WHILE MANY journals and worthy organizations decried the sweated labor used in the sewing-machine industry in the 1880s, the Chicago Times went one step further into its investigation of the state of those who worked in the garment industry.
Under the heading “city slave girls” the Times ran for several weeks a series of stories which were said to make its readers “flesh creep and their souls grow hot with indignation against the heartless vultures in human form who are grinding the flesh and blood of women and girls into grists for their own enrichment.”
The newspaper justified its investigation in these emotive words:
” The old oft-quoted Song of the Shirt once filled the world with horror at the cruel condition of the pauper labor of its day, but the songs of the cloaks, the jerseys, the coats, the vests, the trousers and the many other articles which are in these days chanting their own laments of exquisite suffering and woe constitute a chorus that overwhelms into insignificance the dubious wail of the old, sad song”.
What the Times did was in the best traditions of crusading, investigative journalism obviously a fore-runner of the Washington Post’s Watergate exposure.
It sent out a lady reporter in the garb of a poverty-stricken working girl to get work in both high-tone establishments and in sweating dens. She also interviewed all the workers that she could approach and then wrote of what she had seen and heard in a graphic style that “raised the hairs of the vampires who are waxing fat on human lives”.
The lady reporter whose pen name was Nell Nelson was an accomplished needle worker, but was said to be sadly deficient in the skill required to handle a power-run sewing machine. In one of her graphic pen pictures of a sweating shop she tells of meeting a recently-immigrated English girl. One story in the long series ran thus:
” Someone passed the news that a girl was asleep in the lavatory which was formed by a simple board partition at one end of the room.