Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lucy Cleaver Female American Retail Worker Surviving In Poverty

Welcome to the world of Lucy Cleaver, a young American woman of twenty-five, who, in the early 20th century, entered one of the New York department stores at the age of twenty, at a salary of $4.50 a week.

In the course of the five years of her employment her salary had been raised one dollar. She stood for nine hours every day. If, in dull moments of trade, when no customers were near, she made use of the seats lawfully provided for employees, she was at once ordered by a floor-walker to do something that required standing.

During the week before Christmas, Lucy worked standing over fourteen hours every day, from eight to twelve-fifteen in the morning, one to six in the afternoon, and half past six in the evening till half past eleven at night. So painful to the feet becomes the act of standing for these long periods that some of the girls forego eating at noon in order to give themselves the temporary relief of a foot-bath. For this overtime the store gave her $20, presented to her, not as payment, but as a Christmas gift.

The management also allowed a week's vacation with pay in the summer-time and presented a gift of $10.

After five years in this position she had a disagreement with the floor-walker and was summarily dismissed.

She then spent over a month in futile searching for employment, and finally obtained a position as a stock girl in a Sixth Avenue suit store at $4 a week, a sum less than the wage for which she had begun work five years before. Within a few weeks, dullness of trade had caused her dismissal. She was again facing indefinite unemployment.

Her income for the year had been $281. She lived in a large, pleasant home for girls, where she paid only $2.50 a week for board and a room shared with her sister. Without the philanthropy of the home, she could not have made both ends meet. It was fifteen minutes' walk from the store, and by taking this walk twice a day she saved carfare and the price of luncheon. She did her own washing, and as she could not spend any further energy in sewing, she bought cheap ready-made clothes. This she found a great expense. Cheap waists wear out very rapidly. In the year she had bought 24 at 98 cents each. Here is her account, as nearly as she had kept it and recalled it for a year: a coat, $10; 4 hats, $17; 2 pairs of shoes, $5; 24 waists at 98 cents, $23.52; 2 skirts, $4.98; underwear, $2; board, $130; doctor, $2; total, $194.50. This leaves a balance of $86.50. This money had paid for necessaries not itemized,--stockings, heavy winter underwear, petticoats, carfare, vacation expenses, every little gift she had made, and all recreation.

She belonged to no benefit societies, and she had not been able to save money in any way, even with the assistance given by the home. So much for her financial income and outlay.

After giving practically all her time and force to her work, she had not received a return sufficient to conserve her health in the future, or even to support her in the present without the help of philanthropy. She was ill, anemic, nervous, and broken in health.

Before adding the next budget, two points in Lucy Cleaver's outlay should, perhaps, be emphasized in the interest of common sense. The first is the remarkable folly of purchasing 24 waists at 98 cents each. In an estimate of the cost of clothing, made by one of the working girls' clubs of St. George's, the girls agreed that comfort and a presentable appearance could be maintained, so far as expenditure for waists was concerned, on $8.50 a year. This amount allowed for five shirt-waists at $1.20 apiece, and one net waist at $2.50.

In extenuation of Lucy Cleaver's weak judgment as a waist purchaser, and the poor child's one absurd excess, it must, however, be said that the habit of buying many articles of poor quality, instead of fewer articles of better quality, is frequently a matter, not of choice, but of necessity. The cheap, hand-to-mouth buying which proves paradoxically so expensive in the end is no doubt often caused by the simple fact that the purchaser has not, at the time the purchase is made, any more money to offer. Whatever your wisdom, you cannot buy a waist for $1.20 if you possess at the moment only 98 cents. The St. George's girls made their accounts on a basis of an income of $8 a week. Lucy Cleaver never had an income of more than $5.50 a week, and sometimes had less. The fact that she spent nearly three times as much as they did on this one item of expenditure, and yet never could have "one net waist at $2.50" for festal occasions, is worthy of notice.

The other point that should be emphasized is the fact that she did her own washing. The more accurate statement would be that she did her own laundry, including the processes, not only of rubbing the clothes clean, but of boiling, starching, bluing, and ironing. This, after a day of standing in other employment, is a vital strain more severe than may perhaps be readily realized. Saleswomen and shop-girls have not the powerful wrists and muscular waists of accustomed washerwomen, and are in most instances no better fitted to perform laundry work than washerwomen would be to make sales and invoice stock. But custom requires exactly the same freshness in a saleswoman's shirt-waist, ties, and collars as in those of women of the largest income. The amount the girls of the St. George's Working Club found it absolutely necessary to spend in a year for laundering clothes was almost half as much as the amount spent for lodging and nearly two-thirds as much as the amount originally spent for clothing.

Where this large expense of laundry cannot be met financially by saleswomen, it has to be met by sheer personal strength. One department-store girl, who needed to be especially neat because her position was in the shirt-waist department, told us that sometimes, after a day's standing in the store, she worked over tubs and ironing-boards at home till twelve at night.

It is worth noting, as one cause of the numerous helpless shifts of the younger salesgirls, that, living, as most of them do, in a semi-dependence, on either relatives or charitable homes, it is almost impossible for them to learn any domestic economy, or the value of money for living purposes.

Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Good Reading & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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