The Autobiography of a Labor Leader

MAY, 1923

BY JAMES H. MAURER

I

I WAS born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1864. Both my father and mother were of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ stock. My first memory is, at three years of age, of carrying an old basket containing a few fish-heads, through the Reading market, and calling out, ‘Fish, stinko!’

Father was a policeman. One of his duties was to keep the coal-oil streetlamps on his beat lighted. Twice a week he made a tour with a ladder, five gallons of coal-oil, cotton waste, and wicks. If a lamp was left burning at the break of day, or after the moon rose, the officer was blamed. The police called out the hours of the night and the nature of the weather. I remember hearing a Pennsylvania German officer going down his beat shouting, ‘Twelve o’clock and makes someding down like drizzle.’ Robbers had an easy task, because they always knew just where the policemen were.

Among my many playmates was a boy named George. He and I often visited his grandmother, who lived a block away. I enjoyed these visits because she understood our appetite. One time we stayed at the grandmother’s place the greater part of the day. Children do not realize the passing of time, but mothers do. My mother looked for me all over the neighborhood. Father returned from work, and I was still missing. In his alarm he ordered out the bell-ringers.

In those days, it was the custom to send out men with bells when a child was lost. Above the din of the bell, these bell-ringers would call out, ‘Child lost! Child lost!’ So they kept ringing and crying till the city was covered. Trailing behind the man with the bell came a group of children. On this day, when the first group passed the house where I was playing, I joined the crowd and for a time helped to search for the lost child.

Finally one of the searchers found me. He told me to run home, as my daddy had a beautiful present for me. Often he brought us children a present. So this story that my father was waiting for me with some gift was not a surprise, only cheerful news. Homeward I ran, happy with the thought. I did not take time to go round to the rear of the house, as my custom was, but rushed into the house through the front door. There, standing in the front room, was father. Instead of coming to me with outstretched arms and greeting me with a hug and a kiss, as he usually did, he began to thrash me with what is known in the trade of shoe-cobbling as a shoemaker’s strap. It is one inch wide and about one eighth of an inch thick.

Finally, mother rushed between us, and gathering me in her arms, took me to bed. When she removed my clothes, she suddenly began crying. She called father, and said to him, ‘See what your temper has done.’ Some years later, she told me that my body that evening was discolored and bleeding, looking like a battered-up beefsteak. Father’s temper vanished when he saw my hurt body. Tears rolled out of his eyes. What I suffered was nothing compared to the joy I felt when daddy knelt beside my bed and kissed me.

‘Jimmie,’ he said, ‘tell me, why did you do it?’

‘Do what?’ I asked.

Up to that moment, I had no idea what the fuss was all about. To my surprise, father told me it was I who had been the lost child; that I had been away from home for more than a half day, without my mother’s consent. I promised never to leave the house again, without first telling mother, and I never did. Even to this day, the habit of leaving word with some one when I am going out still sticks to me.

When my brother Charles was ten and I was six, we delivered the Reading Daily Eagle to a route of customers. That was over fifty years ago, and Reading, even with a city water-system, still tolerated a number of village pumps, and this in a city containing about five thousand cesspools. Scattered throughout the city were drainholes, some of them small lakes in size. At the southeast corner of Ninth and Bingaman streets was one drain-hole where we boys, with strings and bent pins, used to fish. We never caught any. I question whether even a worm could have lived in that slime-covered hole. There was another place known as Katzermayers’ Slough, and into it flowed much of the surface water from the mountains. There was a creek running on Culbert Street, and it was an open sewer, with many toilets emptying directly into it. The tannery drained its refuse into this creek, which ran through the entire southern end of the city. As I look back, I see that the city was rotten ripe for the pestilence and death that were slowly settling upon it.

It was during the winter of 1871 that Reading had the plague of smallpox. There was no quarantining; not a single house was placarded. Ignorance on the part of our community singled out father as the victim in our family. He had black smallpox. Within a few day’s of taking sick, he turned black and became delirious. Our house was not placarded. Visitors came and went. Brother Charles and I continued covering our newspaper route. Mother had her hands full: three boys to look after, one a baby of two years, I eight, and Charles twelve; the house to run; and father to nurse.

When father died, mother was alone with him. Brother Charles and I were selling papers, and the baby was with a neighbor. I was the first to arrive home. As I stepped into the kitchen, mother took me in her arms, and said, ‘Jimmie, Pap’s dead.’ I fancy I can still feel the warm tears as they came from mother’s eyes and rolled down my cheeks. She was not hysterical. She wept as people do when you think their hearts will break. A little later, Brother Charles came, and mother said to him: —

‘We will keep the family together. You and I will get jobs. You will be a little father to your brothers, and we will raise them.'

This little father was not yet thirteen years old, and was physically frail; but the small body had nerve and grit and common sense.

On the day after the funeral, we took the straw chaff-bag and bolster, on which father died, and emptied the straw on the back lot. The same day, and many days thereafter, we boys played circus on it.

Charles got a job at fifty cents a day, with a wool-hat manufacturer. Mother thought she could earn money by taking in washing; but we lived in that part of town where the poor people lived and did their own washing. She finally got a job at the cotton factory, eleven hours and twenty minutes a day and nine hours on Saturday — 66 hours a week, for a total of $3.30. The combined earnings of mother and Charles were $6.30 a week, provided neither lost any time. These earnings were not enough to make ends meet, so we had another family double up with us in our small house.

In the morning, before I awoke, the rest of the family had left. On his way to work, Brother Charlie would carry the baby to the home of one of my aunts, and bring him home in the evening. From early in the morning until six in the evening, I was left alone to roam the streets. I liked to loaf round the cinder-bank and listen to the yarns of the professional bums, as they told of their travels. My one great ambition was that, some day, I too might grow up to be a bum. In those days, there were no such things as compulsory-education laws, or truant officers, no childlabor laws, no mothers’ pensions. The state seemed unconcerned as to how its children grew up. It was this early experience that led me into the fight for legislation. I knew the life of the poor because I had lived it. Each bill I later fought for was based on the struggles of boyhood.

Mother tried hard to keep the family together, but the task was too great. So I was told I was to go to my grandparents. The last week, I was busy hunting up my acquaintances and giving them good-bye. Among them was one just a little different from the rest: her name was Mary. Mary and I had often sat on the old pump-bed in our back alley and talked of what we should do when we grew up. Now I was to leave on a long journey of fourteen miles. On the day I left, Mary was the only one I looked up. We both cried, and I kissed her. It was the first time I had ever made bold enough. She handed me a Sunday-School card, and told me to keep it to remember her by. Down in my pockets I went. I had several marbles and an iron ring, a few fish-hooks, a piece of colored glass, and a Barlow knife-handle (the blades had broken off). The knife was the most valuable piece of property I owned, so I gave it to her to remember me by. We then parted, and I never saw her again. That evening, as the sun was setting, I arrived at my new home.

II

My grandparents lived fourteen miles from Reading, in Rockland township, along the highway that runs from Dryville to New Jerusalem. Here on a small farm lived my father’s mother and his step-father, his half-sister, and their dog, Dick. My step-grandfather was the village blacksmith, Jacob Mayer, reputed to be one of the strongest men in Eastern Pennsylvania, a kind-hearted and gentle giant. He made most of the cutlery and hardware for the neighborhood. He had made his own razor, which he seldom used. When grandfather shaved, everyone knew this meant that he was going away.

To reach the old stone homestead was a two-mile walk from the station. The first to greet me was Dick, the family dog. His bark of welcome brought the old man out of the blacksmith shop and the women-folks out of the house. I stayed with these kindly people for over a year and a half. I had a good home, and I saw a remnant of the feudal and hand-craft order.

In the living-room of my new home stood the eight-day grandfather’s clock, reaching from the floor to within eighteen inches of the ceiling. It did not make much difference whether the clock ran or not. These people lived by routine. There was certain work to be done before breakfast, and other work before dinner and supper. This work was done, no matter what the clock might say about it. After supper, we went to bed when it got dark. Sometimes the family forgot to wind the clock by its endless chain, which made a noise like the hoisting machinery of a coal wagon. When they finally decided the clock should be started again, it was set by the sun. At a certain hour the sun left a shadow at a spot in the yard. Sometimes visitors from the city would compare their watches with our clock and point out that we were an hour fast or slow, and suggest we set the old clock right.

‘Why should we?’ I once heard grandmother ask; ‘we set our clock by the sun, and God regulates the sun, so why don’t you set your watches to our sun-set clock?’

On one of the neighborhood farms was a pottery, on several a tannery. The spinning-wheel and weave-loom were used by a few. Production was carried on for use, and not for sale. Very little money changed hands. I often heard grandmother say: —

’Eggs should never sell for less than a cent a piece, and potatoes should always fetch, at least, forty cents a bushel.’

The people raised their own broomcorn and made their own brooms. All the clothing was made in the home. The crops were sown pretty much in the same way they were when Christ was on earth, and the scythe and cradle reaped the harvest. The community moved in groups from one farm to another, and put away the crops. These were joyful occasions, with great feasts and plenty to drink. The people lived a simple life, with wholesome food, and I have no recollection that there were any poor people about, or that, at any time, any one was in want. One thing these people understood, which modern industry has lost, and that is making work a pleasure by creating a holiday spirit round the work. An apple-butter party lightened the toil of sorting, paring, stirring, and boiling. So with husking corn and threshing wheat.

In less than a year I could speak Pennsylvania Dutch better than English. Pennsylvania Dutch or German is a language spoken by no one else on earth. Some of the words are German, others English, and most do not seem to belong to any language. Take the word ‘potato.’ In German it is Kartoffel. In Pennsylvania Dutch it is Grund Berer (ground-berry). English was taught in school, but the children talked the native brogue. I never heard any of the old folks, except the schoolteacher and my aunt, speak English. My grandmother, born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and ninety-seven years old when she died, could not have spoken a half-dozen connected words in English, if her life had depended on it. It seemed to me these folk were proud of the fact that they did not speak English.

They were intensely patriotic and anti-British. Most of them had ancestors who served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. In nearly every household was some relic of the Revolution, — a sword, horse-pistol, flintlock gun, powder-horn, or bulletmould, — and round it a history. In politics, the people were Jacksonian Democrats. When they voted, they voted the Democratic ticket and felt that they were still voting for Jackson. If there was a Republican in the neighborhood, I never heard of him. When Republicans were referred to, they were called ‘Black Republicans’; but little politics was talked.

Newspapers were almost as scarce as money. I remember within the last twenty-five years visiting an uncle, then eighty-two years old, who was reading about a horse-sale from a Reading paper. I knew that, the man about whom he was reading had left for the South long before, so I asked to see the paper. It was three years old. I said, —

' Why, uncle, this sale took place three years ago. See, that’s how old this paper is.’

‘What’s the difference how old the paper is?’ he replied. ‘That does n’t, change the fact there was a sale and the horse was sold and the price paid as much as two good horses are worth. News is news, no matter how old.'

On New Year’s morning, in that valley of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the men shouldered their guns, and in groups of three or four visited the neighborhood. Everybody received a call. Standing in front of the house, they fired. At the salvo, the neighbors stepped out on the stoop. Then, in one voice, all the gunners sang, ‘Mere winchen eigh oll en Hileich es Glick Saileichs vey vore.’ (We wish you all a holy, lucky, Christian New Year.)

Yet there were times among these kindly people when I was homesick. Once I heard a locomotive whistle. ‘There,’ I thought, ‘goes the train that would carry me home.’ I ran toward the gate, crying, ‘Mother, mother, I want you.’

My grandparents explained to me that I had no home any more, other than theirs; that mother and brothers were now boarding. This made no impression on me, because house and furniture did not mean home, but, mother did.

III

A little later I went back to her, in Reading. She was still a young woman and, after a widowhood of two years, she had married again, and the family returned to housekeeping. I now found myself back among English-speaking people and able to understand very little English. Up to this time, I had not had, all told, ten months’ schooling. Nearly ten years old, big for my age, I could not spell. It puzzled the teachers to know what to do with me. I was too big for the primer class and too dumb for anything higher, so they put me ahead. The boys felt that among them there was some force that made for discord. I had the whole school on my hands to whip. I had to fight my way to school in the morning and home again in the evening. I was not only a new boy in school, but a ‘Dutch Bush Kid,’ and too infernally stupid to know a thrashing was coming to me. I refused to be thrashed, and this meant the long drawn-out war.

The panic of 1873 and after was now upon us. Work was scarce, and wages low. There were six of us to feed, and the family income was thirty-five dollars a month. Day after day I tramped over Reading, looking for work. One boss, after looking me over, said, ‘What can a little chap like you do?’ The family decided I should try to find a new home. With an old carpetbag over my back, I started out.

I walked fifteen miles, to the place where my mother’s father lived. He said, ‘What do I want with you?' I went on to Aunt Louise, who treated me kindly and kept me over night. But she was poor, and could not give me a home.

Next day at noon I struck out for Aunt Betsy’s. She lived at the Red Run Hotel, in a place called Red Run — still seven miles to go. My shoes were ragged, and my feet were sore. Suppose this aunt, like the two other relatives, was to say, ‘Sorry, but I can not keep you’? I figured out that by night I should be twenty-two miles from Reading and thirty-six miles from grandmother’s. I kept walking. The sun was setting, and soon it would be dark. I asked a man if I was on the right road to the Red Run Hotel. He pointed to a building not more than half a mile away. I walked to the rear of the hotel, and rested on the roadbank. I saw several children and a woman standing on the rear porch of the hotel. I was hungry and foot-sore and sick at heart. I asked myself this question, ‘Suppose she turns me down, twenty-two miles from mother, thirty-six miles from grandmother — what will I do?’

I must have cried, because the next instant the woman came toward me. She shouted, ‘It’s my Jimmie!’ Aunt Betsy picked me up, carpet-bag and all, and carried me to the kitchen, with the youngsters all anxious to get a look at me. At the commotion Uncle Hen came in from the barroom. They gave me a washing, doctored my bleeding feet, put Cousin Bill’s clothes on me, and gave me supper. Not until an hour later did they ask me to explain. I told them my story — all I had experienced, not only on the two days’ journey, but in the last year or so.

When Uncle Hen heard my story, he brought his big fist down on the table, and swore an awful oath.

‘Well,’ he went on, taking me in his arms, ‘there are only seven of us and one more won’t be noticed. You stay right here.’

Then he carried me into the barroom and sat me on the bar. Addressing the half-dozen patrons he said, —

‘Men, this is Jimmie Maurer, son of Jim Maurer, my best friend. He died several years ago. Some of our relations did this boy dirt. I mean to make them eat it.’

When Uncle Hen was away, Aunt Betsy ran the hotel and the bar. Saturday evening was a noisy affair. There came a Saturday when uncle failed to return until nearly midnight. Early in the evening, the patrons began to liquor up. Aunt Betsy refused to sell any more strong drinks. A dozen men lined up in front of the bar, demanding liquor, or they would clean up the place. Behind the bar stood auntie, with a stout hickory club, offering to crack the first skull that came back of the bar.

Suddenly there was a crash. The building shook. During the confusion, a thunderstorm had come unnoticed upon us. The rain fell. One of the men, called ‘Gid,’ rushed to the open door, shaking his fist at the sky and defying God to strike him and the rest of us dead with lightning. He repeated his defiance, and there came another crash of thunder, putting out the hotel lights. While auntie lit them again, my cousin Wayne told her what Gid was saying. Auntie was rather deaf, and at first could not gather what he said. She finally understood. Gid was still at the door, defying God, when auntie reached him. With her left hand, she grabbed him by the back of the neck, and with the right by the slack of his trousers, and sent him out into the rain.

Bit by bit, she cleared the barroom, and locked up for the night. We went to bed, and Aunt Betsy called up the garret stairs to us, —

‘Now, boys, don’t forget to say your prayers.’

Some few weeks after I came to Red Run, Uncle Hen told me to put on my best clothes and go along with him for a ride, to visit my grandfather Lorah. This was the grandfather who had turned me away on my walk. Over to grandfather’s we drove. Uncle Hen told him in plain Pennsylvania Dutch what he had to do. The old man objected. Then uncle told me to stand up. Pointing to me, he said, —

‘Those are the best rags he owns, and he is your own daughter Sarah’s boy.’

Finally the old fellow weakened, and the three of us went to the village store. Grandfather bought enough goods, lining, thread and all, for a suit. Uncle Hen bought me a pair of shoes, and a pair of boots with red tops and brasstipped toes. I took my red-topped boots to bed with me, and wished that, when I awoke, the earth would be covered with snow. It was midsummer.

During the next ten days I was annoyed a good deal by one of the neighborhood women and Aunt Betsy, who made me stand erect while they fitted the new suit. They made a good big job of it because I wore it for several years, growing all the time, and it never got too tight.

IV

Just as I was becoming supplied with clothes and acquainted with the country and the people, there came a message to return to Reading. Mother had found a job for me. I arrived home in the morning, and at noon I went to work. It was in a hardware plant, and my job was to drill holes in small pulleys for window-casings. This department was known as the Third Floor Drilling and Riveting Room. At least a hundred boys, ranging in age from ten to fifteen years, worked in this department. I had no idea how much pay I was to receive. In those days it would have been considered impolite to ask about wages when being employed, and it might have endangered the chance of getting the job. After working two weeks, I received my first pay for five and one-half days. It was one dollar, for fifty-five hours work. The dollar looked good to me, and in high spirits I rushed home. Mother was pleased. That night after supper she gave me two cents for spending money, and told me I should not be selfish but divide with my step-brother Frank. This I did.

I continued on this job for two and a half years, and, with the exception of four weeks, my wages averaged a dollar a week. Then our plant bought another place and turned it into hingeworks. About twenty of us youngsters were transferred there. My machine drilled four holes as quickly as the old machine drilled one, and I believed that by turning out four times as much work, I should get four times as much pay. My pay-envelope showed no change.

We boys agreed to strike, and we selected a representative to talk it over with the boss. He told us to be patient because the company planned to put in machines that had twenty drills each. My first pay for operating twenty drills was three dollars for five days’ work. The week following I drew $3.85. I now had visions of a dollar a day, if I mastered the machine well enough by speeding up to keep everyone of the twenty drills drilling every minute of the day. In the third week, two wageadjusters came. Word was passed among us to slack up. Everyone, with a single exception, agreed. He was a red-headed fellow who intended to quit soon for another job. The timekeepers used this red-headed pacemaker to fix prices. Two weeks later, when the new rates took effect, we found our wages cut one hundred per cent. Instead of obtaining three or four dollars a week, we now could earn only a dollar and a half and two dollars a week. I told the boss we were turning out about twenty times as much work as formerly.

‘Well, Jimmie,’he said, ‘if you don’t like it, why don’t you quit?’

Some of the boys favored going on strike. Others refused. There was no strike. I stayed on the job, but lost all interest in the work. The day began to drag, and the clock became attractive. This was true of most of us. Half our drills went idle. The red-headed pacemaker quit, and became a patternmaker’s apprentice. I suppose this was his reward. In time, we learned how to put the machines out of commission without being suspected, and this gave us license to assemble in groups and play while the machines were being repaired. In this way the firm developed a scientific bunch of sabotagers.

Finally, I made my escape from this child-exploiting institution, and went to a wool-hat manufacturer’s. My job here was easy, pasting pictures in hats, for 35 cents a day. Since I was now earning $2.10 a week, I received ten cents a week for spending money. My step-brother Frank had an equal sum; so between us we had twenty cents — more money than we knew what to do with, because five cents would buy all the peanuts or taffy we could possibly eat. So with our savings out of spending-money we bought glassware for mother. Every pay-day we came home with something nice for her old-fashioned sideboard. Mother was proud of these gifts. Although it was cheap ware, she had it nearly all still displayed on her sideboard, thirty-eight years later, when she died.

Every boy wants a sled, but few of us could buy a store sled. Most of us had ‘Blockeys,’which we made ourselves. When I was eleven, I made my Blockey out of an old mortar-box. With an axe, mother’s butcher-knife, and an old buck-saw, I worked out the runners, braces, and top board. A search through the dump, and I had nails. For iron runners, I found half-round iron in the scrap-yard of the Philadelphia and Reading. Finally, the sled was built, but not painted. With an empty gallon can in my hands, I went up to the railroad-yard where men were painting freight cars. I asked them for enough paint to paint my sled.

‘ Listen to the kid,’ said one of the men; ‘he wants paint.’ And he lunged at me with his paint-brush.

‘Didn’t you ever make a sled?’ I asked.

‘What are you going to name your sleigh?' he went on.

‘Sarah,’ I answered.

‘Sarah!’ he roared with laughter, ‘And why Sarah?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘because it is a nice name, and anyway I want my sled named after my best friend.’

‘Who in hell is your best friend?’ he yelled.

‘My mother,’ I said.

‘So Sarah is your mother’s name, and your sled is to be named after her?' said the man. He looked me over for a few seconds, and added, ‘You re all right, kid. Give me your bucket.’

I got more paint than I needed, and an old brush. In a few days Sarah was on the hill, and it was one of the fastest sleds that ran any of the dozen long coasts of Reading.

(A concluding chapter from Mr. Maurer’s autobiography will be published in the June Atlantic.)