PRISONERS OF POVERTY;
Women Wage-Earners, Their Trades and Their Lives
by Helen Campbell
The essays that make up this book were originallly published as a series of essays for the Sunday Edition of The New York Times Tribune. The book was published in 1886 by Published by Roberts Brothers, Boston. Although reprinted by Greenwood Press, it is presently out of print.
WORKER AND TRADE.
In that antiquity which we who only are the real ancients look back upon as the elder world, counting those days as old which were but the beginning of the time we reckon, there were certain methods with workers that centuries ago ceased to have visible form. The Roman matron, whose susceptibilities from long wear and tear in the observation of fighting gladiators and the other mild amusements of the period, were a trifle blunted, felt no compunction in ordering a disobedient or otherwise objectionable slave into chains, and thereafter claiming the same portion of work as had been given untrammelled. The routine of the day demanded certain offices; but bow these offices should be most easily fulfilled was no concern of master or mistress, who required simply fulfilment, and wasted no time on consideration of methods. In the homes of Pompeii, once more open to the sun, are the underground rooms where wretched men and women bowed under the weight of fetters, whose corrosion was not only in weary flesh, but in the no less weary soul; and Rome itself can still show the same remnants of long-forgotten wrong and oppression.
That day is over, and well over, we say. Only for a few barbarians still unreached by the march of civilization is any hint of such conditions possible and even for them the days of darkness are numbered. And so the century moves on; and the few who question if indeed the bonds are quite broken, if civilization has civilized, and if men and women may claim in full their birthright of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," are set down as hopeless carpers, --unpleasant, pragmatic, generally disagreeable objectors to things as they are. Or if it is admitted that there are defects here and there, and that much remains to be remedied, we are pointed with pride to the magnificent institutions of modern charity, where every possible want of all sorts and conditions of men is met and fulfilled.
" What more would you have? " cries the believer in things as they are." What is higher or finer than the beautiful spirit that has taken permanent form in brick and mortar? Never since time began has charity been on so magnificent a scale; never has it been so intelligent, so farseeing No saints of the past were ever more vowed to good works than these uncanonized saints of to-day who give their lives to the poor and count them well lost. Shame on man or woman who questions the beautiful work or dares hint that under this fair surface rottenness and all foulness still seethe and simmer! "
It is not easy in the face of such feeling to affirm that perfect as the modern system way be, beautiful as is much of the work accomplished, it still is wanting in one element, the lack of which has power to vitiate the whole. No goodwill, no charity, however splendid, fills or can fill the place owned by that need which is forever first and most vital between man and man,--justice. No love, no labor, no self-sacrifice even, can balance that scale in which justice has no place. No knowledge nor wisdom nor any understanding that can come to man counts as force in the universe of God till that one word heads the list of all that must be known and loved and lived before ever the kingdom of heaven can begin upon earth.
It is because this is felt and believed by a few as a compelling power, by many as a dimly comprehended need, so far in the shadow that its form is still unknown, that I beam to-day the search for the real presence. What I write will be no fanciful picture of the hedged-in lives the conditions of which I began, many years ago, to study. If names are withheld, and localities not always indicated, it is not because they are not recorded in full, ready for reference or any required corroboration. Where the facts make against the worker, they are given with as minute detail as where they make against the employer. The one aim in the investigation has been and is to tell the truth simply, directly, and in full, leaving it for the reader to determine what share is his or hers in the evil or in the good that the methods of today may hold. That our system of charities and corrections is unsurpassable does not touch the case of the worker who wants no charity and needs no correction. It is something beyond either that must be understood. Till the methods of the day are analyzed, till one has defined justice, asked what claim it makes upon the personal life of man and woman, and mastered every detail that can render definition more possible, the questions that perplex even the most conservative can have no solution for this generation or for any generation to come. To help toward such solution is the one purpose of all that will follow.
In the admirable report of the Bureau of Statistics of labor for 1885, made under the direction of Mr. Charles Peck, whose name is already the synonyme for careful and intelligent work, the number of working-women in New York is given as very nearly two hundred thousand. Investigations of the same nature have been made at other points, notably Boston, in the work of Mr. Carroll D. Wright, one of the most widely known of our statisticians. But neither Boston nor any other city of the United States offers the same facilities or gives as varied a range of employment as is to be found in New York, where grinding, poverty and fabulous wealth walk side by side, and where the " life limit" in wages was established long before modern political economy had made the phrase current. This number does not include domestic servants, but is limited to actual handicrafts. Ninety-two trades are given as standing open to women to- day, and several have been added since the report was made. A lifetime would hardly be sufficient for a detailed examination of every industry in the great city, but it is quite possible to form a just judgment of the quality and character of all those which give employment to women. The city which affords the largest percentage of habitual drunkards, as well as the largest number of liquor saloons to the mile, is naturally that in which most women are forced to seek such means of subsistence as may be bad.
The better-paying trades are filled with women who have had some form of training in school or home, or have passed from one occupation to another, till that for which they had most aptitude has been determined. That, however, to which all the more helpless turn at once, as the one thing about the doing of which there can be no doubt or difficulty, is the one most overcrowded, most underpaid, and with its scale of payments lessening year by year. The girl too ignorant to reckon figures, too dull-witted to learn by observation, takes refuge in sewing in some of its many forms as the one thing possible to all grades of intelligence; and the woman with drunken or otherwise vicious husband, more helpless often than the widow who turns in the same direction, seeks the same sources of employment. If respectably dressed and able to furnish some reference, employment is often found by her in factory or some large establishments where regular workers have place. But if, as is often the case, the need for work arises from the death or the evil habits of the natural head of the family, fortunes have sunk to so low an ebb that often the only clothing left is on the back of the worker, in the last stages of demoralization; and the sole method of securing work is through the middle-men or "sweaters," who ask no questions and require no reference, but make as large a profit for themselves as can be wrung from the helplessness and the bitter need of those with whom they reckon.
The difficulties to be faced by the woman whose only way of self-support is limited to the needle, whether in machine or hand work, are fourfold. (1) Her own incompetency must very often bead the list and prevent her from securing, first-class work (2) middle-men or sweaters lower the price to starvation point; (3) contract work done in prisons or reformatories brings about the same result; and (4) she is underbid from still another quarter, that of the country woman who takes the work at any price offered.
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