Saleswomen Of New York City In 1899

I am oddly fascinated by the piece “Salesgirls in New York” by Grace H. Dodge found in What Women Can Earn: Occupations of Women and Their Compensation, published in 1899. I can imagine the first chapter of a historical novel set at the turn of the last century about a young woman who arrives by train to New York City, desperate for work and to leave something or someone behind.

An Occupation Which Is Already Crowded.
The Country Girl Advised to Stay Away From New York City.
If, However, She Must Come, Then What She Ought and Ought Not to Do.
Salaries.
The Factories.

THE advice given by Punch to those about to marry is such a hackneyed one that I am almost afraid to use it. And yet I find that “Don’t” just expresses what I want to say to country girls who think about coming to New York City for employment. All the great centres of population, Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and others, are crowded with women seeking for work, and the competition is so keen that inexperienced and friendless girls are overwhelmed by it, and they are beset with trials, disappointments and snares everywhere.

Library of Congress
Fifth Avenue, New York 1900

In all the great stores, and, indeed, in nearly every store, a city reference, as well as a city residence, is required, and those who have both are selected first. Girls who live in boarding and furnished-room houses are looked upon with disfavour, because the moral tone of the home is considered necessary to the welfare of young women. Furthermore, employers know well that their salesgirls cannot pay board and dress themselves on the wages they receive as beginners unless they live at home.

If the salesgirl is one of a family of wage earners she can pay a part of her salary into the general fund at home and retain part for dress, carfares and other petty expenses. But the girl without a city home has to depend solely on her small salary, and the consequent worry, to say nothing of her exposure to temptation, injures her commercial usefulness.

New York Public Library

Cashgirls, of whom few are employed in these latter days, receive at the good stores when they begin work $2 a week, stockgirls, $3 to $3.50, and salesgirls, $6. At the latter figure some experience is expected from the clerk, which may have been in the service as cash or stock girl in the same store or as salesgirl in another one. Pay is advanced with the usefulness of the girl to $8 and $9. Hours of attendance are from 8 A. M. to 6 P. M. with three-quarters of an hour for luncheon, and a half-holiday, one day each week, for two months of the year. Every good house pays its employees for overtime during the Christmas holidays, either in money, suppers, or “days off ” later.

In all the principal houses the girls dress in black in the winter and wear black skirts and shirtwaists in the summer.

Exceptionally bright girls usually become the “head of stock ’’ or are given some other place of responsibility, and have corresponding pay. Some stores employ women for buyers, and pay them from $2,000 to $5,000 a year, and it is significant that they have all risen from the ranks. They tell me in the stores that this must be so, and that no woman, no matter what her general education and ability may be, can hope to obtain such a place unless she has graduated from behind the counter, where she gained her practical experience.

Among the best paying stores the health of the employees is given special attention, but Wanamaker, I believe, stands alone in having a trained nurse constantly at the store to attend them. The dry-goods houses usually take care of their girls through the benefit funds started in the stores, the money for which is obtained from fines paid by the tardy workers and from the small sums they themselves pay in.

For a girl who is physically strong and intelligent there is a chance of employment in large cities in the factories. One such institution in New York City alone employs twenty-five hundred girls, and the conditions are usually good. I am not speaking of the “sweat-shops,” of course. Factory girls have one advantage—they are not obliged to spend their money for dress, nor are they exposed to the temptations caused by seeing money expended for frivolous things, which, after a while, actually look to the salesgirl as though they were necessities.

The earnings of a worker in the factories depend upon her own skill. Indeed, $10 and $12 a week is not at all unusual pay. It is true, however, that factories do not run steadily the whole year round. The earnings of feather curlers and artificial flower makers are better than those paid in some other industries, but I do not advise a girl to work as either, because those trades are apt to develop certain forms of disease. Most operatives are paid by the piece, so that earnings often run higher than the scale just mentioned

Ferris’s factory, in Newark, N. J., has an excellent luncheon-room for the girls, and provides overshoes and umbrellas for them, and similarly kind treatment is accorded in many of the New York City factories.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Every working girl should save some amount from her earnings every week. The Penny Provident Fund will accept the smallest sum, and some of the savings banks remain open until 7 or 7:30 P. M. for the especial convenience of working people. A girl might well avail herself also of some of the benefit societies which are so numerous in New York and other large cities. The New York Association of Working Girls’ Societies has a benefit fund, whereby a girl will receive during illness $8 a week for six consecutive weeks in any year, by paying into the fund 40 cents a month. For 25 cents she will receive $5 a week, and for 15 cents $3 weekly.

Library of Congress

By joining one of the clubs, either of this society or the Young Women’s Christian Association, or of similar organizations, the working girl will have a social life, not otherwise open to her, and an opportunity for mental and spiritual improvement.

If a country girl must come to New York, let her go to the women’s dressing-rooms of the railroad station when she arrives and read the addresses of Christian homes which she will find on the walls.

If she writes to the Manhattan East Side Mission, No. 416 East Twenty-sixth St., a woman will meet her, but if she does not do this, and she arrives in the city late, she would better spend the night in the waiting room, rather than go into the streets alone and ignorant of her way. In Philadelphia the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union looks after young travellers, and in Boston the Travellers’ Aid Society.

New York Public Library

A girl should not enter into conversation with any stranger, whether man or woman, and she would better avoid asking for information from hackmen. The policeman on duty inside of the station will always be willing to direct her.

The matron at St. Bartholomew’s Girls’ Club House, No. 136 East Forty-seventh St., and the Episcopal Sisters at the Shelter for Respectable Girls, No. 241 West Fourteenth St., will be glad to welcome strangers. The Women’s Lodging House at No. 6 Rivington St., is a cheap and respectable place, which may also safely be recommended. But, of course, these are only temporary stopping places. Permanent boarding places should be found as soon as possible. The best way is to apply at the board directory of the Young Women’s Christian Association, No. 7 East Fifteenth St.

Of course, our country girl must not come to town unless she has enough money to tide her over for at least two months. During that time, she can improve her acquaintance with the Christian women whom she will meet at the homes and clubs, and through them, and independent of them, but with their advice, she will seek for a place in the great workrooms of the city.

New York Public Library

I had a little difficulty finding images for this post. In desperation, I downloaded some images from Les Modes in 1901 from Gallica. In the end, I didn’t need them, but I’m posting them anyway because they make me smile 🙂 As usual, click to enlarge. Enjoy!

1860s French Fashions and English Ballroom Etiquette

I found some great images by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons. Rather than create a huge picture gallery, I’m adding an excerpt on ballroom etiquette found in Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette published in 1875 (although similar versions were around in the 1860s.) Click on an image to enlarge.

s the number of guests at a dinner-party is regulated by the size of the table, so should the number of invitations to a ball be limited by the proportions of the ball-room. A prudent hostess will always invite a few more guests than she really desires to entertain, in the certainty that there will be some deserters when the appointed evening comes round; but she will at the same time remember that to overcrowd her room is to spoil the pleasure of those who love dancing, and that a party of this kind when too numerously attended is as great a failure as one at which too few are present.

A room which is nearly square, yet a little longer than it is broad, will be found the most favourable for a ball. It admits of two quadrille parties, or two round dances, at the same time. In a perfectly square room this arrangement is not so practicable or pleasant. A very long and narrow room is obviously of the worst shape for the purpose of dancing, and is fit only for quadrilles and country dances.

The top of the ball-room is the part nearest the orchestra. In a private room, the top is where it would be if the room were a dining-room. It is generally at the farthest point from the door. Dancers should be careful to ascertain the top of the room before taking their places, as the top couples always lead the dances.

A good floor is of the last importance in a ball-room. In a private house. nothing can be better than a smooth, well-stretched holland, with the carpet beneath.

Abundance of light and free ventilation are indispensable to the spirits and comfort of the dancers.

Good music is as necessary to the prosperity of a ball as good wine to the excellence of a dinner. No hostess should tax her friends for this part of the entertainment. It is the most injudicious economy imaginable. Ladies who would prefer to dance are tied to the pianoforte; and as few amateurs have been trained in the art of playing dance music with that strict attention to time and accent which is absolutely necessary to the comfort of the dancers, a total and general discontent is sure to result. To play dance music thoroughly well is a branch of the art which requires considerable practice. It is as different from every other kind of playing as whale fishing is from fly fishing. Those who give private balls will do well ever to bear this in mind, and to provide skilled musicians for the evening. For a small party, a piano and cornopean make a very pleasant combination. Unless where several instruments are engaged, we do not recommend the introduction of the violin : although in some respects the finest of all solo instruments, it is apt to sound thin and shrill when employed on mere inexpressive dance tunes, and played by a mere dance player.

Invitations to a ball should be issued in the name of the lady of the house, and written on small note paper of the best quality. Elegant printed forms, some of them printed in gold or silver, are to be had at every stationer’s by those who prefer them. The paper may be gilt-edged, but not coloured. The sealing-wax used should be of some delicate hue. An invitation to a ball should be sent out at least ten days before the evening appointed. A fortnight, three weeks, and even a month may be allowed in the way of notice.

Not more than two or three days should be permitted to elapse before you reply to an invitation of this kind. The reply should always be addressed to the lady of the house, and should be couched in the same person as the invitation. The following are the forms generally in use :—

The old form of “presenting compliments” is now out of fashion.

The lady who gives a ball (It will be understood that we use the word “ball” to signify a private party, where there is dancing, as well as a public ball) should endeavour to secure an equal number of dancers of both sexes.  Many private parties are spoiled by the preponderance of young ladies, some of whom never get partners at all, unless they dance with each other.

A room should in all cases be provided for the accommodation of the ladies. In this room there ought to be several looking-glasses; attendants to assist the fair visitors in the arrangement of their hair and dress; and some place in which the cloaks and shawls can be laid in order, and found at a moment’s notice. It is well to affix tickets to the cloaks, giving a duplicate at the same time to each lady, as at the public theatres and concert-rooms. Needles and thread should also be at hand, to repair any little accident incurred in dancing.

Another room should be devoted to refreshments, and kept amply supplied with coffee, lemonade, ices, wine, and biscuits during the evening. Where this cannot be arranged, the refreshments should be handed round between the dances.

The question of supper is one which so entirely depends on the means of those who give a ball or evening party, that very little can be said upon it in a treatise of this description. Where money is no object, it is of course always preferable to have the whole supper, “with all appliances and means to boot,” sent in from some first-rate house. It spares all trouble whether to the entertainers or their servants, and relieves the hostess of every anxiety. Where circumstances render such a course imprudent, we would only observe that a home-provided supper, however simple, should be good of its kind, and abundant in quantity. Dancers are generally hungry people, and feel themselves much aggrieved if the supply of sandwiches proves unequal to the demand.

Great inconvenience is often experienced through the difficulty of procuring cabs at the close of an evening party. Gentlemen who have been dancing, and are unprepared for walking, object to go home on foot, or seek vehicles for their wives and daughters. Female servants who have been in attendance upon the visitors during a whole evening ought not to be sent out. If even men-servants are kept, they may find it difficult to procure as many cabs as are necessary. The best thing that the giver of a private ball can do under these circumstances, is to engage a policeman with a lanthorn to attend on the pavement during the evening, and to give notice during the morning at a neighbouring cab-stand, so as to ensure a sufficient number of vehicles at the time when they are likely to be required.

A ball generally begins about half-past nine or ten o’clock.

To attempt to dance without a knowledge of dancing is not only to make one’s self ridiculous, but one’s partner also. No lady has a right to place a partner in this absurd position.

Never forget a ball-room engagement. To do so is to commit an unpardonable offence against good breeding.

On entering the ball-room, the visitor should at once seek the lady of the house, and pay her respects to her. Having done this, she may exchange salutations with such friends and acquaintances as may be in the room.

No lady should accept an invitation to dance from a gentleman to whom she has not been introduced. In case any gentleman should commit the error of so inviting her, she should not excuse herself on the plea of a previous engagement, or of fatigue, as to do so would imply that she did not herself attach due importance to the necessary ceremony of introduction. Her best reply would be to the effect that she would have much pleasure in accepting his invitation, if he would procure an introduction to her. This observation may be taken as applying only to public balls. At a private party the host and hostess are sufficient guarantees for the respectability of their guests; and although a gentleman would show a singular want of knowledge of the laws of society in acting as we have supposed, the lady who should reply to him as if he were merely an impertinent stranger in a public assembly-room would be implying an affront to her entertainers. The mere fact of being assembled together under the roof of a mutual friend is in itself a kind of general introduction of the guests to each other.

An introduction given for the mere purpose of enabling a lady and gentleman to go through a dance together does not constitute an acquaintanceship. The lady is at liberty to pass the gentleman in the park the next day without recognition.

It is not necessary that a lady should be acquainted with the steps, in order to walk gracefully and easily through a quadrille. An easy carriage and a knowledge of the figure is all that is requisite. A round dance, however, should on no account be attempted without a thorough knowledge of the steps, and some previous practice. No person who has not a good ear for time and tune need hope to dance well.

No lady should accept refreshments from a stranger at a public ball; for she would thereby lay herself under a pecuniary obligation. For these she must rely on her father, brothers, or old friends.

Good taste forbids that a lady should dance too frequently with the same partner at either a public or private ball. Engaged persons should be careful not to commit this conspicuous solecism.

Engagements for one dance should not be made while the present dance is yet in progress.

Never attempt to take a place in a dance which has been previously engaged.

Withdraw from a private ball-room as quietly as possible, so that your departure may not be observed by others, and cause the party to break up. If you meet the lady of the house on your way out, take your leave of her in such a manner that her other guests may not suppose you are doing so ; but do not seek her out for that purpose.

Never be seen without gloves in a ball-room, though it were for only a few moments. Ladies who dance much and are particularly soigné in matters relating to the toilette, take a second pair of gloves to replace the first when soiled.

A thoughtful hostess will never introduce a bad dancer to a good one, because she has no right to punish one friend in order to oblige another.

It is not customary for married persons to dance together in society.