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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
2 Replies to “Saleswomen of New York City in the Late Victorian Era”
Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed it.