Digital History>Voices>Social History>A Collar Starcher's Story

A Collar Starcher's Story
Independent, LIX (Aug. 10, 1905), 305 10.


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 is now.

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 voices.

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 half.

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 women

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 the table?

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 a week.

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, and the
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 wages.

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 all discharged.

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 awful.
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.

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