BY LILLIAN D. WALD
A SICK woman in a squalid rear tenement, so wretched and so pitiful that, in all the years since, I have not seen anything more appealing, determined me, within half an hour, to live on the East Side.
I had spent two years in a New York training-school for nurses; strenuous years for an undisciplined, untrained girl, but a wonderful human experience. After graduation, I supplemented the theoretical instruction, which was casual and inconsequential in the hospital classes twenty-five years ago, by a period of study at a medical college. It was while at the college that a great opportunity came to me.
I had little more than an inspiration to be of use in some way or somehow, and going to the hospital seemed the readiest means of realizing my desire. While there, the long hours ‘on duty’ and the exhausting demands of the ward work scarcely admitted freedom for keeping informed as to what was happening in the world outside. The nurses had no time for general reading; visits to and from friends were brief; we were out of the current and saw little of life save as it flowed into the hospital wards. It is not strange, therefore, that I should have been ignorant of the various movements which reflected the awakening of the social conscience at the time, or of the birth of the ‘settlement,’ which twenty-five years ago was giving form to a social protest in England and America. Indeed it was not until the plan of our work on the East Side was well developed that knowledge came to me of other groups of people who, reacting to a humane or an academic appeal, were adopting this mode of expression and calling it a ‘settlement.’
Two decades ago the words ‘East Side’ called up a vague and alarming picture of something strange and alien: a vast crowded area, a foreign city within our own, for whose conditions we had no concern. Aside from its exploiters, political and economic, few people had any definite knowledge of it, and its literary ‘discovery’ had but just begun.
The lower East Side then reflected the popular indifference — it almost seemed contempt — for the living conditions of a huge population. And the possibility of improvement seemed, when my inexperience was startled into thought, the more remote because of the dumb acceptance of these conditions by the East Side itself. Like the rest of the world I had known little of it, when friends of a philanthropic institution asked me to do something for that quarter.
Remembering the families who came to visit patients in the wards, I outlined a course of instruction in home nursing adapted to their needs, and gave it in an old building in Henry Street, then used as a technical school and now part of the settlement. Henry Street then as now was the centre of a dense industrial population.
From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed-making, a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed-making lesson and carried it with me.
The child led me over broken roadways, — there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city, — over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse, — it was before Colonel Waring had shown the possibility of clean streets even in that quarter, —between tall, reeking houses whose laden fire-escapes, useless for their appointed purpose, bulged with household goods of every description. The rain added to the dismal appearance of the streets and to the discomfort of the crowds which thronged them, intensifying the odors which assailed me from every side. Through Hester and Division streets we went to the end of Ludlow; past odorous fish-stands, for the streets were a marketplace, unregulated, unsupervised, unclean; past evil-smelling, uncovered garbage-cans; and — perhaps worst of all, where so many little children played — past the trucks brought down from more fastidious quarters and stalled on these already over-crowded streets, lending themselves inevitably to many forms of indecency.
The child led me on through a tenement hallway, across a court where open and unscreened closets were promiscuously used by men and women, up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps whose accumulated dirt was augmented that day by the mud of the streets, and finally into the sickroom.
All the maladjustments of our social and economic relations seemed epitomized in this brief journey and what was found at the end of it. The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting-deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretence at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarders, — who were literally boarders, since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on, — and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean bed, soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings, judged by any measure of moral values.
In fact it was very plain that they were sensitive to their condition, and when, at the end of my ministrations, they kissed my hands (those who have undergone similar experiences will, I am sure, understand), it would have been some solace if by any conviction of the moral unworthiness of the family I could have defended myself as a part of a society which permitted such conditions to exist. Indeed my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life, and for society, of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.
That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college. I never returned to them. On my way from the sickroom to my comfortable student quarters my mind was intent on my own responsibility. To my inexperience it seemed certain that conditions such as these were allowed because people did not know, and for me there was a challenge to know and to tell. When early morning found me still awake, my naïve conviction remained that, if people knew things, — and ' things ’ meant everything implied in the condition of this family, — such horrors would cease to exist, and I rejoiced that I had had a training in the care of the sick that in itself would give me an organic relationship to the neighborhood in which this awakening had come.
To the first sympathetic friend to whom I poured forth my story, I found myself presenting a plan which had been developing almost without conscious mental direction on my part. It was, doubtless, the accumulation of many reflections inspired by acquaintance with the patients in the hospital wards,and now, with the LudlowStreet experience, resistlessly impelling me to action.
Within a day or two a comrade from the training school, Mary Brewster, agreed to share in the venture. We were to live in that neighborhood as nurses, identify ourselves with it socially, and, in brief, contribute to it our citizenship. That plan contained in embryo all the extended and diversified social interests of our settlement group to-day.
When I first entered the trainingschool my outpourings to the superintendent, — a woman touched with a genius for sympathy, — my youthful heroics, and my vow to ‘nurse the poor’ were met with what I deemed vague reference to the ‘ Mission.’ Afterwards when I sought guidance I found that in New York the visiting (or district) nurse was accessible only through sectarian organizations or the free dispensary.
As our plan crystallized, my friend and I were certain that a system for nursing the sick in their homes could not be firmly established unless certain fundamental social facts were recognized. We tried to imagine how loved ones for whom we might be solicitous would react were they in the place of the patients whom we hoped to serve, and this test gave us vision to establish certain principles, whose soundness has been proved during the growth of the service. The staff, which in the beginning consisted of two nurses, my friend, and myself, has been increased until it now covers two great boroughs of New York City. In the year 191314, calls came from nearly 1100 more patients than the combined total of those treated during the same year in three of the large hospitals — a comparison valuable chiefly as measuring the growing demand of the sick for home nursing. The work thus begun comprised in simple form all those varied lines of activity which have since been developed into the many highly specialized branches of public health nursing now covering the United States and engaging thousands of nurses. With time, experience, and the stimulus of creative minds, our technique and administrative methods have improved, but our whole later work is found in embryo in our first two years.
We perceived that it was undesirable to condition the nurse’s service upon the actual or potential connection of the patient with a religious institution or free dispensary, or to have the nurse assigned to the exclusive use of one physician; and we planned to create a service on terms most considerate of the dignity and independence of the patients. We felt that the nursing of the sick in their homes should be undertaken seriously and adequately; that instruction should be incidental and not the primary consideration; that the etiquette, so far as doctor and patient were concerned, should be analogous to the established system of private nursing; that the nurse should be as ready to respond to calls from the people themselves as to calls from physicians; that she should accept calls from all physicians, and with no more red tape or formality than if she were to remain with one patient continuously.
The new basis of the visiting-nurse service which we thus inaugurated reacted almost immediately upon the relationship of the nurse to the patient, reversing the position the nurse had formerly held. Chagrin at having the neighbors see in her an agent whose presence proclaimed the family’s poverty or its failure to give adequate care to its sick member, was changed to the gratifying consciousness that her presence, in conjunction with that of the doctor, ‘private’ or ’Lodge,’1 proclaimed the family’s liberality and anxiety to do everything possible for the sufferer. For the exposure of poverty is a great humiliation to people who are trying to maintain a foothold in society for themselves and their families.
My colleague and I realized that there were large numbers of people who could not, or would not, avail themselves of the hospitals. It was estimated that ninety per cent of the sick people in cities were sick at home, — an estimate which has been corroborated (1913-14) by the investigation of the Committee of Inquiry into the Departments of Health, Charities, and Bellevue and Allied Hospitals of New York, —and a humanitarian civilization demanded that something of the nursing care given in hospitals should be accorded to sick people in their homes.
We decided that fees should be charged when people could pay. It was interesting to discover that, although nominal in amount compared with the cost of the service, these fees represented a much larger proportion of the wage in the case of the ordinary worker who paid for the hourly service, than did the fee paid by a man with a salary of $5000, who engaged the full time of the nurse. Our plan, we reasoned, was analogous to the custom of ‘ private’ hospitals, which give free treatment or charge according to the resources of the ward patients. Both private hospitals and visiting nursing are thereby lifted out of ‘charity’ as comprehended by the people.
We felt that for economic reasons valuable and expensive hospital space should be saved for those for whom the hospital treatment is necessary; and an obvious social consideration was that many people, particularly women, cannot leave their homes without imperiling, or sometimes destroying, the home itself.
We set to work immediately to find quarters — no easy task, as we clung to the civilization of a bathroom, and according to a legend current at the time there were only two bathrooms in tenement houses below Fourteenth Street. Chance helped us here. A young woman who for many years played an important part in the life of the East Side, overhearing a conversation of mine with a fellow student, gave me an introduction to two men who, she said, knew all about the quarter of the city which I wished to enter. I called on them immediately, and their response to my need was as prompt. Without stopping to inquire into my antecedents or motives, or to discourse on the social aspects of the community, of which, I soon learned, they were competent to speak with authority, they set out with me at once, in a pouring rain, to scour the adjacent streets for ‘To Let ’ signs. One sign which seemed to me worth investigating, my newly acquired friends discarded with the explanation that it was in the ‘red light’ district and would not do. Later I was to know much of the unfortunate women who inhabited the quarter, but at the time the term meant nothing to me.
After a long tour one of my guides, as if by inspiration, reminded the other that several young women had taken a house on Rivington Street for something like my purpose, and perhaps I had better live there temporarily and take my time in finding satisfactory quarters. Upon that advice I acted, and within a few days Miss Brewster and I found ourselves guests at the luncheon table of the College Settlement on Rivington Street. With ready hospitality they took us in, and, during July and August, we were ‘residents’ in stimulating comradeship with serious women, who were also the fortunate possessors of a saving sense of humor.
Before September of the year 1893 we found a house on Jefferson Street, the only one in which our careful search disclosed the desired bathtub. It had other advantages — the vacant floor at the top (so high that the windows along the entire side wall gave us sun and breeze), and, greatest lure of all, the warm welcome which came to us from the basement, where we found the janitress ready to answer questions as to terms.
Naturally, objections to two young women living alone in New York under these conditions had to be met, and some assurance as to our material comfort was given to anxious, though at heart sympathetic, families by compromising on good furniture, a Baltimore heater for cheer, and simple but adequate household appurtenances. Painted floors with easily removed rugs, windows curtained with spotless but inexpensive scrim, a sitting-room with pictures, books, and restful chairs, a tiny bedroom which we two shared, a small dining room in which the family mahogany did not look out of place, and a kitchen, constituted our home for two full years.
The much-esteemed bathroom, small and dark, was in the hall, and necessitated early rising if we were to have the use of it; for, as we became known, we had many callers anxious to see us before we started on our sick rounds. The diminutive closet-space was divided to hold the bags and equipment we needed from day to day, and more ample store-closets were given us by the kindly people in the school where I had first given lessons to East Side mothers. Any pride in the sacrifice of material comfort which might have risen within us was effectually inhibited by the constant reminder that we two young persons occupied exactly the same space as the large families on every floor below us, and to one of our basement friends at least we were luxurious beyond the dreams of ordinary folk.
The little lad from the basement was our first invited guest. The simple but appetizing dinner my comrade prepared, while I set the table and placed the flowers. The boy’s mother came up later in the evening to find out what we had given him, for Johnnie had rushed down with eyes bulging and had reported that ‘them ladies live like the Queen of England and eat off of solid gold plates.’
We learned the most efficient use of the fire-escape and felt many times blessed because of our easy access to the roof. We also learned the infinite uses to which stairs can be put. Later we achieved ‘local color’ in our rooms by the addition of interesting pieces of brass and copper purchased from a man on Allen Street whom we and several others had ’discovered.' His little dark shop under the elevated railway was fitfully illuminated by the glowing forge. On our first visit the proprietor emerged from a still darker inner room with prayer-shawl and phylactery. He became one of our pleasant acquaintances and lost no occasion of acknowledging what he considered his debt to the appreciative customers who had helped to make him and his vares known to a wider circle than that of the neighborhood.
The mere fact of living in the tenement brought undreamed-of opportunities for widening our knowledge and extending our human relationships. That we were Americans was wonderful to our fellow-tenants. They were all immigrants — Jews from Russia or Roumania. The sole exception was the janitress, Mrs. McD., who at once dedicated herself and her entire family to the service of the top floor. Dear Mrs. McD.! From her basement home she covered us with her protecting love and was no small influence in holding us to sanity. Humor, astuteness, and sympathy were needed and these she gave in abundance.
It was vouchsafed us to know many fine personalities who influenced and guided us from the first few weeks of residence in the friendly college settlement through the many years that have followed. The two women who stand out with greatest distinction from the first are this pure-souled Scotch-Irish immigrant and Josephine Shaw Lowell. Both, if they were here, would understand the tribute in linking them together.
Occasionally Mrs. McD. would feel impelled to reprove us for ‘overdoing’ ourselves, and from our top story we were hard pushed to save visitors from being sent away when she thought we needed to finish a meal or go to bed. Cautious as we were not to make any distinctions in commenting upon the visitors who came to see us, she made her own deductions. At whatever hour we returned, she would be at the door to welcome us and to report on the happenings during our absence. ‘So-andso was here ’: shrewd descriptions which often enabled us to identify individuals when names were forgotten. ‘Lots of visitors to-night,’ she would report. ‘Were messages left, or names?’ we would naturally inquire. ‘No, darlints, nothing at all. I know sure they did n’t bring you anything.’
The key to our apartments, usually left with her, was one day forgotten, and when, upon unlocking the door, we saw a well-known society woman seated in our little living-room, we were naturally puzzled to know how she had arrived there. Mrs. McD. explained that she had taken her up the fire-escape! — no slight venture and exertion for the inexperienced. We suggested that other ways might have been more agreeable and safer. ‘ Whisht,’ said Mrs. McD., with a smile and a wink, ‘it’s no harm at all. She’ll be havin’ lots of talk for her friends on this.’
When her roving husband died at home, the funeral arrangements were given a last touch by Mrs. McD., who placed on the casket his tobacco and pipe and ordered the procession to pass his tenement home twice before driving to the cemetery, ‘So he’d not think we were not for forgivin’ him and hurryin’ him away.’
Her first love went to my comrade, whose beauty and humor and goodness captured her Celtic heart. During our second year in the tenement Miss Brewster was taken seriously ill, and one evening we had at last succeeded in forcing Mrs. McD. to go home and had locked the door. Unknown to us the dear friend remained on the floor outside all through the night, trying to catch the sound of life from the loved one.
Bringing up a large family with no help from the ‘old man,’ and with stern ideals of conduct and integrity, was not easy. Some of her children, endowed with her character, gave her solace, but she was too astute not to estimate each one properly.
When we moved from the tenement to our first house Mrs. McD. and her family gave up the basement rooms, which were rent free because of her janitor service, in order to be near us, and she spread her warmth over the new abode. When, some years later, she was ill and we knew that the end was near, one close to me in my own family claimed my attention. Torn between the two affections, I was loath to leave the city while Mrs. McD. was so ill. She guessed the cause of my perturbed state and advised me to go. ‘Darlin’, you ought to go. You go. I promise not to die until you come back.’
Letters kept up this assurance and the promise was fulfilled.
Almost immediately we found patients who needed care, and doctors ready to accept our services with probably the least amount of friction possible under the circumstances; for those doctors who had not been internes in the hospitals were unfamiliar with the trained nurse, whose work was little known at that time outside the hospitals and the homes of the well-to-do.
Despite the neighborhood’s friendliness, however, we struggled, not only with poverty and disease, but with the traditional fate of the pioneer: in many cases we encountered the inevitable opposition which the unusual must arouse. It seems almost ungracious to relate some of our first experiences with doctors. No one can give greater tribute than do the nurses of the settlement to the generosity of physicians and surgeons when we recall how often paying patients were set aside for more urgent non-paying ones; the counsel freely given from the highest for the lowliest; the eager readiness to respond. Occasionally sage advice came from a veteran who knew the people well and lamented the economic pressure which at times involved, to their spiritual disaster, doctors as well as patients.
The first day on which we set out to discover the sick who might need a nurse, my comrade found a woman with high temperature in an airless room, more oppressive because of the fetid odor from the bed. Service with one of New York’s skilled specialists had trained the nurse well and she identified the symptoms immediately. ‘Yes, there was a Lodge doctor. — He had left a prescription. — He might come again.’ With fine diplomacy an excuse was made to call upon the doctor and to assume that he would accept the nurse’s aid. My colleague presented her credentials and offered to accompany him to the case immediately, as she was ‘sure conditions must have changed since his last visit or he would doubtless have ordered’ so-and-so,— suggesting the treatment the distinguished specialists were then using. He promised to go, and the nurse waited patiently for hours at the woman’s bedside. When he arrived he pooh-poohed and said, ‘Nothing doing.’ We had ascertained the financial condition of the family from the evidence of the empty push-cart and the fact that the fishpeddler was not in the market with his merchandise. Five dollars was loaned that night to purchase stock next day.
My comrade and I decided to visit the patient early the next morning, to mingle judgments on what action could be taken in this serious illness with due respect to established etiquette. When we arrived, the Lodge doctor and a ‘Professor’ (a consultant) were in the sick room, and our five dollars, left for fish, was in their possession. Cigarettes in mouths and hats on heads, they were questioning husband and wife, and only Dickens could have done justice to the scene. We were not too timid to allude to the poverty and the source of the fee, and felt free when we were told to ‘go ahead and do anything you like.’ That permission we acted upon instantly and received, over the telephone, authority from the distinguished specialist to get to work. We were prudent enough to report the authority and treatment given, with solemn etiquette, to the physician in attendance, who in turn congratulated us on having helped him to save a life!
Not all our encounters with this class of practitioner were fruitful of benefit to their patients. Heartbreaking was the tragedy of Samuel, the twenty-oneyear-old carpenter, and Ida, his bride. They had been boy and girl sweethearts in Poland, and the coming to America, the preparation of the clean two-roomed home, the expectation of the baby, made a pretty story which should have had happy succeeding chapters, the start was so good. Samuel knocked at our door, incoherent in his fright, but we were fast accustoming ourselves to recognize danger-signals, and I at once followed him to the top floor of his tenement.
Plain to see, Ida was dying. The midwife said she had done all she could, but she was obviously frightened. ‘ No one could have done any better,’ she insisted, ‘not any doctor’; but she had called one and he had left the woman lacerated and agonizing because the expected fee had been paid only in part. It was Samuel’s last dollar. The septic woman could only be sent to the city hospital. The ambulance surgeon was persuaded to let the boy husband ride with her, and he remained at the hospital until she and the baby died a few hours later.
Here my comrade and I came against the stone wall of professional etiquette. It seemed as if public sentiment ought to be directed by the doctors themselves against such practices, but although I finally called upon one of the highminded and distinguished men who had signed the diploma of the offending doctor, I could not get reproof administered, and my ardor for arousing public indignation in the profession was chilled. Later, when I heard protests from employers against insistence by labor organizations on the closed shop, it occurred to me that they failed to recognize analogies in the professional etiquette which conventional society has long accepted.
However, many friendly strong bonds were made and have been sustained with a large majority of the doctors during all the years of our service. We have mutual ties of personal and community interests, and work together as comrades; the practitioners with high standards for themselves and ideals for their sacred profession comprehend our common cause and strengthen our hands. It is rare now, although at first it was very frequent, that the physician who has called in the nurse for his patient demands her withdrawal when he himself has been dismissed. He has come to see that although the nurse exerts her influence to preserve his prestige, for the patient’s sake as well as his own, nevertheless, emotional people, unaccustomed to the settled relation of the family doctor, may and often do change physicians from six to ten times in the course of one illness. The nurse, however, may remain at the bedside throughout all vicissitudes.
The most definite protest against the newer relationship came from a woman active in many public movements, who was a stickler for the orthodox method of procuring a visiting nurse only through the doctor. To illustrate the importance of freedom for the patients, I cited the case of the L— family. A neighbor had called for aid. ‘Some kind of an awful catching sickness on the same floor I live on, to the right, front,’ she whispered. A worn and haggard woman was lifting a heavy boiler filled with ‘wash’ from the stove when I entered; on the floor in the other room three little children lay ill with typhoid fever, one of them with meningitis. The feather pillows, most precious possession, had been pawned to pay the doctor. The father dared not leave the shop, for money was needed and all that he earned was far from enough. The mother, when questioned as to the delay in sending for nursing help, said that the doctor had frightened her from doing so by telling her that the children would surely be sent to the hospital. No disinfectant was found in the house and the mother declared that no instructions had been given her.
The nurse who took possession of the sickroom refrained from mentioning the hospital; but when the mother saw the skilled ministrations, and the tired father, on his return from work, watched the deft feeding of the unconscious child, they awoke to their limitations. The poor, unskilled woman, bent with fatigue, exclaimed, ‘O God, is that what I should have been doing for my babies?’ When the nurse started to leave them for the night the parents clung to her and asked if a hospital would do as much as she had done. ‘More, much more, I hope,’ she said. ‘I cannot give here what the little ones need.’ Late at night three carriages started for the children’s ward of the hospital: the father, the mother, the nurse, each with a patient across the seat of the carriage.
Said the critic when I had finished my story: ‘I think the nurse should have asked permission of their doctor before she granted the request of the parents.’
Times were hard that year. In the summer the miseries due to unemployment and rising rents and prices began to be apparent, but the pinch came with the cold weather. Perhaps it was an advantage that we were so early exposed to the extraordinary sufferings and the variety of pain and poverty in that winter of 1893-94, memorable because of extreme economic depression. The impact of strain, physical and emotional, left neither place nor time for self-analysis and consequent self-consciousness, so prone to hinder and to dwarf wholesome instincts, and so likely to have proved an impediment to the simple relationship which we established with our neighbors.
It has become almost trite to speak of the kindness of the poor to each other, yet from the beginning of our tenement-house residence we were much touched by manifestations of it. An errand took me to Michael the ScotchIrish cobbler as the family were sitting down to the noonday meal. There was a stranger with them, whom Michael introduced, explaining when we were out of hearing that he thought I would be interested to meet a man just out of Sing Sing prison. I expressed some fear of the danger to his own boys in this association. ‘We must just chance it,’ said Michael. ‘It’s no weather for a man like that to be on the streets, when honest fellows can’t get work.’
When we first met the G— family they were breaking up the furniture to keep from freezing. One of the children had already died and had been buried in a public grave. Three times that year did Mrs. G. painfully gather together enough money to have the baby disinterred and fittingly buried in consecrated ground, and each time she gave up her heart’s desire in order to relieve the sufferings of the living children of her neighbors.
Another instance of this unfailing goodness of the poor to each other was told by Nellie, who called on us one morning. She was evidently embarrassed and with difficulty related that, hearing of things to be given away at a newspaper office, she had gone there hoping to get something that would do for John when he came out of the hospital. She said, ‘I drew this and I don’t know exactly what it is meant for,’ and displayed a wadded black satin ‘dress-shirt protector,’ in very good condition, and possibly contributed because the season was over! Standing outside the circle of clamorous petitioners, Nellie and the woman next her had exchanged tales of woe. When she mentioned her address the new acquaintance suggested that she seek us.
Nellie proved to be a near neighbor. There were two children: a nursing baby ‘none so well,’ and a lad. John, her husband, was ‘fortunately’ in the hospital with a broken leg, for there were ‘no jobs around loose anyway.’ When we called later in the day to see the baby, we found that Nellie was stopping with her cousin, a widower who ‘ held his job down.’ There were also his two children, the widow of a friend ‘who would have done as much by me,’ and the wife and two small children of a total stranger who lived in the rear tenement and were invited in to meals because the father had been seen starting every morning on his hunt for work, and ‘ it was plain for any one with eyes to see that he never did get it.’ So this one man, fortunate in having work, was taking care of himself and his children, the widow of his friend, Nellie and her children, and was feeding the strangers. Said Nellie, ‘Sure he’s doing that, and why not? He’s the only cousin I’ve got outside of Ireland.’
Mrs. S., who called at the settlement a few days ago, reminded me that it was twenty-one years since our first meeting, and brought vividly before me a picture of which she was a part. She was the daughter of a learned rabbi, and her husband, himself a pious man, had great reverence for the traditions of her family. In their extremity they had taken bread from one of the newspaper charities, but it was evidently a painful humiliation, and before we arrived they had hidden the loaf in the ice-box. My visit was due to a desire to ascertain the condition of the families who had applied for this dole. Both house and people were scrupulously clean. It was amazing that under the biting pressure of want and anxiety such standards could be maintained. Yet, though passionately devoted to his family, the husband refused advantageous employment because it necessitated work on the Sabbath. This would have been to them a desecration of something more vital than life itself.
We found that winter, in other instances, that the fangs of the wolf were often decorously hidden. In one family of our acquaintance the father, a cigarmaker, left the house each morning in search of work, only to return at night hungrier and more exhausted by his fruitless exertions. One Sabbath eve I entered his tenement, to find the two rooms in scrupulous order and the mother and children prepared for the holy night. Over a brisk fire fed by bits of wood picked up by the children, two covered pots were set as if a supper were being prepared. But under the lids it was only water that bubbled. The proud mother could not bear to expose her poverty to the gossip of the neighbors, the humiliation being the greater because she was obliged to violate the sacred custom of preparing a ceremonious meal for the united family on Friday night.
If the formalism of our neighbors in religious matters was constantly brought to our attention, instances of their tolerance were also far from rare. A Jewish woman, exhausted by her long day’s scrubbing of office floors, walked many extra blocks to beg us to get a priest for her Roman Catholic neighbor whose child was dying. An orthodox Jewish father, who had been goaded to bitterness because his daughter had married an ’Irisher’ and thus ‘insulted his religion,’ felt that the young husband and his mother were equally wronged. This man, when I called on a Sabbath evening, took one of the lights from the table to show the way down the five flights of dark tenement stairs, and to my protest, — knowing, as I did, that he considered it a sin to handle fire on the Sabbath, — he said, ‘ It is no sin for me to handle a light on the Sabbath to show respect to a friend who has helped to keep a family together.’
There was the story of Mary, eldest daughter, as we supposed, of an orthodox family. When we went to her engagement party we were surprised to see that the young man was not of the family faith. The mother told us that Mary, ‘such a pretty baby,’ had been left on their doorstep in earlier and more prosperous days in Austria. ‘The Burgomeister had made proclamation,’ but no one came to claim her, and the husband and wife, who as yet had no children of their own, decided to keep her. ‘God rewarded us and answered our prayers,’ said Mrs. L., for many children came afterward; but Mary, blonde and blue-eyed, was always the most cherished, the first-comer who had brought the others. When she was quite a young girl she was taken ill — a cold following exposure after her first ’grown-up’ party, for which her fostermother had dressed her with pride. It seemed that nothing could save her, and the foster mother in her distress thought with pity of the woman who had borne this sweet child. Surely she must be dead. No living mother could have abandoned so lovely a baby. And if she were dead and in the Christian heaven, she would look in vain there for her daughter. ‘So I called the priest and told him,’ said Mrs. L., ‘and he made a prayer over Mary and said, “Now she is a Krist.” The doctor, we called him too, and he said to get a goat, for the milk would be good for Mary; and she get well, but no so strong, as you see, and that is why she don’t go out to work like her brothers and sisters. We lose our money, that’s why we come to America, and Mary, now she marry a Krist. ’
Gradually there came to our knowledge difficulties and conflicts not peculiar to any one set of people but intensified in the case of our neighbors by poverty, unfamiliarity with laws and customs, the lack of privacy, and the frequent dependence of the elders upon the children. Workers in philanthropy, clergymen, orthodox rabbis, the unemployed, anxious parents, girls in distress, troublesome boys, came as individuals to see us, but no formal organization of our work was effected till we moved into the house on Henry Street, in 1895.
So precious were the intimate relationships with our neighbors in the tenement that we were reluctant to leave it. My companion’s breakdown, the persuasion of friends who had given their support and counsel that there was an obligation upon us to effect some kind of formal organization without further delay, finally prevailed. As usual the neighborhood showed its interest in what we did; and though my comrade and I had carefully selected men from the ranks of the unemployed to move our belongings, when all was accomplished not one man of them all could be induced to take a penny for the work.
From this first house have since developed the manifold activities in city and country now incorporated as the Henry Street Settlement.
I am reluctant to close this first article without making it clear that we were from the very beginning most profoundly moved by the wretched industrial conditions which were constantly forced upon us. In succeeding articles I hope to tell of the constructive programmes that the people themselves have evolved out of their own hard lives, of the ameliorative measures, ripened out of sympathetic comprehension, and, finally, of the social legislation that expresses the new compunction of the community.
[The next chapter of this history will discuss ‘ Children and Play.']
- The ' Lodge ' doctor is the physician provided by a mutual benefit society or ‘ Lodge ’ to attend its members. — THE AUTHOR.↩