A Story of the Tenements 1905

She was a frail woman, of medium height, with a prematurely furrowed face, and the drooping, squinting, strained motion of her eyelids indicated a granulated affection. Her home was a little, three-room tenement high up in one of those old double-decker tenement houses which abound in New York. There are thousands upon thousands of these bulks of tenement houses, the construction of which far ante-dated the enactment of the present Tenement House law, and the house she lived in was but a routine specimen of vast blocks of the same type. Two stores on the ground floor and four families to a floor, two in the front and the same in the rear for five stories skyward, that is the rule. You found yourself in a dark hallway, and by the aid of the balustrade you groped up the uncertain stairway until you reached the fourth story front to the right. There were no names downstairs to show where each family lived, and inquiries had to be made as you ascended.

There were no super flukies about her home. One room served the combined, purpose of kitchen, dining, sitting and work room; the other rooms for sleeping. A stove, a table, a sewing machine, and a few chairs were the outfit of the main room. With its many purposes, and some cheap pictures hung on the green painted walls, and bits of crockery such as are given for trading stamps or for certain purchases of tea, adorned the mantel.

She lived there with her husband and their boy of four years. Back a time, when a girl of fifteen years, she had begun working in box factories. She had made all kinds of pasteboard boxes-handkerchief boxes, shoe and cigarette boxes-boxes for all manner of things. For eight years she worked thus; and by being nimble and sticking at her task from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, with a half-hour intermission at noon for lunch and a half-hour at night for supper, she had managed to make a living. In the busy season, from July to September, she made from $10 to $12 a week. After September the slack season would set in. She would work eight hours a day then, and made $7 a week. Later, in the winter months, a rush of orders would come in, and the factory would run twelve hours a day again.

A Family's Earnings

She thought herself well off. There were fully 5000 box-making girls in New York, and not many of them could excel her in quickness of work and in amount of wages. The pay was by piece work: the best pay went to the best workers. She considered the lot of most of the other girls. Many of them earned only $5 or $6 a week. On this sum they had to live. How they managed to do it she didn't know. She lived at home with her father, her four brothers, and a sister. The combined earnings of all amounted to $40 a week. The family had a pleasant flat, and Tessie for that was her name always had money enough for dresses, finery and amusements.

Tessie sympathized deeply with most of the other girls. How could they pay board, buy apparel, and live decently in general on $5 or $6 a week? Many of them had no families, and most of them were in debt to the installment dealers. They would buy their dresses and coats from those dealers__cheap garments at exorbitant prices and p ay twenty-five or fifty cents a week on account. But those girls never could succeed in clearing off their debts. The installment men were always dunning them. As for hats and shoes, the girls hadn't much to spend. A quarter was the limit for a hat, and forty cents for ribbon to adorn it. To may more than $1.25 for a pair of shoes was an un-heard-of extravagance; the shoes, with care and periodic mending, would be pressed into service for a year at least.

Tessie was a fortunate girl compared to the most of them. At least she prized her lot so. Now and then she would delicately make presents of her old dresses and coats to some of the most needy.

Tessie was a favorite at dances. She was a pretty girl, and always had attractive clothes. It followed, of course, that there were not wanting suitors, for a pretty, well dressed girl with a pleasant home and ability to make a good living, was a dazzling star in the neighborhood in which she lived.

Things That Appealed To Tessie

There were rivals. Tessie chose a good-looking young fellow. True, he did not make as much money as Tessie did. He was an assistant porter in a cloth store, and his wages were $9 a week. But Tessie thought him an exceedingly pleasant fellow. He was always neatly dressed, his hair was faultlessly oiled, his handkerchief was perfumed, and he wore a scarf pin that caught Tessie's fancy. The big ruby and the diamonds surrounding it were glass and not the finest at that and the gold was brass, but Tessie didn't know. It was a real enough dazzler to her. Tim, also, could "spiel" better than the other fellows, she thought, and he could sing the latest popular songs with what seemed to her perfect art.

Tim became Tessie's "steady." The engagement was brief. Presently, Tim and Tessie set up in housekeeping.

The three-room flat cost them $7.50 a month rental. They just managed to live on Tim's $9 a week. But they were a happy pair. Tessie eyed Tim more fondly than ever, and when he'd come home and after a hard day's work sing "You're Only Teasing Me," or something of that sort, Tessie was overwhelmed. An impartial critic might have expressed serious doubts, and perhaps the neighbors didn't say all that they thought. To Tessie, Tim's voice was the acme of perfection, or to sum it up in her all-inclusive word, "grand."

They had two children. One, a girl of eight months, died last March. The baby was sick quite a while and the doctor's and the undertaker's bills were considerable. That was the beginning of their bad luck. The loss of the child was a hard enough blow, and besides, the little girl's sickness and death not only absorbed their trifling savings, but plunged them into debt. But they had another child left, a boy, "going on" four years. They concentrated their love on him and faced the world with courage.

Three months after Tim lost his place. It was no fault of his just a streak of bad luck. He tried hard to get another job, no matter at what, he couldn't.

Now a couple with a child and debts and great self-respect must get along independently somehow. Confidence in each other doesn't satisfy the landlord, and grocers, butchers and bakers haven't yet acquired the habit of supplying provisions on good intentions or future prospects.

Tessie had mettle. She hadn't forgotten her old trade. Her eyes troubled her a great deal, but she was determined to keep things going without applying to anybody for assistance. She went to one of her former bosses and got a job making boxes for tobacco cigarettes. The material she would carry home and there make up the boxes. The pay wasn't much. For every thousand boxes she got $5. It took her a week, working ten hours a day, to make a thousand boxes.

Since July Tessie has struck to the job. It is difficult for a woman to keep house, bring up a boy, and work ten hours a day, but Tessie has managed it. it is especially difficult for one with granulated eyelids to bend over such a task all day long. Tessie, however, didn't complain. She knew that Tim was really looking for work and was willing to take anything he could get. She knew he had a run of hard luck.

The $5 a week Tessie earned has supported the whole family since July. Their living is simple. Sixteen or eighteen cents a day for meat, a loaf of bread a day, and two quarts of potatoes a week. Tessie and Tim dispensed with butter. They had some, but it was reserved for the boy. The cost of their living, not including rent, was about thirty cents a day. Then Tessie paid fifty cents a week for insurance for herself and the boy, and the same sum for insurance for Tim. They didn't mind scrimping along on $5 a week. It was the back debts which worried them. They could pay only a little on account now and then.

The other day Tim finally got a job. There was happiness in the little home when Tim came home and told the good news. It was an event.\\This is a simple, true little story whereof Tessie is the heroine. Does she not deserve to be? New York Post.

Source: Akron Weekly Pioneer Press (Akron, Washington County) Friday, May 12, 1905 Page: 1 Section: Front page

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Story of the Tenements 1905
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 Akron Weekly Pioneer Press (Akron, Washington County) Friday, May 12, 1905 Page: 1 Section: Front page
Time & Date Stamp: