WE met Lena in a shabby house in a near-by street, where we had been called because of her illness. The family were attractive Russians of the blond type, and the patient herself was very beautiful, her exceeding pallor giving her an almost ethereal look. The rooms were as bare as the traditional poor man’s home of the story books, but the mother had hidden the degradation of the broken couch with a clean linen sheet, relic of her bridal outfit.
After convalescence Lena was glad to accept employment and resume her share of the family burden. One day she rushed in from the tailor’s shop during working hours, and, literally on her knees, begged for other work. She could no longer endure the obscene language of her employer, which she felt was directed especially to her. The story to experienced ears signaled danger, but to extricate her without destruction of the pride which repelled financial aid was not simple. Readjustments had to be made to give her a belated training that would fit her for employment outside the ranks of the unskilled. Fortunately, the parents needed little stimulus to comprehend the humiliation to their daughter, and they readily agreed to the postponement of help from her, although they were at a low tide of income.
The very coarseness of this kind of attack upon a girl’s sensibilities, I have learned in the course of years, makes it easier to combat than the subtle and less tangible suggestions that mislead and then betray. Sometimes these are inherent in the work itself.
A girl leading an immoral life was once sent to me for possible help. She called in the evening and we sat together on the pleasant back porch adjoining my sitting-room. Here the shrill noises of the street came but faintly, and the quiet and privacy helped to create an atmosphere that led easily to confidence.
It was long past midnight when we separated. The picture of the wretched home that she had presented, — its congestion, the slovenly housekeeping, the demanding infant, the ill-prepared food snatched from the stove by the members of the family as they returned from work, — I knew it only too well. The girl herself, refined in speech and pretty, slept in a bed with three others. She had gone to work when she was eleven, and later became a demonstrator in a department store where the display of expensive finery on the counters and its easy purchase by luxurious women had evidently played a part in her moral deterioration. Her most conscious desire was for silk underwear; at least it was the only one she seemed able to formulate! And this trivial desire, infinitely pathetic in its disclosure, told her story. As I stood at the front door after bidding her good-night, and watched her down the street, it did not seem possible that so frail a creature could summon up the heroism necessary to rise above the demoralization of the home to which she was returning and the kind of work open to her.
During that summer she came each day to the settlement for instruction in English preliminary to a training in telegraphy, for which she had expressed a preference. Nothing in her conduct during that time could have been criticized, but subsequent chapters in her career have shown that she was unable to overcome the inclinations that were the evil legacy of her mode of life.
The menace to the morals of youth is not confined to the pretty, poor young girl. The lad also is exposed. I could wish there were more sympathy with the very young men who at times are trapped into immorality by means not so very different, except in degree, from those that imperil the girl. The careless way in which boys are intrusted with money by employers has tempted many who are not naturally thievish. I have known dishonesty of this kind on the part of boys who never in after life repeated the offense.
An instance of grave misbehavior of another kind was once brought to me by our own young men, three of whom called upon me, evidently in painful embarrassment. After struggling to bring their courage to the speaking point, they told me that L. was leading an immoral life, and they were sure that if I knew it I would not allow him to dance with the girls. They had been considering for some time whether or not I should be informed. Heartily disliking the task, one of the young men had consulted his mother and she had made it plain that it was my right to know. Fortunately the district attorney then in office had from time to time invoked the coöperation of the settlement in problems that could not be met by a prosecutor. A telephone message to him brought the needed aid with dispatch. When all the facts were known, I felt that the young man had been trapped exactly as had been the young girl who was with him. Both were victims of the wretched creature whose exile from New York the district attorney insisted upon. The three had met in a dance-hall, widely advertised and popular among young people.
The inquiry of the famous Committee of Fifteen, as New Yorkers know, was given its first impetus by the action of a group of young men of our neighborhood, who were already distinguished for the ethical stand they had taken on social matters, — all of them members for many years of clubs in another settlement and our own. They comprehended the hideous cost of the red-light district and resented its existence in their neighborhood, where not even the children escaped knowledge of its evils.
Although in the twenty-one years of the organized life of the settlement no girl or young woman identified with us has ‘gone wrong’ in the usual understanding of that term, we have been so little conscious of working definitely for this end that my attention was drawn to the fact only when a distinguished probation officer made the statement that never in the Night Court or in institutions for delinquents had she found a girl who had ‘belonged’ to our settlement.1
I record this bit of testimony with some hesitation, as it does not seem right to make it matter for marvel or congratulation. One does not expect a mother to be surprised or gratified that her daughters are virtuous; and it would be a grave injustice to the girls of character and lofty ideals who through the years have been connected with the settlement, if we assumed the credit for their fine qualities.
But as in ordinary families there are diversities of character, of strength and of weakness, so in an enormous community family, if I may so define the relationship of the settlement membership, these diversities are more strongly marked; and it is a gratification that we are often able to give to young girls — frail, ignorant, unequipped for the struggle into which they are so early plunged — some of the protection that under other circumstances would be provided by their families and social environment.
All classes show occasional instances of girls who ‘go wrong.’ The commonly accepted theory that the direct incentive is a mercenary one is not borne out by our experience. The thousands of poor young girls we have known, into whose minds the thought of wrong-doing of this kind has never entered, testify against it.
However, a low family income means a poor home, underfeeding, congestion, lack of privacy, and lack of proper safeguards against the emotional crises of adolescence for both boys and girls. Exhaustion following excessive or monotonous toil weakens moral and physical resistance; and as a result of the inadequate provision for wholesome, inexpensive recreation, pleasures are secured at great risk.
In the summer of 1912 a notorious gambler was murdered in New York, and the whole country was shocked by the disclosure of the existence of groups of young men organized for crime and designated as ‘gunmen.’ There is not space here for a discussion of this tragic result of street life. It is probable that the four young men who were executed for the murder were led astray in the first place by their craving for adventure. They were found to have been the tools of a powerful police officer, and it was generally believed that they were mentally defective, and were thus made more readily the dupes of an imposing personality. They had not suffered from extreme poverty, nor had they been without religious instruct ion; two of them, in fact, came from homes of orthodox strictness; but it was plain from their histories that there had been no adjustment of environment to meet their needs. There was no evidence that they had at any t ime come in contact with people or institutions that recognized the social impulses of youth.
At the time of the murder I was in the mountains recovering from an illness. The letters I received, following the disclosure of the existence of the ‘gunmen,’ particularly those from young men, carried a peculiar appeal. Our own club members urged the need of the settlement’s extending protection to greater numbers of boys. Some of the young men wrote frankly of perils from which they had barely escaped and of which I had had no knowledge. They all laid stress upon the importance of preventing disaster by the provision of wholesome recreation which, as one correspondent wrote, ‘should have excitement also.’ Their belief in the efficacy of club control is firmly fixed. A few evenings ago, one of the young men of the settlement conversant with conditions, speaking to a new resident, defined a ‘gang’ as ‘a club gone wrong.’
Mothers from time to time come to the Henry Street house for help to rescue their erring sons. They come secretly, fearing to have their sons or the police trace disclosures to them. A poolroom on a near-by street, said to have been, at one time, a ‘hang out’ of the gunmen, and its lure evidently enhanced by that fact, was reported to us as ‘suspicious.’ The police and a society organized to suppress such places told me that the evidence they could secure was insufficient to warrant hope of conviction. Mothers who suspected that stolen property was taken there, made alert by anxiety for their sons, furnished me with evidence that warranted insistence on my part that the Police Commissioner order the place closed.
Formal meetings with parents to consider matters affecting their children are a fixed part of the settlement programme, and the problems of adolescence are freely and frankly discussed. An experienced and humane judge, addressing one such meeting, spoke simply and directly of the young people who were brought before him charged with crime, showing his understanding of the causes that led to it and his sympathy with the offenders as well as with their harassed parents. He begged for a revival of the old homely virtues and for the strengthening of family ties. A mother in the group rose and confessed her helplessness. She reminded the judge of the difficulty of keeping young people under observation and guarding them from the temptations of street life when the mothers, like herself, went out to work. Ordinary boys and girls, she thought, could not resist these temptations unaided; and speaking of her own boy, who had been brought before him, she summed up her understanding of the situation in the words, ‘It’s not that my son is bad; it’s just that he’s not a hero.’
I do not know who originated the idea of a ‘club’ as a means of guidance and instruction for the young. Our inducement to organize socially came from a group of small boys in the summer of 1895, our first in the Henry Street house. We had already acquired a large circle of juvenile friends, and it soon became evident that definite hours must be set aside for meeting different groups if our time was not to be dissipated in fragmentary visits. When these boys of eleven and twelve years of age, who had not, up to that time, given any evidence of partiality for our society, called to ask if they could see me some time when I ‘wasn’t busy,’ I made an appointment with them for the next Saturday evening, whereupon the club was organized.
It is still in existence with practically the original membership; and the relationship of the members of this first group to the settlement and to me personally has been of priceless value. Many of its members have for years been club leaders. They contribute generously to the settlement and in a variety of ways enter into its life and responsibilities. Clubs formed since then, for all ages and almost all nationalities, have proved to be of great value in affording opportunity for fellowship, and, during the susceptible years, in aiding the formation of character; and the continuity of the relationship has made possible an interchange of knowledge and experience of great advantage to those brought together.
The training of club leaders is as essential as the guidance of the club members. Brilliant personalities are attracted to the settlement, but it can use to good purpose the moderate talents and abilities of more ordinary people, whose good-will and interest are otherwise apt to be wasted because they find no expression for them.
Given sincerity, and that vague but essential quality called personality, in the leaders, we do not care very much what the programme of a club may be. I have never known a club leader possessing these qualifications who did not get out of the experience as much as it was possible to give, if not more. An interest in basic social problems develops naturally out of the club relationship. Housing conditions, immigration, unemployment, minimum wage, political control, labor unions, are no longer remote and academic. They are subjects of immediate concern because of their vital importance to the new circle of friends.
We remind our young people from time to time that conventions established in sophisticated society have usually a sound basis in social experience, and the cultivation of the minor morals of good manners develops consideration for others.
We interpret the ‘coming out’ party as a glorification of youth. When the members of the young women’s clubs reach the age of eighteen, the annual ball of the settlement, its most popular social function, is made the occasion of their formal introduction and promotion to the senior group. As Head Resident I am their hostess, and in giving the invitations I make much of the fact that they have reached young womanhood with the added privileges, dignity, and responsibility that it brings.
Intimate and long-sustained association, not only with the individual, but with the entire family, gives opportunities that would never open up if the acquaintance were casual or the settlement formally institutional. The incidents that follow illustrate this, and I could add many more.
Two girls classified as ‘near tough’ seemed beyond the control of their club leader, who entreated help from the more experienced. On a favorable occasion Bessie was invited to the cosy intimacy of my sitting-room. That she and Eveline, her chum, were conscious of their exaggerated raiment was obvious, for she hastened to say,‘ I guess it’s on account of my yellow waist. Eveline and me faded away when we saw you at dancing class the other night.’ It was easy to follow up her introduction by pointing out that pronounced lack of modesty in dress was one of several signs; that their dancing, their talk, their freedom of manner all combined to render them conspicuous and to cause their friends anxiety. Bessie listened, observed that she ‘could n’t throw the waist away, for it cost five dollars,’ but insisted that she was ‘ good on the inside.’ An offer to buy the waist and burn it because her dignity was worth more than five dollars was illuminating. ‘ That strikes me as somethin’ grand. I would n’t let you do it, but I’ll never wear the waist again.’ So far as we know she has kept her word.
When Sophie’s manner and dress caused comment among her associates, her club leader, who had been waiting for a suitable opportunity, called to see her on Sunday morning, when the girl would be sure to be at home. Sitting on the edge of the bed in the cramped room, they talked the matter over. As for the paint, — many girls thought it wise to use it, for employers did not like to have jaded-looking girls working for them; and as for the finery, — ‘Lots of uptown swells are wearing earrings.’
Contrasted with the girl’s generosity to her family, the cost of the finery was pathetically small. She had spent on an overcoat for her father the whole of the Christmas gratuity given by her employer for a year of good service, and her pay envelope was handed unopened to her mother every week.
Sophie finally comprehended the reasons for her friend’s solicitude, and at the end of their talk said she would have done the same for a young sister.
It is often a solace to find eternal youth expressing itself in a harmless gayety of attire, which it is possible to construe as evidence of a sense of self-respect and self-importance. It is, at any rate, a more encouraging indication than a sight I remember in the poor quarter of London. I watched the girls at lunch time pour into a famous tea-house from the near-by factories, many of them with buttonless shoes, the tops flapping as they walked, skirts separated from untidy blouses, unkempt hair, — a sight that could nowhere be found among working girls in America.
The settlement’s sympathy with this aspect of youth may not seem eminently practical, but when Mollie took the accumulated pay for many weeks overtime, amounting to twenty-five dollars, and ' blew it in ’ on a hat with a marvellous plume, we thought we understood the impulse that might have found more disastrous expression. The hat itself became a with elephant, a source of endless embarrassment, but buying it had been an orgy. This interpretation of Mollie’s extravagance, when presented to the mother, who in her vexation had complained to us, influenced her to refrain from nagging and too often reminding the girl of the many uses to which the money might have been put.
At the hearing of the Factory Investigation Commission in New York during the winter of 1914-15, a witness testified regarding the dreary and incessant economies practiced by lowpaid working girls. This stimulated discussion, and an editorial in a morning paper queried where the girls were, pointing out that the working girls of New York presented not only an attractive but often a stylish appearance. I asked a young acquaintance, whose appearance justified the newspaper description, to give me her budget. She had lived on five dollars a week. Her board and laundry cost $4. She purchased stockings from pushcart vendors, ‘seconds’ of odd colors but good quality, for ten cents a pair; combinations, ‘seconds’ also, cost 25 cents. She bought boys’ blouses, as they were better and cheaper. These cost 25 cents. Hats (peanut straw) cost ten cents; tooth-paste ten cents a month. Having very small and narrow feet she was able to take advantage of special sales when she could buy a good pair of shoes for 50 cents. Her coat, bought out of season for $7, was being worn for the third winter. Conditions were exceptional in her case, as she boarded with friends who obviously charged her less than she would otherwise have been compelled to pay; but there was practically nothing left for carfares, for pleasure, or for the many demands made upon even the most meagre purse; and few people, in any circumstances, would be able to show such excellent discretion in the expenditure of income.
In the tenements family life is disturbed and often threatened with disintegration by the sheer physical conditions of the home. Where there is no privacy there is inevitable loss of the support and strength that comes from the interchange of confidences and assurance of understanding. I felt this anew when I called upon Henrietta on the evening of the day her father died. The tie between father and daughter had been close. When I sought to express the sympathy that even the strong and self-reliant need, so crowded were the little rooms that we were forced to sit together on the tenementhouse stairs, amid the coming and going of sympathetic and excited neighbors, and all the passing and repassing of the twenty other families that the house sheltered. It would have been impossible for any one to off er, in the midst of that curious though not illmeaning crowd, the solace she so sadly needed.
Emotional experiences cannot be made public without danger of blunting or coarsening the fibre of character. Privacy is needed for intimate talks, even between mother and daughter. The casual nature of the employment of the unskilled has also its bearing on the family relationship. The name or address of the place of employment of the various members of the family is often not known. ‘How could I know Louisa was in trouble?’ said a simple mother of our neighborhood. ‘She is a good girl to me. I don’t know where she works. I don’t know her friends.
And the wide span that stretches between the conventions of one generation and another must also be reckoned with. The clash between them, unhappily familiar to many whose experiences never become known outside the family circle, is likely to be intensified when the Americanized wageearning son or daughter reverses the relationship of child and parent by becoming the protector and the link between the outside world and the home. The service of the settlement as interpreter seems in this narrower sphere almost as useful as its attempts to bring about understanding between separated sections of society.
Quite naturally it came about in the beginning of our understanding of the young people that we should take some action to protect them from the disastrous consequences of their ignorance; for it is difficult for the mothers to touch upon certain themes of great import. They are not indifferent, but rather helpless, in the face of the modern city’s demands upon motherhood. Rarely do they feel adequate to meet them. Yet they desire that their girls, and the boys too, should be guarded from the dangers that threaten them.
Years ago we invited the schoolteachers of the neighborhood to a conference on sex-problems and offered them speakers and literature. The public has since then become aroused on the subject of sex hygiene, and possibly, in some instances, the pendulum has swung too far; but we are convinced that this obligation to the young cannot be ignored without assuming grave risks. Never have I known an unfavorable reaction when the presentation of this subject has been well considered. It is impossible to give directions as to how it should be done; temperament, development, and environment influence the approach. The girl invariably responds to the glorification of her importance as woman and as future mot her, and the theme leads on naturally to the miracle of nature that guards and then creates; and the young men have shown themselves far from indifferent to their future fatherhood. Fathers and mothers should be qualified, and an increasing number are trying to take this duty upon themselves; but where the parents confess their helplessness the duty plainly devolves upon those who have established confidential relations with the members of the family.
When we came to Henry Street, the appearance of a carriage before the door caused some commotion, and members of the settlement returning to the house would be met by excited little girls who announced, ‘You’s got a wedding by you. There’s a carriage there.’ It was taken for granted in those days that nothing short of a wedding would justify such magnificence.
In one way or another we were continually reminded of the paramount importance of the wedding in the life of the neighborhood. ‘What!’ said a shocked father to whom I expressed my occidental revolt against insistence upon his daughter’s marriage to a man who was brought by the professional match-maker and was a stranger to the girl; ’let a girl of seventeen, with no judgment whatsoever, decide on anything so important as a husband?’ But as youth asserts itself under the new condit ions, the Schädchen, or marriage-broker, no longer occupies an important position.
When we first visited families in the tenements, we might have been misled as to the decline in the family fortunes if we judged their previous estate by the photographs hung high on the walls of the poor homes, of bride and groom, splendidly arrayed for the wedding ceremony. But we learned that the costumes had been rented and the photographs taken, partly that the couple might keep a reminder of the splendor of that brief hour, and also that relations on the other side of the water might be impressed with their prosperity.
Since those days the neighborhood has become more sophisticated, and brides are more likely to make their own wedding gowns, often exhibiting good taste as well as skill; though the shop windows in the foreign quarters still display waxen figures of modishly attired bride and groom, with alluring announcements of the low rates at which the garments may be hired.
At a typical wedding of twenty years ago the supper was spread in the basement of one of the public halls, and the incongruities were not more painfully obvious to us than to the delicate-minded bride. The rabbi chanted the blessings, and the ‘poet’ sang old Jewish legends, weaving in stories of the families united that evening. We were moved almost to tears by the pathos of these exiles clinging to the poetic traditions of the past amid filthy surroundings; for the tables were encompassed by piles of beer kegs, with their suggestion of drink so foreign to the people gathered there; and men and women who were not guests came and went to the dressing-rooms that opened into the dining-hall. Every time we attended a wedding it shocked us anew that these sober and rightbehaving people were obliged to use for their social functions the offensive halls over or behind saloons, because there were no others to be had.
An incident a few days after my coming to the East Side had first brought to my attention the question of meeting-places for the people. As usual in hard times it was difficult for the unhappy, dissatisfied unemployed to find a place for the discussion of their t roubles. Spontaneous gatherings were frequent that summer, and in one of them, described by the papers next morning as a street riot, I accidentally found myself.
It was no more than an attempt of men out of work to get together and talk over their situation. They had no money for the rent of a meeting-place, and having been driven by the police from the street corners, they tried to get into an unoccupied hall on Grand Street. Rough handling by the police stirred them to retaliation, and a show of clubs was met by missiles — pieces of smoked fish snatched from a near-by stand kept by an old woman. Violence and ill-feeling might have been averted by the simple expedient of permitting them to meet unmolested. Instinctively I realized this and felt for my purse, but I had come out with only sufficient carfare to carry me on my rounds, and an unknown, impecunious young woman in a nurse’s cotton dress was not in a position to speak convincingly on the subject of renting halls.
Later, when I visited London, I could understand the wisdom of non-interference with the well-known Hyde Park meetings. It is encouraging to note that common sense is touching the judgment of New York’s officials regarding the right of the people to meet and speak freely.
Other occurrences of those early days pointed to the need of some place of assemblage other than the unclean rooms connected with saloons. Walhalla Hall on Orchard Street, famous long ago as a meeting-place for labor organizations, provided them with accommodations not more appropriate than those I have described. When from time to time a settlement resident helped to hide beer kegs with impromptu decorations, we pledged ourselves that whenever it came into our power we would provide a meeting-place for social functions and labor gatherings and a forum for public debate that would not sacrifice the dignity of those who used it. Our own settlement rooms were by that time in constant service for the neighborhood; but it was plain that even if we could have given them up entirely to such purposes, a place entirely free from ‘auspices’ and to be rented — not given under favor — was required. Prince Kropotkin, then on a visit to America, urged upon me the wisdom of keeping a people free by allowing freedom of speech, and of respecting their assemblages by affording dignified accommodations for them.
It was curious, when one realized it, that recognition of the normal, wholesome impulse of young people to congregate should also have been left to the saloon-keeper; and the young lads who haunted undesirable places were often wholly unaware that they themselves were, to use their own diction, ‘easy marks.’
A genial red-haired lad, a teamster by trade, referred with pride to his ability as a boxer. In answer to pointed questions as to where and how he acquired his skill, he said a saloon-keeper, ‘an awful good sport,’ allowed the boys to use his back room. Fortunately the ‘good sport’s’ saloon was at some distance; and, suggesting that it must be a bore to go so far after a day’s hard work, I offered to provide a room and a professional to coach them on fine points if James thought the ‘fellows’ would care for it. James did not inquire if I had either the room or the trainer ready. A call next morning at the office of the Children’s Aid Society resulted in permission to put to this service an unused part of a near-by building, and during the day a promising boxer was engaged. When James called the next evening he had a list of young men for the club.
Some weeks later a ‘ throw-away ’ a small handbill to announce events — came into my hands. It read:
EAT ’EM ALIVE
GRAND ANNUAL BALL OF THE— OF THE NERSES’ SETTLEMENT 2
The date was given and the price of admission ‘with wardrobe’;'3 and to my horror the place designated for this function was a notorious hall on the Bowery, its door adjacent to one opening into ‘Suicide Hall,’ so designated because of several self-murders recently committed there. There was a great deal of mystery about the object of the ball, and the instructor, guileless in almost everything but the art of boxing, reluctantly betrayed the secret. They had in mind to make a large sum of money and with it buy me a present. They dreamed of a writing desk. It was a difficult situation, but the young men, their chivalrous instincts touched, reacted to my little speech and seemed to realize that it would embarrass the ladies of the settlement to be placed under the implication of profiting by the sale of liquor, — though this was rather delicate ground to tread upon, since members of the families of several of the club members were bar-tenders or in the saloon business; but the name of the settlement had been used to advertise the ball, and ‘there was something in it.’
To emphasize my point and to relieve them of complications, since they had contracted for the use of the place, I offered to pay the owner of the hall a sum of money (one hundred dollars, as I recall it) if he would keep the bar closed on the night of the dance; and I pledged the young men that we would all attend and help to make the ball a success if we could compromise in this manner. The owner of the hall, however, as some of the more worldly-wise members had prophesied, scoffed at my offer.
It was soon clear to us that an entirely innocent and natural desire for recreation afforded continual opportunity for the over-stimulation of the senses and for dangerous exploitation. Later, when the question could be formally brought to the notice of the public, men and women whose minds had been turned to the evils of the dance-halls and the causes of social unrest responded to our appeal, and the Social Halls Association was organized.
Clinton Hall, a handsome, fireproof structure, was erected on Clinton Street in 1904. It provides meeting rooms for trade-unions, lodges, and benefit societies; an auditorium and ball-room, pool-rooms, dining-halls, and kitchens, with provision for the Kosher preparation of meals. In summer there is a roof-garden, with a stage for dramatic performances. The building was opened with a charming dance given by the young men of the settlement, followed soon after by a beautiful and impressive performance of the Ajax of Sophocles by the Greeks of New York.
The stock was subscribed for by people of means, by the small merchants of the neighborhood, and by settlement residents and their friends. A janitress brought her bank book, showing savings amounting to $200, with which she desired to purchase two shares. She was with difficulty dissuaded from the investment, which I felt she could not afford. When I explained that the people who were subscribing for the stock were prepared not to receive any return from it; that they were risking the money for the sake of those who were obliged to frequent undesirable halls, Mrs. H. replied, ‘That’s just the way Jim and me feel about it. We’ve been janitors, and we know.’ The Social Halls Association is a business corporation and has its own board of directors, of which I have been president from the beginning.
Clinton Hall has afforded an excellent illustration of the psychology of suggestion. The fact that no bar is in evidence and no white-aproned waiters parade in and out of the ball-room or halls for meetings has resulted in a minimum consumption of liquor, although, during the first years, drinks could have been purchased by leaving the crowd and the music and sitting at a table in a room one floor below the ball-room. Leaders of rougher crowds than the usual clientèle of Clinton Hall, accustomed to a ‘rake off’ from the bar at the end of festivities, had to have documentary evidence of the small sales, so incredible did it seem to them that the ‘crowd’ had drunk so little.
It has been a disappointment that the income has not met the reasonable expectations of those interested. This is due partly to some mistakes of construction, — not surprising since there was no precedent to guide us, — largely to the competition of places with different standards which derive profit from a stimulated sale of liquor, and also partly to the inability, not peculiar to our neighbors, to distinguish between a direct and an indirect charge. In all other respects the history of this building has justified our faith that the people are ready to pay for decency. It is patronized by from five to six hundred thousand people every year.
The portrayal of youth in a neighborhood such as ours cannot be dissociated from labor conditions, and it was not incongruous that some of the deeper implications of this problem should have been brought to us by young women.
In the early nineties nothing in the experience or education of young people outside of labor circles prepared them to understand the movement among working people for labor organization. Happily for our democracy and the breadth of our culture, that could not be so sweepingly said to-day. Schools, colleges, leagues for political education, clubs, and associations bring this subject now to the attention of pupils and the public.
Our neighbors in the Jefferson Street tenement where we at first lived, had, like ourselves, little time for purely social intercourse. With the large family on the floor below we had established a stairway acquaintance. We had remarked the tidy appearance of a daughter of the house, and wondered how, with her long hours of work, she was able to accomplish it, — for we knew our own struggle to keep up a standard of beauty and order. We often saw her going out in the evening with books under her arm, and surmised that she attended night school. She called one evening, and our pleasure was mingled with consternation to learn that she wished aid in organizing a tradeunion. Even the term was unknown to me. She spoke without bitterness of the troubles of her shop-mates, and tried to make me see why they thought a union would bring them relief. It was evident that she came to me because of her faith that one who spoke English so easily would know how to organize in the ‘American’ way, and perhaps with a hope that the union might gain respectability from the alliance. We soon learned that one great obstacle to the organization of young women in the trades was a fear on their part that it would be considered ‘unladylike’ and might even militate against their marriage.
The next day I managed to find time to visit the library for academic information on the subject of trade-unions. That evening, in a basement in a nearby street, I listened to the broken English of the cigar-maker who was trying to help the girls; and it was interesting to find that what he gave them was neither more nor less than the philosophic argument of the book I had consulted, — that collective power might be employed to insure justice for the individual himself powerless.
The girls had real grievances for which they blamed their forewoman. One or two who had tried to reach the owner of the factory had been dismissed,—at the instance of the forewoman, they believed. It was determined to send a committee to present their complaints and to stand by the girls who were appointed on it.
The union organized that night did not last very long, for the stability of the personnel of the trade-union, particularly among women, cannot always be reckoned on. People as yet step from class to class in America with ease, as compared with other countries, and this has obvious democratic advantages; but it is not so fortunate for the trade organizations or for the standardization of the trade itself, which is thus continually recruited from the inexperienced. There is flux among the workers, the union officials, and the employers themselves. Among women, the more or less ephemeral character of much of their work, their frequentchange of occupation, and marriage, all operate against permanency. The girl who knocked at our door that night, to invite us to our first tradeunion meeting, is now in a profession.
Later, when we moved to Henry Street, Fannie, who lived in the next block, enlisted our sympathy in her efforts to organize the girls in her trade. She based her arguments for shorter hours on their need of time to acquire knowledge of housekeeping and homemaking before marriage and motherhood came to them, touching instinctively a fundamental argument against excessive hours for women.
We invited Fannie to a conference of philanthropists on methods of improving the condition of working girls, in order that she might give her conception of what would be advantageous. Representatives of the various societies reported on their work: vacations provided, seats in stores, religious instruction, and so on. ‘We are the hands of the boss,’ said Fannie when her turn came. ‘What does he care for us? I say, let our hands be for him and our heads for ourselves. We must work for bread now, but we must think of our future homes. What time has a working girl to make ready for this? We never see a meal prepared. For all we know, soup grows on trees.’
Fannie, who was headlined by the press during a strike as a Joan of Arc leading militant hosts to battle, had no educational preparation for leadership; no equipment beyond her sound good sense and her woman’s subtlety. Speaking once of the difficulty of earning a living without training, she told me that her mother could do nothing but sell potatoes from a pushcart in the street, ‘among those rough people.’ Then, repenting of her harshness, ‘Of course some of those people must be nice too, but it is hard to find a diamond in the mud.’
Frequent and prolonged conferences at the settlement with Fannie and Lottie, her equally intelligent companion, and with many others, inevitably led to some action on our part; and long anticipating the Women’s Trades Union League, we took the initiative in organizing a union at the time of a strike in the cloak trade. The eloquence of the girl leaders, the charm of our back yard as a meeting-place, and possibly our own conviction that only through organization could wages be raised and shop conditions improved, finally prevailed and the union was organized. One of our residents and a brilliant young Yiddish-speaking neighbor took upon themselves some of the duties of the walking delegate. When the strike was settled and agreements for the season were about to be signed by the contractors (or middlemen) and the leader of the men’s organization, I was invited into a smoke-filled room in Walhalla Hall long after midnight, to be told that the girls were included in the terms of the contract.
Though its immediate object was accomplished, this union also proved to be an ephemeral organization. For years I held the funds, amounting to sixteen dollars, because the members had scattered and we could never assemble a quorum to dispose of the money.
When, in 1903, I was asked to participate in the formation of the National Women’s Trades Union League, I recognized the importance of the movement in enlisting sympathy and support for organizations among working women. To my regret I cannot claim to have rendered services of any value in the development of the League. It was inevitable that its purpose, as epitomized in its motto, — ‘The Eight Hour Day; A Living Wage; To Guard the Home ’ — should draw to it effective participants and develop strong leaders among working women themselves. Those who are familiar with factory and shop conditions are convinced that through organization and not through the appeal to pity can permanent reforms be assured. It is undoubtedly true that the enforcement of existing laws is in large measure dependent upon watchful trade-unions. The women’s trade-union leagues, national and state, are not only valuable because of support given to the workers, but because they make it possible for women other than wage-earners to identify themselves with working people, and thus give practical expression to their belief that with them and through them the realization of the ideals of democracy can be advanced.
The imagination of New Yorkers has been fired from time to time by young working women who have had no little influence in helping to rouse public interest in labor conditions. My associates and I, in the early years of the settlement, owed much to a mother and daughter of singularly lofty mind and character, both working women, who for a time joined the settlement family. They had been affiliated with labor organizations almost all their lives. The ardor of the daughter continually prodded us to action, and the clear-minded, intellectual mother helped us to a completer realization of the deep-lying causes that had inspired Mazzini and other great leaders, whose works we were re-reading.
More recently a young cap-maker has stimulated recognition of the public’s responsibility for the well-being of the young worker. Despite her long hours, she found time to organize a union in her trade, not in a spurt of enthusiasm but as a result of a sober realization that women workers must stand together for themselves and for those who come after them.
The inquiry that followed the disastrous fire in the factory of the Triangle Waist Company in March, 1911, when one hundred and forty-three girls were burned, or leaped from windows to their death, disclosed the fact that the owners of this factory, like many others, kept the doors of the lofts locked. Hundreds of girls, many stories above the streets, were thus cut off from access to stairs or fire-escapes because of the fear of small thefts of material. The girls in this factory had tried, a short time before the fire, to organize a union to protest against bad shop conditions and petty tyrannies.
After the tragedy, at a meeting in the Metropolitan Opera House called together by horrified men and women of the city, this young cap-maker stood at the edge of the great opera-house stage and in a voice hardly raised, although it reached every person in that vast audience, arraigned society for regarding human life so cheaply. No one could have been insensitive to her cry for justice, her anguish over t he youth so ruthlessly destroyed; and there must have been many in that audience for whom ever after the little, brownclad figure with the tragic voice symbolized the factory girl in the lofts high above the streets of an indifferent metropolis.
Before the fire the ‘ shirt-waist strike’ had brought out a wave of popular sympathy. This was due in part to the youth of a majority of the workers, to a realization of the heroic sacrifices some of them were making (an inkling of which got to the public), and in part also to disapproval of the methods used to break the strike. Fashionable women’s clubs held meetings to hear the story from the lips of girl strikers themselves, and women gave voice to their disapproval of judges who sentenced the young strikers to prison, where they were associated — often sharing the same cells — with criminals and prostitutes. Little wonder that women who had never known the bitterness of poverty or oppression found satisfaction in picketing side by side with the working girls who were paying the great cost of the strike. Many, among them settlement residents, readily went bail or paid fines for the girls who were arrested.
Cruel and dramatic exploitation of workers is in the main a thing of the past, but the more subtle injuries of modern industry, due to over-strain, speeding-up, and a minimum of leisure, have only recently attracted attention. It is barely three years (1912) since the New York Factory Law was amended to prohibit the employment of girls over sixteen for more than ten hours in one day or fifty-four hours a week. The legislation reflected the new compunction of the community concerning t hese workers, though unlimit ed hours are still permitted in stores during the Christmas season.
Few people realize what even a tenhour day means, especially when the worker lives at some distance from the shop or factory and additional hours must be spent in going to and from the place of employment. And in New York, travel during the rush hours may mean standing the entire distance.
Working girls, in their own vernacular, have ‘two jobs.’ Those who have long hours and poor pay must live at the cheapest rate. Often they are not able to pay for more than part use of a bed; and however generous may be the provision of working girls’ hotels, the low-paid workers are not able to avail themselves of these. The girl who receives the least wage must live down to the bone, cook her own meals, wash and iron her own shirt-waists, attend to all the necessary details of her home and person, and this after the long day. The cheapest worker is also likely to be the overtime worker, a fact that is most obvious lo the public at Christmas time.
The Factory Investigating Commission, appointed after the Triangle fire to recommend measures for safety, has been continued for the purpose of inquiry into the wages of labor throughout the state and also into the advisability of establishing a minimum wage rate. The reports of the commission, the public hearings, and the invaluable contributions to current periodicals, are enlightening t he community on the social perils due to giving a wage less than the necessary cost of decent living; and as the great majority of employees concerning whom this information has been gathered are young girls, the appeal to the public is bound to bring recommendations for safety in this respect. The dulness of life, when pettiest economies must be forever practiced, has also been well pictured in the testimony brought out by the commission.
In this article I have sought to portray the youth of our neighborhood at its more conscious and responsible period, when the age of greatest incorrigibility (said to be between thirteen and sixteen) has been passed. Labor discussions and solemn conferences on social problems may seem an incongruous background for a picture of youth. Happily, its gayety is not easily suppressed, and comforting reassurance lies in the fact that recreation has ever for the young its strong and legitimate appeal; that art and music carry their message, and that the public conscience, which recognizes the requirements of youth, is ref lected in the increasing provision for its pleasures. ‘Wider use of school buildings,’ ‘ recreation directors,’ ‘social centres,’ ‘municipal dances’ are new terms that have crept into our vocabularies.
Though the Italians have brought charming festas into our city streets, it was not until I had admired the decorations that, enhance the picturesque st reets of Japan, and enjoyed the sight of the gay dancers on the boulevards of Paris on the day in July when the French celebrate, that it occurred to me that we might bring some color and gayety to the streets —even the ugly streets — of New York. For years Henry Street has had its dance on the Fourth of July, and the city and citizens share in the preparation and expense. The asphalt is put in good condition (once, for the very special occasion of the Settlement’s twentieth birthday, the city officials hastened a contemplated renewal of the asphalt); the street-cleaning department gives an extra late-afternoon cleaning and keeps a white-uniformed sweeper on duty during the festivity; the police department loans the stanchions and the park department the rope; the Edison Company illuminates with lavish generosity; from the tenements and the settlement houses hang the flags and the bunting streamers; and the neighbors — all of us together — pay for the band. Asphalt, when swept and cleaned, makes an admirable dancing floor, and to this street dance come all the neighbors and their friends. The children play games to the music in their roped-off section, the young people dance, and all are merry. The first year of the experiment, the friendly captain of the precinct asked what protection was needed. We had courage and faith to request that no officer should be added to t he regular man on the beat, and the good conduct of the five or six thousand who danced or were spectators, entirely justified the faith and the courage.
The protective legislation, the new terms in our vocabulary, and the dance on the street are but symbols of the acceptance by the community of its responsibility for protecting and nurturing its precious possession, — the youth of the city.
- While these articles are being written we learn that a child attending a settlement club has been involved in practices that indicate a perversion; but she cannot properly be included in the above classification because of her extreme youth. — THE AUTHOR.↩
- We have been popularly known as the Nurses’ Settlement, but our corporate name is The Henry Street Settlement. — THE AUTHOR.↩
- Hat and coat checked without charge.↩