When I left school at the age of sixteen to go to work there were
very few opportunities open to young girls, for the time was nearly
thirty years ago. Therefore I considered myself unusually lucky
to have been born and brought up in Troy, N.Y., where the shirt
and collar factories offered employment to women. I was lucky
also in being a large, stout girl, for the work offered me when
I applied was that of a collar starcher, and while this does not
call for much muscle, it certainly requires endurance and a good
constitution. In those days practically all the laundry work was
done by hand. There were no ironing machines and very few washing
machines. The starching was about all there was for a girl of
sixteen. So a starcher I became and a starcher I am to this day,
or rather, I was until the strike came in May.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first working years. The factory was
not at all a bad place. I worked side by side with my friends,
the girls I had gone to school with, met at church and at dances
and picnics. The starching rooms were very hot and stuffy generally,
like a Turkish bath, and the work was hard on the hands; but I
didn't mind these discomforts. Looking back at it now I think
we were very well off. There was nothing like the rush and hurry
we live in now. We were not driven at such a furious pace, for,
of course, there was not nearly the business done then that there
The starching itself was a very different affair. The collars
were two-ply, instead of the thick, unwieldy things men wear now,
and there was no "lady work," as we say. Just men's
collars, straight or folded back at the corners two or three styles
are all I remember. We were not obliged to dip those light collars.
We simply rubbed in heavy starch, using our hands, and soft cloths.
It was hot enough, but not the scalding work it is now.
The working hours were not too long about eight hours a day.
We went to work at nine o'clock, except in the busy season, when
we were on hand at eight. The day passed quickly with the talk
and sometimes a bit of a song to liven things up. We used to sing
part songs and old fashioned choruses. Some of the girls had beautiful
We have to be at the tables at seven now and an ambitious worker
is usually in the factory half an hour before the whistle blows,
to get her table ready. As for talk or singing, the foreman would
have a fit if anything like that should happen. In our factory
all talking is strictly forbidden. You run the risk of instant
dismissal if you even speak to the girl across the table. Even
at the noon hour you can only whisper. I've seen girls discharged
for talking and I know of a case where a girl lost her job for
sneezing. The foreman said she did it on purpose. They are not
as hard as this in all the factories. Much depends on the foreman.
My father and mother died before I was twenty. We had our little
home and my brother and my three sisters and I lived on there.
Three of us girls worked in the factories and one sister stayed
at home and kept house for us. Our combined wages made a pretty
good income. We lived well, dressed well and were very happy.
My brother married and went West to live. The housekeeping sister
married next and then my youngest sister found a husband That
broke up the home, for the two that were left couldn't afford
to keep it up. We took a couple of rooms and did our little housekeeping
early in the morning before we went to work.
At this time there came a break in the monotony of my life. I
married a young man I had known for a number of years. He was
an iron molder and made good wages. We went to housekeeping and
I thought my collar starching days were over forever. But my husband
was taken ill, and before I realized that he was seriously sick
I was a widow with a two year old daughter to support.
I naturally thought of the factory, but a friend who kept a grocery
store begged me to come to live with her and help her with the
business. I was glad to do it on account of my little girl and
I did my best to become a good grocery clerk I cannot say that
I enjoyed it, however. It was slow compared with the sociability
of the factory, and besides, when you have learned to do one kind
of work well you prefer to stick to your trade. I stayed at the
store for eighteen months and at the end of that time I married
again, a young telegraph operator I met in the store.
You see I have really done my best to fulfill what the ministers
and others often tell us is the true destiny of a woman to be
a wife and mother. But the fates have been against me. My second
husband had incipient consumption when I married him, altho neither
of us knew it He died after a short illness and six months later
my little boy was born Before the baby was a month old I was back
in the factory, a starcher girl once more. Except for this interval
of six years I have earned my living starching collars at four
cents the dozen.
I have managed to bring up my two children fairly well. They have
gone to school and my daughter has had music and dancing lessons.
She is thirteen now and beginning to think of learning a trade.
I shall not allow her to become a starcher. My boy is ten. He
is very fond of his books and I shall try to put him through the
high school. I don't know exactly how it is to be done, especially
if the Employers' Association succeeds in cutting our wages in
There are many married women and widows in the factories in Troy.
Of the married women, some have been deserted and others have
gone to work because their husbands could not seem to make a living
It seems to me that in a community where the women greatly outnumber
the men the men get discouraged and deteriorate. Very few of the
girls in Troy look forward with enthusiasm to marriage. If they
are making fairly good wages they hesitate before giving up their
jobs They have too many object lessons around them of women who
have come back to the factories after a few years of married life,
all their gayety and high spirits gone and two or three children
at home to support It is a mystery to me how they bring up their
children so well. I had friends to help me with mine and I suppose
the others have. It means sitting up until all hours sewing, mending
and washing little clothes. After all, a working mother is like
any other woman; she wants her children to wear pretty dresses
and starched white petticoats.
Collar starching cannot be classed with unskilled labor. It requires
considerable intelligence and a knack of handling the starch so
as to get it smoothly through the goods. A poor starcher can upset
a whole laundry, for if the collars come out soft from the ironing
machines they have to be washed over again The collars come to
us in bunches of a dozen each. We cut the string, dip the collars
in a tub of scalding hot starch, throw them on the table, which
is covered with a clean cloth, and with the tips of our fingers
rub out all the bubbles and wrinkles and force the starch evenly
through the linen. Then with a soft cloth we wipe off the superfluous
starch and pile the collars in dozens again They are hung on long
bars, which are thrust into drying ovens, after which they go
to the sprinklers and ironers. This is mostly machine work, done
by young girls. The finishing is hand work and is done by older
The starchers work very quickly, of course. They have to, both
for the sake of the collars and for the sake of their wages. It
is possible to starch fifty dozen or more a day, depending on
the style of collar. I have often done so. The straight band collar
is easier than the wide turnover. If the work kept up at such
a pace a starcher's wages would amount to ten or twelve dollars
a week, but unfortunately, the busy season lasts only three months
in the year. A good starcher makes as high as fifteen or sixteen
dollars a week during those three months. The rest of the year
she is lucky if she makes seven dollars a week. The average, I
think, is about six. The average wage the year round is between
eight and nine dollars.
In order to make good money during the busy season I get up at
halfpast five in the morning, prepare a hasty breakfast, leaving
the dishes for my daughter to wash. By half past six I am at work.
In the middle of the morning I stop just long enough to take a
cup of coffee and a piece of bread, which stay me until lunch
time. Ten minutes' pause for lunch and I am hard at work again.
Sometimes I work as late as eight o'clock. When I get home my
daughter has my dinner ready for me. A year or two years ago I
used to have to get it myself after the work was over. Then, often
there was washing to be done, for I am obliged in my factory to
wear a white gown Dark calico doesn't present such an attractive
appearance, you know.
Many women have it harder than I. One friend of mine has two
children and a bedridden mother to care for after hours, and just
before the strike her husband was brought home with a broken hip.
I am describing conditions in the nine factories which make up
the Employers' Association. These factories supply nearly ninety
per cent of all the collars and cuffs sold in the United States.
There are other factories in Troy, two of which make the highest
grade collars sold They have refused to join the Employers' Association
These factories pay better wages than the others and treat their
employees well. Unfortunately they do not launder their own collars.
Most of their work is done in a large independent laundry in the
town This laundry pays its starchers five cents a dozen for collars.
Everybody likes to work there, for the girls are treated splendidly.
They are allowed to talk and laugh as much as they please, provided
they don't waste their time. In spite of the high wages and the
good treatment of the girls that laundry makes money. It seems
queer, doesn't it, when we are told that our employer's business
would go to smash if we were allowed to speak to the girls across
I have said that a girl in our factory could make between eight
and nine dollars a week the year round The books will show that
this is true, but the fact is you can't find out all there is
to factory work by looking at the books. You can't find out, for
instance, how much of the employees' wages go back to the firm
in the shape of fines. To be docked two dollars a week is the
commonest thing in the world at our factory. We expect it, in
fact, and are thankful when it amounts to no more.
When I go to work in the morning I am given a slip of paper marked
on one side "Received" and on the other "Returned."
I mark on the one side the number of collars I receive. When the
collars are starched I turn them over to boys from sixteen to
twenty and they are sent to the drying rods. These boys mark on
the other side of the slip the number of collars returned If a
boy makes a miscount or if for any reason at all the numbers do
not tally on both sides of the slip, the starcher is docked The
amount docked from her wages is purely arbitrary. If she is short
a dozen of work she is charged from fifty cents to a dollar. If
the return side contains a dozen more collars than the starcher
appears to have received the starcher is docked ten cents and
is not paid for the work she is credited with doing. The great
mAjority of the girls are docked every week in this matter of
the received and returned slip. The boys are never docked, it
being assumed, apparently, that they never make mistakes. But
we no longer even wonder why these unjust distinctions are made.
If a starcher drops one collar on the floor she is docked five
dozen collars. In other words for every collar dropped on the
floor the girl must starch five dozen collars for nothing. The
starcher is even held responsible after the collars leave her
hands. If the bars on which the collars are dried happen to be
dirty the starcher is fined, although the bars are supposed to
be cleaned by other workers. If a collar drops from the cleaning
bars and is found on the floor, the four girls whose work is nearest
are fined Since it is not possible accurately to locate the careless
one the four are punished in order to fine the right one.
These are not all the excuses for docking, but they are the most
flagrant and unjust ones. It has been said on good authority that
our firm alone has recovered from its employees, in fines, $159,900,
during the past ten years. I am not an expert at figures, but
I should think that the amount was fully as large as that.
The starchers are no worse off in the matter of fines and hard
regulations than the stitchers and banders and other women operatives.
In some departments the pay is so low and the fines so excessive
that the operatives hardly make a living wage. Yet, for some reason,
the starchers alone have been organized Our union has not been
a very strong one and in the two recorded strikes in the last
twenty years it suffered from the weakness and dishonesty of its
leaders. Our position seemed pretty hopeless last August, just
a year ago, when our present troubles began.
At that time several firms in the Association put in starching
machines. We had no objection to machines, nor have we now, provided
the machines do the work We would welcome any device which made
our task easier or enabled us to turn out more work. I want to
make that point clear at the outset.
The machines were brought in but the table starchers were not
put to work on them at once. Young girls were brought in from
the outside and were set to work in a room by themselves. These
girls until just before the strike were not subjected to the same
conditions that the table starchers were under. They were given
only the easiest work; they were allowed helpers, so that they
never had to leave their tables. They were not docked for any
cause. In this way they were able to make very fair wages, the
payroll, in fact, showing that they received about the same as
the table starchers who were receiving larger pay per dozen collars.
Then the table starchers were informed that hereafter all starching
would be done by machinery and that wages would be cut to two
cents a dozen At the same time they began to lay off ten girls
The great majority of the girls were entirely ignorant of labor
union methods. Most of us had never even read any labor literature.
But every one of us realized that the time had come when we must
organize. The first thing the union did was to agree, instead
of having these girls laid off, to share our work with them. We
were anxious to retain the girls for more reasons than one. For
instance, we were puzzled to understand why they were laid off.
We knew that there was no shortage of work, for the firms were
actually sending work out to other shops.
We next agreed to try the machines, and we maintain that we did
give them a fair trial. They were put in some time in August,
strike did not come until the 4th of May following We experimented
with them long enough to convince all the starchers including
the new ones who had never starched after the tables, that the
machines did not and could not starch the collars. The starchers
were supposed to only R have to rub the work over lightly after
it left the machines, but the fact is they had to do as much to
the collars after they came out of the machine as they did to
the hand starched work. The machine work resulted in stiff welts
in the loose linings of the collars, and these welts we had to
beat and soak out, and often restarch the whole collar, making
the process longer and harder than it had ever been, with a cut
of fifty per cent in our wages.
Why should the firms have put in such machines? We asked ourselves
the question, and at first it seemed like another of the experiments
they try from time to time, experiments which the workers are
made to pay for. One such experiment was the use of a certain
kind of starch, presumably a cheaper quality than had been used,
for the end and aim of all manufacturers is, of course, to lower
the cost of production. I shall never forget that starch. It was
a German importation. We tried very hard to use it, knowing, of
course, that we would be docked if the work was unsatisfactory.
It was impossible for us to get it into the linen, and our work
all came out soft. We were docked, tried the starch again and
were again docked Then we struck, but our union was too weak to
hold out We went back, tried the starch three days more with the
same result and finally convinced the firm that the starch was
no good We paid for that experiment with something like a week's
Knowing the uselessness of combating an experiment we kept on
at the machines for a little while after we saw that they could
not do the work. The factory was all upside down. One day one
thing would be said and the next day another. Three cents a dozen
for hand work began to be talked about, and then, all of a sudden,
the light broke upon us. The whole thing was clear. The machines
were merely a subterfuge to reduce wages. It is not easy to reduce
a wage scale which has obtained for twenty nine years. Awkward
explanations have to be made and there is always trouble. The
longest way around is the shortest way home in such matters. To
put the burden of the reduction on the worker is a clever trick
To bring the thing around in the shape of a compromise is to save
a great deal of trouble.
This sort of thing could not go on indefinitely and finally the
end came. The table starchers and the machine starchers held a
meeting and discussed the situation. We agreed that we could not
stand a reduction of fifty per cent. We felt that we should have
to grant something to save ourselves, so we agreed to accept a
reduction of twenty five percent by working after the machines,
with bunchers and hangers up, but we were firm in our determination
to stand by our old wages for table work. Meanwhile small groups
of girls were being discharged and laid off.
We appointed a committee to call on the head of the firm. He
refused to let the committee into his office. Twice was the committee
refused an interview. Then we struck The girls remained in the
workrooms until one of the firm came in. He said that he had business
at the armory and could not talk to them. The leader asked when
he would be willing to discuss matters. He said: "You must
first go back to work, and I will consider about giving you a
hearing at some future date."
The girls refused to go back to work until the matter of discharging
and the matter of wages were discussed, and that night they were
Several attempts were made to patch up the trouble. The Commissioner
of Labor tried to intervene and the State Board of Mediation,
I think it is called, did what it could The Chamber of Commerce
also tried Arbitration was all the girls asked for, but they insisted
that the arbitration come before they went back to work. President
Shea of the Federation of Labor and George Waldron, a delegate
of the Federation, were chosen to confer with our firm. The firm
referred them to the Manufacturers' Association. The Association
refused to meet the men but agreed to meet a committee of the
starchers. On May 11 the starchers met the Association, and two
days later they met them again. Nothing came of either meeting
and a few days later all the girls walked out, not only from our
factory, but from the nine in the Association. The machines had
not been installed in all the factories, nor had the wages been
reduced in all the factories, although we knew that they would
be, since the Association exists to kill competition between the
factories. The immediate cause of the sympathetic strike was the
action of the other factories in taking the laundry work of the
factory where the strike occurred. We have been much blamed for
this sympathetic strike. As for me, I cannot see the difference
between our sympathetic strike and the sympathetic action of the
factories in the Association.
We have been out ever since. At first there were small riots.
We picketed the factories and tried by all peaceable means to
prevent the non union girls hired to take our places from entering.
Some of them turned back ashamed, but others persisted in going
in. These girls had their hair pulled and their faces slapped
I am not concealing that The non union girls were certainly terrorized
A few of them were handled pretty roughly. We have been denounced
for this. Well, there may be better methods of preventing thoughtless
and heartless girls from injuring their class, and thereby injuring
themselves. There may be, I say, better methods. I wish I knew
what they were. Many of these girls were not in the permanent
working class. They became strike breakers from ignorance and
want of reflection, most of them. Others probably belonged to
the class that out of pure snobbery opposes organization. They
will not join a union because they do not wish to officially ally
themselves with the working classes. There are plenty of women
like that As I said, I wish I knew some way of teaching them their
lesson without slapping their faces.
We have allied ourselves with the national body of the Laundry
Workers' Union and receive strike benefits from them. Some of
the girls, whose sisters are working, voluntarily do without the
benefit money; so there is enough to support the others. Some
have left Troy and have found work in other towns. The rest of
us are still doing picket duty and are holding the union together
in all ways we know of. We have every confidence in our leaders.
The sympathy we have met with in the town has been very encouraging.
One merchant gave us $500 cash and another gives us $25 a week
Of course most of the merchants are afraid to offend the manufacturers,
whose patronage is worth far more than that of the workers. The
churches generally are thoroughly down on the strikers and our
own ministers tell us that we ought to submit ourselves to the
terms our kind employers are good enough to offer us. The head
of my firm is one of the most generous contributors to the Y.M.C.A.
and has helped build and renovate two churches. He is called an
active Christian and is very much looked up to by the best people
in Troy. Others in the Employers' Association are splendid churchmen
The Sunday schools and the church societies have a great hold
on many of the stitchers and banders. For this reason large numbers
of them hold out against a sympathetic strike of the operatives.
They tell us privately that they hope we will win and if we do
they will probably form unions of their own. That is always the
way and we do not complain.
Meanwhile there is one comforting feature: the Employers' Association,
in order to save money, is spending it. They have to send all
their laundry work out of town to get it done. Some of it goes
as far away as Chicago. Their express bills must be something
There is one more little bit of comfort. You ought to see how
fat and rosy the girls are getting in the open air. Girls who
didn't look like anything are as pretty as pinks since they began
to do picket duty.
Troy, N. Y.