Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 6

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SOMEONE asked, not very long ago, why women went out into the world to work; whether it was for love of money or for love of work; whether it was to get away from home, or whether it was with the desire to become famous. I think oftenest—and I am forced to think this from innumerable letters I receive from my girls—that the girl who goes out into the workaday world to earn her own bread and butter does it because of the necessity. But when the question of making one's own living stares one in the face, and what one must do to gain this livelihood has to be decided upon, nothing is more common than to see the quickness with which girls choose the paths in life which are already overcrowded.

They think they would like to make their living by writing. They have read about some woman who has made money and fame by her pen. They hear of her to-day; what about the ten long years when she worked, unknown, to make this reputation? They hear of a woman painter who got a big check for her picture. They think they have talent of the same sort. There are millions of women who have thought the same, but who today are decorating cups and saucers that do not sell. Won't my girls have the moral courage to try and earn the bread and butter in one of the quiet walks of life? What are the quiet paths of life? Well, here is one:


You may be only seventeen years old when it becomes necessary for you to take care of yourself; you know nothing of Greek or Latin, and you could not train a young girl for college, but you have the three R's at your finger-tips, you are good-tempered, and you have accumulated a store of patience. Now try for the position of nursery governess. In a big city I'll tell you what that means. At nine o'clock in the morning you enter the nursery where your small pupils are, ranging in years from three to seven; probably there are three of them. There is a pleasant "How-do-you-do," because, first of all, you must make them like you. And then the so-called lessons begin. The seven-year-old, having mastered her letters and knowing how to read in single- and possibly double-syllabled words, reads a story that interests the other two, or at least one of them, while the baby starts in to build a house of alphabet blocks with the letter "A" on top. Then for the seven-year-old you set a copy on the slate—preferably her name; and the five-year-old, to whom you should devote your closest attention, you teach how to spell words from a picture-book.

Before you know it will be eleven o'clock, and the nurse will be ready to go out with you. She puts on the little people's wraps and gloves and hats, and you, as superior, oversee this. Then, once in the open square, you teach the children to walk properly, and to speak politely to any acquaintance whom they may meet, and at the end of the exercise hour you may let them have a run that will not be too boisterous. At home again a little after twelve, preparations are made for the midday dinner. Then you must watch. Baby must be taught that it isn't right to swallow things whole; the five-year-old must be educated not to pile his fork with vegetables, and the seven-year-old must be shown how to help herself to the dish that is passed to her without dropping its contents on the table-cloth or the carpet. After a little time the girl is given a thimble and you teach her how to sew, while the boys are busy with whatever will occupy them quietly. At half-past two you go home, and if you are as willing and as eager to succeed as one little woman I know, when the half-hour strikes you will have your pupils hanging to your skirts, expressing their regret at your departure, and wishing that you might live with them "forever and forever."

The average nursery governess is paid thirty dollars a month, and, of course, she has her dinner. Sometimes several families will unite, make a little group of six or eight children, who will all be taught at the house of whoever has the largest nursery. But when that is the case the governess's hours last from nine to one, she is paid more, and she does not dine with her pupils. There is no publicity about this position, a college certificate is not required, it is one that no gentlewoman need scorn, and yet it is said to be very difficult to find a good nursery governess.


It is that of maid. I can see the scoffing air with which this is received, and yet a good maid not only gets good wages, but she has slight expenditure. Her living is paid for, and usually she eats by herself. She is very apt to have the gowns, the black ones, which it is most proper for her to assume, given to her on special occasions. And if she knows anything about her work she can command twenty-five dollars a month. It is expected of her that she should be neat, know how to take care of clothes, be responsible for her mistress's jewelry, be able to brush hair and do ordinary mending. If she is ambitious and will learn to dress hair, teach herself how to makeover dresses, and proves able to take care of her mistress when she is ill, she can earn fifty dollars a month. No education except that of the heart and that of the hands, which every woman, even if she doesn't know how to read nor write, is supposed to have, is required for the position of maid. I have known good maids who were never made to feel for one minute that it was a question of mistress and maid, and who gained this confidence and love by good work and consideration. Personally I would much rather be maid to a lady than stand behind a shop counter. I know that many of my girls will disagree with me, but I can assure them that the life is much easier.


I know you from your letter. You think you could play Lady Macbeth, and yet you have come down to giving lessons in elocution, and the average of teachers to pupils in this line, as quoted lately, is ten to one. There are a great many women whose eyes being a bit weak like to be read to. Why don't you drop elocution and start in as a reader to one of these women? You can charge from fifty cents to a dollar an hour, and your work will consist of picking out from the morning paper what will be interesting to your employer. Then you can answer her notes. This is neither hard nor unpleasant work. To be able to take the mail, select from it the letters that are purely personal, or which are from members of the family, and those that are social or business notes, to open and read the latter, and answer them in accordance with the wishes expressed, answer them in proper language and in a good, clear hand, will add to your value as a reader. And if the lady for whom you are working should be of sufficient importance socially to require an elaborate visiting book, and you can learn how to keep that in order, you will add just that much more to your value.


Some time ago I wrote of the money that might be made by a young woman who was a good mender; since then there have been a number of menders who advertised and readily found work. But they made a great mistake; they overcharged. Asking one dollar an hour for their work, and in that hour mending one pair of stockings, was an evidence of very bad business tact. If the stockings happened to be lace or silk ones it might be worth while, but the general stocking doesn't cost over a dollar a pair, and it is really cheaper to buy new ones than be bothered by a strange woman coming in to mend the old ones. To the woman who can mend, but who cannot remake, I would suggest that a dollar a day and her board is quite enough for her; and when I say her board, I mean two meals, her breakfast and the midday one. She should learn as rapidly as possible where the family for whom she works keeps the undarned stockings, the torn skirts, the worn linen, and the shoes without buttons. And she should induce her employer to purchase and keep for her a mending-basket, in which to keep the different threads, the buttons and the tapes, the hooks and eyes, and different-sized needles, so that when it is desired the implement is to hand. Once she has the reputation of being a good mender, and an honest one, her services will be called for once a week in different families, and if she is agreeable—and unless she is no woman will succeed in any business—her patrons will soon become her friends, eager and anxious to advance her interests. In Paris, the city of great luxury and great economy, your laundress can always recommend a mender to you, so that the forlorn bachelor is cared for, and though he may never see the woman who looks after his belongings, still he gladly pays the laundress for her work, and the laundress, as she pays her, either deducts a small percentage, or they work in good-fellowship.


In the large cities the young woman who knows how to manicure has discovered that she can make more money and be more independent by going to her customers at their houses. She carries in her little bag all her implements, and if her services are rendered regularly she will be required from half an hour to an hour. For this she is paid fifty cents, and as her time is usually taken up from nine in the morning until six in the evening, it is easy to understand that she can make a nice little income, especially as if when she is kept after six she charges, properly enough, one dollar.

The visiting hair-dresser is equally fortunate. She comes to do your hair every day at the hour which is most convenient; it is not expected that she arranges it in an extremely elaborate way, but she brushes it well, shampoos it once a month, curls the front, and arranges the back as you like it. For this she is paid fifty cents or two dollars and a half a week. She can get through with almost any head in half an hour provided she is not detained, and if her services are needed for the evening, and an elaborate coiffure is demanded, she charges a dollar extra. During the gay season the extras are many, and as at all times women like to have their hair look well, most of them are quite willing to pay the price that she asks. Of course, in the case of the manicure and the hair-dresser the first struggle is to get the customers; after that to keep them. This is done by having an agreeable manner, but one that is not familiar. You must remember that you are not paying social visits, but those of business. Then you must be prompt and be neat. The best hair-dresser I ever knew lost most of her customers because she was slovenly in appearance; and another one who had every qualification necessary to make a success in her special business was equally unfortunate because she was never on time.


I have spoken of Paris as the city of the greatest luxury and the greatest economy. There is a work there which has been usurped by men, and yet which should belong to women. It is that of the professional packer. Do you know how to pack a trunk well? And if you don't, how many people do you know who do? And wouldn't you gladly give a dollar for a large, and fifty cents for a small trunk to be properly packed? The packer comes with dozens of sheets of tissue-paper and several pieces of tape. You can sit where your belongings are, and as skirts and bodices are taken down say which you want. Then the bodices have their sleeves stuffed with paper to keep them in shape, the trimmings carefully covered with it; the skirts are properly folded; the bonnets and hats have tapes pinned to them, and these same tapes are tacked to the sides of the hat-box, so that no matter how much the trunk may be shaken not a feather nor a rose moves out of its place. Then when everything is done, there is laid on the top of the last tray a list of the things that are in the trunk, so that you don't lose your temper searching for the pink bodice which isn't there, or the tan-colored shoes which you expressly requested should be left at home. I do not suppose there is sufficient business in the ordinary town for a packer all the year round, but I am quite certain that once it were known that you could pack well, when the going-away time came your services would be in great demand and you would seldom be out of work.


My dear girl, it is just possible that you are very foolish; that you scoff at the honest ways of earning a living about which I have spoken. Work is never dishonorable. The manner in which it is done is all that can make it so. The position you occupy is gauged entirely by the worth of your work. A thorough mender is a thousand times better than a careless dressmaker. You would be horrified if I called you dishonest, and yet when you force your friends to buy one of your badly painted pictures, when you annoy editors with worthless stories, and when mediocrity stamps whatever you do, it would be wiser and more honest for you to choose one of the quieter paths in life. It is a misfortune for a woman to have to earn her living. But it is a misfortune which, thank God, she has met, oh, so many times, bravely and honestly. When she goes out into that world where she has to give a dollar's worth of work for a dollar, then I do not think she wants to be a beggar; but she is this if she tries to foist upon a circle of acquaintances and friends miserable specimens of work. She is self-respecting and honorable when she does well the work which she finds will pay her the best, for, after all, we are all working, as the clever little Western woman wrote about her newspaper, "Not for favor, not for fun, but for cash." I do not want you always to think of the dollar as the sole aim of your work, but I do want you to remember that if you do good work you will get good money.