worked till noon on an empty stomach. “It ain’t good for her,” sighed, helplessly, the sick brother. He feared lest she should break down too, and his fears will probably be justified in the course of time. It is likely that Mrs. Phelan’s cooking was not such as to tempt a delicate appetite, but factory women are often unable to eat before going into the mill; and though they do not usually go till noon without eating, they often work one or two hours before taking breakfast.

As death drew near, Maggie opened her heart a little to a visitor, and spoke of the suffering her mother’s habits caused. “I’m strong enough, she said, to have my bed changed, but mother does not offer to make it oftener than once a week; and Lizzie’s so tired when she comes home, nights, from the mill that I can’t bear to ask her to do anything for me.” So day and night had she lain there, under conditions which cannot be described, and had refrained from asking service of her tired young sister. Out of the lowest depth of wretchedness that poor creature attained to such unselfishness. But it was all very pitiful, and death, when it finally came, must have been truly a comforter but for the “four young ones” she left behind, to grow up, probably to live, perhaps to die, as the old ones had lived and died.

Two years ago a ten-hour law was enacted in Rhode Island. Philanthropists and workmen urged the passage of the bill. They were concerned about the health of the workwomen, the undermining of whose strength involved not only suffering, but the weakness of the next generation. The manufacturers, so far as they took any action, opposed the law. Some of them were sure their business would be ruined, if it went on to the statute book. Others were merely afraid that financial disasters would be the result. The women themselves were not consulted, and, according to the fashion of the republic, had no part nor lot in deciding their own destiny. Various sorts of men, workmen, manufacturers, and legislators deliberated together about woman’s flesh and blood, considered her maternal capacities and her muscular strength, and compared them with the exactions of business and of machinery. She stood and waited—or rather she worked and waited—their decision that sixty hours a week in a factory was enough for her and for her little children. The bill passed, and there was no financial collapse.

There is a young girl working in a thread factory in the State who was much pleased to have some more leisure time. She was taking a Chautauqua course of reading with her mother. She lives some distance from the mill, and so does not go home to dinner. Under the new arrangement she had an hour’s recess at noon. She carried her book as well as her lunch, and employed the extra moments in reading. She was anxious to obtain a complete copy of the Iliad, having read some portions of it in the prescribed course, which made her desire to know the whole poem. She read translations of some of the Greek plays, and was glad to have the opportunity to borrow a version of the Electra of Sophocles; and when she returned it, she said she liked it better than any of the others she had read. This girl is, however, unique in my experience. She is a Protestant, of English parentage. From childhood on she has shown an earnest nature. She always tried to do what seemed right to her, or what might help some one else. It was a terrible cross to her to be obliged to leave school when she was about fourteen, and go into the mill, but she did it; and her character shows its fine fibre now, in that she does her duty simply, trying constantly to improve herself, but not trying to get into any place which she is not fitted to fill thoroughly. She is not a sham lady nor a sham worker because she has a desire for something besides spindles and a taste for something other than clothes. She dresses simply, and is very willing to use her Saturday half-holidays visiting in behalf of the Associated Charities.

Homely but pathetic was the rejoicing of a hard-worked Irish widow over the ten-hour law. She had been the mother of thirteen or fourteen children, but most of them died; and last of all, her husband, a handsome man, whom she seemed to consider a being quite superior to herself, died, after a protracted illness. He did the housework long after he could not do other labor, so that she might be the chief wage-earner of the family. After his death, she said: “I fretted a deal for him, — I couldn’t help it. I know he had been sick a long time, but you miss a person just the same if they have been sick; an’ he was such a clean man about the house, an’ kept it so neat when he was able to be about.”

In a worldly way she manages very well without him. She and a grown girl and two young lads work in the mill. Two younger children profess to guard the house, and sometimes go to school. The daughter takes books occasionally from the village library, and she has read The Scarlet Letter and even the Blithedale Romance. She said she liked these stories about as well as she did Marion Harland’s novels. The mother found the ten-hour law a great help. “Why,” said she, “the extra quarter of an hour at noon gives me time to mix my bread; an’ then when I comes home at night, at six o’clock, it is ready to put in the pans, an’ I can do that while Katie sets the table; an after supper, an’ the dishes are washed, I can bake; an’ then I am through, an ready to go to bed, mebbe afore it’s quite nine o’clock. Oh, it’s splendid, the best thing as ever ‘appened. I used to be up till ‘way into the night, bakin’, after my day’s work in the mill was done.”

She probably was glad of the Saturday half-holiday, because it gave her a good chance to do her washing. Holidays, to women like her, mean little but the time to do some different kind of work from that by which they earn their living. Her boy rejoiced in healthy fashion. “Saturdays,” says he, “when you are let out at one o’clock, you don’t feel as if you’d been at work at all.”

This is part two in a four-part series. Read  part one here, part three here,
and part four here.