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“When the Whistle Blows . . . I Come Home and Get Supper”: Women and Work in the Interwar Years

In August 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution, assuring that it became law in time for women to vote in the presidential election, many feminists predicted great advances for women. “We are no longer petitioners,” declared suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, “we are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens.” The promised gains proved elusive, however, especially in the crucial realm of employment. Among working women, all but a tiny number of well-paid professionals faced the burdens of a double shift of both paid jobs and unpaid household labor. In a 1929 story for the Nation, Paul Blanshard recorded the daily routine of a South Carolina cotton mill worker. Her narrative intertwined her home duties with her work in the mill, as her long day at the mill was punctuated by equally burdensome domestic chores.

Gladys Caldwell [a pseudonym] met us at the door of her four-room cottage in the mill village. It was one of a row of dingy cottages out in Poinsett, across the meadows at the edge of Greenville, just beyond “nigger town.” I had said to one of the strikers from the Poinsett cotton mill: “I want you to take me to one of your homes where a woman keeps the house going for the wages that most of you are getting. I would like to talk to a woman about washing and doctor bills and milk, and I want to see her house. Don’t take me to a widow with five or six starving children; I can find such people in New York. What I want is the story of how you normal, strong people live on your average wages of $12 a week.”

Gladys Caldwell invited us in. We sat by a tiny fireplace in her front room, which was also her bedroom. On the walls were a picture of Jesus and a calendar. In the room were a bed, a trunk, and a dresser; in the room opposite were a trunk and a bed; in the back corner room was a bed; in the kitchen were a table, a bench and an oil stove. In the four rooms there were four chairs. The house had not plaster, no rugs, no heating stove.

As she talked Mrs. Caldwell was vivacious and eloquent, with flashing brown eyes and flashing white teeth. From time to time she spit snuff into the fireplace with perfect nonchalance and marksmanship. Her husband came in before we were through, a big, upstanding man, strong and steady-eyed. He is thirty, she is twenty-nine.

Here is Gladys Caldwell’s story as it made it into my notes:

I have a husband and five children. I’m a weaver, at least I work in the weave room fillin‘ batt’ries. I get paid by the day. No, I don’t mind tellin’ you about how I live. It’s bad enough and we mill folks have stood enough without kickin'.

I get up at four to start breakfast for the children. When you got five young ‘uns it takes a while to dress ’em. The oldest is nine and she helps a lot. The others are seven, five, four, and three. What do we have for breakfast? Well, we usually have bread and butter and syrup. No, we don’t get any sweet milk. We get a gallon of buttermilk every day from Mrs. Rochester for twenty-five cents. The children like it; they don’t take much to sweet milk. They ain’t used to it.

After I’ve got the children dressed and fed I take ‘em to the mill nursery, that is three of ’em. Two go to school, but after school they go to the nursery until I get home from the mill. The mill don’t charge anythin‘ to keep the children there. I couldn’t afford it anyway. We have breakfast about five, and I spend the rest of the time from five to seven gettin’ the children ready and cleanin' up the house. That’s about the only time I get to clean up. Ruby washes the dishes. Ruby is nine.

My husband and I go to the mill at seven. He’s a stripper in the cardin‘ room and gets $12.85 a week, but that’s partly because they don’t let him work Saturday mornin’. They put this stretch-out system on him shore enough. You know he’s runnin‘ four jobs ever since they put this stretch-out system on him and he ain’t gettin’ any more than he used to get for one. Where’d they put the other three men?—why they laid 'em off and they give him the same $12.85 he got before.

I work in the weavin' room and I get $1.80 a day. That’s $9.95 a week for five and a half days. I work from seven to six with an hour for dinner. I run up and down the alleys all day. No, they ain’t no chance to sit down, except once in a long time when my work’s caught up, but that’s almost never.

At noon I run home and get dinner for the seven of us. The children come home from school and the nursery. . . . We have beans and baked sweets and bread and butter, and sometimes fat-back and sometimes pie, if I get time to bake it. Of course I make my own bread.

It takes about $16 a week to feed us. We get nearly all of it at the company store with jap flaps. They are the slips that the company give you for buying groceries with after you’ve worked all day. Then you can get your groceries right away and don’t have to wait until the end of the week for your pay. If we didn’t have 'em some of the people would starve before the end of the week shore enough. I get my butter from Mrs. Rochester. She sells it for fifty cents a pound and we use half a pound every other day.

After dinner I wash the dishes and run back to the mill. We don’t have any sink but there’s a faucet with runnin‘ water on the back porch and a regular toilet there, too. You can see we have electric lights, but we don’t have any heatin’ stove. I cook with an oil stove and we have these two fireplaces.

When the whistle blows at six I come home and get supper. Then I put the children to bed. There’s a double bed here and a double bed in that other room and a double bed out in the back room. That’s for seven of us. The baby’s pretty young. I ‘spose all of the children’ll go into the mills when they get a bit older. We’ll need the money all right. Yes, my father and mother were mill workers, too, and they’re still livin’ and working‘. He gets $18 a week and my mother gets about $3 a week for workin’ mornin’s. There was four of us children in the family. My husband’s father and mother worked in the mill, too.

We’ve moved five times since we was married—that’s eleven years ago. It don’t cost much to move when you move a little way. We ain’t been outside of South Carolina. they ain’t nothin‘ in movin’ from one mill to another in the long run. when we moved here from Woodside, just over the fields there, it cost us $2.50 a load for the two loads.

I rode around right smart when I was single, but I ain’t been on a train more than once a year since. My husband reads a book once in a while but I don’t get time. I went through the third grade in school and then I went to work in the mill. I was nine years old when I started work at Number 4 in Pelzer. My husband didn’t go to school neither but he managed to pick up readin' and he reads books. Yes, we take a paper.

When supper is over I have a chance to make the children’s clothes. Yes, I make ‘em all, and all my own clothes, too. I never buy a dress at a store. I haven’t no sewin’ machine but I borrow the use of one. On Saturday night I wash the children in a big wash-tub and heat the water on the oil stove. Then I do the week’s ironin‘. I send the washin’ to the laundry. I just couldn’t do that, too. It costs nearly $2 a week. Our rent in this house is only $1.30 a week for the four rooms and we get water and electric lights free.

I always make a coat last seven or eight years. My husband gets a suit every two years but he ain’t had one for the last six years. He got an overcoat about four years ago. Things have been pretty hard. I like the movies but I haven’t been to one in about six years now. Not since the children was young.

Maybe my children ought to get away from the mill village, but if they went anywhere they would go back to the farm and there ain’t no use doin' that. The farmers haven’t got it as good as we have.

I don’t get time to go to church. My husband goes to the Methodist church. Most everybody goes to church here. Sunday’s about the only day I get to rest any. Seems as if I just have to have a little rest then.

I press my husband’s clothes. He half-soles the children’s shoes and all our shoes. See those! Those soles on my shoes came from the dime store and cost twenty-five cents for the pait. He puts 'em on with tacks. I make a dress for myself about every six or seven months out of cloth I buy in town. It costs about twenty-five cents a yard.

We been lucky about sickness. The children ain’t been sick at all for years. When the doctor comes he charges us $2.50 a visit, but right now that the strike is goin‘ on the doctors is callin’ for nothin‘, and the barbers is cuttin’ the men’s hair for nothin'. That’s pretty much with the strike.

There’s one colored doctor over here but he don’t come to see anybody. Some of the folks goes to see ‘im for sores and such like. They say he’s a herb doctor, but as fur as deliverin’ babies is concerned I never heard of him deliverin‘ a white baby. Let’s see, my babies cost $25 except the first one and that cost $30. ’Taint every doctor will do it for that. I never had any trouble. I worked up to two months before, mostly, an‘ I went back when the children was about four months old. The nursery’ll take ’em when they’re three weeks old. I had to hire a colored girl when the babies come. That cost $7 a week.

Birth control? What’s that? . . . Oh! Sure, we’d be glad to have that if it didn’t cost no money. Yes, that’s my address.

Once I mashed my thumb in the mill. I was out for two months with it and I didn’t get anythin‘. I went to pull a loom and the handle on the lever slipped because the gear was too tight and it mashed my thumb. The company don’t pay anythin’ for a thing like that.

Usually I get to bed between ten and eleven at night.

Source: Paul Blanshard, “How to Live on Forty-six Cents a Day,” Nation 128 (May 15, 1929): 580–581.