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The Chicago Times

"City Slave Girls"

  • While Among Chicago's Weak Serfs The Times' Lady Reporter Finds Mr. Gross's Good Jew.
  • Holding Her Nose, She Gazes Upon All Kinds of Soul-and-Body Starving Wretchedness.
  • In a Small, Dirty Room Filled with A Crowd of Women Life Seems Like a Hideous Dream.
  • To Save Space, These Unshackled Servants of Greed Are Compelled to Take Short Stitches.
  • Even Pins Are Not Given to the Employee and the Girls Have to Use Their Underclothing for Towels.

Two weeks ago Rev. Mr. Gross preached a sermon relative to the morals and progress of the working woman. Among other things he referred to a good Jew who, having the comfort of the hundred odd girls in his cloak factory at heart, provided every day for 1 cent a substantial lunch. I sent the reverend gentleman a note, inclosing a stamp for the address of the good Jew and in reply came the name of H. Zimmerman, 233 Monroe street. On went poverty's respectable rags, and off I posted for shop-work and a penny spread.

The elevator carried me to the top of the building where every week thousands of jackets, sacques, circulars, dolmans, and cloaks are turned out to supply the country trade of the northwest. Here in a crowded room, with low ceiling and dingy walls, poorly ventilated and insufficiently lighted, sit between eighty and 150 young girls surrounded from Monday morning until Saturday noon by the ceaseless clatter of the sewing-machines in an atmosphere so thick that it can be cut with a knife. The machines are run by steam, and not withstanding the great buckram fans overhead that revolve with a crackling noise the ceiling is so low and the air so hot as to be positively stifling to the initiated. There is the smell of dye from brown, blue, and black cloaks coupled with the still more offensive odor from the English plaids; along the pressing-table are the gas stoves where irons are heated and where the girls sponge and press collars and seams, each operation attended with a little cloud of steam and a stuffy, scorching smell that blows about and around the whizzing fans; clouds of lint from the textures in hand covers everything it constantly being inhaled by the sewers. Then, too, there is the smell of rancid machine oil; the overpowering exhalations from so many perspiring and unkempt persons and an occasional whiff from the six or seven toilets closets, all powerful facts of one might smell that must be smelled to be appreciated. The good Jew had all the windows open, but the place was so strong I almost fainted.

I have a seat in the middle of the room and a 35 cent Norfolk to make. It is so dark that I can hardly see my stitches as I thread to sleeve hole with black muslin. The forewoman can't see either till she takes the work over to the window to examine it, and returns with a gratifying, Guess that it will do.

We are so crowded along the line of tables that the girls are told to take short threads, and I duck my head every time the pale-faced, hollow-eyed girl at my left pulls her needle out, to escape being hit. She has only been able to make three 50 cent long cloaks in five days and says:

You won't mind my taking long threads; will you, if I don't hit you?

I tell her to pull away and offer to fell the bottom hem on her cloak to which she agrees. She has on a cheap jersey waist, a calico skirt, and the little bit of underwear that shows at her neck where she has opened her collar is as black almost as her jersey. Her shoes are broken and one of the uppers is mended with black thread. She lives with her folks and has a lot of little brothers and sisters, but the Q strikes have put them all out so that she hasn't bought anything for herself this year except a hat at the Fair.

Do you go to church? I ask.

What'd I go to church for?

For the music and the sermon.

I want a seat, though, and I'd rather ride down to the shop and back than pay 10 cents to get in the pew.

A poor little creature, bony and grimy, and wild-eyed as the marchioness goes down on her hands and knees and turns out the dust in the cracks of the floor with the eye of her needle.

I'm huntin' for pins, she says, to fix on the braid.

Doesn't Zimmerman provide you with pins?

Indeed he doesn't; nor with nothin' else but fannin' and what's the good of fans in an oven?

The child turns up the pins some of them bent, and puts them first in her mouth to straighten them and then in the bosom of her dress humming to herself, Rock of Ages. At the expiration of the hunt a new difficulty befalls her. The needle's eye is stuffed as she says and in an effort to remove the filling off goes the head optic and all. Nobody has another to lend and I give her mine. She says she is Pat and the daughter of a Twelfth street teamster. Her mother is living and she and her brother help the family along.

Yes, I went to school and learned numbers and geography, but I can't sew very well. The forelady says that's why I don't make more. I got $2.75 one week, but I don't know how much I'll earn this week. I used to be in the Fair and they gave me $2 runnin'-checks I didn't like it there, because I never got home till 8 at night and the boys was guyin' us all the time.

At noon time the girls crowded into the wash-room and those unable to reach the already wrining-wet towel that hung near the sink dried on their dresses. I saw a tall young German woman wash her arms and neck and shake off the water as well as she could with the palms of her hands before putting on her dress waist again. Another, a girl of 14, who wore a plaid skirt and an old velvet jacket, dried her hands on her underclothing. The lunch the good Jew served consisted of a cup of black coffee that was neither nutritious nor fragrant, and minus cream and sugar, for which the girls paid 2 cents a cup. Then there were cuts of pie at 5 centseach, which delicacy, architecturally speaking, had two stories, substantially built, with a water-proof inner lining of fruit mucilage. The top crust had bubbled up in the baking till it was a warty as tripe, and tenacity of the under dough would have sufficed for hinging a cellar door. This is certainly not the lunch Rev. Mr. Gross referred to in his sermon, but it's the only one the girls in the Zimmerman factory knew anything about.

However profitable the menu may have been to the firm it was anguish to many of the hungry toilers unable to procure it. We girls who had no money to invest in the appetizing viands sat by, begging with our eyes and following with melting mouths every morsel on its way down the throats of our neighbors. One of us, a mite of a girl, wan-faced and hectic, who had been watching the mastication of a well-fed machine-hand, waited till the leathery strangle of peach-paste had almost disappeared and then asked to consumer to give her the crust.

When the well-fed party said naw the child called her a dirty beggar and laid her little head on her arm for a nap. I went out to buy a needle and some day when it rains and the wind is never weary I shall send in a bill for the 20 cents H. Zimmerman owes me on a cotton-back Norfolk. Only a half hour was allowed for the noon rest during which the girls washed and combed, trimmed their finger-nails with scissors, and talked, or went to sleep.

All hands were on deck at 7:30 in the morning, in which manner and the 5:30 hour of closing the Saturday half-hour was made good to the firm. Many of the girls told me they made ten cloaks a week which averaged 30 cents apiece. Work was good, the season covering 10 months of the year. A number of men at work on the long cloaks had chairs at the side of the girls and knew well enough personally I did not polish them for they were saturated with tobacco fumes and smelled a foul, sweaty, sickening odor.

-Nell Nelson