Charities/Volume 13/Number 10/The Bohemian Women in New York
The Bohemian Women in New York.
Their Work as Cigarmakers.
The Bohemian girls dread going into the cigar factories. The hygiene is bad, the moral influences are often not of the best, and the work is exhausting. An occasional factory inspector, a little protection from the law, and even from the labor union is what the workers have to depend upon to help them gain the chance to earn their livelihood by healthy toil. The strippers and bookmakers who get the tobacco ready for the cigarmakers, work together—sometimes as many as a hundred and fifty of them—at the end of a room laden with tobacco dust and heavy with the odor of damp tobacco leaves. The windows are generally kept closed because the tobacco must not be allowed to become dry.
The strippers, who know little English and are therefore called "greeners," are paid by the day, and seldom earn more than five or six dollars a week. They are down at the bottom of the economic scale and are not admitted to the cigarmaker's union.
The fact that the strippers and bookmakers are pale and appear to be in poor physical condition, does not signify where "the making of dividends is the supreme end of man." Many of the factories are large and contain a thousand "hands"; the "greeners" are lost in the shuffle, even the officers of the law do not seem to notice that "the two hundred and fifty cubic feet of air-space to be allowed for each worker," is at the other end of the room, and is occupied by ill-smelling tobacco.
Many of the cigar-making girls brought up in this country learn their trade from regular teachers. They pay for their tuition, and are several weeks in learning to become bunchmakers or cigarmakers. The bunchmakers get the tobacco into the shape of a cigar, and the cigarmakers spread the leaves out on the suction-table and put the final coverings on. They are both paid by the thousand cigars, and their wages vary greatly. Some earn only four or five dollars a week, while others earn twelve dollars, and sometimes even higher wages. They are allowed a good deal of latitude as to hours, and often work through the greater part of their lunchtime and stop work at five o'clock. They work under a considerable nervous strain, as speed is a first consideration, if they are to make fair wages. In their hurry many of them bite off the small ends of the cigars (a pleasant thought for the smoker) and they sit all day holding bits of tobacco in their mouths.
The light must be good for their work and the heat of the nearby gas jet adds greatly to the discomfort from the bad air. The floor and walls of the factory are often dirty and the dressing rooms where clothing is hung, are simply large closets partly partitioned off from the main rooms.
The men and women employed in the higher grades of work, the men employed as packers and a small percentage of the women and girls who work at suction-tables belong to the different branches of the cigarmakers' union. This union, besides giving insurance against sickness and death, does much to protect its own memebers, and also in time of special struggle it offers some defense to even the most helpless of the cigarmakers.
An aroused public conscience could do much in the way of getting more protective legislation and improved factory inspection, and could perhaps reach those manufacturers, whose minds are overmastered by the financial interests, even to the point of neglecting the human welfare, on which their prosperity in the last analysis must depend.
Home Life Among Them.
The first result noticed is that everyone keeps early hours. At nine o'clock on a winter evening, a block occupied by Bohemian families, is wrapped in slumber, the windows of the houses are dark, and there is almost no one on the street. The working day begins at half-past five and the tired mothers must have their children at home and in bed at an early hour.
The most noticeable effect of having the mothers go to factory is that the ordinary masculine aversion to doing woman's work, is greatly moderated. The boys run home from their play after school hours to start the kitchen fire, so that the water may be boiling when their mothers come home. They make beds and sweep and clean house. I have known a boy of eleven to acquire sufficient knowledge of housework so that, at his mother's death, he was able to do all the work for a family of four. Several times I have come into a home and found the strong young husband washing, and not at all embarrassed to be caught at the wash-tub.
The older children, both boys and girls, take care of the younger ones. They are trained to responsibility from their earliest youth, and make great gains in both strength and charm of character. A girl of thirteen often has the care of several younger children, besides doing much of the housework for the family. A grandfather or a grandmother, even if very feeble, is a great addition to the family life in furnishing the adult point of view in the absence of both parents. A neighbor, too, in case of sudden emergency, often acts in loco parentis, and a very motherly person will sometimes mother a whole neighborhood.
One woman that I knew had ten fine, healthy children—she had never lost a child—and she had been in factory the greater part of the time through the twenty-five years of her married life. The oldest girl was married and was also at work in a cigar factory, but whenever she had a few minutes to spare she came to her mother's home to help with the sewing for those younger brothers and sisters she had brought up.
The clothes of the children are suitable and are often made with particularly good taste. The Bohemians are perhaps the cleanest of the poor people in the city and they struggle manfully against the bad conditions of the New York tenement houses. They are fortunate in being intensely musical, and they find great joy in the occasional dance or picnic.
They are a hard-working people, and both the women and children are often overworked. The girls marry with the expectation of continuing their hard life in the factory.
The poverty of the home is often increased by the intemperance of the father. "It is better to go to a picnic with a woman, a woman does not get drunk," said a wise little maiden six years of age.
To those theorists who look for great progress when women shall obtain a position of economic independence, the Bohemian women cigarmakers ought to be an interesting study. The wife with her quicker fingers often makes better wages than her husband. I asked a thoughtful Bohemian of the educated class why the women did not demand more power, since they contribute so largely to the family finances, and he answered, "Because they would not consider such a demand fitting." Husband and wife seem to go on much as they have always done since "male and female created he them."
The Bohemians are cut off from the life of the city partly by their inability to speak English, and partly by their being so overworked that they have no time even to see what other people are doing.
They are almost always able to read their own tongue—they have several newspapers—and they care a great deal for the education of the children. The children speak Bohemian more than any other New York children speak the tongue of their fathers and the ancestral tongue seems to have a tendency to bind the family together and to preserve its traditions in this new land.