Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 3

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Side Talks with Girls (1895) - type 4 fleuron.jpg


YOU are one among the many thousands who write to tell me that you want to leave home and make your own living. Apparently you never stop to consider that doing your duty as a daughter is earning your own livelihood; but being possessed of a vague spirit of unrest, you want to come to the great metropolis and enter the ranks of the workers, receiving in absolute money what is considered the value of your work. Have you ever thought out what girl life in New York is? I mean the life of the girl who has to work for the money with which she pays for her bread and butter, the clothes she wears, and whatever little pleasure she has. You have wonderful dreams of independence. You think how you will rise and rise and rise, and with the hopefulness of eighteen you see a great future before you. Suppose I tell you exactly what the life of the New York working girl is. If this will keep one girl at home I shall feel that all my thought has not been in vain, and if one girl is convinced that, by staying at home and helping with head and heart, living out her life as it is planned for her, she is doing right, I shall feel so glad that extra thanks will go up to Him who careth for all, and before whom the rich and the poor are equal.


A girl, who, one year ago, came to New York from a country town, obtained a position in one of the big shops, is well liked by her customers and the people in authority over her, works from eight o'clock in the morning until six at night, with half an hour's intermission for luncheon, and earns exactly six dollars a week. She is considered extremely fortunate, for girls who are near her, and who work for the same length of time, are only earning four or five. The six dollars a week in a small town sounds like a great deal of money. In New York it barely keeps girls from starvation, or worse. I will tell you how the money goes. My friend pays four dollars a week for her board, and occupies a room with another girl; her washing costs her fifty cents a week, her car fare fifty more, and she has one dollar left, out of which to dress herself, to buy the little necessaries of life and, God help her, to get her pleasures. She tells me that so far she has had to buy no clothes, for she came here with a good stock, and that the firm at Christmas-time gave the girls their choice of a cashmere dress or money, and that she took the cashmere dress, hoping in time to save enough money to get it made. Why does she not do it herself? Do you suppose that after standing all day, working with hands, eyes, feet, and brain, she is in a condition to sew at night? Do you not know that her feet are tired, that her back aches, and that when she returns from work she is unable to do anything but rest?


You know she never calls it home; she always speaks of it as "the house where I board." And you do not wonder at this after you have seen it. She and the girl with whom she chums have a hall room on the top floor, three flights up. It is furnished with a high chest of drawers, topped by a small looking-glass; there are three chairs in various stages of decay, a medium-sized wash-stand and, abomination of abominations, a folding-bed. Just why there should be a folding-bed is not explained, for visitors are seldom in this room, and no man visitor, not even one's own father, would be permitted up there. The room is heated, so it is claimed, from a dark register, but through this there comes the odor of everything that is cooking, or has ever been cooked, and the warmth is quite secondary to the various smells.

The girls, bless them, have tried to give the place a home-like air, and there are a few photographs, a book or two, a little Bible, a devotional book and some of their belongings about, but all the womanliness in the world could not make home of a place like this. The food given, oddly enough, is not bad, neither is it good. If a girl was out in the open air and was healthy and well, not knowing what the close air of a store was, she could come in, eat and enjoy her dinner, but these girls are too tired to eat. Everything seems too heavy to them, and as the boarding-house keeper takes them as boarders, and does not propose catering to their special conditions for the price they pay, they are obliged to make the best of what they have. Breakfast, at which too often liver and bacon and overdone steak appear, is not appetizing, for the cloth bears the stains of the dinner of the night before, and a fresh napkin in the morning is unknown. One or two cups of coffee are taken, and, improperly equipped, bodily, for the day's work, the girl goes out to meet it, and begins by feeling tired. The laws of the State command that there shall be seats for girls when they are not actually employed, but the nearest approach a shopper ever sees to this is a girl leaning in a tired way against one of the shelves. Do you blame these girls for getting so tired that they lose hope? Do you blame them when, seeing so little of happiness themselves, they think God has forgotten them? You cannot, my friend, you cannot.


My girl is a social little creature. At home the girls used to come in of an evening and talk and laugh, then some sweethearts would appear, there would be more talking and laughing, maybe a little singing, and possibly a lively game or two. What social life has my girl now? The other night some friends came to see her. They were taken into the parlor, which is a stiff, bare-looking room, with chairs and sofas arranged against the wall, and a black marble table, which looks like a bier, in the centre. Other people were there, and everybody whispered when he talked; it was not very cheerful. It failed to make a man think that a girl in that place might know how to arrange for a home, or enjoy the delights of a home nest. But what can my girl do? In time, if she has a sweetheart, he and she both get to understand that if they want to see each other they must go out to do it, and going out night after night for this purpose does not always tend to keep a girl in the straight line. I am sorry to say this, but my own girl told me it was sadly true.

She knew, and I knew, a pretty girl, such a pretty girl, who came to New York with the country roses blooming on her cheeks and God's own sunshine making her hair lovely. She was young, healthy, and happy. She did not know how to be careful, she did not know how to just make the best of things and get along as most of the girls do, but she wanted pleasure, she wanted pretty clothes, and she loved fun. Well, she got into debt, and then the theatres saw her every night, first with one man and then with another, and then—well, she never comes in the store now; she has plenty of fine clothes, and she told a girl she met, that she was as happy as the day was long, but somehow that girl did not believe her. She did not have to get up early in the morning any more, she was not answerable to anybody, so she said, but the girl who spoke to her went back and said to the other ones, and there was a tear in her voice: "I could not blame her; she was young and pretty, and she wanted happiness and pleasure. I do not know whether she has found it or not, but let's every one of us pray for help to try and drag along."

That is what they pray for. Think of it, you happy people! For help to try and drag along. You never prayed for that at home. Maybe you did get tired of helping to make beds and wash dishes and fix over clothes, but there were times that were your own, when you could go into the room that was yours and think all by yourself. There is a deal in that, having a place for yourself, and my girl does not get it. She has to share her home with a friend. And no matter how near and dear anybody may be, there are always times when one wants to be alone. It is the right of every human being. But my girl cannot have it, as it costs too much.


When my girl first took her position, she wondered how, on the wages earned, some of the girls near her were so well dressed. After a while she discovered. They were girls who lived in New York, who were not obliged to pay their own board because they had homes, and who used their money entirely for their clothes. They took these positions because they wanted finer clothes than their parents could give them, and the proprietors of the stores were only too glad to have well-dressed girls behind their counters. In my own personal acquaintance there is one girl who dresses extremely well, and who shows that she lives well from her healthy appearance. Inquiry proved that her father is employed by the Government, and that she spends more money than she earns for her wearing apparel. Many other girls are helped out by their friends at home, so that the girl who has to live and dress herself out of her own earnings, unless she is very careful, chances the being discharged because she does not look "as well as the other young ladies behind the counter." My girl is good at mending and freshening up, and as yet her eyes permit her to brush and clean her frocks in the evenings, but girls who have been at work many years, are, unhappily, forced either to go shabby and untidy-looking, or to mend their belongings on Sunday, because they are too tired at night. I am not writing anything that emanates from my fancy. I am stating simple facts, and I know absolutely whereof I speak.

Too often, because she is unused to thinking out money problems, my girl gets into debt. Her landlady may be kindhearted, and trust her for a week's board, or even for a little longer. She may have borrowed a little money from a girl who has saved some, and at the drug store or at the dressmaker's she may have a little account. What is she to do? Say that she pays her board promptly, she will still find herself a week or two behind. She does not make enough money to catch up, and, unfortunately, she seldom has the courage to go to her creditors and offer to pay her account in very small sums, say fifty cents at a time. The burden of debt is about her neck; if she is an honest girl she will do as I have suggested; if not, she will leave the boarding-house in disgrace, go to a different neighborhood, possibly do exactly the same thing there, and as the descent is always rapid, she will in time lose all feeling of honor as far as money is concerned. True, poverty has brought her to that condition, but did she not seek that special state?


That you are good to each other, you working girls, when trouble comes is undeniable, but, oh, you have so little to be good with! You cannot even give of your time, for it does not belong to you. It is possible that there is a society in your store to which each one contributes twenty-five cents a month; then when you are sick you receive from three to five dollars, but your board goes on just the same, your wages from the store do not come, there is possibly a doctor, certainly medicine, but, if you have a long illness, the possibility that your place has been filled stares you in the face. There is no time to look after ill people in the work-a-day world. Everyone of your comrades may be sorry for you, may do her best to help you out, but they can neither reserve your position for you, nor convince your employers that you are a necessity.

A little while ago I was in one of the best stores in New York, when the girl who was waiting on me turned deadly white, swayed to and fro, and I thought was going to faint. One of her comrades put her arm around her, while another finished attending to me. Then I said: "I will get a glass of water for that girl, and speak to the floor-walker and ask him to allow her to go home," but her friend said to me: "Please don't, ma'am; Annie has these fainting attacks often, and we all try to help her out, but if it is once known how delicate she is she will be discharged, and she has nobody to take care of her." What could I do? I was perfectly helpless, for I could not guarantee that after I went away she might not be told that she could go, but she need not come back. So you see in considering the question of earning your living in New York, you have to think of yourself as well or sick, and you must remember what enormous chances you take.


Somebody says: "You are only taking the class of girls who go into the stores." I do that because they form the greatest number, and because they are the girls who come here from the small towns. The girl who paints, or the girl who teaches painting, has, however, by no means an easy life, that is, if she is entirely dependent on her own exertions. I do not speak of the girls who have friends to care for them, or incomes of their own. Of course, it is claimed that girls who have friends to care for them should not in any way take the bread out of the mouths of those who absolutely need it; but this state of affairs is caused almost entirely by the desire of the many girls to shirk home duties and earn money outside. The right or wrong of this must be decided by the girls themselves. I can best explain how many a girl who paints well is placed—and you must remember how many there are who only paint fairly—if I tell you the story of one.

She came to New York with the prestige of having had a picture in the Paris Salon, a few pictures already done, and about one hundred dollars in money. She was used to economizing, and expected to do it. She took a studio, for which she had to pay thirty dollars a month, and by spreading about her little belongings she made it look pretty. What seemed like a lounge was really her bed, and she did her cooking on a little gas-stove. She exhibited a picture at the Academy, but it was not sold. She painted away day in and day out, and principally because she had no social connections there was no sale for her work. Then she took to doing dinner cards. They were marvellously artistic, but because of the time devoted to each she had to ask a higher price than people were willing to pay. She worked along with a brave heart, and one day sold a picture for seventy-five dollars; that seventy-five dollars was mortgaged to the extent of fifty, but she paid her debts and started to work again. A woman friend sat for her and the picture was sold, because this special woman was the model. A little cooking was done on the gas-stove, but the body was not well cared for, and after three years of struggling, after three years of trying to sell pictures, souvenirs, dinner cards, or anything that the public seemed to demand, she broke down, and casting paintbrushes to the wind, married. With what result? Broken in spirit, weak and impoverished in body, she was only able to live long enough to bring into the world a sad-eyed little baby, to kiss it once, to turn her face to the wall, and to close her eyes to this world forever.


That is what you are asking, and this is what I have to say. I have no desire to seem to wish to crush a laudable ambition in any girl, but I do most earnestly pray that my girls all over the country will think over this picture of girl life in New York City—the great city of which you read and hear so much—realize its sorrows, its worries, and the small, almost infinitesimal amount of enjoyment in it, and then think of their lives at home. "Helping mother" may grow tiresome, but if you are sick you will be cared for, if you are tired you may rest, and nobody like your own home people will find so much delight in seeing you have a happy time. In your home you are earning your own living when you lend a helping hand, are cheerful and bright, and do your best to make others happy. You are earning the best sort of a living, for you are making life seem worth while; you are training yourself for home life, and that is the best that can come to you. Unfortunately, there are thousands of girls who have to work outside their homes; give them your sympathy and your greatest pity, but get down on your knees and thank the good God, who made you, for the privilege of working at home, and of being out of the great world where there is no time for anything but work, where the sick and the helpless fall by the wayside unnoticed.