It seems that a large proportion of working girls earn their living by sewing at various kinds of work. For, in addition to those classes already reported, a trip through four large shirt factories of Minneapolis reveals many more toiling at the same sort of work. As far as comfort or cleanliness were concerned, it seems to be “six of one and half a dozen of the other;” two factories were clean and bright, the other two dirty, damp and unhealthy. It is a fact worthy of note that in the two shops where sunshine and good air were plentiful and whose floors were swept occasionally, the girls seemed bright and healthy, most of them earning fair wages, while in dirty, badly ventilated factories, the girls were “always tired,” “had to quit on account of sore eyes,” “had headache and rheumatism,” and on account of ill health did not earn as good wages as they could have made in good quarters. Wages averaged about the same in all the factories.
A new scheme
I found a new scheme being worked on the employees in the shirt factories. The girls are obliged to furnish both machines and thread. By the law of evolution, girls will next be required to provide the material, also, in order to get a chance to put in ten hours a day at hard labor. My first visit was to the factory of Ely & Hambright, in the basement of a brick building, 16 Third street south. A flight of stone steps lead down from the sidewalk to the factory below. The steps were narrow and icy. “Look out there, you'll fall,” came a warning voice but too late. I had already arrived at the foot of the stairs with more speed than grace. I picked myself up, feeling like Pete Jones in the Hoosier Schoolmaster, “considible shuck up like.”
“When the steps are icy – they are most of the time – you don't want to try to walk; just stoop down and slide from one step to the other until you get to the bottom,” said one of the girls.
I clearly saw the wisdom of her advice, but smarting from my recent experience, groaned: “Why don't you have those steps cleaned off?”
“Oh the proprietors, when they come down, always say: ‘We must have those steps cleaned, some girl may fall and get hurt.' You see they do not have to climb up and down the steps several times a day like we do, so they go off and forget all about it, and we girls crawl up and down the same old way.”
“Come in and see us, anyhow, now you've got down stairs,” was the cordial invitation.
The light was so dim, after coming from the sunlight above, that for a few moments I could hardly distinguish one object from another.
Apparently the factory was neatly finished, but all light and air were provided by windows below the level of the sidewalk. The girls crowded close to the windows to get light enough for their work.
“Yes,” said one in answer to may questions, “It is damp and cold here in the winter, but that's because we're in a basement.”
back to top
Spoils a person's eyes
“Can you see to work here?”
“It is hard work, the windows are splashed with dirt all the time and it spoils a person's eyes to work in such dim light.”
“But the firm are always promising us better quarters, and p'r'aps we'll get ‘em some time,” said one cheerfully.
White shirts of various grades are made in this factory, the sewing machines being the ordinary sort run by foot power.
“Why doesn't the firm put in steam machines?” I asked.
“The firm don't furnish the machines; we buy them ourselves.”
“You get extra wages to help pay for your machines, don't you?”
“Well, I guess not; we buy our machines out of our regular wages, and move or repair them at our own expense.”
“What would you do if you wanted work and couldn't afford to buy a machine?”
“I'll tell you,” said another, “we can rent a machine from the firm at $3 a month.”
“Do the firm have machines to sell?”
“No; they rent the second-hand ones which they buy at half-price from girls who leave. But then all the factories do that.”
“You can buy one on installments of $5 a month.”
“Can you bring any kind of machine you wish?” said I.
“The proprietors insist on our buying from one agent,” said she.
“Maybe you get them cheaper that way?”
“Not much, we don't, but the firm gets $3 commission from the agent for every machine the girls buy.”
In order to see how it was, I went to the agent and asked for prices. He could sell me a good machine for $35 cash, but for some unexplained reason, if I came from the factory and wished to pay $5 a month, the same article would cost me $43.
“How much do you get a day?” I asked a girl.
“We're paid by the piece – make all we can earn.”
“How much apiece?”
“These are the poorest quality. I get sixteen cents apiece if they're well made,” she answered.
“How many can you make a day?”
“Then you earn about 64 cents a day.”
“About that, if I work steady; but the thread costs me about 7 cents, so the best I can make is $3.75 a week.”
I found that others received as high as 25 cents each for the finest shirts, and an expert could make five or six a day, the sewing girls finishing the garment, except buttonholes and initials. The girls found it tiresome work to run a machine all day steadily.
There were no harsh rules in this establishment, the girls being allowed to do as they pleased so long as the work was well done.
In answer to my questions as to why they didn't insist on having a better workshop, one said: “Why, you see the proprietors are always real kind and polite to their help. We don't like to be always asking. I guess they'll get us a better shop after a while.”
I admired her patience.
back to top
The half-price deal
The Whiting Shirt company, First avenue north, was next. Their factory is new, neatly finished and well lighted. It seemed to be the largest of its kind in the city. Steam sewing machines are used.
“Of course, the company provides these machines?” I queried.
“No, we buy them, all the same kind.”
“How much does one cost?”
“But this sort of machine wouldn't be of any use without the power to run it, so what do you do when you want to leave?” I objected.
“Oh, the firm would buy a machine back from a girl for $10 or $15 if it wasn't much worn, I suppose.”
Several grades of goods were being made, prices ranging from 15 to 23 cents apiece. “No one unless an expert can make more than seven shirts a day even on steam machines, because there is often a good deal of extra work on the fine grades, and they are very particular about having the work well done,” said an experienced hand.
Wages ranged from $6 to $9 per week. Some girls were working buttonholes by hand.
“How much do you apiece for them?” I asked.
“Don't you think it's about time for you to skip?” was the sharp reply. “The foreman don't let us talk much, if you even spoke to the girls down to Langley & Johnson's, you'd get chased out quick.”
I immediately wanted to see that place, so went straight to Langley & Johnson's on Second avenue south.
back to top
Too busy to be even civil
After climbing many flights of stairs and threading my way through various halls, I found the place in question.
The factory was clean, the sun shone brightly through the numerous windows and a canary sang loudly in his cage, but sure enough, there sat the girls all in a row working for dear life and never a word or a smile from them.
I spoke to a few of the girls, but they only pointed to the foreman and said never a word.
Thinking perhaps the foreman had a lot of deaf mutes employed, I thought I'd give him a chance to talk. I walked to the further end of the factory, where he sat in state stamping initials. But alas! he was too busy to be even civil.
I departed without unnecessary delay, but returned at noon. The foreman was out; the girls had found their tongues.
“Yes, we provide machines and thread.”
“Work ten hours a day.”
“Work by the week at first and by the piece after a while, when we've learned.”
“Why, yes, we can earn from 75 cents to $1.25 a day when we have worked five or six months,” were the various answers to my questions.
Nearly all of the girls boarded at home, and consequently could spend all their earnings as they pleased. They were a well-dressed, jolly crowd when not in terror of the foreman.
“You want to go over to Simpson & Henderson's and see how the girls work over there,” laughingly said one of the girls. “I know a girl who worked there three months, and she hasn't done anything since.”
“Don't ask us; go see for yourself.”
back to top
Smell from the backyards
After diligent search I found Simpson & Henderson's shirt factory crowded in a far corner of the laundry building on First avenue south. The walls and ceiling unfinished and dirt-begrimed, the factory separated from the engine room only by a board partition. There were several windows, but the dirt was crusted so thick on them that but little light straggled through. The smell of steam and intense heat were sickening, even at this time of the year. But the girls said: “If you can't stand this, you'd smother in the summer, because it's just awful then, even for girls that are used to it.”
“You have windows; why don't you keep them open?”
“Well, you see, it's Hobson's choice between the heat in here and the smell from the backyards in the block when the windows are open.”
Steam-powered machines, paid for by employees, were also used here.
The employees looked weary and dispirited.
Determined to find out why girls who were just learning, at low wages, were obliged to furnish, or rather purchase, machines, I asked a few questions. Finally a new employee said: “When we come to learn we are paid about $10 a month. The firm think that by requiring us to pay $5 a month on a machine, we are more likely to stay.”
“But that only leaves you $5 a month for your expenses,” I said.
“Oh, that pays my car fare and incidental expenses. We don't expect any more than that for the first three months.”
“Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed,” was my mental reflection.
“If you should fall ill and be obliged to leave before you had finished paying for your machine, would the money you had paid be refunded to you?”
“Of course not. The boss would claim what you had paid was only the rent for the machine and sell it to the next new hand that wanted a job.”
In this factory the work was divided in pieces, so that each garment went through several hands in the process of making.
“Can you earn good wages this way?” I asked.
“Yes, if you call $1 a day good wages, and like to stay in a shop like a prison,” was the angry reply.
I didn't ask any more questions. I was tired.