Bruce E. Baker

Humanity in Our City — Accounts of the Laboring Poor in New Orleans, 1873

Humanity in Our City. Our Poor White People. Among Mechanics, Longshoremen, and Laborers—At Their Firesides, with Their Wives, Sons and Daughters. Hard Times—Grocery Credit and the Wonders of Daily Life"

New Orleans Times, Feb. 23, 1873, p.5

One class of people, the world over, knows not how the other class lives. Like oil and water, no commotion can reduce these elements to a general compound. The heart of a great city throbs like some immense machine under the agitations of the hour, tender with pity or maddened with despair, but more generally, under the sore burden of human existence, with all its worrying distresses. While the fashionable beauty rises from her feverish pillow every morning, perplexed and annoyed as to what particular dress will suit her craving for novelty, and the pompous millionaire is bilious and sad at the idea that there is nothing in the gift of earth sweet to the taste; the more robust child of nature, soothed by the relaxation of labor which the night imposes, and strengthened by the conservative specific of healthy sleep, rises with the sunlight renewed for the coming day. The reckless rush of busy life that fills the air and reverberates far away over the distant prairie continues, and is driven madly onward by the sea. With a deep thud the tread of a great city silences every sound within it, and the miseries and mysteries of life are deeply hidden in the noise and bustle of the hurrying crowds.

What matters it to us, that the beggar, maimed and hungry on the thoroughfare, challenges our pity, or that the proud honors of accidental wealth flaunt before us the trophies of a usurped power? We study the pictures as we find them, and are charmed, or disgusted, as they caricature our sympathy or our hate. Besides, it is not to be imagined that what we most admire as striking in either case, can ever lead us to a proper conformity with one or the other. The delusion is of our own creation, and we worship it unknowingly, either momentarily or continuously during a whole lifetime.

Although nobody felt the same sympathy with us, as we stood in the grand church aisle surrounded by a great congregation, happy in the possession of worldly wealth, and witnessed the rich and beautiful maiden receive her diploma from the wise men of our time, while the worshipers prayed for, and the professor eulogized her virtue and her innocence, we could not at heart enjoy the ceremony, because we knew that at that moment a thousand "poor Jo's" were seeking shelter, some even in the nooks and corners of church palaces, who had never heard the name of God in all their lives. We did not approve the first picture, because it had no sympathy with the second; but we felt pity as we contemplated the latter, because it came up before us as truthful in its own nativity, soulless, friendless, and alone.

Our city, once the home of plenty, whose resources, times past, poured out treasures to foreign capitals, and chartered fleets to go spread the story of our wealth and greatness throughout other lands, leads us to examine the condition of useful labor among us to-day. We promise not to visit the counting-house of the merchant or consult the statistics of trade, but go abroad and converse with those who are daily dependent for bread on their bodily labor. We advance firstly, that at the present time the market is largely overstocked with raw and unskillful labor, as it is confined so strength alone, and that skill, though in large excess, is generally safe in securing a purchaser. It is not the personal fault of either that the market is thus unsettled and incapable of securing to each what its hourly demand require, but it is self-evident that to sustain existence at all the skillful hand must in a measure be patronized and protected against any introduction of a less valuable article, and held apart above the competition of its less qualified rival. While we regret to chronicle instances where skillful labor has been purchased at less cost than is usually paid for roustabout service or mule driving, we do not state that a good mechanic can fail at any time to secure an everyday independence. Those who pretend to know anything about it will, as they certainly must, charge the account to our political troubles, be surprised if we can point out a house of eleven medium sized rooms, plastered in good style, for twenty-five dollars; and again, the builder will be astonished and alarmed for his profession, if we can exhibit two forty foot chimneys built for ten. These are not precedents going to show that mechanical labor has no claim, or meets with less compensation than that to which it is justly entitled, but to show beyond contradiction to what extent the mechanic and laborer are at the mercy of events. At present, no class of our people suffer more from the political evils that threaten our existence than the class alluded to. They of all other classes have more need of peace when their support is entirely subject to the confidence or the disorganization of our domestic affairs. The events of a day may cut off their supplies for months and leave their families destitute. For this, there is no substantial remedy, other than the reunion of all their interests in a common cause.

As we shall have, subsequently, to speak of the screwmen, we give it in advance that our description shall in no case refer to the Association formed under that name, which takes rank among the very best societies of our city. That Association has not only fulfilled the objects of its organization, but in real benevolence, industry and steady example, has won for itself, above all others, the best confidence and respect of our people. He, of whom we shall speak, is the Arab of his profession, who knows not the value of united action, and is an outcast from the brotherhood, who would feign win him into their midst and make him as themselves, but who, as he appears to all, is a drawback to their interest and a shame to their calling.

The street laborer as we now find him is an example of patient industry, frugality and sobriety. He is stationary and vigilant. His family is very large, averaging very often among Irish people from four to seven; his rent at least is ten dollars a month, and a wise check is thus placed forever before him. He is generally complainant of hard times, and is in continuous fear that the job he is engaged in will be completed, for the loss of half or a quarter day in a week may create grave suspicions at the corner grocery, and have a tendency to limit the extent of his credit and securing his Sunday dinner. As to whisky, he only touches it on Saturday night, to wash down his throat, as he says, the dust of the week. Of course he is modelled in character and crusted over, as it were, with the same roundabout duties that have dogged him through life, but his heart is generally warm, although tired, and it is good to sit by his fireside when the little ones are about, and share his potluck without disparaging his hospitality, or giving him to understand by word or look that you are any better than he.

The outcast cottonman, whose want of steadiness and good behavior debars him from the benefits of the Screwmen's Association, and the everyday indifferent longshoreman, whose existence is still more precarious, seldom claim to merit as a class the reward necessarily attendand on an untiring industry, such as that of the more ill-paid and overworked day laborer. Their wages as a rule are much higher, and perhaps too small for the rush and turmoil of their hourly engagements as compared with that received by the other for the quiet routine of his daily or weekly employment. Their labor and compensation are as uncertain as sunshine and rain; and the anxieties which quicken, as they lie heavily on the life of the street laborer, are unknown to them. Their homes and families are less comfortable and more poorly provided for, so that with all the drawbacks attending the laborer, he is infinitely more prosperous with his small pay and constant application than his better paid, but less industriously occupied, neighbor. The cotton and longshoremen's money come to them in a hurry. It is forced upon him as the demands of commerce require it; for the most part he is indifferent about his employment, and to become possessed of a good savings account as stands to the name of any member of the Screwmen's Association seldom enters his mind.

On Saturday night the dust washing is carried on, in proportion to what is left after settling at the corner, and on Monday morning he commences to draw again on the resources of the grocery bar, in the hope of never again, after that one drink, tasting another until after St. Patrick's day or Christmas.

As to dress, they generally on Sundays and holidays wear broadcloth, and we may here relate an instance tending to show what a sort of pride their high and uncertain wages entail: A week or two ago we encountered a friend of ours of the longshore business, with a pair of new black pants just purchased. We had seen him four months previous, Sunday and week day, with his old red shirt and greasy pantaloons, and knew, from himself and landlady, that these articles constituted his entire wardrobe. He then and there informed us that he had been given fourteen dollars to make good the bargain, an announcement which made us feel humiliated, as we never had the honor of strutting in such costly extremities. "You could get a strong, nice pair for two," we ventured, and he was off.

The longshoreman, within the last few months, has realized a position which he could not boast of before. The strike in last October gave him a distinct status, but how long he can maintain it is uncertain. The question of wages being equal as to white and black, of course stevedores always prefer the former, and as a general rule agree that in every case, the wages being no longer a consideration, there is no hesitation in deciding which should be employed. These are paid four dollars a day, an amount equal to that paid to our best mechanics, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths, etc. They, however, seldom work more than four days in the week, often much less, and of course uncertainty and carelessness come in as a general drawback, and make him no better in pocket than the average man employed in general job-work about the city. The continuance or extent of the job constitutes its real value, which is always more to be considered than the half day, quarter day, or no day occupation inevitable on the landing. Thus it is obvious that the warehouse or street laborer has a standing of a much higher character, and are better paid on the whole than either the cotton screwer with his six or the longshoreman with his uncertain four dollars a day. In the one case their wages are regulated by the month or year; in the other by the day or the hour. The small weekly savings of the former are multiplied every week; in the latter the question of saving impossible. It is always plenty and squandering, or idleness and beggary.

A peep in at the corner grocery, the unlicensed stand for bad whisky, green pork and rotten vegetables, and then we enter the poor man's house, receive courteously our "good evening, sur," and take our place at the table, perfectly satisfied with our humble fare, and the stares of the children, as they silently regard our intrusion. "An whool be Governuer, d'ye think, sur, MacHinery or th' other fella?" but the questioner, without waiting for a reply turns and whispers to his old partner to send over Jinny for a "dhrop." The withered gray shawl is then called into requisition, a big brown pitcher is produced, and the picayune furnished, to soothe the frowning countenance over at the corner, anxious as it peers forth from behind the counter that another score of bad debt is about to be chalked from a house that was long suspected. The child soon returns. A watery or milky fluid is mixed and presented, and we take and enjoy the stuff in the same good faith and honest purpose which brought us to his fireside. A casual remark follows the inquiry as to the Governorship, and then about bad times. Here we also find, as we do in thousands and thousands of homes about the city, a sad satire exhibited, regarding the proud honor of a universal suffrage. The possessor of this privilege before us knows not whether it is a new pattern of a plow, an omnibus, or a bombshell, because he never exercised it, although he deposited a slip in a ballot-box fifty times, as directed, compelled or coerced. But he knows well that times are slack and have been during the fall, as he never remembers before. His wife, in all respects motherly, suggests now and again how things used to be five and twenty years ago when they were first married, and even when Kitty was a slip of a girl, how different the times were from now. We might refrain from noticing Kitty's blush at this moment but for the entrance of a cheery sort of lad, member of a base ball club just organized in the neighborhood, and is full of detail as to pitching, scoring, innings, and the match to come off on Sunday; Kitty of course is indifferent, and is glad to show that she doesn't care for him, while glances of doubt pass between the old couple as to what may be the end of it, the mother momentarily in danger of asking him curtly, what prospects has he to be able to keep a wife; an incident which even our own dearth of sensibility dreaded. It is worthy of remark here to note the air of confidence, and manly superiority exhibited in the lad's face, as to how he shall meet that same mother's question in time to come, and which certainly affords an agreeable comparison with the young clerk or salesman, who dresses daily in purple and fine linen, but who is yet doomed never to experience the matter-of-fact, every day freedom of his humble, and poorly clad brother. No anxiety shadows the honest face before us, as to how his way lies through the world, or as to winning his simple little sweetheart to break ground with him in the new and exciting enterprise, which shall link them together.

It has often been urged that the well dressed young gentleman engaged at the ledger or at the counter has a keener and more extended knowledge of the world on such important matters, and that the so-called independence of the mechanic's son characterizes his ignorance, and demonstrates to what reckless drudgery and hard labor will entice their victims; that the former prudentially and properly bides his time till something "turns up," when he can then take his wife and live comfortably—the young and unaspiring maiden, for the same purpose, satisfied with the postponement until forsooth, that shadowy something does turn. This argument is not tenable, either in proposition or result, and can never be maintained to bolster up a want of true courage in either boy or girl. Much, too, has been said and written of the lugubriousness and total want of purpose that go to make up the personnel of Bridget and Katrina, and that we may despair of successful comparison if we contemplate the foresight, thoroughness and womanly capacity of the New England or Southern girl.

We can only say in return, that the ornamentation, refinement, sagacity and fixed purpose, of the latter we would not accept in exchange for the rich, tender and motherly love of the former. Deeds of trying devotion to the distressed, attest in countless thousands of instance, the true and rich inheritance of Bridget's and Katrina's legacy. Their loves are as sacred, and their gratitude as tender as the human attributes can make them; and the good deed done and the kind word spoken are always treasured in the repository of their faithful breasts. It is good to see Kitty as she now appears to us, as rich in affection as she is capable of indifference; but a well lies deeper still, ready to pour out, like the blush on her cheek, a warm and pitiful acknowledgment of what real sorrow is, or that the rude spoken boy at her side whom she tenderly loves, and who loves her in return, may never disregard the sacredness of his undertaking, we heartily pray, so much so, that we deem it fair to give them some advice, which can never fail of making them happy in their wedded life. The first thing to be done after Kitty and James have entered into their bargain, is to start penniless and unaided into the enterprise, without the slightest fear of failure, or expectation that anyone will come to their assistance. If they wait for three or four years after engagement, as our young gentlemen, so-called, generally do, the energy and good purposes with which they set out in the beginning, will be dead and gone at the very time they most need their encouragement. Kitty, in the early days of her housekeeping, may and will make many mistakes, but that is her privilege, and it is far better that it should be so, than if she succeeded by having the prying eyes of her aunt or stepmother dogging her movements directing her duties and correcting her mistakes. These auspicious personages should, as a rule, unless dependent, never be admitted as a member of the family, and if they do, they must be given to understand that strict obedience must, in all cases, be rendered to Kitty. The newly appointed household must not brook intrusion from mother, stepmother, aunt or elderly sister; no, not even the angels, if they attempt, by word or look, to influence the actions and absolute freedom of the young couple. They may quarrel sometimes among themselves, but the young pair we would advise to stick close and uphold each other, right or wrong, against the whole world. If Kitty and James understand this maxim, their little room will be a citadel, capable of resisting the intrusion of even the National Government, but the moment that one sides with a stranger or a relative against the other, the secret of their power is taken away, and selfishness, irritation and fault-finding dismember the institution and render them helpless in the hands of those who presume to act for them. Mothers, sisters and aunts, however good their intentions, must be regarded as the common enemy the moment they assume to counsel or suggest. The dominion of the young wife, so far as regards her household duties and responsibilities, must be absolute, and any infringement of either, however slight or well meant, is dangerous.

This to Kitty.

In the places which we have visited, and the firesides to which our business called us, the apparent misunderstanding of these few principles was strongly prominent. Go where we will, in fact, we seldom find them, yet we opine they are highly philosophical. Wife treatment, as we were led to scrutinize it, was in most cases adverse to what we have laid down, nevertheless we deem it of some importance even to the simple Kitty, and we advise young James to study and adopt it. Happily, with all the mistakes attendant upon poverty, and the rude struggle for daily subsistence, the fidelity and strong personal attachment of the poor man and his wife are good. Few records of divorce are tainted with the infidelity of either, yet their treatment of one another is generally harsh; the unremitting efforts of both being a continuous struggle with the world and themselves.

It is not for us as a stranger at their gates to charge them with any want of attention. Their courtesy and hospitality, rude though they be, are always abundant, and often beyond their resources. The little one that we take upon our knee during supper regards the occurrency as of no consequence, beyond the momentary pre-eminence in which her brothers and sisters do not share. Our glass has been already replenished by a second purchase at the corner, the picayune is again dropped into the pitcher, and a third investment is contemplated. Kitty and James, of course, are standing at each corner of the door, lovelorn, huge slices tell sadly on the diminishing loaf, as each youngster cries out, and the old man again more boldly than before inquires, "An whool be Governer, d'you think sur. McHenery or th' other fella? How's the election goin on?"—both of which are repeated often in consequence of our inability to answer. "D'you think it's the election that does it?" on a comment made by his wife on the dullness of the season, and "divil's a bap'orth's doing anywhere," he adds in conclusion, as we again nod our head in the affirmative of the wife's proposition. And so the evening passes away until bed time, leaving a dolorous echo behind of—"An whool be Governer, sur?" and the woeful times now when there is nothing to do.

The corner grocery with embattled galleries over head, having rooms fronting toward the street, in each of which there is a separate family, invites our attention now, and we grope our way among a noisy gathering of children on the doorstep, meditating felonious attacks upon the unpounded goats who stray about chewing wrapping paper or watching a propitious moment for a direct descent upon a heap of potatoes on the floor inside. A tall, thin, elderly Irish woman presides, competent in all cases to tally the weekly credit or take cognizance of the affairs of the neighborhood, both as to public gossip and private drawbacks, and at the moment we enter several voices chime approbation to the justice of her authority. We need not stop to enumerate the various goods and merchandize temptingly displayed in any form but that of neatness and regularity, but endeavor at once to penetrate the lattice work which partitions off a sort of domestic bastile, fortified with whisky barrels and other stand of small arms, in the shape of pitchers and glasses. Having accommodated ourselves we broach the subject of hard times again, in the conduct of which we discover other pen-and-ink evidence of the poor man's follies. The grocery ledger is a marvellous specimen of modern hieroglyphics, in the deciphering of which, correctly, we gain a new standpoint in our sketch, and show by facts and figures the ruinous effect, as we before hinted, of low and uncertain wages. The ledger exhibits in rude black balances much that may be discreditable to the victims of uncertain labor. Those having the highest rate, of course have the largest run of credit, yet long weekly arrears tell how difficult it is to induce them to pay as they go. The outcast cotton man, as we have stated, earns no more than sufficient to enable him to drink and idle about several days in the week. The street laborer, on the other hand, works always; his wages are small, he lives on coarse food, but it is always paid for, and is sweet, while the other relies and lives upon, not what he contracts for at the grocery, but what he could earn at any time if he could procure the work. Hence, there is no saving, no comfort, in their homes, but starvation, and a continuous drain upon the resources of the grocery. No wonder we felt so, when we were informed by the proprietor that of all her customers the best paid were the worst, on account of the uncertainty of employment. One must be amazed sometimes at the heroic forbearance of these local, hand-to-mouth merchants. Week after week the same old worn story of hard times, yet the creditor and grocery man himself has no remedy, he must be punctual to the wholesale dealer, or his supplies are stopped forthwith. The staple article of the establishment is whisky, which is doled out carefully in large quantities, for five cents, more perhaps than is usually allowed to three men at any of our well-to-do barrooms, and it is affecting to witness the little children, averaging from seven to ten years old, making their appearances at the counter, often five or six times in the course of the evening, with the same brown pitcher and the requisite picayune. The poor have no choice as to how they will enjoy themselves. The blacksmith's child, with tiny face and dishevelled hair, appears at the same spot almost every evening, smiling, perhaps, in the innocence of her oft-repeated errand, without offering any explanation why her father's weekly income is always reproduced in bright and shining picayunes. The score of family credit on the books of the house has no connection whatever with her own special purchases of whisky. The consequence is, that although the score is greatly beyond the present resources of her father, and a source of continual anxiety and worry to the proprietor, yet the pale and quiet child is always received with the freedom of an old acquaintance, and treated kindly. The countless instances of distress that challenge our attention now, the modes of living, and the means appointed, are well worth the attention of the rich. If we took the City Fathers by the hand, we could lead them to scenes of life quite embarrassing to their paternal dignity. Hundreds and hundreds of tenement houses can produce the poor widow, or the half starved, maltreated wife, whose existence depends on the retail of a little soft soap, charcoal and whisky which they purchase with their earnings at washing, and sell out again at a profit, to the less unfortunate but equally destitute. The dark plague spots of intemperance are visible everywhere. Industry languishes under the oppression of the enormous army, who rush out daily, without the steady purpose which alone can make her prosperous. The ring of the anvil, or the throb of the machinery, are silenced by the rude clamor of the half starved hand-labor population that overcrowd our city, leaving our fair fields devastated and overgrown with the foul offspring of the wilderness.

Go out into the byways of our city, ye men and women of good and tender hearts, and see if there is any pity left to relieve the wants of those who pine in the silence of damp and sickly houses, and waste their lives away in sorrow and beggary. Come to us, and in person we will conduct you safely to where the water of affliction floweth abundantly, and the frown of famine has settled down in heavy shadow upon the faces of human victims within your very call. Come, and we promise to reproduce in living truthfulness the realities of what we have attempted to describe in these columns, that you may not discredit the honest purpose of our calling, in enjoying their cheerless firesides.


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