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The Working Girls of Boston

A number of states established bureaus of labor during the Gilded Age to investigate working and living conditions among industrial workers. In the first half of the 19th century, some moral reformers had believed that the new Lowell mills would be a place of educational and moral uplift for women workers. But by the late 19th century, many worried that factories were breeding grounds for prostitution and other forms of “degenerate” behavior. As a result, investigations about working women often focused obsessively on the question of morality. This excerpt from the 1884 Fifteenth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics presented bureau head Carroll Wright’s assessment of the working and living conditions of the young working women of Boston. To secure first-hand information, the agency interviewed 1,000 female workers on subjects ranging from their relations with employers to their after-hours activities.

The population of the city of Boston, according to the Tenth United States Census, in 1880, was 362,839; of this number 172,268 were males and 190,571 were females. The whole number of persons engaged in that year in all occupations was 149,194, the males numbering 110,313 and the females 38,881; out of this latter number of females employed in all occupations, there were, in round numbers, 20,000 employed in occupations other than domestic service, and these constitute the body of the working girls of Boston.

To ascertain all the conditions surrounding this large and important class has been the desire of the bureau for some years, but other lines of investigation have prevented the special study of this matter until last year, when a very thorough and searching investigation was commenced. The bureau undertook to ascertain the moral, sanitary, physical, and economical conditions of the working girls of Boston. Of course it was not possible to get a complete personal history of every one of the 20,000 involved, nor was it necessary, but if such personal history for 1,000 at least could be obtained accurately, it would scientifically indicate the condition of the whole, and would answer every purpose of the investigation. To this end, discreet agents were employed to secure by personal application at the homes of the working girls the information desired; the names of girls in various employments were obtained during the daytime, lists were prepared and given to the agents, whose duty it was to call in the evening at the places of residence of those designated.

The average weekly income from all sources whatever for 544 girls was $5 per week or less, while 435 received a total average weekly income of from $5 to $10, there being only 53 receiving a total average weekly income of over $10 per week. Brought into specific averages, we find that the average weekly income for the year was in personal service $5.25, in trade $4.81, in manufactures $5.22, or the general average for all involved for the whole year was $5.17 per week. This latter figure must stand as the total average weekly income from all sources, earnings, assistance, and other work, of the working girls of Boston. It should be remembered that the average weekly earnings from occupation only, distributed over the whole year, was but $4.91; the total average yearly income from all sources was $269.07; for the different departments, $273.02 in personal service, $250.63 in trade, and $271.41 in manufactures. . . .

A good deal of complaint is made in regard to the low wages quite generally paid to working girls in all the various occupations in which they were found employed. The cause of complaint, especially under “Trade,” is ascribed to the fact that girls living “at home,” with little or no board to pay, work for very low wages. This is considered a great hardship to the lone working girl who is entirely dependent upon her own resources. The mothers in some cases have said that it takes more than the girls earn to feed and clothe them, and some of the girls have been taken from their work and are now idle on that account. In the large stores, employees are reported as hired at the lowest figures possible, and it is said, that wages in the future are likely to be even less.

In the manufacture of men’s clothing, considerable complaint is made by the girls as to the very small wages now made in the business. Almost invariably, when anything was said by them concerning wages, the cry was “pay is too small”; in these cases, the pay ranges from $3 to $6 generally, a baster on canvas (13 and 1/2 years old), reporting only $1.25. It is said that many of the girls get discouraged, as they hardly earn enough to pay running expenses, and are obliged to practise the most rigid economy. One girl says she “turns her clothes upside down, inside out, and outside in, not being able to make enough over living expenses to buy new clothes.” A certain class of piece masters are said to be responsible for low wages; they take work from firms and do it much lower than they need to—“at any rate,” as one girl puts it, “girls used to make better pay before they came.”

Shirt, dress, and cloak makers, earning $4, $5, $6, and $7 a week, complain very much of the small pay, while in other occupations, where the pay ranges from $2 to $5 a week, the same state of affairs is reported. In paper box making, one girl receiving $8 a week says girls work harder than the men, and are paid much less—unjustly, she thinks. The wages in this occupation are reported as falling off. Another girl, who formerly worked as saleswoman at $4.50 a week, says it was not sufficient to pay for room and board, provide suitable clothing to make a decent appearance in the store, and meet other ordinary expenses.

In some cases girls testify that their work is worth more than they receivefor it, and think they ought to have better wages. But as others always stand ready to take their places at even less pay, they have to be satisfied with what they get. . . .

In several instances, girls report increase or expected increase, of wages, and for this reason, they seem to be quite well pleased at their prospects. In many places, it appears to be the custom to engage help at small rates of pay, and gradually increase wages until the maximum is reached. Many girls also serve a certain length of time for nothing, until they become familiar with the business and are then placed on piece work, the same as the rest of the employes. Table girls in restaurants often have their weekly earnings increased by small fees received from regular customers, and in the holiday season by small presents, the fees amounting in some cases to 50 cents or $1.00, and even $2 to $3 a week.

Directly connected with the question of wages received, are the prices paid to piece workers, the graded prices paid to employes working by the week, and the prices paid for overtime during the busy seasons. . . .

MEN’S CLOTHING.—A tailoress on boy’s suits, gets from 85 cents to $3.50 a suit; she does not get a $3.50 suit very often, and can not make eight “85 cent” suits a week; present wages are reported as $6.

A tailoress (40 years old ) says five years ago she used to get $10 a week and had received the same wages for years; she is now getting $9 ( as reported ) .

Five custom tailoresses are reported as getting $12 to $13, 2 at $9, $7.50, and $5 respectively. One other reports that custom work pays well, and she makes in the busy season $9 a week; in dull times, much less.

A coat maker says she gets 75 cents for making a frock coat, and 60 cents for a sack coat. In good times, she can make 16 coats a week; the week for which wages were returned ($7), she made 12 coats, but had to take work home nights and worked until 10 o’clock. Another coat maker reports that in Montreal, she could make but $2.75 a week; in Boston, at former place of employment, she made $7 in summer and $6 in winter, and at present place, she earns $4 in winter and $5.50 in summer. Another coat maker says she has to work overtime at home to average $6 per week.

Coat basters report pay much less now than formerly; one girl formerly earning $7 a week has been cut down to $6.

A pantaloon stitcher says wages on piece work have been so cut down that girls who formerly earned $9 cannot possibly make now more than $5 per week. Pantaloon finishers take pantaloons which have been sewed up on machine, turn up and put in canvas in the bottoms, tack pockets, put in all the waistband linings and sew on the buttons, for 12 and 1/2 cents, formerly 15 to 20 cents; they can finish 16 pairs a week by working from 8 A.M. till dark in summer, and till 7 or 8 P.M. in winter.

Bushelwomen getting $4, $5.50, and $7 respectively, say their employers pay as much if not more than others, and when working after hours, one girl says they get 20 cents per hour.

A machine presser says she used to get $7 a week for what she now receives $5; and now has to work harder.

Machine button-hole makers receive 20 cents per hundred. . . . One other girl says she is paid 25 cents per 100, and can do 800 button-holes per day, while some girls can make 900. The work is very unsteady, and a good deal of time is lost.

Shirt makers, on the best grades, and on custom work, can make good wages when work is brisk, $9, $10, $11, and $12 being made on piece work; one price reported being 50 cents a shirt, except button-holes. On cheaper grades of work, the prices paid are 77 cents, $1.12, $1.18, to $1.95 per dozen. For thick flannel shirts, except button-holes, 75 cents per dozen is paid; it takes two days to make a dozen. The nicest flannel shirts have much work in them, and $2 per dozen is paid, it taking the best workers two days to make a dozen.

Overall makers receive 5 cents a pair when made at home, and 50 cents per dozen when made in the shop.

WOMEN’S CLOTHING.—Dressmakers are paid $1.25 to $1.75 for making a suit; a suit made for the first-named price sells for $12, and can be made in a day by working in the evening. When paid $1.75, if any extra work not done by self is added, as plaiting, the cost is deducted, the maker actually receiving $1.35; the prices of suits are graded according to the quality of goods, as high as $5 being allowed. It takes two days to make a suit. Another dressmaker has been working at home for two months making suits for $5 apiece, her weekly wage being reported as $5; for overtime in one instance, 12 and 1/2 cents an hour was paid.

Dressmakers, for themselves, get from $2 to $3 per day, with meals; when on a long job, one reports that she gets $10 a week.

Milliners can earn from $15 to $25 a week in busy seasons; at other times, not near so much.

Seamstresses on dresses are paid 75 cents to $1 per day; in private families, $1 a day and board; and when going out by the day, $1.50 per day. A seamstress on buttons gets 10 cents a set for sewing buttons on wrappers, a set being 18 wrappers.

A sewing machine operator on fine “white goods,” can make from $11 to $15 a week.

A button-hole maker on ladies' dresses gets 3 cents apiece; a good price, it is said, and good wages can be made.

Cloak and sack makers say they have to work very hard to average $6 a week the year round, prices being low; one girl gives her weekly earnings for the year, as follows:—8 weeks at $9; 8 at $2.50; 13 at $9; 13 at $2.50; 5 at $9; and 5 weeks idle; average $6.09. The prices paid in some places are 15 cents for an entire cloak, raised, however, on protest to 25 cents; and 22 cents for making a short walking coat, running two rows of stitching around the entire edge and sewing on 30 buttons. It takes 3 hours to make a cloak for 25 cents. In making Jersey sacks, one girl says she got 90 cents for making a sack by hand, which took three days to finish; she was obliged to take the work home and sit up until 11 at night to make $2.50 a week. Another girl says she has to baste, stitch, and face with crinoline, and finish seven seams, for 25 cents.

For making boys‘ waists, 30 cents a dozen is paid, button-holes included. It took one girl one whole day to make the sleeves for 2 dozen boys’ waists.

For hemming linen handkerchiefs, 2 and 1/2 cents a dozen is paid for large ones, and 1 and 3/4 cents for small ones; one girl hemmed 15 dozen a day (machine work) when the work was good.

Hoopskirt makers get 82 cents a dozen.

Bustle makers used to get 65, 75, and 85 cents a dozen, but the price has been recently cut down 15 cents; the bustles are now made for 50, 60, and 70 cents per dozen. They can do 1 and 1/2 dozen a day by working from 8.30 A.M. to 6 P.M., with half an hour for dinner. The work is often slack and they are now making a bustle which pays but 25 cents a dozen, and a girl can make a dozen only per day.

A book folder, working by the piece, gets from 3 and 1/2 to 7 cents per 100 sheets, according to the number of folds. At one place, little girls are hired at 6 and 7 cents an hour, the highest price paid being 12 cents an hour. It is not possible to make more than $5 a week on an average; the girls formerly received a percentage of 10 cents on the dollar earned and it was a great incentive to hard work; it has since been taken off. One girl once made $7.50 a week, but it nearly killed her, and she has since limited herself to $1 a day. A book-sewer reports a percentage of 10 cents on every dollar made as being now given to sewers, to equal pay of folders.

In Boots and Shoes, there have been 7 or 8 cut-downs in 8 years; the girls have to work very hard to make $8 a week, and then only in the busy season (for about 2 months).

In Rubber Goods, there have been constant cut-downs, and but little work. Circulars are now made for 6 cents apiece, for which girls were formerly paid 15 cents, since cut to 10, 8, and 6 cents successively. Girls used to make $12 to $14 a week, but now only from $3 to $6; the factories were reported as running on short time and at low rates, one factory reducing from 600 to 100 hands, those being retained who most needed work. A button-hole maker on gossamers says she left for the reason that the work was put out on new machines because it could be done cheaper. The girls in the shop could not work at same figures and make anything. The employer pays $75 for the use of the machine, the girls get 4 cents per 100, and the employer pays 5 cents royalty per 100; it was claimed that 4000 button-holes could be made in a day. In sewing waterproof hats, girls get paid at the rate of $1 for six dozen, the price formerly paid being 30 cents a dozen; they can sew from 7 to 9 an hour. . . .

One table girl in restaurant says she is required to pay for all crockery broken. In stores, one girl says they are obliged to pay one half of the selling price for broken crockery or ware; one other girl who accidentally broke a show-case, left because the price was to be taken from her pay; she was working at the time on 3 per cent commission sales (with no other pay), and one stormy day she made 5 cents. Two machine operators on cloaks were required to pay 25 and 35 cents respectively for the use of machines; two operators on gossamers were required to pay for needles and thread, in one case 25 cents for a spool of thread and 15 cents a half-dozen for machine needles; they were forbidden to buy them outside; the wages in both cases were reported as $5 a week. . . .

The moral condition of the working girls cannot be stated with that statistical accuracy which belongs to the other conditions we have discussed, and yet in certain directions we have the most positive information and of such a character that it possesses all the value of a statistical statement.

It has often been said that the shop girls are an immoral class, that it is largely from their ranks that prostitution is recruited, and the vile charge has often been made that in great stores where many girls are employed, an engagement often depends upon the willingness of the saleswoman or shop girl to become the intimate friend of either the proprietor or head of a department. The assertion is often very flippantly bandied about that when a girl seeks employment and the wages offered are very low and she objects to such low wages, she is coolly informed that she must seek some gentleman to help her to support herself. In addition to our desire to ascertain the general moral condition which surrounds the working girls of Boston, we have had a very strong desire to ascertain the truth or falsity of these damaging assertions and charges, and first, we will consider the girls in their homes and employments. Under social condition, we dealt very fully with the condition of the girls in their homes.

It was seen that a very large proportion of them were living at home with parents and friends. In addition to this we found that in nearly all the cases where a girl was called upon in the evening and found to be out, her parents or the friends with whom she was living, knew of her whereabouts, and would oftentimes send for her to come home and give the information sought by the agents. This evidence in itself is very emphatic in establishing the moral surroundings at least of the girls involved. A few of the girls testify to ill treatment by friends or relatives, but as a rule, they were surrounded by such home influences that it is entirely unreasonable to believe them to be guilty of walking in evil ways. Some of them have spoken very frankly about ill treatment by their employers; some of these say that the employers or the men placed in charge are in the habit of speaking very roughly to employees and oftentimes while they do not swear at the girls, they use violent and sometimes bad language before them; others are said to curse and swear at the girls and treat them very shabbily. One girl says she has been subjected to rough words and harsh treatment from the foreman in charge of the department; his general demeanor is bad. She says he is a good tool for employers, who are all right themselves apparently, but that they do not know of many things which otherwise might be remedied; they place implicit confidence in him and having little or no knowledge of their help, they do not know but what their employees are well treated.

Another girl says her employer is good natured according to his mood; if he does not like the way the work is done, he is apt to take it rudely from her hands and tell her to leave; on the other hand, he might feel good natured enough to pay her in advance if he thought she needed money.

In some places, during working hours, no one is allowed to call upon the girls employed; even on the occasion of the death of a friend who was killed, the girl was notified after much trouble, and then only through a speaking tube. This girl says she was absent two and three-quarter hours, and her employer, although knowing the circumstances, would not allow her the time; he also fails to pay for overwork when done. Other girls speak of the bad language used by employers, and in some cases say they had left for this reason.

Only five girls were found of the whole number interviewed who gave any specific reasons why their surroundings in the shops and places of employment were not of a moral character. In almost every case, the answer was that, so far as known, there were no immoral influences exerted over the girls at their work, but rather that the moral atmosphere of the places where employed was very good and as pleasant as could be wished. In fact, it is reasonable to suppose that employers are as anxious to have good moral conditions exist in their places as any other class of men.

The working girls seen by the agents were well appearing generally, frank and honest in their statements, and gave every indication that they were leading orderly, upright lives. Certainly, there was little or no evidence to the contrary, nor has there been anything adduced in support of the rumors to which we have referred. They were mentioned frequently to the agents, both by the working girls and by women of bad repute, but, as already remarked, in only five instances could these rumors be traced to anything tangible whatever, and these instances were of such a trivial nature that they are hardly entitled to a place in this Report.

We do not hesitate to assert that the working girls of Boston are, as a rule, living in a moral atmosphere so far as their homes are concerned, and that they are not corrupted by their employers, and that employers do not seek to corrupt them. All such statements originate in the idea that girls cannot dress well with the small wages they receive, unless they lead immoral lives in which they receive pecuniary assistance.

The testimony of capable and honest women, of the heads of departments in dry goods stores, millinery establishments, of forewomen in shops, matrons of homes, and of all those best informed and in the best position to give testimony on this point, is that the working girls are as respectable, as moral, and as virtuous as any class of women in our community; that they are making as heroic a struggle for existence as any class is a fact which all the statistics prove.

The idea that well dressed girls receiving low wages must live disreputable lives is a very common one, but, as has been shown under economic condition and other chapters of this Report, a large number of these girls live in comfortable homes with parents in comparatively easy circumstances and well able and willing to support their children, who pay little or no board and spend their earnings as they please, chiefly for dress. Many are graduates from the High School, and large numbers are employed for months in making out commercial lists and addressing envelopes for the pittance of two or three dollars per week; at the end of such service they leave and their places are filled by others recently graduated from school; the supply of this labor always exceeds the demand.

Other well dressed girls, who live at home, turn their earnings into the common family fund and their clothes are provided for by their parents and these are generally made during the evening by themselves, and by skill and ingenuity a good appearance is made at little cost. It is only the few who are well dressed and helped by their friends who attract attention, and of these the question is often asked, how can they dress well when they earn so little. Such questions led to the idea that they take up prostitution, but the fact that the girl works hard all day for three or four dollars a week is sufficient proof that she is not living in prostitution; girls cannot work hard all day and be prostitutes too.

There is another class of working women who live in the city among strangers, whose home is the boarding house or lodging room and who are away from home influence, but our conclusion from the facts gathered is that their number is much less than is generally supposed; but many of this class have good homes in the country, or friends living there, to which they return when sick or out of work, and they are often supplied with clothing by their friends at a distance. There are others however who have no home but the boarding house, and no friends to depend upon for aid, sympathy, or moral encouragement, and it is among this class of shop girls chiefly, that the aid and assistance of the benevolent and charitably inclined people of our city should be directed. It is among these that Boffin’s Bower exerts a great influence, and with whom the name of Jennie Collins is a household word; but none of these girls can by any possible stretch of the imagination be charged with being dissolute. Our agents have visited them in their rooms and held free and frank converse with them; they have spoken frankly about themselves as to how they were circumstanced, and our agents have come away impressed with the heroic struggle they are making to lead a proper life. The weakest and least competent go to Boffin’s Bower and to some other establishments, where, if they are in need of a meal or dinner, they can get it without lowering themselves by begging. . . .

Interviews upon this subject with prostitutes on the streets and with night policemen on their beats, all tend to show one thing, that all such statements as those referred to are utterly false and without foundation.

A captain of police expressed the matter well when he said that people, who charge the working women with walking the streets at night for evil purposes, do not know what they are talking about; night walkers are all of them hardened convicts or prostitutes; some of them may have been hard working women, but no working woman ever walks the streets as a prostitute. This captain said that when a girl falls from virtue, she has first to graduate as a “parlor girl,” and then serves some time in a still lower house before she is hardened enough to take to the streets. All the officers with whom our agents conversed on the subject gave similar testimony.

We have been thus explicit upon this particular point of our investigation because men have come to this office with the assertion that the streets were crowded with working girls in the evening, who were in the habit of soliciting men to accompany them home, and these gentlemen have expressed themselves as greatly astonished that in a city as well regulated as Boston, girls should come out of stores and shops and ply their vocation as night walkers on the streets in the evening.

The only remark we can make in this matter, after having given, as we have, positive testimony that such charges are absolutely untrue, is, that if gentlemen have had such experiences on our streets it does not speak well for them and indicates to our mind that the first offence was on their part and that they were again mistaken in supposing the girls they were approaching were working girls.

Let us now consider how far the ranks of prostitution are fed by girls from our shops. From 170 inmates of houses of ill-repute, known to the police, we have gathered some very valuable information; the causes given for their taking up the life they follow is of interest. Of these 170, 22 declined to give any cause, 17 entered their present life on account of ill-treatment at home, 59 from choice, most of them on account of love of easy life and love of dress, 26 testify that they were driven into the life by poor pay and hard work, while 46 were led into the life through seduction. It is important to know just the course so far as given through which these women have passed before entering their present life. . . .

To summarize the previous occupation, or that immediately preceding their entry upon the life of shame, we reach the following results: 60 came directly from housework, table or hotel work; 32 from textile factories; 6 from shoe factories; 19 were dressmakers, seamstresses, or tailoresses; 5 were saleswomen; 18 had been in various occupations, while 30 had had no previous occupation.

The foregoing statements do not prove unfavorable to the working girls. These 170 women are leading lives of shame it is true, many of them leading lives of sorrow, also. Often during this investigation when considering this class of women, and the temptation to which girls are exposed, we have wished that public condemnation could fall as severely upon the seducer, and upon the tempter, as it has in the past upon his victim. This punishment would be quite severe enough.

In conclusion, so far as this part on moral condition is concerned, we can most freely and positively assert that the working girls of Boston are making an heroic, an honest, and a virtuous struggle to earn an honorable livelihood, and that it is rare that one of them can be found following a life other than one of integrity. We can also assert, to the credit of the merchants and employers of Boston, that they do not make the honor of the girls they employ the price of a position.

If, in our future investigations, we find this is not true, we assure the guilty ones that their infamous business shall be exposed.

We, of course, do not wish to be understood as asserting that the working girls are any better than the same number of girls in any other calling, for the amount of private immorality in any community or among any class cannot be traced, yet they come out of this investigation with as good a name as that which can attach to any class.

We only wish it were possible to investigate and expose the conduct of men who help women into fallen lives, and then see these men meet the punishment which justly belongs to them.

The fact that here and there a girl forsakes the path of virtue and lives a sinful life should not be used to the detriment of the class to which she belongs, especially when her life is peculiarly exposed to temptation, as is the case with girls struggling along on five dollars or less per week. It is easy to be good on a sure and generous income; it requires the strongest character to enable one to be good and respectable on an unstable income of five dollars per week. . . .

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fifteenth Annual Report (Boston: 1884).