From the Field Notes of a Settlement Worker
By HARVEY J. O'HIGGINS
MISS J——, who told me this story, is a robust and practical young woman employed by a philanthropic bureau to investigate and report upon the condition of the poor in certain tenement districts of New York City. She lives in a Settlement House that is supported by private benefactions, as a sort of social center for the quarter in which it stands; and she presides over some of the girls' clubs that meet in the Settlement House in the evenings. She is a sociological student, college-trained, and scientific in her attitude of mind.
The story is true, but Miss J—— wishes to remain anonymous; and she does not wish to expose anyone else to the consequences of publicity. For these reasons I haze disguised every recognizable detail of name or place or incident in her narrative.
Its pitiful accuracy, however, has been proved during the month by the testimony taken by a legislative commission.
Miss J—— speaks:
WHEN I was living in the Settlement House in B—— Street, before I came to this one, an Italian girl named Lucia Ancilotti was one of our "Sweet Sixteens," as they called themselves, although she was not more than fourteen at most. They came to the Settlement House, on certain allotted evenings, to meet as a club for various ostensible purposes of self-improvement, but really to dance for half an hour or so after the necessary pretenses of club work had been hurried through. And Lucia was a wild young dancer, instinctively graceful, with a passion for the abandon of musical movement that made her rather a scandal—especially to Miss Norris.
You know how young Americans dance, gravely, with an empty look in their eyes, as if all intelligence had gone down to direct their feet. Lucia danced, with her lips parted, in a high color, smiling excitedly. She was a handsome, dark, smoldering sort of child at her quietest. The excitement of the dance put her into a fever. Whenever poor Miss Norris reproved her for her indecorous exuberance—as Miss Norris might have called it—she had a maddening way of looking at the woman, stonily, with a large, silent stare.
Miss Norris was one of those volunteer workers who come to the Settlement House to help "uplift" the poor. They lose the strength of their uplift in six weeks usually, and retreat to the upper airs of culture to recuperate. (She stayed almost three months, sustained by a devout inability to appreciate her own uselessness.) She was a little spinster, perhaps fifty years of age, very pleasantly gray-haired and benevolent. She had retired from school-teaching because she had fallen heir to sufficient property to sustain her without salary. "One can do so little good as a school-teacher," she would say.
IMAGINE that! Little good as a school-teacher!
She wished to come into personal contact with the lives of the unfortunate. I gathered from her conversation that she believed they could be best uplifted by the power of example, by contact with the aristocratic spirit of virtue, by unconsciously imitating the ideals and emotions of unselfish sweetness and light. Of course, I exaggerate. But she had this idea, if she did not formulate it very precisely even to herself.
Lucia Ancilotti was not easily uplifted. Certainly not by Miss Norris. She was much too strong in spirit to be ruled by the spinster's personality. And I watched her "cheek" Miss Norris through the usual stages of indignation, superior pity, and angry dislike down to the final persistent small malice of the school-teacher who cannot "do anything" with her pupil.
One night Miss Norris put her out of the "Sweet Sixteens" for dancing some of the forbidden "turkey trots" or "bunny hugs" that are so immodest except where the elegances of society make them merely improprieties that are rather "smart."
Lucia accepted her ejection with a silent glare of deep Italian hate. "That girl will murder some one before she's much older," Miss Norris predicted. "Murder some one!"
THE great discouragement in our work comes from the flabbiness of character that so often results from poverty—from decent, debilitating, ill-nourished poverty. And the fact that Lucia could look murderous confirmed my interest in her. I walked home with her to get better acquainted.
She was quite silent at first. You know, you cannot find out anything about these people by asking them questions about themselves. A stranger's curiosity is just as impertinent to them as it would be to you, That is why so much amateur settlement work is a failure.
I knew Lucia's girl friends, and I got her talking by asking her questions about them. Where was this one working now? How was that one doing since her marriage? What had become of the other? Our Italian girls marry in their teens, and Lucia had a purely natural frankness about all the family affairs of life.
She spoke of them with a simplicity that would have shocked Miss Norris, much of whose spiritual refinement came of her superior power to ignore. Miss Norris would have been displeased, too, by her slang; for, though Lucia was of pure Italian parentage, she used the colloquialisms of the quarter without any trace of foreign accent. She said that Miss Norris made her sick. She had the same feeling for school. She was looking forward to leaving it in a few months when she should arrive at the age when the law allowed her to get her "working papers." She had no doubt that she could get "a job." No, she had no particular training for anything (thanks to our system of ornamental public-school education). She would work in a factory like the other girls and earn money of her own to buy pretty clothes. That was why she wanted to go to work, she said.
YOU would have no idea that she was deceiving in any of this. She seemed to be welcoming the struggle and servitude of unskilled labor as an escape from the repression of school discipline and the oversight of her family. She walked along beside me with her chin up, in a brisk young defiance of the cold wind and the frozen slush of the streets. It was a raw December night. The garbage had not been collected for several days—because of some trouble in the street-cleaning department—and the boys had been kicking it around the pavement and pelting each other with any refuse that could be thrown. The sidewalks were in a condition that would have disgusted Miss Norris. Lucia accepted them as a country girl would accept a muddy road.
I asked her in what factory she expected to find work, and she replied that her family had been doing "home work" for a manufacturer of women's white wear, and she knew that he would employ her. At home now, after school, she helped to "finish" corset covers—to clip the seams and cut the threads left by the factory machines, and to run the ribbons in the garments and tie these in bows. For finishing a gross (144) of corset covers the family was paid from seven to nine cents. When they all worked they could finish from eight to ten gross in a day—from 1,100 to 1,400 corset covers—and earn from fifty cents to a dollar. Lucia hoped to earn three dollars a week in the factory. She was, naturally, eager to be at it.
She said good night at her door in a cheerful friendliness, and hurried upstairs to make a few pennies before going to bed. I thought of her at work as I walked back to the Settlement House. I wondered whether anything in Miss Norris's girlhood had ever meant as much to her as the dance at the club meant to Lucia. I wondered how much "indecorous exuberance" Miss Norris would have had left in her if she spent her evenings finishing corset covers for eight cents a gross after a long day in school. And what could we better assist and encourage in the girl than that very exuberance?
I spoke to Miss Norris about it when I returned. She had the modern fear of pauperizing the poor with too much charity, but in her relations with these children of the poor she demanded the grateful and obedient attitude of mind that betokens a pauperism of the spirit. I found that she was planning to call on Lucia's mother, to advise with her about the daughter. I warned her that this would be a great mistake, that Lucia would never forgive us for making such an appeal to domestic tyranny, that if we did not lose the girl we should certainly lose all influence over her. I succeeded only in persuading Miss Norris to allow me to make the call myself.
I HAD a most interesting hour with Miss Norris that evening, exploring her mind. She would say: "Of course, you know, I'm rather radical"—because she believed that women should vote; because she objected, in confidence, to parts of the Old Testament; because she was opposed to "government by force." and professed to see no hope for society except in the self- improvement of the individual. She seemed to think that for this latter reason she was quite an anarchist. Obviously, she prided herself on these desperate ideas, but she confessed that she did not think it wise to shock people by expressing them. She seemed to think that poverty was largely a matter of individual failure—caused by viciousness, weakness of the will, lack of moral strength, and a general inadequacy of virtuous effort. Of the part that our industrial system has in making poverty—of the economic laws that govern us all—she had about as much idea as I have of the order of checks and balances that preserves the orbits of the solar system.
I went next morning to visit Lucia's mother. You will think I am exaggerating when I tell you the conditions that I found. As a matter of fact, I shall not be able to tell you the whole truth. It's unspeakable.
They were living on the second floor of what is called a "double dumb-bell" tenement, in three rooms, for which (as I learned later) they paid eighteen dollars a month rent. The house was not ramshackle: it had an appearance of being kept in stern repair, though it was dirty. The door of the Ancilotti flat opened on the kitchen, where a single gas jet burned in an atmosphere that would stick in your throat. The little four-hole cookstove—burning soft coal and smoking around its lids—had to supply heat for the whole apartment, and not a breath of outer air could be allowed to chill the hoarded warmth. Even so the place achieved only a fetid tepidity, stale and clammy, with the indescribable composite of smell that you find in prison cells and the forecastles of some tramp steamers. If you don't know that odor, nothing will describe it to you.
FROM the kitchen I passed into a bedroom, where there were two double beds covered with piles of corset covers that were being "finished." And in one of those beds Lucia's father was dying, in the last stages of tuberculosis. He was sitting up, under the gaslight, with a vest buttoned over his gray flannel shirt, his knees drawn up under the dirty quilt, eating tomato soup out of the tin can in which it is sold. In one hairy, lean yellow hand—like a sick monkey's—he clasped the red-labeled tin; with a pewter cooking spoon in the other, he was digging out the last mouthfuls of the doubtful-looking vermilion liquid; and his deep eyes, incredibly hungry in their worn sockets, devoured each spoonful in anticipation before it reached his lips, and then, regarding me blankly for one gulping instant, plunged into the can again ahead of the spoon. He was unshaven; his stringy black hair was down over his ears; he had the forehead of a yellowed skull, with hollows in his temples.
The old woman who was working over the corset covers at his bedside was his wife, Lucia's mother. Her fingers were crippled with rheumatism. The young woman who had ushered me in proved to be a daughter-in-law who lived upstairs and came down to work here. The two infants playing on the floor were hers. Lucia and her small brother were at school. But in the evening, when Lucia and the boy were home, they usually all worked together in this room—with its one narrow window tightly closed against the odorous outer darkness of the well of brick that is called the air-shaft—breathing the effluvia of tuberculosis and tying pretty infected ribbons in bargain-counter lingerie.
I had introduced myself as one of Lucia's friends from the Settlement House, and they had accepted me in a manner that made me suspect they were an "assisted" family. They were. It appeared subsequently that they were even a "rehabilitated" family, and were entered as such on the books of one of our charitable aid societies. The father had been kept for two months in a hospital; the mother had been given employment, which she had resigned, of course, when her husband returned to her care; and some clothes had been donated to the children. Thus rehabilitated, as soon as aid was withdrawn, they had inevitably relapsed into the conditions from which they had been rescued.
Such is the peculiar virtue of our organized charity: it treats symptoms without any danger that it will effect a cure. Never mind about that.
I WAS interested in Lucia and her working papers. To get them she had to be, by law, at least fourteen years old, weigh at least seventy-five pounds, be not lower than Grade 5B in the public school, be able to pass a simple examination in the rudiments of commercial work, and have a school certificate showing that she had been in attendance at classes for at least 130 days previous to her application. She was more than fourteen years old; she weighed ninety-eight pounds; but she had only recently reached Grade 5B, and she had twice failed to pass the school examination for working papers. Her brother was nearly fourteen, but he was an anemic child, with a weak chest; and they could not get his weight above seventy pounds.
I learned all this from the mother, with the assistance of the daughter-in-law, who interpreted the frequent passages of Italian for me and interrupted the mother's bewildering volubility to explain what I did not catch. Then the father began. And that was almost more than I could bear. He had no voice left, just a choked gurgle of weak breath, forcing its way through inflamed membranes in a crackling and bubbling wheeze. I don't know what he said. Something about being a truckman and owning a horse and wagon, which his elder son still drove. It was the son who had sent him the tin of tomato soup. He became terribly excited in his attempts to explain himself, and brought on a fit of coughing that resulted in a hemorrhage. The sight of blood—I am not used to it, I was afraid it was going to make me ill. The rooms were so close. I didn't know how to help him. His poor wife was doing that. The girl was rescuing the corset covers. I hurried away, to get outdoors.
I am not telling you this to harrow up your feelings but to make you understand what "home work" in the tenement-house district may involve.
I WENT back to Miss Norris and harrowed her so effectively that she volunteered to take Lucia under her special charge and tutor her for her examinations. And so we began with our temporary palliatives, like a farmer treating one plant for a blight in a whole field that is infected with it. We could do nothing for the father; he was practically dead. We got Lucia's brother into one of our gymnasiums and tried to strengthen him. With Miss Norris's aid Lucia passed her examinations and received her working papers from the Board of Health. And I began to think that we were in a fair way to "rehabilitate" the Ancilottis.
Lucia got employment in the underwear factory for which she had been doing home work. Two weeks later she was discharged. Why? Well, the law requires that no child under sixteen shall be kept at work in a factory later than five o'clock, and Lucia was only fifteen; so they worked her as late as they pleased until just before the factory inspector was due to make his usual visit, and then they discharged her. She went around to other factories in the neighborhood. Most of them had no vacancies. Some of them would not have her because of her age. Others offered her $2.50 a week, which she would not take because she could earn as much as that at home. A retail notion store in the Ghetto offered her a dollar a week to work from 8.30 in the morning to 10.30 at night; and this seemed to be the prevailing wage in such shops Lucia, disgusted, returned to home work, where there is no age limit, no provision against night work, and no law to require adequate light and air or sanitary conditions. That is why home work thrives.
In our district here we have tiny infants of three and four years old working on artificial flowers, sorting the colored petals into heaps. We have little tots of five or six years tying knots in willow plumes, which is a work that cannot be done by adult hands as well as by these delicate small fingers. We have them picking out basting threads, snipping seams, and giving a sort of kindergarten aid in all kinds of unprotected industry. It ruins their eyes and destroys their health. It makes the school children backward in their studies, because they come home to labor instead of to play, and spend their evenings earning instead of studying in their books. Every law that is passed to protect workers in factories sends more workers back to these unprotected homes ; and the courts, of course, find that it is unconstitutional to interfere with home work.
IN THE case of the Ancilottis we were struggling with problems which only the united effort of the whole community can solve: a housing problem of getting these unfortunates cheap and sanitary homes; an employment problem of protecting them from exploitation by employers after we have saved them from the greed of landlords; an educational problem of teaching them in school some industrial skill with which to earn a living—problems which have been solved in other countries as easily as they could be solved in America; but here they are left to private charity and the feeble efforts of settlement workers, and the tenement districts of our cities remain a disgrace to barbarism, the most appalling spots of human misery on the face of the earth!
The last I heard of the Ancilottis, they had withdrawn their boy from school in order to fatten him, so that he might get his working papers. They objected that the walk to school and back reduced him; and they were all going hungry so that he might be fed on milk and eggs. Lucia and he were working in those rooms with the others. The father, by some miracle, was still fighting for breath. Miss Norris had been to see them. I gathered from her that she was not likely to go back. She was afraid of tuberculosis.
And Lucia? I don't know what became of her. Or, rather, I do know, but not specifically. These Italian girls rarely desert their families; even when they become street walkers, they bring back their wages to their parents. The boys sometimes become idle loafers and drunken "bums," but the girls always earn. When I moved from the district I lost track of Lucia, but I know she is slowly working out her "indecorous exuberance" at whatever task we, her masters, have set for her. She can hardly have much spirit left by this time; and if she dances at all, it will be with work-bowed shoulders, I imagine.
Miss Norris, I have lost track of, too. She gave up the struggle when she learned, as we all do, that it was not immorality that she had to fight against, not weakness of will or any lack of virtuous effort, but physical conditions of life that make morality scarcely possible, that weaken all but the strongest wills, and do not yield to any virtuous effort.
WHEN a family has to pay eighteen dollars a month rent for three pestilential rooms, corset covers infected with tuberculosis will be "finished" there for eight cents a gross. We, as a community, take advantage of the necessities of the Ancilottis in order to make them work like starving slaves for a wage that will not keep them healthy, and in dark rooms that we would not use for cattle. One way for them to be innocently revenged is to put the bacillus of a horrible death into the blue bow that looks so pretty under the bosom of a peekaboo waist in summer. There are other ways. Many of them. But I am boring you?