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Slumming Among the Unemployed: William Wycoff Studies Joblessness in the 1890s

Even before the 1890s depression struck with devastating force in 1893, large numbers of jobless men and women competed in tight labor markets and faced homelessness. One of the best first-hand descriptions of “what it is to look for work and fail to find it” comes from political economist Walter Wycoff’s two-volume study of The Workers: An Experiment in Reality, first published in 1899. Wycoff had abandoned his studies at Princeton to seek a more concrete appreciation of social problems. His record of his two years spent as a common laborer became an early classic of sociological writing.



Saturday Evening, December 5, 1891.

A new phase of my experiment is begun. Hitherto I have been in the open country, and have found work with surprising readiness. Now I am in the heart of a congested labor market, and I am learning, by experience, what it is to look for work and fail to find it; to renew the search under the spur of hunger and cold, and of the animal instinct of self-preservation until any employment, no matter how low in the scale of work, that would yield food and shelter, appears to you the very Kingdom of Heaven; and if it could suffer violence, it would seem as though the strength of our desire must take that kingdom by force. But it remains impregnable to your attack, and, baffled and weakened, you are thrust back upon yourself and held down remorselessly to the cold, naked fact that you, who in all the universe are of supremest importance to yourself, are yet of no importance to the universe. You are a superfluous human being. For you there is no part in the play of the world’s activity. There remains for you simply this alternative: Have you the physical and moral qualities which fit you to survive, and which will place you at last within the working of the large scheme of things, or, lacking these qualities, does there await you inevitable wreck under the onward rush of the world’s great moving life?

That, at all events, is pretty much as it appears to-night to Tom Clark and me. Clark is my “partner,” and we are not in good luck nor in high spirits. We each had a ten-cent breakfast this morning, but neither has tasted food since, and to-night, after an exhausting search for work, we must sleep in the station-house.

We are doing our best to pass the time in warmth and comfort until midnight. We know better than to go to the station-house earlier than that hour. Clark is in the corner at my side pretending to read a newspaper, but really trying to disguise the fact that he is asleep.

An official who walks periodically through the reading-room, recalling nodding figures to their senses, has twice caught Clark asleep, and has threatened to put him out.

I shall be on the alert, and shall warn Clark of his next approach, for after this place is closed we shall have long enough to wait in the naked street before we can be sure of places in the larger corridor of the station, where the crowding is less close and the air a degree less foul than in the inner passage, where men are tightly packed over every square foot of the paved floor.

We are tired and very hungry, and not a little discouraged; we should be almost desperate but for one redeeming fact. The silver lining of our cloud has appeared to-night in the form of falling snow. From the murky clouds which all day have hung threateningly over the city, a quiet, steady snow-fall has begun, and we shall be singularly unfortunate in the morning if we can find no pavements to clean.

In the growing threat of snow we have encouraged each other with the brightening prospect of a little work, and for quite half an hour after nightfall we stood alternately before the windows of two cheap restaurants in Madison Street, studying the square placards in the windows on which the bills of fare are printed, and telling each other, with nice discriminations between bulk and strengthening power of food, what we shall choose to-morrow.

It is a little strange, when I think of it, the closeness of the intimacy between Clark and me. We never saw each other until last Wednesday evening, and we know little of each other’s past. But I feel as though the ties that bound me to him had their roots far back in our histories. Perhaps men come to know one another quickest and best on a plane of life, where in the fellowship of destitution they struggle for the primal needs and feel the keen sympathies which attest the basal kinship of our common humanity. Ours are not intellectual affinities — at least they are not consciously these—but we feel shrewdly the community of hunger and cold and isolation, and we have drawn strangely near to each other in this baffling struggle for a social footing, and have tempered in our comradeship the biting cold of the loneliness that haunts us on the outskirts of a crowded working world.

Early on last Wednesday morning, in the gray light of a cloudy day, I began the last stage of the march to Chicago. A walk of something less than thirty miles would take me to the heart of the city.

There is an unfailing inspiration in these early renewals of the journey. Solid food and a night of unfathomable sleep have restored the waste of tissue. I set out in the morning with a sense of boundless freedom, with an opening day and the whole wide world before me, with my heart leaping in the joy of living and in high expectancy of what the day may hold of experience and of insight into the lives of my fellow-men.

On this particular morning there is added fulness and freshness in that inbreathing which gives the zest of life. Long had Chicago loomed large to my imagination, and now it stood before me, its volumes of black smoke mingling with the leaden sky in the northern horizon.

How much it had come to mean to me, this huge metropolis of the shifting centre of our population! The unemployed were there, and I had not seen them yet; hundreds lived there who are fiercely at war with the existing state of things, and their speech was an unknown tongue to me, and my conventional imagination could not compass the meaning of their imaginings; and then the poor were there, the really destitute, who always feel first and last of all the pressure upon the limits of subsistence, and who in the grim clutch of starvation underbid one another for the work of the sweaters, until the brain reels at the knowledge of the incredible toil by which body and soul are kept together. All this awaited me, the very core of the social problem whose conditions I had set out to learn in the terms of concrete experience.

Nor was I insensible to the charm of other novelties. I have been pressing westward through a land unknown to me. Gradually I am beginning to see the essential provinciality of a mind which knows the Eastern seaboard, and has some measure of acquaintance with countries and cities and with men from Ireland to Italy, but which is densely ignorant of our own vast domain, and shrinks from all that lies beyond Philadelphia as belonging to “the West,” which sums up the totality of a frontier, where man and nature share a sympathetic wildness, and sometimes vie in outbursts of lawless force. I have not yet reached “the West” in any essential departure from the social and industrial structure of the East. And from the new point of view, “the West ” recedes ever farther from my sight, until impatient desire sometimes spurs me to a quicker journey, in the fear that the real West may have faded from our map before I reach it, and I may miss the delight of vital contact with the untamed frontier.

Moreover, I could but feel a student’s kindling interest in the larger vision of this great centre of industrial life. Its renaissance with augmented vigor from the ashes of its earlier history.“The swelling tide of its swarming people until the fifteen hundred thousand [1.5 million] mark is reached and passed, and the mounting waves of population roll in, each with the strength of an army of fighting men. ” The vastness of its productive enterprises, where all the shrewd economies of modern commerce reveal themselves, and where skill and organizing power and the genius of initiative win their quick recognition and rewards, and men of parts pass swiftly from the lowest to the highest places in the scale of productive usefulness and power. And then the splendid vigor of its nobler living, its churches and public schools and libraries and wise philanthropies, and its impatient hunger after art, which impels it to lay eager, unrelenting hands upon the products of a score of centuries, and, in a single day, to call them “mine.”

But I was fast nearing the goal of my desire, and the claims of pressing needs were crowding out the visions of the morning. I had passed through the wilderness by which the Pittsburg & Fort Wayne Railroad enters the outskirts of Chicago. As far as the eye could reach had stretched a dreary plain broken by the ridges of sand-dunes, among which stood dwarfed oaks, and gnarled and stunted pines, and the slender, graceful stems of white-barked birches, on whose twigs the last brown leaves of autumn rustled in the winter wind. Upon my right I saw at last the broad bosom of the lake, gleaming like burnished steel under the threatening sky, and breaking into a line of inky blackness where it lapped the pebbles on the beach.

Presently I learn that I am in South Chicago, and I note the converging lines of railways that cross the streets on the level at every possible angle, and the surface cable-cars, and the long line of blast-furnaces by the lake, and elevators here and there, and huge factories, and the myriad homes of workingmen. It is all a blackened chaos to my eyes, rude and crude and raw, and I wonder that orderly commerce can flow through channels so confused.

But the streets are soon more regular, and for some time I have been checking off, by their decreasing numerals, the approach to my journey’s end. I am in the midst of a seemingly endless suburban region. There are wide stretches of open prairie, cut through busy city streets; there are city buildings of brick and stone standing alone, or in groups of twos and threes, stark and appealing in their lonely waiting for flanking neighbors; and there are comfortable wooden cottages set with an air of rural seclusion among trees, and having lawns and garden areas about them; and then there are whole squares built up like the nuclei of new communities with conventional three-storied dwellings, and the varied shops of local retail trade, and abundant saloons.

Early in the afternoon I stop to rest on the platform of the Woodlawn station of the Illinois Central Railway. For some time I have had glimpses within a highly boarded enclosure of towering iron frames, with their graceful, sweeping arches meeting at dizzy heights, and appearing like the fragmentary skeletons of mammoths mounted in an open paleontological museum.

The suburban trains are rushing in and out of the station with nearly the frequency of elevated trains in New York, and not far away are lines of cable-cars, where a five-cent fare would take me, in a few minutes, over the weary miles which intervene to the business portion of the town. But I have not one cent, and much less five, and if I had so much as that it would go for food, for I am tired, it is true, but I am much hungrier than tired.

There is a hopeful prospect in the air of immense activity in this neighborhood. I have easily recognized the vast enclosure beyond as Jackson Park, and the steel skeletons as the frames of the exposition buildings. Thousands of men are at work there, and the growing volume of the enterprise may furnish a ready chance of employment. I am but a few steps from the Sixty-third Street entrance, and, in my ignorance, I am soon pressing through, when a gatekeeper challenges me, civilly:He is roused in an instant, and he steps threateningly toward me, his voice deepening in anger.At the gate I stand my ground in the right of a citizen and explain that I am looking for work, and am hopeful of a job from one of the bosses.Not far away there are many new buildings going up, huge, unlovely shells of brick that even at this stage tell plainly their struggles with the purely utilitarian problem of a maximum of room accommodation at a minimum of cost. I walk toward the nearest one, pondering, the while, the meaning of the word hobo, new to me, and having an uncomfortable feeling that, for the first time, I have been taken, not for an unemployed laborer in honest search of work, but for one of the professionally idle.

It has begun to rain, a dreary, sopping drizzle, half mist, half melting snow, heavy with the soot of the upper air, and it clings tenaciously, until my threadbare outer coat is twice its normal weight, and my leaking boots pump the slimy pavement water at every step.

For two hours or more I go from one contractor to another, among the new buildings, asking work. The interviews are short and decisive. The typical boss is he who is moving anxious-eyed among his men with attention fixed upon some detail. He hears without heeding my request, and he shouts an order before he turns to me with an imperative“No, I don’t want you!” and sometimes an added curse.When I emerge from this touch of nature and high art it is upon a stately boulevard of double drives and quadruple rows of sturdy elms which line the bridle-paths and wide pavements. Mile after mile I walk, tired and hungry and wet, and quite lost in wonder. Is there in the wide world a city street to match with this? Rising in a paradise of landscape gardening it stretches its majestic length like the broad sweep of another Champs Elysees, flanked by palaces of uncounted cost and unimagined horror of architecture, opening here to a stretch of wide prairie, and closing there to the front of a “block” of houses of uncompromising Philistinism and decorations of “unchastened splendor,” and reaching, at times, its native dignity in a setting of buildings which tell the final truth of the elegance of simplicity.

It has grown dark when I enter Michigan Avenue, and again my way stretches far before me, this time under converging lines of lights that seem to meet at an almost infinite distance. The sense of infinity is heightened by the floating mist, in which the nearer lights play with an effect of orange halo about them, and the farther lamps shine in an ever vaguer distance behind their clinging veils of fog.

Scarcely a soul is in the street. It is a residence quarter of much wealth, and like all else that I have seen so far, of strangest incongruities. Houses of lavish cost and shabbiest economy of taste, so gorgeous that you can scarcely believe them private homes, give way, at times, to lines of brown fronts precisely like those which in unvarying uniformity of basement and “stoop” and four-storied facade, flank miles of dreary side-streets in New York. These yield in turn to churches and apartment-houses and hotels and clubs—all creating an atmosphere of wealth and of social refinement, while almost interspersed with them are homes of apparent poverty and certainly of gentility on the ravelled edge of things. And bursting now through all this medley is the clanging, rumbling rush of railway traffic. I can scarcely believe my eyes at first, but under the frowning walls of a towering armory I am held up by the downward sweep of the gates of a railway crossing, on the dead level of the avenue, and am kept there until a freight-train has crawled past its creaking length.

It all seems a meaningless chaos at the first, but soon I feel the pulse of the life within it, a young life of glorious vigor and of indomitable resolve to attain what it so strongly feels though vaguely knows. And here and there I can see the promise of its fair fruition in lines of strength and power and beauty, where the hand of some true master has wrought a home for the abiding of good taste.

Soon there is an abrupt end of buildings on my right, and the land fades away into an open plain, and from out the sleet-swept darkness beyond comes faintly the sound of “crisping ripples on the beach.”I know that I am at my journey’s end, for I have begun to catch glimpses of Ossa-piled-on-Pelion structures which rise in graceless lines into the black night. I come up all standing before one of these, a veritable Palazzo Vecchio, huge, impenetrable, vast, bringing into this New-World city something of the sense of time and density of the Piazza della Signoria.

Here, too, the avenue is almost deserted, and I turn sharply under the massive battlements of this Florentine palace, to where the glare of many lights and the counter-currents of street-crowds attract me. Across Wabash Avenue I pass on to State Street. My eye has just begun to note the novelties of the scene when it falls upon the figure of a young man. He stands in the middle of the pavement at the corner, and swiftly hands printed slips of white paper among the moving crowd. Many persons pass unheeding, but a few accept the proffered notice. I take one, and I stop for a moment on the curb to read it. Its purport as an invitation to attend a Gospel meeting has become clear to me, when I find the young man at my side. He wears a heavy winter ulster that reaches to his boot-tops, and its rolling collar is turned up snugly about his ears. On his hands are dog-skin gloves, and the rays of street-lights glisten in the myriad drops of half-frozen mist that cling like heavy dew to the rough, woollen surface of his coat. I must cut a figure standing there, wet and travel-stained, my teeth chattering audibly in the cold night air, and it is plainly my evident fitness as a field for Christian work that has drawn to me the notice of this young evangelist.The place is crowded with men—workingmen many of them—and many are plainly of that blear-eyed, bedraggled, cowering type which one soon learns to distinguish from the workers. Men pass freely in and out with no disturbance to the meeting, and watching my chance I soon slip into a vacant seat near the great stove that burns red-hot half way up the room. Ah, the luxury of the warmth and the undisputed right to sit in restful comfort! Again and again, in the afternoon I had sat down on the steps of some public building, but from every passing eye had come a shot of questioning suspicion, and once a patrolling officer ordered me to move on with a sharp reminder that “the step of a church was no loafing place.”

Deeper and deeper I sink into my seat. A warm, seductive ease enfolds me. I dare not fall asleep for fear of being turned into the street. And yet the very hint of going out again into the shelterless night comes over me in the dim sense of fading consciousness as a thought so grotesquely impossible that I nearly laugh aloud. Out from this warmth and light and cover into the pitiless inhospitality of the open town? Oh, no, that is beyond conceiving! And all the while I know—such is the subtlety of our instinctive thinking—that it is the awful fear of this that conquers now the overmastering sleep which woos me.

The men are singing lustily under inspiring leadership and to the accompaniment of a cornet and harmonium. Short prayers are offered, and fervent exhortations, interspersed with hymns, are made, and finally the men are urged to “testify.”

I follow in vague anxiety the change of exercise, but no clear idea reaches me; for in full possession of my mind is the haunting fear of a benediction which will send us out again. But while the men are speaking in quick succession there begins to pierce to the benumbed seat of thought a sense of something very living. Their speech, in simplest, homeliest phrase, is of things most intimate and real. They speak of life—their own sunk to deepest degradation. They tell the story of growing drunkenness and vice, of hope fast fading out of life, of faith and honor and self-respect all gone, and at last the outer dark wherein men live to feed their passions and blaspheme until they dare to die, or death anticipates the courage of despair. And then the purport of it all shines clear in that they have to tell of a Divine hand reached out to them of trembling hope and love reborn, of desire after righteousness breathing anew in a prayer for help.

Now I am all vividly alive and keen, for, standing straight not far from where I sit, is a grand figure of a man. He is bronzed, deepchested, lithe, and in the setting of his shoulders there is splendid strength, which shows again in the broad, clean-cut hands that quiver in their grip upon the seat in front. He has the modest bearing of a gentleman, and his unfaltering voice vibrates with a compelling sense of deep sincerity.He sits down, and a hymn is given out and sung, but the truth which has found lodgement in our hearts is the living truth of a human life reclaimed. We have listened to the story of the prodigal from his own lips. We have heard again the cosmic parable of wandering and return; the mystery of creation, and fall, and recreation by a power divine; the great, irrefutable witness to the Truth in the history of a lost soul come to itself and returning to the Father’s House.

In the midst of the singing the leader walks quietly down the aisle to the rear. Two ladies are there struggling in a vain effort to quiet an old man. They have come to help in the conduct of the service, and the old man has increasingly claimed their care, for he is drunk and is growing violent. I have noticed him in his restless movements. Upon his stooping figure he wears an old army coat and cape that are dripping with the rain. His gray mustache and beard are long and matted, and stained all round his mouth with the deep brown of tobacco-juice. His unkempt hair falls in frowsy masses about his ears, and his lustreless eyes, inflamed and expressionless, bulge from their swollen sockets.

In an instant the leader’s strong hand is upon him, and with no commotion above the sound of song the old man is soon without the hall, and the leader back in his place again singing as heartily as ever.

When the meeting ends the crowd moves slowly and listlessly toward the door, as though its prevailing mood were aimless beyond the dull necessity of passing the time. The fine rain and melting snow are still falling through the mist. The men drift away singly or in groups of twos and threes, under the flickering lights, their heads bent slightly forward and their bare hands thrust into the side-pockets of their trousers.

In the crush about the foot of the aisle a young man speaks to me:I see at a glance that he is far more respectable than I, and my first mental attitude is one of hospitality to further evangelizing effort. But I shift at once, for without awaiting for a reply from me, he adds:I tell him my name, but he evidently considers it not a serviceable one, for he ignores it from the first, and consistently makes use of “partner.”

We walk together in the direction of State Street, and Clark explains to me that we must not go to the station until after midnight, a fact which he had learned, and the reasons for it, from an acquaintance in a cheap lodging-house where he had spent the night before.

At the corner I hold Clark for a moment until my eyes have caught the character of the street. It is wide, with broad pavements on each side, and is lined with great business houses of retail trade, the “department store” the prevailing type. The shop-windows are ablaze with electric lights, and gorgeous as to displays which are taking on a holiday character. Whole fronts of some of the buildings are fairly covered with temporary signs, painted in gigantic letters on canvas stretched on wooden frames, and vying fiercely in strident announcements of “sweeping reductions” and “moving,” and “bankrupt,” and “fire sales.”

There is little noise upon the street aside from the almost constant swishing rush of cable-cars and the irritating clangor of their gongs. The crowds had wholly disappeared. There are a few pedestrians, who hold their umbrellas close above their heads, and step briskly in evident haste to get in out of the stormy night, and we pass men of our own type who are drifting aimlessly, and now and then a stalwart officer, well-booted and snug under his waterproof, with his arms folded and his club held tight in the pressure of an armpit.

We are walking south along the west side of State Street. There is a swift social decline here, for every door we pass is that of a saloon and above us hang frequent transparencies which advertise lodgings at ten and fifteen cents, while across the way are the flaring lights of a cheap theatre.I follow him down a narrow passage whose faint light enters through a stained-glass partition, which hems it in along the inner side wall of the building. Through a door at the end of the passage we enter a large room brilliantly lighted, and I follow Clark to an iron stove at one side in which a coal fire burns furiously. In the corner near us are three men, slouching, listless, weary specimens of their kind, who are playing “Comrades” with a gusto curiously out of keeping with their looks of bored fatigue. One has a harp, another a violin, and the third drums ceaselessly upon a piano of harsh, metallic tone.

There are a dozen round tables in the room, and at these are seated small groups of men and women drinking beer. Some of the men are workmen, but most are loafers, not of the tramp but of the rough civic type.

The women are young, most of them very young, and there is little trace of beauty and almost none of hard brutality in any face among them. They are simply commonplace. As a company the women lack the hale robustness of the men. They are mostly little women, of slight figures, and some add to this a transparency of skin and a feverish brightness of the eye which clearly mark the sure burning of consumption. A few are cast in a sturdier mould, and, with faces flushed with drink, they look strong and healthy. All seem warmly dressed in cheap, worn garments suited to the season, and there are many touches of finery and some even of taste in their shabby winter hats. Each carries a leather purse in her hand, or allows it to lie on the table before her with her gloves. The hands of nearly all of them are bare, and you see at once that they are large and coarse and very dirty.

Suddenly you note that the social atmosphere is one of strangest, completest camaraderie. The conversation is the blasphemous, obscenest gossip of degraded men that keeps the deal level of the ordinary unrelieved by anger or by mirth, and varying only with the indifferent interchange of men’s and women’s voices.

The naturalness and untrammeled social ease have blinded you for a time to what you really see, and the

Source: Walter A. Wycoff, The Workers: An Experiment in Reality (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 1–39.