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New York Weekly
May 23, 1871
Many women immigrants like Goldman found poorly paid work in
unsafe and unhealthy sweatshops and textile factories in northeastern
cities. Goldman's first experience working in Rochester, New
York, led her to believe that conditions in America were little
better than in Russia.
Excerpt from Living My Life
Conditions in a "model" factory
Now I was in America, in the Flower City of the State of New York, in a model factory, as I was told. Certainly, Garson's clothingworks were a vast improvement on the glove factory on the Vassilevsky Ostrov. The rooms were large, bright, and airy. One had elbow space. There were none of those illsmelling odours that used to nauseate me in our cousin's shop. Yet the work here was harder, and the day, with only half an hour for lunch, seemed endless. The iron discipline forbade free movement (one could not even go to the toilet without permission), and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like stone on my heart. The end of each day found me sapped, with just enough energy to drag myself to my sister's home and crawl into bed. This continued with deadly monotony week after week.
The amazing thing to me was that no one
else in the factory seemed to be so affected as I, no one but
my neighbour, frail little Tanya. She was delicate and pale,
frequently complained of headaches, and often broke into tears
when the task of handling heavy ulsters proved too much for her.
One morning, as I looked up from my work, I discovered her all
huddled in a heap. She had fallen in a faint. I called to the
foreman to help me carry her to the dressingroom, but the
deafening noise of the machines drowned my voice. Several girls
near by heard me and began to shout. They ceased working and
rushed over to Tanya. The sudden stopping of the machines attracted
the foreman's attention and he came over to us. Without even
asking the reason for the commotion, he shouted, "Back to
your machines! What do you mean stopping work now? Do you want
to be fired? Get back at once!" When he spied the crumpled
body of Tanya, he yelled: "What the hell is the matter with
her?" "She has fainted," I replied, trying hard
to control my voice. "Fainted, nothing," he sneered,
"she's only shamming."
"You are a liar and a brute!" I cried, no longer able to keep back my indignation.
I bent over Tanya, loosened her waist, and squeezed the juice of an orange I had in my lunch basket into her halfopened mouth. Her face was white, a cold sweat on her forehead. She looked so ill that even the foreman realized she had not been shamming. He excused her for the day. "I will go with Tanya," I said; "you can deduct from my pay for the time." "You can go to hell, you wildcat!" he flung after me.
We went to a coffee place. I myself felt empty and faint, but all we had between us was seventyfive cents. We decided to spend forty on food, and use the rest for a streetcar ride to the park. There, in the fresh air, amid the flowers and trees, we forgot our dreaded tasks. The day that had begun in trouble ended restfully and in peace.
The next morning the enervating routine started all over again, continuing for weeks and months, broken only by the new arrival in our family, a baby girl. The child became the one interest in my dull existence. Often, when the atmosphere in Garson's factory threatened to overcome me, the thought of the lovely mite at home revived my spirit. The evenings were no longer dreary and meaningless. But, while little Stella brought joy into our household, she added to the material anxiety of my sister and my brotherinlaw.
i Apply for a Rise in SalaryLena never by word or deed made me feel that the dollar and fifty cents I was giving her for my board (the car fare amounted to sixty cents a week, the remaining forty cents being my pinmoney) did not cover my keep. But I had overheard my brotherinlaw grumbling over the growing expenses of the house. I felt he was right. I did not want my sister worried, she was nursing her child. I decided to apply for a rise. I knew it was no use talking to the foreman and therefore I asked to see Mr. Garson.
I was ushered into a luxurious office. American Beauties were on the table. Often I had admired them in the flower shops, and once, unable to withstand the temptation, I had gone in to ask the price. They were one dollar and a half apiece--more than half of my week's earnings. The lovely vase in Mr. Garson's office held a great many of them.
I was not asked to sit down. For a moment I forgot my mission. The beautiful room, the roses, the aroma of the bluish smoke from Mr. Garson's cigar, fascinated me. I was recalled to reality by my employer's question: "Well, what can I do for you?"
I had come to ask for a rise, I told him. The two dollars and a half I was getting did not pay my board, let alone anything else, such as an occasional book or a theatre ticket for twentyfive cents. Mr. Garson replied that for a factory girl I had rather extravagant tastes, that all his "hands" were well satisfied, that they seemed to be getting along all right--that I, too, would have to manage or find work elsewhere. "If I raise your wages, I'll have to raise the others' as well and I can't afford that," he said. I decided to leave Garson's employ.
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