During the Gilded Age, the working girls of Boston had to contend not just with low pay but with reputations as immoral tramps. In the parlance of the day, they had ‘forsaken the path of virtue.’ Or they ‘fell’ by succumbing to the ‘temptations’ and ‘perils’ of the city.
It wasn’t true, at least for the great majority of the working girls of Boston. But that didn’t stop people from believing it.
From the Civil War to World War I, people accepted that , “Working class women — and especially black women — were freely available for sexual use by upper-class males,” according to Gerda Lerner in The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History.
And so a statistician named Carroll Wright in 1884 took it upon himself to investigate the slut shamers’ allegations. As head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, he assigned his small army of field agents to interview 1,032 of the 38,881 working girls of Boston.
Two decades later, Lewis Wickes Hine picked up on Wright’s work in a different way. He photographed young people, teenagers and children, working in factories, on the waterfront, in fields and on the street. In the process, he captured many images of the working girls — and they were girls — of Boston.
Together, Wright and Hine reveal in detail what the lives of the working girls of Boston were all about – hard work and low pay.
After the Civil War, one of the founders of the Boston Young Women’s Christian Association, Lucretia Boyd, had a list of the city’s working girls. She told a friend that “she was warranted in saying that nearly one half of the girls on the lists would be led astray unless something could be done to place some additional protection about them.”
And in 1866, the Ladies Christian Association sent out a flier saying, “Intelligent Christians among us have long deplored the dangers that beset this class of persons.”
By 1884, men were coming to the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics office to complain the streets were crowded with working girls in the evening. They ‘were in the habit of soliciting men to accompany them home,’ wrote bureau chief Carroll Wright. “These gentlemen have expressed themselves as greatly astonished that in a city as well regulated as Boston, girls should come out of stores and shops and ply their vocation as night walkers on the streets in the evening.”
And so Wright had the BLS investigate the working girls of Boston ‘to determine whether the ranks of prostitution are recruited from the manufactory.’
The Working Girls of Boston
Boston in 1884 had a thriving manufacturing base that employed working girls in bookbinderies, shoe and boot factories, bakeries, distilleries, print shops and, most of all, clothing manufacturers.
Textile and clothing manufacture was a huge industry in New England, and by far the biggest in Boston. In 1855, the clothing industry generated $8.5 million in annual sales, more than twice as much as the next biggest, distilleries. Many Boston girls found employment as coat makers, custom tailoresses, coat basters, pantaloon stitchers, machine pressers, dressmakers, milliners and bustle makers.
The Pay Is Too Low
But they didn’t earn enough to live on. Most of the working girls of Boston earned less than $5 a week (about $133 in today’s dollars), according to Wright’s Fifteenth Annual Report about the working girls of Boston.
“The pay is too low,” complained the girls, who earned between $3 and $6 a week making men’s clothing, the report said. A 13-1/2 year old working as a canvas baster reported earning $1.25 a week.
The clothing industry nearly doubled in Boston over the next 50 years. In 1909, Hine’s photographs show young girls learning the skills needed in the needle trades.
But wages didn’t grow with the clothing industry. In 1884, the working girls were complaining that employers suppressed their already meager pay. One reason: they faced competition from piece workers.
“Girls used to make better pay before the [piece workers] came,” one worker told the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The girls who did piece work, like the hourly employees, also faced declining wages. Bustle makers used to get 65, 75 and 85 cents a dozen, but price cuts reduced their earnings by 15 cents, reported the BLS. Then demand for bustles slackened off and bustle makers earned only 25 cents for 12 bustles – as much as a girl could make in a nine-hour day.
Men did piecework, too, but they got paid more for it. In printing, work that paid male compositors 35 cents paid females only 25 cents. A girl compositor, noted the BLS, ‘by over-exertion in trying to make good wags at 25 cents per 1000 brought on paralysis of one-half of the body resulting in permanent injury.’
No New Clothes
Because of the low pay, many working girls lived at home. But in some cases, reported the BLS, mothers made their daughters quit. It cost more to feed and clothe them than they earned.
Restaurant workers, for example, earned an average of $4.06 a week.
Clerks earned an average of $5.02 a week, bookkeepers $6.12.
“It is said that many of the girls get discouraged, as they hardly earn enough to pay running expenses, and are obliged to practise the most rigid economy,” the BLS reported. “One girl says she ‘turns her clothes upside down, inside out, and outside in, not being able to make enough over living expenses to buy new clothes’.”
People especially viewed shop girls as floozies likely to turn to prostitution, according to Wright.
They made the “vile charge” that a saleswoman or shop girl has to become the ‘intimate friend’ of the proprietor or department head to get a job, he wrote.
People commonly wondered, “How can they dress well when they earn so little?” he continued. Many live at home, he argued. And he observed that a girl working all day for $3 or $4 a week couldn’t fall into evil.
“Girls cannot work hard all day and be prostitutes too,” wrote Wright.
A Boston police captain endorsed that argument. “He said that people, who charge the working women with walking the streets at night for evil purposes, do not know what they are talking about,” wrote Wright. “Night walkers are all of them hardened convicts or prostitutes; some of them may have been hard working women, but no working woman ever walks the streets as a prostitute.”
The Honest Working Girls of Boston
Wright then concluded the working girls of Boston were making “an heroic, an honest, and a virtuous struggle to earn an honorable livelihood.” Rarely did they live a life “other than one of integrity,” he concluded.
“It is easy to be good on a sure and generous income; it requires the strongest character to enable one to be good and respectable on an unstable income of five dollars per week,” he wrote.
And about those men who complained about the working girls of Boston walking the streets?
Wright had a tart response:
“It does not speak well for them and indicates to our mind that the first offence was on their part,” he wrote.
With thanks to The Atlas of Boston History, edited by Nancy Seasholes, and Jennifer Cote, “Class and the Ideology of Womanhood: The Early Years of the Boston Young Women’s Christian Association.” You can read the Massachusetts BLS Fifteenth Annual Report, The Working Girls of Boston, here.
Lewis Hine photo credits: National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
This story last updated in 2022.