LIFE IN THE TENEMENT HOUSES IN FALL RIVER.
[From the Boston MA Sunday Herald, 1 July 1879.]
The Fall River mill operative earns, or receives for his work, from 60 cents to $1.75 per day, perhaps in a few instances a little more, and, in proportion to all employed, there are but few hands that average much above $1 per day. The greater portion of the workers are of nationalities having ways differing from those peculiar to the Yankee, and, while their home habits and manners and customs in house keeping are not generally to be classed as expensive, the fact that many of them are wel1-known to indulge in stimulants, in some form, presupposes the existence of outlay, more or less considerable for its supply, and consequently of some recklessness of expenditure. The question naturally suggests itself, upon learning the amount of their income, "How do these people live, and what sort of homes can they furnish and support upon such sums earned?" If these questions were answered in detail, and the truth was fairly understood in our communities, many a New England housewife, who has heretofore fancied her lot one of peculiar drudgery, would offer thanks for her exalted condition in comparison, and find her sympathies fully enlisted in the cause of her less fortunate neighbors.
Not that there are no comfortable homes among the operatives: there are many such; many, also, more than comfortable, having luxuries...flowers and pictures, and with musical instruments and fancy articles at hand. But such are the exception. ...
Every mill in the Border City has, usually standing near its own structure, a number of tenement houses, grouped in blocks of six, eight or even more apartments. Besides this property of the mills, the enterprise of citizens
- in some cases operatives themselves - has provided other blocks or small collections of tenements, and these are scattered about within city limits, wherever eligible sites are to be found, or the wants of operatives may be met. In some instances, as many as twenty apartments are to be found in a block, varying from four to six pieces or rooms each. The operatives marry young, almost invariably, for reasons which will be hereafter given, and begin housekeeping usually upon the arrival of the children, if they do not immediately after the marriage ceremony. Large families are not unusual, if they are not the rule, and as a matter of course the tenement houses are constructed to meet the best known wants of the class. Usually the tenement consists of a kitchen, the most commodious room in the house, which is also a dining room and living room, a sink closet, and from two to four sleeping rooms, generally small and made on an economical principle so far as space is concerned. The houses are of wood, two or two and a half stories if the roof be flat, or, if a pitched roof is used, the attic is fully utilized, and, in the case of a four tenement house of the latter kind, each family would have part of its sleeping rooms in the attic. So much for general construction.
Before alluding further to home life in these tenements, a glance at family life in the mills will illustrate the matter. It often happens that a whole family is employed in the mill, the father, the mother, and one, two or even more of their children. In case all the members are thus employed, of course the home is empty during the day or working hours, and whether it is a palace or a hovel becomes a matter of no moment until the steam whistle announces the close of the working day. In the mill the wife works as hard in her way, perhaps, as any member of the family, certainly as steadily, and, when the mill day is over, mark how her duties become terribly onerous! Upon reaching home supper is to be swallowed -there isn't room for much more of regulation or ceremony about it -and then, while the rest of the family recreate in their own way, all there is of housekeeping is performed by the wife, in some matters, however, occasionally assisted by her children if they are old enough. There will be no time the next morning for cooking and preparing breakfast -it must be looked out for over night. Dinner is to be taken to the mill, and that must consist of materials substantial enough to support the heavy drag of the day; consequently, these must be cooked during the evening. Bread and meat and simple pie are staples, and in some form must be prepared; While the kettle is bubbling, or the frypan sizzling, or the oven baking, or all together are sending out their heats, the washing of all the bed and personal clothing for the household may be performed; the old man's pants mended, or the younger children's clothes made or repaired by the mother. If one or two of the brood are sick or ailing, they may also receive attention at the time. With aching bones and weary eyelids, night after night, for heavy weeks and months, the wife and mother toils thus for her family, living a life the like of which no southern slave ever dreamed about, so far as its groveling drudgery is concerned.
MEANS AND ENDS.
To bed at last, and for the females described, for as short a night as is known to the workers of any class, although the members of the family not required to work evenings can suit their inclinations regarding bedtime. The mill demands an early visit, work is to be prepared for, the house is locked up for the day, and, dinner pail in hand, the family are off to the work rooms to pursue the endless round.
It is to meet the wants of the people thus employed, that these tenement houses are offered and designed as specified. Not always are they built upon swampy lands, and in times before the present beneficial city water works, the drainage and system of wells was fearful to contemplate. But usually the buildings are well placed and the uneven nature of the ground in these parts renders the chances of good building sites favorable to the occupants of the tenement houses.
Besides these houses of the mills, which provide homes for perhaps one-half or a little more of the mill population, the fact that other tenement houses are prepared for these people has been stated above. The tenements thus provided differ little in construction or character from those built by the mills, except, perhaps, more eligible sites are selected, and the worker may be gratified by the opportunity to get further away from the mills. In some places cottage houses are erected by those outside parties, containing two tenements each, precisely alike in all their features, having a little garden back of the house and a bit of a yard in front. Wherever possible, a few fowls are kept by the operatives, occasionally even the cellar being devoted to the purpose; but the mill men look out sharply for any offence against good sanitary regulations in the housekeeping arrangements of the families. No pigs are kept; so one element of an offensive neighborhood is avoided.
RULES AND REGULATIONS.
Often the mill men insist upon workers occupying their tenement houses, that is, if sufficient tenements can be afforded, and instances are not wanting where families violating this rule have been discharged to make room for others willing to occupy the company's property. The English workers like to select their tenements; some of the older spinners own little places or occupy homesteads partly paid for by themselves and which they hope to clear by and by. Many of these are nicely furnished, like the average New England mechanic's house, and a piano, cabinet organ, or pretty figured woolen carpets are not unfrequently met with in these abodes. Sewing machines are found by the hundreds in these homes, and often, where there are no carpets, home-made braided rugs are neatly arranged on the floors, and genuine comfort is evident in every detail of the housekeeping. But the condition of heavily worked bodies is always and everywhere present. It may here be stated that the mills close at mid-afternoon on Saturday, and housekeeping duties are pursued at a lively rate thereafter until the week closes, and a great deal of work is done on Sunday. The atmosphere of the mills is hot and full of subtle influences from heat and electricity combined. The regulations connected with many forms of the work render rigid application necessary, and, under those of the Fall River mills, it is impossible for a man to leave his post for hours sometimes, for any purpose whatever, however personally important, without censure, and discharge in case of repetition of the offence. The heat, and the absorbing nature of the attention required to the work, are terribly depressing, and it often happens that a man, dragging himself home from his looms, finds himself unable to do anything until a season of rest is allowed. In this condition he throws himself upon his doorstep, and finds he cannot eat, which he must do in order to work. He sends for a pail of beer-ale from the nearest dealer's
cellar and stimulates his appetite. The heat influences of the mills referred to act noticeably and powerfully upon the systems of the young people employed, tending to mature them, and to these agencies must be largely attributed the early marriages among the operatives, which prove both a blessing and a heavy yoke upon them.
It may be found that a man and wife, their three children, and a married daughter and her husband constitute the family in one of these tenements, where there are, perhaps, only three sleeping rooms beside the living room above described. In the case of French-Canadian or Portuguese workers, two such families may occupy the same tenement, as they prefer to do this to save expense. The poor fellows get about 60 cents a day
- the lowest class of workers - and children of all classes from 22 cents to 40 cents. Sometimes a father at 60 cents, the wife mopping the mill floors at indifferent wages, and their son, a
"back boy" at 22 cents daily, throw all their earnings together. The rent of these tenements -both those belonging to the mills and otherwise -ranges from $4.50 to $7 or $8 per month, having been largely reduced in recent times. No wonder, perhaps, that the lower classes herd together as they do, and cram these places in every nook and cranny.
Before taking possession of one of these mill tenements the operative is required, by many mills, to sign an agreement that he will vacate the premises within 24 hours in case of differences arising between himself and the managers of the mill; and it is tacitly understood, even if this agreement is not signed, that upon these terms he occupies the house, and thus it will be seen how striking workmen are held at disadvantage by the mill people. But the better class of workers, and those making the best wages, keep aloof, as has been detailed above, from company tenements, and live as far as possible on a more independent basis.
But, even under these circumstances, it is possible for the operative and his family to forge ahead in worldly condition, and, when all can and do earn, something is often saved in the aggregate. With many families, however, the utmost endeavor will only suffice for the barest existence, especially if sickness occurs. Little can be spared from the present bill of fare of the mill worker. Whatever is left from his dinner, carried to the mill, must inevitably be thrown away. The air of the mill rooms and the confinement of the pails render the food worthless and, sour and often stinking, it is invariably thrown away at the close of the day's work, however fresh and sweet it may have been in the morning. When a man first takes a wife he often hires a room in the family of some relative of the couple, and, while he and his wife continue their mill life, the latter cooks their food at the common kitchen stove. When the baby comes it is put out to nurse, while the father and mother go on earning for their own and the added mouths, When two children or three have arrived, the oldest takes care of the youngest until one or more of the brood becomes old enough to enter the mills, when the youngest are again put out to nurse during the day. The mother stays in the mill until the number of little ones more than counterbalances by the cost of nursing what she can earn for their support, and then she leaves and takes home charge in person. If sickness occurs among the little ones, the mother, of course, remains at home, and that is why female help in the mills is more uncertain than that of the males.