Home Work in the Tenements

Elizabeth C. Watson Survey 25 (4 February 1911), 772-781.
Progressive laws and government regulation seemed to promise an end to the abuse of immigrant women and children doing "finishing work" for manufacturers at home in poor neighborhoods. But it was discovered that even new laws had loopholes and business would go to great length to maintain the cheap labor it kept working frantically indoors. While the poor realized their own exploitation - as the children's sad limericks reveal - they were powerless to end it by themselves.

The text in this article is supported by price and wage figures revealing how little workers profited from their own labor. Such research facts were common in the Survey, a journal committed to informing the public about social welfare problems. Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who took the photos used here, often worked on assignments for the Survey as well as for reform minded organizations. Many of his photos continue to be the most graphic evidence of early century poverty and child labor.



(From Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children.)

And so it came about, and grew and grew, until now there are thirteen thousand some odd tenement houses in New York licensed by the bureau of factory inspection of the State Department of Labor, in which work given out by manufacturers and contractors can be made or finished in the homes, where the labor of all members of the family can be utilized without reference to age or factory law.

Securing a license permitting a tenement house to take in certain homework is a very simple matter. The owner or agent renting the property files with the Department of Labor a personal application for a license. The department sends out an inspector to investigate the building. If it comes up to the sanitary regulations and there are no charges filed against it in the Health or Tenement House Departments, a license is granted that allows all families living in the house to take in work if they desire. The house may contain one or forty families. The number makes no difference. The license is for the entire house, and entitles all the tenants to do homework.

The law calls for two inspections of licensed tenements a year, but owing to the limited number of inspectors only one complete inspection is made, at which time thirty-five or more inspectors make a complete survey of the licensed houses. Only four inspectors are detailed regularly to this department for work the year round.

The law regulating this branch of industry is Section 100 of the labor laws which prohibits, except when licensed, the use of a room or apartment in a tenement house or of a building on the same lot with one for "manufacturing, altering, repairing or finishing" of

coats, vests, knee-pants, trousers, overalls, cloaks, hats, caps, suspenders, jerseys, blouses, dresses, waists, waistbands, underwear, neckwear, furs, fur trimmings, fur garments, skirts, shirts, aprons, purses, pocketbooks, slippers, paper boxes, paper bags, feathers, artificial flowers, cigarettes, cigars, umbrellas, or articles of rubber, nor for the purpose of manufacturing, preparing or packing macaroni, spaghetti, ice cream, ices, candy, confectionery, nuts or preserves.
But whether licensed or not, the law does not interfere with the making of any goods not specifically mentioned in it. There lies the rub, as witness this list of things not mentioned and therefore made, quite legally, regardless of conditions:
finishing gloves, making buttonholes, hat frames, millinery ornaments, chiffon hats, baby bonnets, sleeve garters, rompers, Irish lace, silver brushes, dress shields, leather bows and buckles, all kinds of hemstitching, feather stitching and fancy hand work; embroidery of all kinds, such as on waists, dresses, silk vests, silk stockings, collars, underwear, table linen, chiffon gowns, infants' flannels, coats, sacques, knitting and crocheting of Angora hoods and mittens, slippers; making candle shades; stringing bead necklaces; crocheting gloves, mittens, silk rings; plaiting hat straws; making guimps, bibs, silver mesh bags; tag stringing; tying cords on fancy pencils, tying pencils on fancy programs; pasting labels on cigar and other boxes, cutting out embroideries; trimming all over and chiffon embroideries; beading slippers, nets and lace; setting stones in celluloid combs, artificial jewelry and hat pins; making passementerie; embroidering pillow tops; making maline bows of human hair; sorting and sewing buttons on cards, covering buttons, making kimonas, tassels, pompons, evening scarfs and countless other things.
Section 101 of this same law imposes upon the manufacturer the duty of knowing whether the house into which his goods are taken for manufacturing purposes is licensed or not. In order to furnish such information the bureau of factory inspection prints and sends out a Monthly Bulletin Relating to Tenement Houses. This contains the addresses of all licensed tenement houses; of houses not licensed, the application having been denied; and of houses for which the licenses have been revoked.

This is all very well so far as it goes, but as the law applies only to the things on the licensed list and has no jurisdiction whatever over the home manufacturing of any articles not on that list, work can and does go merrily and legally on in houses refused a license, or in which a license has been revoked on account of unsanitary conditions.

For instance, in one house in which the license had been revoked on account of unsanitary conditions, and in which there had been several cases of contagious disease, I found flower making, garment finishing, and fur work. Work requiring a license could not be legally done, but any work not requiring a license could be. No license was necessary to sort coffee, therefore it could be and was sorted.

The halls and stairways in this house were in unspeakable condition. A series of complaints had been filed against it in the Tenement House Department and the apartment of the family engaged in coffee sorting was deplorably out of repair and dirty. Bags of broken coffee were bought at a nominal price from a coffee factory in a nearby street, and taken home, where all the children of the family, plus a small cousin from a neighboring apartment, sorted the whole beans from the broken ones. The two little girls of the family, one aged nine the other eleven, were continually staying out of school and only attended enough days to keep off the truant list.

The child labor law prevents any child under fourteen years of age from being employed in any factory, mercantile establishment, restaurant and other places of business, but no law reaches the homeworking child save the compulsory education law--and that has jurisdiction over his school day only. He may work from six in the morning until school opens, and from three on to midnight, with no respite, every school day, and all day long, as many days a week as he can conveniently remain out of school without being regarded as a truant and there is no law in our enlightened city to stop him.

The predominating home industries in New York are finishing clothing, making artificial flowers and willowing ostrich plumes. Children work in all three.

The following chart gives the nationalities doing homework:

Prevailing fashion and changing styles are such integral factors in the homework problem that it seems impossible, even with a very large force of inspectors giving thorough inspection, for the Department of Labor ever to adjust the license list to fit the exigency of the occasion. Last fall the fashion for beaded net and passementeries brought a new kind of homework into being, and the present demand for hand embroidery has made this comparatively minor trade grow by leaps and bounds. We have well established tenement trades almost before we know of their existence.

Thus "homework" is an unknown term best expressed by x. In fact, so little is known of it that the more we scratch about on the surface of the situation the keener our realization of the paucity of facts concerning it. The State Department of Labor tells us the number of houses licensed to take in certain specified work. But it knows nothing of the number of people in each of these licensed houses doing such work. It cannot tell us the number of houses in which such work is done without a license, nor has it knowledge of the quantity of work done not requiring a license. And no one knows or can estimate the number of children helping in this work. In fact, in order to know all this it would require an inspector for each house!

Yet for all our lack of definite information on the subject, we have some indications of the extent of homework. One of these indications is the "Help Wanted--Female" columns in the daily papers most widely read by the workers. These are full of advertisements for homeworkers.

In one paper, during a period of two weeks' time chosen at random, there were 205 advertisements for women to take work home--almost fifteen advertisements a day. Some of these, for crochet workers on babies' hoods and bootees, wanted a hundred workers at a time and continued their advertisement many days.

Some light has been thrown on the situation by following these advertising columns for three months. For instance, workers in the predominating trades in tenement houses, such as finishers of clothing, are never advertised for. Artificial flower makers to work at home are rarely advertised for (once in the three months, I believe) and home workers on willow plumes were advertised for just twice during the three months, although the willow plume trade was at that time in its busiest season. Absence of advertisements for workers in the predominating tenement trades indicates, significantly enough, that these trades are well established in the homes, the source of supply for such work is well known to the workers and the applicants for work are more than equal to the demand for workers. This gives manufacturer and contractor power to dictate the lowest terms--as we shall see later on in the history of the willow plume trade.

The kind of work done in different parts of the city depends wholly on the character of the factories in the neighborhood. Throughout the lower West Side we find artificial flowers, fancy feathers, finishing of clothing; on the lower East Side finishing of clothing; the upper East Side willowing plumes, and beginnings of flower making. Several kinds of work in the vicinity mean that there is no respite for home-workers--the slack season of one industry is supplemented by the busy season of another. In the Bronx are embroidery factories. Consequently we find the Bronx families cutting out embroideries, embroidered handkerchiefs and the like. Tiny children, four years old can cut out embroideries. As soon as they can manage little scissors they help separate the strips, even if they are unable to cut out the scallops. One small, pathetically weary looking child, probably five years old, on being asked how long she had been cutting embroidery, shrugged her little shoulders and replied, "O! Ever since I was."

Very small children can help pull out bastings in finishing clothing, sort and sew buttons on cards, and separate flower petals. Willow pluming is a little more difficult for little children, the complicated knot making it almost impossible for very small fingers; however during the past summer several children of seven years were found doing it.

With the exception of these trades, and the finishing of underwear, the character of work carried on in homes takes it out of the smaller children's hands, leaving it for mothers and older members of the family. Small children cannot embroider, knit angora hoods or mittens. But girls of eight, nine and ten years can and do crochet lace, though lace making is a comparatively minor industry. Passementerie, beading nets, making millinery ornaments, and operative work, such as making kimonas and rompers, requires older, more experienced handling than a small child can give.

But even here the child is utilized in carrying work to and from factories and shops. (A very small child with a very big bundle of clothing--as big as itself--is a common sight in the tenement districts.) The physical results from these heavy loads are yet to be proved. Again, the children take entire care of the smaller children and babies and carry on the entire work of the household. Little girls of eleven and twelve do the family washing before going to school in the morning, or remain out of school to do it.

Last March, on a bitter cold day with snow falling, while visiting a tenement in which finishing was done, a little shivering group of children was found whimpering and huddling in the second floor hallway. The baby, a tiny scrap of fourteen months, was crying with cold, while the little mother (of seven) cuddled him in her arms, trying to forget her own discomfort in caring for him. A third child, a little girl of five, said they were locked out because the mother had taken the work to the boss. On returning, the mother was much distressed at finding her little family crying with the cold. Shrugging her shoulders, she asked: "What, I must do? I maka the coats, my man he no gotta job. He walk this day for work. I lock a children in, they burn up. I lock a children out, they cry. What I must do?"

And so the stories go on, a series of tales of neglect, overwork, undernourishment, the latter the result of several things--poor food bought in a hurry from the ubiquitous push cart, or the stress of work where every minute counts making it impossible for the mother to take time to prepare food properly and often has to leave it for the children to cook. Then, too, even if the family has nourishing food the children are often just too tired to eat.

The continuous indoor life, the lack of play time, the overcrowding and general demoralization of the home through its conversion into a factory, must eventually register, and if we find it impossible now to measure in exact terms the injury of this system on the child, we will reckon with it later on in his physical and psychological reactions.

One picturesque old Italian nonna (grandmother) in a family working at home, was asked if she liked America. With a shrug of her shoulders she replied: "Not much, not much. Good money, good people, but my country--my country--good air, much air, nice air down Italy. Blue sky, the water laugh in the bay." Then, spreading out her arms, hands up, with a pathetic gesture; "In my country peoples cook out of doors, maka the wash out of doors, eat out of doors, tailor out of doors, maka macaroni out of doors. And my people laugh, laugh all a time. And we use the house only in the night time to maka the sleep. America--it is sopra, sopra, (up, up, with a gesture of going up stairs). Many peoples one house, worka, worka, all a time. Good money, but no good air."

Some twenty-five years ago the New York Court of Appeals handed down the following- -known as the Jacobs decision:

It cannot be perceived how the cigarmaker is to be improved in his health or his moral by forcing him from his home with its hallowed associations and beneficent influences to ply his trade elsewhere. This decision has blocked all legislation up to date.
How these miserable homework factories with their inmates working from daylight to six, eight, ten o'clock and even later in the night, can be defined as "homes" is beyond one's comprehension, and one must look through very rosy spectacles indeed to find the "hallowed" and "beneficient influences of a home" in which fur garments are stored in every conceivable corner and cranny of the living and cooking rooms, while all the members of the family toil from early morn to late night in order to earn enough to keep body and soul together.

What home influences can there be where a mother and three children, (the youngest just five), having been in this country, but four months and speaking no English, are making artificial flower wreaths (in an unlicensed house) at six cents a dozen wreaths, day in and day out?

The table below of prices for work and the weekly incomes from it will show the compensation these homeworkers, victims of their own unrestricted competition, receive for converting their homes into factories.

To show the effect of home work at close range, the Work and Wages Committee of the New York Child Welfare Committee decided last May to make an intensive and comparative study of two groups of the same nationality, living under the same conditions, in new law tenements, subject to the same educational and civic influences, differing only in occupation-- one group doing home work and the other not doing it. Willowing ostrich feather, a typical homework trade, (in its busy season) was chosen for study.

Willowing consists of lengthening the short strands, called flues, of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three flues until the feather has the desired depth and grace. The work is paid for by the inch and varies with the number of sets of knots to the inch.

Three years ago when the trade started, few knew how to willow, and fifteen cents was paid for tying one set of knots (per inch). The following season more workers were in the field and the price went down to thirteen cents an inch. Then it dropped to eleven cents (an inch), nine cents, seven cents, five cents and last summer (1910) the workers were receiving but three cents an inch while some of them in late summer were beginning to work by the piece. One feather fourteen and a half inches long, tied three times to the inch, brought its maker one dollar and ten cents. The woman who made it said "Pretty soon, the bossa, he wants us work for nothing."

One plume bringing the set price of three cents an inch contained 8,613 knots. A woman and two children worked at it for a day and a third, tying at the rate of forty-one knots for a cent.

The neighborhood chosen for study was in the upper East Side, where the feather industry flourishes. In one block between Second and Third avenues there are eighteen factories or shops in which the older girls of the district work, and where the families living in the upper floors and in adjacent houses secured their supplies for home work. In one house (above one of these shops), occupied by fourteen families, we found twenty-eight children under twelve years of age busily plying this trade. The streets and stoops are full of ostrich feather refuse, the stairways are littered and the air full of feather particles. The houses are filled with homeworkers, regardless of license. During the summer 370 homes were visited in order to get the history of one hundred families not engaged in home work and not one-half of these houses were licensed.

To show how impossible it would be to inspect and license this trade properly the story of Fortunata must be told.

A group of Italian men stood around the door of No. 324. "Yes, Fortunata live here." Then one cried at the top of his voice: "Fortunata, Fortunata," which promptly brought a stout, good-natured, rugged-faced South Italian woman carrying a black oilcloth bag fairly bulging with greens, peppers and their curious Italian squashes.

"She my girl, she my girl. She live upstairs. What you want? You Board of Health?"

On being told I was not the Board of Health, she said: "I takes you upstairs to see her. I take you up." then, turning to a little girl on the doorstep, in Italian: "Quick, sopra (up). Sopra! Tell Fortunata give her plume to her godmother. Go, Mara. A lady comes who will arrest her if she work on feathers."

Slowly she toiled up the stairs, I behind her. No use trying to speed beyond her portly figure. In the middle of the first flight she stopped, slowly wiped her brow, and said: "I big, big woman--takes me much time to go upstairs. My house way upstairs." Meanwhile she called at the top of her voice in Italian: "Fortunata, Fortunata, take the plumes into your godmother's. There comes a lady."

Reaching the first floor nothing would do--we must stop at a neighbor's and admire the baby. Meanwhile she explained to her neighbor that the lady was from the Board of Health, coming to arrest the children who worked on feathers, and that she wanted Fortunata to put the feathers away before we reached the apartment.

Slowly we climbed the second flight. This time we paused in the middle of the hallway where, with many gesticulations, she showed me the bad places in the plaster. "The boss he no care--house look bad." Later "the boss" we find is her own brother.

Laboriously we climbed the third flight, stopping at the head of the stairs to visit in the hallway, with all the neighbors who had come out to look over the "lady from the Board of Health, who had come to arrest them for making feathers." One of them even went so far as to say me no one ever made feathers in that house. In vain did I tell them I did not come from the Board of Health; I could not arrest them if they made feathers in their own homes.

Finally we reached the home of Fortunata. Four rooms clean as a pin, save for one little place by the front window where there still remained a few tiny remnants of the snipped flues of the feathers. After talking to Fortunata for some time we ask her if she makes feathers. Her mother replies for her.

"No, no! She no make feathers. Feathers hurt their eyes. I no let Fortunata tie them."

Turning to Fortunata, I said: "Fortunata, go into your godmother's and bring the plume."

She looked at me as if she were dazed. "Bring me your plume from your godmother's, Fortunata"--and she did. When her mother saw her returning with the feather she said: "Senorina, you speak Italian?"

"I speak a little, but I understand more," and with that she put her hands to her side and rolled with laughter. Then we all laughed together, whereupon she patted me on both cheeks and said: "You very nice lady! You very nice lady! You very happy lady!"

A glance at the budgets of the families in the next column--particularly of the wages of the fathers--tell their own story and show why home work is necessary.

This budget is not small because the fathers are lazy. Some of them are city employes in the street cleaning department, others are carpenters, bricklayers, rock drillers, etc. Many of them are skilled workmen earning good pay by the day, but one woman summed up the whole situation when she said: "Everybody, all a people, they willow the plumes. It hurts the eyes, too, bad, bad. How we can help it? The man he no work, two days, three days, may be in one week, two weeks. Sundays he no work, no pay. The holidays, no work, no money. Rainy, snowy days, bad days, he no work. Well, what we can do? My girl, me, we maka the feathers. The children must have to eat."

So, to supplement the family income, the children work, tying these feathers, bringing all kinds of eye trouble and strain in their wake, remaining out of school--whenever possible.

The school records of the homeworking children show an average non-attendance of twenty-nine days out of an eighty-nine-day term, as against an average non-attendance of ten days by those not doing home-work. Six of the nonhomeworking children had perfect attendance records, while some of the homeworkers had been absent seventy whole and three half days. One, a child of eight, although a resident in the district nearly three years, had never been in school at all and could scarcely speak English.

The family records of these two groups show a tendency to more deaths (of children) in the homeworking families--177 as against 104--and a larger number of deaths from contagious disease, which might be interpreted as an indication that the homeworking child's power of resistance is less than that of the non-homeworker.

What are we going to do about it? Are we ready to ask that all children be exempt from such work? Is the time ripe to say all such work must be eliminated from the tenement homes? And if so how shall we do it?


Men's neckwear--



Additional Poems From "Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children"

Francie Francesca ne'er laughed and
ne'er played,
Francie Francesca the willow
plumes made,
All the kings horses and all the
king's men,
Cannot make Francie's poor eyes
well again.

Jack Sprat had little work,
His wife could get much more.
She and the children worked all
To keep the wolf from the door.

This little child made laces,
This little child made flowers,
This little child made willow
This one held baby for hours,
And all of them worked in a close,
warm room
Through the good, bright summer

How doth the manufacturer
Improve the ostrich tail?
By willowing the scraggy ends
Until they're fit for sale.
How cheerfully he sits and smiles
Throughout the livelong day,
While children knot the tiny flues
And make the plumes that pay.

Ten little Ten'ment kids standing in a line,
One went to pulling threads and then there were nine.
Nine little children, happy by the gate,
One went to willow plumes, then there were eight.
Eight little children gazing up at heaven,
One went down to tend the shop, then there were seven.
Seven little children all in a mix,
One went to crochet lace, then there were six.
Six little children, very much alive,
One went to braiding straw, then there were five.
Five little children sitting by the door,
One went to finish coats, then there were four. Four little children happy as could be,
One sews on buttonholes, now there are three.
Three little children watching the baby coo,
One went to crochet boots, then there were two.
Two little children playing all alone,
One got the violets and went to work at home.
One little child alone can't have heaps of fun,
She was put at stringing beads and then there were none.

Elizabeth C. Watson
Secretary of the Work and Wages Committee of the Child Welfare Exhibit

Table of Contents