"Shop and Country Girls"
August 15, 1889
August 15, 1889
”Shop and Country Girls”
IS there no way by which the hours of women’s labor in the retail shops can be regulated?
I have never joined in the popular lamentations over women’s wrongs, for I know of but few wrongs to which any class of my sex are subject which common-sense, industry and womanliness in the individual will not set right.
But this is one of those few. Any body of laboring men, if required to work over the legal ten hours a day, can demand additional wages and will get them. But the shop-girls, numbering tens of thousands, employed in the second and lower grade of these establishments in the cities, are wholly at the mercy of their employers as regards wages and time.
The reason for this is primarily that, as long as farmers’ daughters crowd into the houses for work, the supply of saleswomen is far beyond the demand. The applicant must take what she can get.
In inferior shops (which make up, of course, the large majority of the whole) the custom is to keep the doors open for customers as long as they choose to come. I know of large dry-goods shops on Eighth Street and Ridge Avenue, in Philadelphia, which are open every Saturday night, and in the busy season every night, until eleven o’clock. The poor white slave behind the counter is busy until midnight putting away the goods, and then creeps unprotected through the dark streets to such miserable lodging as she can pay for, to be back in her place by half-past seven in the morning. For this service of fifteen hours daily she is paid $2.50, $3 or $4 per week. She cannot threaten to give up the place, for there are crowds of applicants waiting to take it.
Can nothing be done for her? It is impossible to bring the daily press to exploit this abuse owing to the fact that her employers are usually large advertisers.
While I am upon this matter I should like to speak a word or two to the country girls who read THE INDEPENDENT, and who are possessed with an ambition to come up to town and go into a shop in order to better their condition.
One or two facts will probably be of more weight with them than any arguments.
Mr. John Wanamaker, who claims to be at the head of the largest retail shop in the country, was asked some time ago to employ such a girl, who had had four years’ experience in the sale of hosiery in the country store. He offered her $3.50 per week. “But you know,” said the applicant, “no girl could feed and clothe herself on that in town!”
“No,” was the reply, “but I am overrun with applications from girls, the daughters of mechanics and laborers in town, who board at home, and who use their wages only for clothes. They set the rate of wages.”
Thousands of country girls take the risk, and come at those wages; and what is the result? The houses of ill-fame are recruited from their ranks.
A woman, widely known for her philosophy and experience, and who has now the oversight of more than five hundred women employed in a retail shop, lately made this statement to me: “Girls from the country crowd upon us every spring and fall with applications for places as saleswomen and cash girls. We offer them, if engaged, but $2.50 and $3. It is impossible for them to clothe themselves and pay boarding for that sum. Three or four, therefore, join to rent a room, furnished with wretched cots. Here they sleep, and eat a breakfast and supper of dry bread and tea. Then dinner at a cheap lunch counter costs, say, twelve cents. The life is squalid and miserable beyond words. No wonder they are ready to brighten it. One of these girls makes the acquaintance on the street of a man about town, or a young fellow of her own class, too poor to marry. She has no place in which to receive her ‘gentleman friend’ but this room. Then come the variety theaters, late support, a little liquor, a present or two—the end we all know.” She added: “I have put these facts before hundreds of innocent country girls when they applied to us, and urged them to go home; but each one fancies that success and fortune await her alone. She will have none of my advice,”
Art is another ignis-fatuus  which leads many a girl into misery. She lives on a farm or in a village where her nimble fingers or quick sense of color could earn her a competency as a dress or bonnet maker. But what a loss of caste would be there! She has painted a few plates or had a few months’ instruction in crayon drawing, and is looked upon as a genius by her family and neighbors. She comes to town. She fails. “Art is a drug,” she tells her fellow artist, as they sit in their bare attic making pathetic little sketches in their bedaubed aprons. “Do not X. and Z., men with national reputations, paint menus and Easter cards for Tiffany? What hope is there for us?”
There is no hope. Don’t be deluded, girls, by silly stories in the Sunday papers of “marvelous and sudden successes of unknown girl artists.” or of their “happy, innocent Bohemian life” in charming apartments of their own, where, unchaperoned, they give teas and “receive brilliant men and women nightly.”
There is no circle in any American society in which a young girl would be regarded as innocent who chose to live such a life. Do not credit such absurd statements.
Stay at home; earn your bread by any simple craft under the shelter of your father’s roof, and look upon the hills and fields, the quiet, the homely surroundings and homely affections of your lot as the great success and blessing of your life.
1. Latin, a delusion or false hope. ↩
University of Connecitcut