An Object Lesson (Holmes)

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An Object Lesson


(Written for ttie Blacksmiths Journal.)

The Ladies' Auxiliary and Art Club of a certain western city met at the hand- some residence of Mrs. Cavendish on an aristocratic street on Wednesday after- noon. As a novelty, they had invited a lady whose name had become very promi- nent as a leader in la%)or circles and trade unions, to address their meeting on this occasion on the subject of "Economic Problems."

A number of the members had ob- jected and thought it would be a great bore to break off from their beautiful studies to listen to a dry, disagreeable dis- sertation on work and trade and poverty. But other clubs had dipped into such sub- jects, indeed, it had become quite a fad to take up such plebeian topics and it would not do to get behind in club cul- ture, no matter where it led. And so, at the proper time, Mrs. Darien, the labor lecturer, put in an appearance, and the gproup of twenty ladies or so, in marvelous spring toilets, listened with such interest as they could command to her half -hours talk.

She began by giving a vivid description of the deeds of labor — of its wonderful achievements all over the world— of the way mountains were leveled, seas driven into new beds, rivers turned into new channels, waterways cut through moun- tains of solid rock, roads sent over vast continents, chasms, rivers, and arms of the sea bridged across, marvelous buildings erected, the forces of the universe caught and harnessed to assist in making the world a fit place for man's habitation. Then she mentioned the natural supposi- tion that labor which created such mighty effects, would possess all it needed; that comforts, luxuries, means of education, development, and entertainment would of

course belong to the creators of such things. But she pointed out the fact that far from this being the case, the hardest workers in the world were the poorest; even the lives of the ** thrifty" workers were poor, narrow, stinted; women who toiled with all their strength day after day could not earn enough to sufficiently nourish their bodies; children were pushed into factories and mills, their frail bodies crushed to make gold for greedy commer- cialism; men who -had produced wealth sufficient for a hundred lives were often forced to tramp penniless, homeless, friendless in search of new masters; the poverty and consequent degradation of the crowded portions of our cities where the flotsam and jetsam of modern civil- ization gathered, was dwelt upon, and the speaker closed with an appeal to the ladies to interest themselves in such mat- ters rather than the fascinating, dainty but useless studies they had been follow- ing; she urged upon them the necessity of doing some good in the world rather than spending their time in an empty cul- tivation of their own highly sensitive na- tures. There was vital need of women's work out in the big, struggling world, and their lives would be more worth while if they took it up.

The subject was thrown open to discus- sion, and these much-cultured ladies who" could have discoursed on art, literature and beauty by the hour were somewhat at a loss. But not for long; their dense ignorance was only equaled by the self- complacence and satisfaction with their own crude and hastily formed views.

One lady expressed her doubts as to the extreme poverty existing among the com- mon working people, and if it did exist it was due ^most entirely to drunkenness

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and shiftlessness, and for- her part flrhe- had no -sympathy 'to waste on people whoi must h^Ye their Beer and whiskey every day, as well as candy for the children and cheap ribbons for the women.

Another said that it was absurd to sup* posre tha;t men could not find work when they really wanted it; she had wanted her lawn attended to for weeks and could not get a man for any price to come and work on it two or three times a week.

One wondered that the workingmen re* mained where the conditions and pay were so bad; she had read The Jungle and thought it absurd that people lived and worked in such places. Why didn't they go somewhere elsef

Another lady seemed to feel some sym- pathy for the working people and ex- pressed a vague sort of wish that srhe might help them in some way. She said that if she had the wealth of a Eockef eUer she would establish free employment bu- reaus, and build more factories and mills 80 as to give the poor plenty of work.

Of course these women did not imagine that Mrs. Darien wasr nonplussed by their sheer ignorance; but she gathered her forces together and began <^mly to an- swer them, giving her attention first to the lady who had spoken last. She asked her if she really believed that the poor were suffering from lack of work, when they had performed and were still doing all the work of the world. They had sown and reaped and gone down into the deep in ships, they had builded and hewn, and fought their way through wilder- nesses to make them bloom and blossom as the rose; they, had fought the battles of their masters who owned the wealth they had created, and killed each other valiantly when they had b^en bidden to do so; they had done this in all ages of the world, and they had always been the class with nothing. Was it "more work" that the children in cotton bills and factories were suffering for? Was it *'more work" that the women toiling in sweat shops sixteen and eighteen hours a day for less than enough to keep life in their bodies needed? Or did the men who labored on railroad grades, in poisonous mills, in the dangerous bowels of the earth, receiving a mere pittance in return, need *'more work" to make them happy!

Then the speaker turned to the lady who could not get her lawn mowed two or three times a week. Was it probable that men would wait about her street on the chapce that he might be needed for an hour or two each week! Wouldn't she herself want 'to have men arrested who

hung aboqt in that 'fashion? Men who want work go wheire work is to be done; the work of the world is performed in large fields; the little odd jobs to be done here and there in our homes cut very lit- tle figure in the great industrial questions of civilization.

Of the lady who had read "The Jungle" the speaker asked if she knew of any field of labor suffering so much from lack of laborers as to be able to 'absorb all the workers who mignt be in like miserabde conditions and like to leave them?

Then to the lady who doubted the pov- erty of the working people, she said that she would like simply to give her an ob- ject lesson. If any of the members of the club had an hour or two to spare she would take them, on the street car, for she would not promise any less democratic method of locomotion, in a twenty min- utes' ride, to a workingmen 's quarter of the city and prove that the hardest work- ing people were usually the poorest

Three of the ladies accepted her uniqiie proposition, the others thought it horrid to have their meeting end in this outrag- eous manner, and would not go. One of the three was Mrs. Mansfield, the lady who had doubted the poverty of the working people, another was Mrs. Brown- ing, the lady with some sympathetic im- piUses, and the other a Miss Huntley, the spinster who owned her own home and had difSculty in finding a man to do her work.

Their first stopping place was at the head of a street lined on either side with shabby old tenement houses, interspersed with old frame cottages which had out- lived their real usefuhiess.

"I would take you directly to one of my best friends. Miss Beulah Winters, who has worked in one of the down-tovm stores for more than ten years. But she will npt be at home until after six, ajid we may have timfi to see her after wc have visited some other places I have in vnew. I will take you to the homes of some friends of mine — ^I would not in- trude where we are perfect strangers— we have no more right to push ourselves un- invited into people's homes because they are poor than they would have to intrude themselves into our homes. Come, we will go in here. This little two-roomed hovel is the home of the Byans; the man works as a section hand on the railroad, and Mrs. Byan looks after her five chil- dren and washes for other people tivo or three days in the week. You who think you must have a kitchen girl and a nurse

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at least if you hay one or two children' may imagine how she does it. You may think she is different and does not eare how they live^ but after all she is hu- man, with desires aiid feelings like our own.

By this time the door was opened by a* pleasant-faced woman in a faded and sads-dampened calico gown, carrying a year-old baby in her arms while one a year or two older clung to her skirts. She seemed abashed for a moment at sight of so many ladies, but quickly recovered herself and invited them in. The room seemed to be living room, bedroom and drying room for they had to dodge the wet clothing suspended from lines crossed and re-crossed near the ceiling, an over- flow of the small laundry yard outside which was also full. There was a low fire in a little sheet-iron stove to expedite the drying process, a bed, a cot on Which a little girl was lying, a table and a few chairs, and a variety of articles, clothing, baskets, 'papers lying upon them. The room was clean but overcrowded and a little disorderly, as was inevitable. The adjoining room was evidently kitchen, laundry and dining room and equally crowded.

"We were in the neighborhood, Mrs. Byan, and thought we would come and see how you were getting along," said Mrs. Darien pleasantly. "How is the baby's cold! And has Johnnie really left school and got a plcaee in the factory?'*

    • The baby is better, othank you, and

yes, Johnnie started to work yesterday mamin*.*'

'* Wasn't he sorry to leave school? And he was nOt really fourteen, was he ?'*

'* Well, to tellye the 'truth,, Mrs. Darien, he*s a bit past twelve, but it takes so much to feed seven peopiv im' one o' them a hard-working man, that we could not keep ^fohnnie on at school. He was doin' real well, too, and would like to a' kep' on if we could afford it. But its right proud he is to be oarnin' wages like a man. "

"He is a good boy, but I am so sorry he has to lose his schooling. Bid you get the little girl's pink calico dresses done so they could go to the school picnic at the park!"

"Yes. Missus, by settln' up till mid- night three nights runnin'. It was kind o' hard on me, seein' I ad to git up at five jes' the same to git my man's break- fast, and work all day besides. But I'm only thankful I could dp it. "

And what is the matter with Nora today that she is lying abed? She is a

little feverish, isn^t she? Been eating too much?"

"She got her feet wet yisterday, comin' home from school when it rained, an' her shoes none too good. She couldn't well be eatin' too much, seein' she don't take much to salt side and Coarse bread, that's about aU we can afford. We does the best we can — my man works every day, rain or shine, an' he don't drink at all, at all."

The ladies talked on a little further, managed to slip some pennies into the children's hands without their mother's knowing it, and took their leave.

This man and woman both work and work very hard, and they have even taken one of their babies out of school to work also," said Mrs. Darien as they walked along, "yet you see that they are deprived of almost everything that maKes life desirable. Probably you could tell, one of you, how they could expend their income better than they do. Seven people to shelter, clothe, feed and provide for out of ten or eleven dollars a week."

No one replied, and they went on. Mrs. Darien led them into a number of similar homes, and found conditions nearly the same in each. Sometimes they were ag- gravated by drink, but even at best, pov- erty, deprivation, crowded space, ugliness, prevailed. They entered homes where the heads of the family had always worked 'industriously, but who for various reasons were out of work just then, and found that a few days' idleness had brought absolute hunger and squalidness, so near are the working people constantly to the verge of despair. They saw lonely wid- ows and single women struggling heroic- ally to keep their heads above water, liv- ing in dreary bits of rooms, subsisting on weak tea and stale bread, starving body and soul, withering, slowly dying for a little of the beauty, sweetness, daintiness and love so lavishly bestowed upon part of mankind. They saw sad, patient old couples, striving y^ith all their feeble night to retain a foothold in the working world that they might be together during their few remaining years upon earth, piti- fully unrewarded for all their years of toil while younger.

The party returned at last to the head of the street where they had started in, and Mrs. Darien said:

"Now we will go in and see my friend, Beulah Winters. I think she must be at home by this time."

They entered the dingy doorway of a

large tenement house, traversed a long

corridor, then began to climb stairs; there

were three long flights and the ladies were

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out of breath when they reached the top.

"How would you like to climb these stairfif every dayf" asked Mrs. Barien.

    • It would be intolerable!" the others

answered when they could speak.

They found the woman they had come to see, lighting her little oil stove and sti]] wearing her hat and jacket. She was tall and fair, and built for a strong, healthy woman, but her work had made her thin, pallid and spiritless. Still she possessed beautiful blue eyes and a sweet smile, and sn air of cheerfulness that often seemed a little forced.

Her ro^m was small but neat as hands could make it, and contained a cot bed covered with a snowy spread, a pine bpx cupboard neatly papered, a. couple of chairs, a trunk, and one piece of extrava- gance, a pretty dresser; several photos and tasteful pictures adorned the wall and the window was draped with white muslin curtains, half hiding a blossoming ger- anium. This was the home, the place where the whole of life outside the store was spent, of a bright, refined, sensitive, deep-souled woman.

The ladies found seats on the chairs and the trunk, and Beulah removing her hat and jacket donned an apron.

'*Will you excuse me, ladies, if I {40 on with my preparations for teal And will you take pity on my lonelinesa and share it with mef" she said smilingly, without any apologies for the humbleness of her hospitality.

"A cup of tea will be very acceptable after our afternoon's work, and you raus-t let me help you, Beulah dear," answered Mrs. Darien brightly, while the others looked a little puzzled as to how they were to take tea in the little ten by twelve room with its scant furniture. But Mrs. Darien nodded reassuringly and soon slipped out to descend the long flights ot stairs and appear a few minutes later breathless but triumphant, laden with numerous paper bags. The little table was spread with a white cloth and laid with small plates, two matched cups, one odd cracked cup, and a mug ; cheese, cakes and fruit were served from their original receptacles, while Beulah brought out some bread and butter and poured the tea. They grouped themselves laughingly around the table, seated on the chairs, the bed and trunk, and, while they at© and drank, Mrs. Darien tactfully drew Beulah out to talk of her experiences, her work in the store, her companions there, their modes of life, their needs and desires, their almost hopeless aspirations, their temptations, etc. And the ladies forgot the strange situation and listened with

the deepest interest. She told how the girls worked ten hours* a day at the most nerve-racking work in the world, for three, four or five dollars a week; how they made it cover their absolute neces- sary expenses by clubbing together in crowded hall bedrooms, how they turned, patched and mended their clothes at night after their day's work was over, how they inked their shoes, darned their li§le thread gloves and went without a lace; how lonely and tired they often meal to buy a fresh ribbon or a bit of were, and how often it seemed they could sell their souls for a bit of beauty, amuse- ment or friendliness; how often girls did sell their souls, since there were always buyers — sometimes their very employers. The girl could have told — ^but no, she could not relate ber own personal history to strangers, eyen though it furnished a useful lesson.

The club ladies had never had such an experience in their lives. It seemed to them all at once that life had a deeper meaning, was more earnest and vital thaa they had ever dreamed. They had known financial difficulties, but they had never been compelled to give up their beautiful apartments, to do without one or two servants, to dispense with hot and cold water ready at hand, ice and flowers in the summer, soft, fine underwear, stylish dresses, or to be deprived of leisure and opportunity to rest when tired. It was a new thought that women as refined as themselves went without these things, and toiled hard every day of their lives. They departed, seriously thoughtful and cordial- ly shook hands with Beulah, promising to come and see her again.

"Has Miss Winters ever had a lover t" asked Miss Huntley, with an eye to the romantic side of the subject. "And where in the world would she receive him?"

"Yes, a good man has loved her for a long time, but they are too poor to marry yet. They see one another on the streets or in the parks on Sunday, for there is no private parlor for them. And their youth is wasting away, and the joys of life are passing them by. What reward has all their hard work and economy brought them?"

The question was not answered.

  • Holmes, Lizzie M. “An Object Lesson.” The Blacksmiths Journal 8, no. 6 (June 1907): 1–4.