Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Christian men and women of New York, you--not the shopkeepers--are chiefly to blame for the barbarous practice of compelling women, often but growing girls, to stand from morning until evening, and often till late in the night. The supreme motive of the majority of the men who enforce this inhuman regulation is to make money. Some are kind-hearted enough to be very willing that their saleswomen should sit down if their customers would tolerate the practice, and others are so humane that they grant the privilege without saying, By your leave, to their patrons.
There is no doubt where the main responsibility should be placed in this case.
Were even the intoxicated drayman in charge of a shop, when sober he would have sufficient sense not to take a course that would drive from him the patronage of the "best and wealthiest people in town." Upon no class could public opinion make itself felt more completely and quickly than upon retail merchants. If the people had the humanity to say, We will not buy a dime's worth at establishments that insist upon a course at once so unnatural and cruel, the evil would be remedied speedily. Employers declare that they maintain the regulation because so many of their patrons require that the saleswoman shall always be standing and ready to receive them. It is difficult to accept this statement, but the truth that the shops wherein the rule of standing is most rigorously enforced are as well patronized as others is scarcely a less serious indictment, and it is also a depressing proof of the strange apathy on the question.
No labored logic is needed to prove the inherent barbarity of the practice. Let any man or woman--even the strongest--try to stand as long as these frail, underfed girls are required to be upon their feet, and he or she will have a demonstration that can never be forgotten. In addition, consider the almost continual strain on the mind in explaining about the goods and in recommending them, in making out tickets of purchase correctly while knowing that any errors will be charged against their slender earnings, or more than made good by fines. What is worse, the organs of speech are in almost constant exercise, and all this in the midst of more or less confusion. The clergyman, the lecturer, is exhausted after an hour of speech. Why are not their thunders directed against the inhumanity of compelling women to spend ten or twelve hours of speech upon their feet? The brutal drayman was arrested because he was inflicting pain on a sentient being. Is not a woman a sentient being? and is any one so ignorant of physiology as not to have some comprehension of the evils which must result in most cases from compelling women--often too young to be mature--to stand, under the trying circumstances that have been described?
An eminent physician in New York told me that ten out of twelve must eventually lose their health; and a proprietor of one of the shops admitted to me that the girls did suffer this irreparable loss, and that it would be better for them if they went out to service.
The fact that cashiers who sit all day suffer more than those who stand proves nothing against the wrong of the latter practice. It only shows that the imperative law of nature, especially for the young, is change, variety. Why not accept the fact, and be as considerate of the rights of women as of horses, dogs, and cats? While making my investigations on this subject, I asked a gentleman who was in charge of one of the largest retail shops in the city, on what principle he dealt with this question. "On the principle of humanity," he replied. "I have studied hygienic science, and know that a woman can't stand continuously except at the cost of serious ill-health."
Later I asked the proprietor if he did not think that his humanity was also the best business policy, for the reason that his employes were in a better condition to attend to their duties.
"No," he said; "on strict business principles I would require constant standing; but this has no weight with me, in view of the inhumanity of such a rule. If I had the room for it in the store, I'd give all my employes a good slice of roast beef at noon; but I have not, and therefore I give them plenty of time for a good lunch."
The manager of another establishment, which was furnished with ample means of rest for the girls, said to me, "A man that compels a girl to stand all day ought to be flogged."
He also showed me a clean, comfortable place in the basement in which the girls ate their lunches. It was supplied with a large cooking-stove, with a woman in constant attendance. Each girl had her own tea or coffee-pot, and time was given for a substantial and wholesome meal. I would rather pay ten per cent more for goods at such shops than to buy them at others where women are treated as the cheapest kind of machines, that are easily replaced when broken down.
Granting, for the sake of argument, that customers may not be waited on quite so promptly, and that the impression of a brisk business may not be given if many of the girls are seated, these are not sufficient reasons for inflicting torment on those who earn their bread in shops. I do not and cannot believe, however, that the rule is to the advantage of either employer or customer in the long run. It is not common-sense that a girl, wearied almost beyond endurance, and distracted by pain, can give that pleasant, thoughtful attention to the purchaser which she could bestow were she in a normal condition. At very slight expense the proprietors of large shops could give all their employes a generous plate of soup and a cup of good tea or coffee. Many bring meagre and unwholesome lunches; more dine on cake, pastry, and confectionery. These ill-taught girls are just as prone to sin against their bodies as the better-taught children of the rich. If employers would give them something substantial at midday, and furnish small bracket seats which could be pulled out and pushed back within a second of time, they would find their business sustained by a corps of comfortable, cheerful, healthful employes; and such a humane, sensible policy certainly ought to be sustained by all who have any sympathy with Mr. Bergh.
The belief of many, that the majority of the girls are broken down by dissipation, is as superficial as it is unjust. Undoubtedly, many do carry their evening recreation to an injurious excess, and some place themselves in the way of temptations which they have not the strength to resist; but every physician knows that some recreation, some relief from the monotony of their hard life, is essential. Otherwise, they would grow morbid in mind as well as enfeebled in body. The crying shame is that there are so few places where these girls can go from their crowded tenement homes and find innocent entertainment. Their dissipations are scarcely more questionable, though not so elegantly veneered, as those of the fashionable, nor are the moral and physical effects much worse. But comparatively few would go to places of ill-repute could they find harmless amusements suited to their intelligence and taste. After much investigation, I am satisfied that in point of morals the working-women of New York compare favorably with any class in the world. To those who do not stand aloof and surmise evil, but who acquaint themselves with the facts, it is a source of constant wonder that in their hard and often desperate struggle for bread they still maintain so high a standard.
Tenement life with scanty income involves many shadows at best, but in the name of manhood I protest against taking advantage of the need of bread to inflict years of pain and premature death. We all are involved in this wrong to the degree that we sustain establishments from which a girl is discharged if she does not or cannot obey a rule which it would be torture for us to keep.
I shall be glad, indeed, if these words hasten by one hour the time when from the temple of human industry all traders shall be driven out who thrive on the agonies of girls as frail and impoverished as Mildred Jocelyn.