Bruce E. Baker

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

Humanity In Our Cities. Among the Sewing Girls. Their Work-rooms and Homes—What they Wear and How they Live. Their Beaux, Brothers and Sisters—Their Earnings, etc., etc.

New Orleans Times, Mar. 10, 1873, p.2

"With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags
Plying her needle and thread—
Stich! stich! stich!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,
She sang the 'Song of the Shirt."
* * * *
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A shroud as well as a shirt.
* * * *
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread—and rags."

Perhaps, if we were to cast about for a class of human beings, in all respects dependent, untiring in their industry, and patient in their quiet walk of life, we could not pass by that of the sewing girl, as we find her in this city. Unlike New York, Paris, or London, no tale of horror has ever been brought to light in our midst, of one of this poorly paid and overworked class, whose death resulted from the cruel treatment of heartless employers, as is often the case in all large cities in the world, where they are goaded and confined to their labor all day, and oftentimes far into the night, for a pittance only sufficient to keep body and soul together. Indeed, the best minds of this and other countries, more than once, suggested the propriety of subjecting the life of the sewing girl to the sanitary supervision of municipal authority, to the end that their health and well-being might be protected against the remorseless greed of modistes on the one hand and the domestic exactions of fashion on the other. The city milliner, forsooth, has long considered herself the guardian of, and having a life interest in this species of property, and known in thousands of instances to have undermined the health of a whole family of poor girls, as they each in turn hired to learn dressmaking, or other of the requisite qualifications of remorseless fashion. As a class, too, the sewing girls, although always helpless and at the mercy of those who employ them, exhibit in their industrial character a steadiness of purpose in all respects admirable. Rain or snow never, as a rule, hold her at home, yet the whole errand of her life is thankless and unimportant.

No protective union has ever been established in her interest; no great men ever come forward to give their influence in her behalf; no special legislation has ever been invoked in her assistance, because few, if any, ever imagine but the mission of the sewing girl is her's by nature and inheritance, and that she must therefore work till her temples throb and her eyelids burn with pain, from morning to night and from night to morning, as a punishment inherent in her sex. We would like to know how far, or to what limit, the endurance of her nature is to be tried, and by whom. The world outside of her humble home regards her living at all just so much as she by much overwork and very small remuneration can conduce to the cheapness of the broadcloth upon them, over which her fingers blistered and her head ached. The world believes that her lot is cast among roses rather than sharp pricking needles, and that the routine of her business is to run the machine, dress neatly, be modest in her privations and untiring in her energies and endurance.

Even in the matter of their daily labor, they are the oppressed of all classes. The journeyman tailor, the blacksmith, or mechanic, may rest over his bench at intervals, a privilege which they never know. The milliner or wholesale manufacturer never countenances such a waste of time, in the long unbroken hours of sewing girls' labor. They do not make their profits by the piece, but by single stitches, sewn fast and incessantly from morning to night in their marketable products. "A stitch in time" has a satirical and ghostly significance with them, and is highly scriptural, which she that believeth not shall be dismissed. The world interprets the proverb otherwise, but the sewing girl regards it as the mansonic watchword of the entire race of manufacturers; that it was adopted by resolution among them against her peace and dignity, and designed solely in its proper construction to imply a threat. If the world applies the wise maxim differently, she cannot help it; it is no concern of hers.

Few care to notice her as she trips lightly along the street at early morning, neat and trim. The green veil thrown back over her jaunty hat, is as significant of her profession as the trowel is that of the bricklayer. Why she invariably dons it is no business of ours, farther than to notice it. Morning after morning, on our way to business, we have encountered the same cheerful faces, the same lithe and airy forms, and the same conventional style of head-dress, hurrying past on their way to the factory of the obscure dress-makers, with their lunch or dinner safely stowed away under the threadbare shawl. Their cheeks rosy, their eyes bright, and contentment or hope making a sober or gladsome expression of face, and all telling how plainly that the cunning and corruption of the times has not yet affected them. Long before the din and clamor of busy life begins upon our streets, they are on their way to work. They seldom walk alone. Their workmates join them as they pass along the streets, and they often go a short distance out of their direct route to inquire about the health of the vivacious Jennie, that they may have it to speak about during lunch time, or raise a suppressed gossip through the day.

Their workrooms are scattered broadcast over the city. The alley and the grand boulevard are each the rendezvous of fashion, whose drones are ever laboring to satisfy its absorbing demands. The low dark backroom of the cottage house, as well as the rich parlor, is peopled with busy hands in the different grades of work, which poverty and riches call into action, to suit their tastes. The weather board swings as freely in the alley, as elsewhere. The spacious workrooms of the extensive factory supply no greater novelty than Madam's dingy backroom, whose walls are draped with the cast off raiments of the poor, and where the blacksmith's wife or daughter examine with a great deal of interesting observations, the styles and patterns which have long passed away, but which serve their purposes now. To these places daily do the children of the poor repair in their pursuit of subsistence, or the more unfrequent pursuit of knowledge, some to receive their daily bread only, others a reasonable and fair remuneration.

While there are many establishments in the business portions of our city, deserving of much credit for providing healthy and comfortable workrooms for their employees, there are others whose means ought to enable them to do likewise, but who do not. Into some of these rooms we were readily conducted by the proprietors, while others barred their doors against us in a hurry. No inference of course can be drawn from the conduct of the latter class, further than the waste of time and labor, consequent upon our intrusion. Indeed, one of the most extensive manufacturers in the city informed us, on applying for admission, that where a hundred and fifty girls were seated at work under his charge, he never remembered an instance, where, upon the entrance of a stranger, they did not, one and all, stop work, and not resume until the visitor departed. However long or short his stay, [-?-] the same thing, not a stitch [-?-] be set, not a machine started, [-?-] [?thing]—the entire room, which a moment before resounded with the click of the machine and alive with busy hands, paused suddenly, and became as quiet as the grave. The face of the intruder, struck with momentary paralysis the entire establishment, and nothing less than instant departure could restore it to animation. It may be proper here to state, that in such places piece work is unknown. The girls are hired by the day, or week, and can, as a consequence, afford to suspend labor whenever the slightest pretext offers. Here they are paid from fifty cents to two dollars per day, in the order of their ability—men's clothing being the exclusive product of the establishment.

In many places, however, the picture was not so pleasing. Within a mile of the Clay statue we found thirty girls in a room, altogether grotesque and seemingly happy. Here were represented all styles of dress, all nationalities and all ages, sitting on chairs in the centre, and flanked round the apartment on every side closely huddled together. The window was open, for it was a warm day, but looked out on a dreary yard below. Those who never penetrated one of these secret places can never imagine our embarrassment as thirty or more pair of eyes, with the rapidity of light itself, were riveted on the yielding door as it admitted us into the sanctuary, and how, in a twinkling, every piece of work was dropped as a thing despised. It was in vain that we tried to familiarize the inmates with the daring intruder before them; they looked and looked and stared at us, till our face glowed again, and our very hair rose to admit of being counted one by one. Every button on our vest underwent a strict enumeration; every motion of our hands was regarded with excitement; every line in our abashed face was photographed upon the bright piercing eyes. With the inevitable titter, which of course we momentarily looked for, we turned about. The titter of course saluted our vanishing figure, and we felt easier, as we heard each and every one express a different opinion as to our appearance, our age, our uncomeliness particularly, and the thousand and one other observations which followed us to the door—all uttered in one unbroken chorus.

The Madam, whose establishment never numbers more than three or four at any time, generally, if not always, receives them into her household, and under her special tutelage, direct from the family circle, and absolutely free from the contamination and rebellious tendencies peculiar to factory life. Sundry exchanges of bargain and sale are entered upon, and negotiations brought about with their parents as to the precise manner of the sewing girl's initiation into the mysteries of puffs and furbelows. The Madam, after exhausting human language in the praises of her profession, and the manifold advantages which are now at the disposal of the girl, concludes after much hesitation and apparent anxiety that she will take the poor woman's daughter on trial, and if found industrious and willing to be scolded, half fed and worked constantly without murmur, will be handsomely remunerated, in addition to the free and valuable instruction necessary to the training of a prospective milliner; giving them to understand, too, in language unmistakable, that the girl will, during her probationary term, receive her living only, but that she will be treated as one of the family, and partake of every advantage, as if she were her own child. It is often quite refreshing to witness the apparent disinterestedness and charitable condescension exhibited on these occasions of hiring out, the Christian dignity of the Madam affording a brilliant contrast with the abashed and grateful mother before her, and how ample are the allowances made for her rude gratitude as it finds utterance in words. Usually the girl has nothing to say; or if she has, it is only to give twofold evidence of their admiration of her queenly benefactor in admitting into her establishment. The bargain accomplished, everything goes on fine for a few days, the gossip and ostentation of the entire workroom being called into continuous exercise, to create the grand first impression, which goes so far ever after, in securing the submission and respect of the sewing girl. She is there entertained and bewildered. Her companions exercise her powers of conversation and intellect to a degree quite fatiguing, and dispel all regrets of home in a few days. On her return home, however, at night, she has a great deal to tell and nothing to reflect upon. She has the most beneficent of mistresses to work for, and is learning a useful profession. Her sisters congratulate her on her advancement without jealousy, and what never happened before, she is closeted with her mother oftener now than ever.

As a rule the home of the sewing-girl is to be found in the upper part of the city, extending from Felicity road to Eighth street. They have no choice of locality, however, the necessity of their lives alone being to find subsistence for themselves and those dependent on them. Usually she is the pet of the household, so much so that even her younger sisters, on being admonished that it is bed-time, insist upon the inquiry, "Did Kitty come home yet?" her appearance being always the announcement of that important fact. She then puts away her "things" in a convenient place, and it is a poor house indeed where the tea-pot does not sing a cherished and familiar ditty by the fireside as she enters, say at 9 o'clock, if employed by the private milliner, or 7 if employed at the factory. If then there is a tea party within walking distance, or the sound of a violin within hearing, Kitty feels uneasy, notwithstanding that she feels tired and will be compelled to sit up an hour later, to "put a stitch" in father's coat, or run a "baste" in the new calico dress for Sunday. On the whole, too, she has very little to communicate to those about her, the stress of the day having unnerved her system, but the all-important "stitch" or "baste" remains to be completed. If she works at all for herself, it can only be done when father, mother, and the rest have gone to bed. She is the modiste of the family apparel, sometimes irritable, of course, but is generally contented and happy; the more helpless and poor her surroundings the greater her fidelity.

Her continuous intercourse among her workmates, although it never alienates her affections from her brothers and sisters, has a tendency to check the friendly expressions of her affection toward either. This is particularly so with her older brothers, her intercourse with them being little more than making them available as escorts in her Sunday evening excursions. These are usually appointed during the preceding week. In any part of the city, apart from the centres of traffic, it is not uncommon to see boys and girls sitting on the doorsteps in all their brilliant adornments at command, on a fine Sabbath evening, but she never forms any part of these pleasing pictures. Until late in the afternoon, perhaps, she has hardly an opportunity to "try on" the dress which has cost her so many hours of healthy slumber during the week, and then the sphere of her pleasures is limited to a few hours. She goes or comes as she pleases she has a controlling influence in the family circle; her younger sisters regard her as being vested with certain powers and responsibilities, since she began to "hire out," and silently acquiesce in all that she says or commands. Her father and mother too, are compelled in all respects to profit by her remarks and experience, for the most part, gathered loosely from her workroom companions, or stared into her by the lady at whose table she eats during the convivial entertainments of tea, which take place before she is dismissed by the establishment at night. Certainly it is that she is worthy of whatever distinction she receives at home, and as much more from those who profit by her labor.

It is late into the night, but she has not yet retired—the factory dependent, who at all seasons of the year gets something to do at home. Hood's famous "Song," so illustrative of its day and generation, is equally applicable now. The sewing machine is a luxury—not a necessity—and, cheap as it may be, it is not within the reach of those who really need it.

The sewing girl's dress, although homely, is always neat. Independent of our knowledge of her earnings, the sober pattern and economical cut of her calico, enables almost any one to ascertain the extent of her expenditures. It is in most cases true that she has nothing left for her own personal enjoyment, and has always, except in stormy weather, to forego the luxury of a ride to or from her place of business. A single cup of coffee and a slice of toast is generally adequate the make up her morning meal, when she departs on her mission as happy and hopeful as she can possibly be. If she lives within five or six blocks of a companion, she generally favors the opportunity of her company, after providing herself with the plain luncheon for dinner, and they start off in concert to the abode of needles and thread, the original and requisite staples of their usefulness. As they advance downward, others, whether workmates or not, join them, and it is not uncommon to encounter as many as ten or twelve together.

The extent of their acquaintance therefore is unusually large, from the peculiar circumstances under which they are placed, and the thousand and one embarrassments of their life, which link them in a kind of protective yet defenceless sisterhood, and call out the sympathies and hopes of all without any restraint whatever. Five minutes conversation will make them as staunch friends as if they had known one another from childhood, and they will pour out their little secrets into each other's ear without let or hindrance.

The sewing girl, as well as her prouder sisters, cherishes the beau ideal. Her heart once fairly won is true to its own promise and is worthy of Dick's acceptance. As it has often been said that, the first and all-absorbing thought of a woman's life is marriage, whether in the kitchen or the palace, we may be forgiven if we venture to open up the hidden aspiration of poor Kitty on that important subject. The simple hopes of her girlhood are as easily wounded, and the virtuous jealousy of her nature as quickly aroused, as those of prouder lineage, while her fidelity has on thousands of instances been worthy of the angels. Not that she is par excellence, the faithful of her sex, but because the simplicity of her untutored bosom yields so easily to a responsive sympathy when she knows and feels that it is honestly and truthfully given. The bashful beau need never trouble himself as to how the great question is to be put. In most cases the anxiety of that moment is relieved by the smile of the radiant Kitty as she laughs outright and tells him she knew very well he loved her all along.

Then, too, the suitor of Kitty has not to go canvassing with the old folks, for the moment he does he forfeits Kitty's confidence. She has already determined to suit herself as to who she will make happy, and father or mother, brother or sister, is as helpless in altering her opinion as the discarded lover himself. It is not true that any pecuniary consideration controls her decision in any manner, for she has as yet no conception of the world's estimation of wealth, and consequently seldom regards it as anything in her line of life, other than costly silks and splendid parlors to which she never aspires or dreams of. She does not as a rule incline, or center in the gravity of her situation, until long after the purpose of her intention is made known, her father and mother being the last creatures on the face of the earth to whom she will reveal it; but when once done, the sacredness of her promise is unalterable, and she stoops or rises, as the current of her courtship moves slowly on. The dilatory, or what was once the timid, despairing lover, may then, if so disposed, waste away her life in promises and senseless visits, and break her heart by nonfulfillment of the long-promised and earnestly-desired consent which cost him so much trouble to win, and her, so many heartaches since she gave it. He may enjoy his conquest without murmur on her part, yet she may often bitterly regret the long interval between then and now, as being the most dreary and unsupportable periods of her existence. In these troubles that crowd upon her now, none can help her; the bargain was her own, and she alone is concerned in its fulfillment or violation.

It is not, however a simple matter to determine to what class the beau of the sewing girl belongs, as the fortunes of her life are often dependent on her pretty face. They do not often, as a rule in the present times, marry out of their ordinary sphere, the chivalry of olden times having abandoned its truthfulness in the search of a more assuming and successful rival—the art of beauty rather than its reality. The young mechanic, clerk or tradesman can, however, always face the world with a frugal, industrious and cheap sort of wife taken from the ranks of the sewing girl, without much fear that she will embarrass him in his business, or be unwilling that they should put their heads together and discuss the problems of every day life as they encounter the thousand ups and downs on their way upward. Let no young gentleman sneer at our suggestion. We write about humanity—humanity as it is every day spread out before us, bereft of the glitter and the masquerade costumes with which fashion endeavors to conceal it. Sentiment and moonshine form no part of the stern upward progress of countries and individuals. The way upward to fame and fortune is as clear as noonday; frauds and pretenders are alike detected there no matter how blatant or assuming in their audacity, or how long they have succeeded by their dishonest disguises; so that the wounded sensibility of our gentleman reader may thank us for the suggestion we have given. Break up the walking cane, throw away the cigar, go home of an evening, study, work, and become as useful as the sewing girl, and tell us then, if she is unworthy of your name. If you do, we shook your hand on the streets in ignorance, and do not wish to be noticed by you again.

The earnings of the sewing girl are as varied as they are uncertain. As a rule, however, they earn much more, on cheap ordinary goods, than they do on those of a costly or finer quality. We speak now exclusively of those who work at home, having received the material to be converted into clothing. On ordinary pants, say those retailed at one or two dollars, she receives at present from forty-five to fifty cents a pair. On fine black cloth pants retailed at seven or eight dollars, she receives one. On goods of a medium quality, seventy or eighty cents. The common, or very cheap articles, are always the most profitable, as a good operator can make up from two or three pair a day, and thus realize from one to two dollars, while on the ordinary or fine goods they receive but from seventy cents to one dollar a pair, this task often occupying an entire day, very often longer. Others who ring the door bells and ask for sewing, are generally employed, if at all, in the house, and receive a dollar a day and food; some much less, but never any more is allowed, or even asked for. This class of professional sewers do not come under the general name. They follow it merely as their household duties admit, and many are the pitiful tales rehearsed and actual distresses brought to the notice of the philanthropic, in their efforts to obtain a day's sewing. Many weary miles are traveled daily by the middle-aged professionals, in their endeavor to help themselves and families by the needle, the manufacturers and modistes generally giving employment only to younger, though less skillful operators as an adornment to their establishments. In foreign countries, say England, the sewing girl's appearance is the great test of her availability. They are there crowded in splendor about the front windows of the establishment, under the full blaze of the chandeliers, and exhibited to the crowds on the thoroughfare as an attraction. The more homely in appearance are generally consigned to the more elevated portions of the building, no matter how skillful or industrious they may be, and such can only obtain employment in the largest concerns, where the supply of beauty is more than necessary to meet the demands of the window. In smaller establishments, where a more limited number is employed, a pretty face and flashy appearance are indispensable to the success of the applicant. Her capabilities go for nothing if she cannot, with her sober, homely countenance reflect the grandeur of the house through the shop windows, and force the struggling patronage of the passer by on the opposite side of the street into the good graces of her employer. We have waited patiently for some time to see this practice Americanized, but have as yet failed to find a symptom. Our New England cities, however, have doubtless heard of the practice before now, and it may eventually be put into operation in our city in time to come. It might be a success here, or it might not; the necessities of trade are remorseless, and may yet insist that the poor sewing girl must be attractive in her appearance, and stylish in her poverty, before she can obtain a livelihood at her particular calling. As we drift onward in our monarchical proclivities, perhaps the curtain may be rung up on our leading thoroughfares at an early day, disclosing to an eager crowd, the scene we have here described.


Page revision date: 30-Jun-2018