‘A Dundee Working Man on America—No. 3.’ by a Correspondent in New York (28 January, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). This piece continues the discussion from the previous articles on work and wages.

Trade and Wages.

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

Sir,—The tailor trade is quite different here from what it is at home. The tailors are something like the shoemakers, their work is cut up in sections, so to speak; for there are coat hands, vest hands, and pant or trouser hands. These are all made in large factories. But in speaking of tailoring we ought to call them tailoresses, as a great many women and girls work at the tailor trade here. A cutter has good wages. The women make from four to eight dollars per week, according to their experience and ability. Some women have apprentices, and with five or six of them the employer will make 100 vests per week. She will receive on an average for them forty cents each, then making forty dollars per week, but of course she has her girls to pay off this. The girls receive on an average for them forty cents each, thus making forty dollars per week, but of course she has her girls to pay off this. The girls receive from one dollar per week (beginners). Those who have been some time at the business will receive four, five, or six dollars per week, according to ability. When a girl can make a vest without any more teaching she generally takes home her work where she has a machine; then she gets full value of her work.

There is another industry here at which young women make good wages, viz., cigar and cigarette making. One of the largest tobacco manufactories in the United States of America is that in Rochester. They employ some hundred of girls of all ages making cigars and cigarettes. This is all done by piece work, their wages ranging from four to eight dollars per week, according to ability.

As for mill and factory operatives, this is not so good a locality as other places some hundreds of miles east of this. There is one large cotton factory here in which the girls make from six to eight dollars per week. In a small place about one hundred miles form this, where I was working last year, there is a factory for the fabrication of woollen and cotton goods which employs about eight hundred women, and four hundred men and boys. The ages of the female workers range from seven years up to seventy. Their wages are from eight to thirty dollars per month. They are only paid once a month. The first five days of the week they work from half-past six A.M. to half-past six P.M., with an hour to dinner at twelve o’clock noon; and on Saturday they work from half-past six A.M. to two P.M. A great number of the girls go and come to their work is machines. Those machines hold from 12 to 20 persons. For this they each pay one dollar a month. But I can assure the factory girls in Dundee that the women in that factory required it last winter, for in that place the ground was covered with snow to the depth of from three to five feet for nearly four months. I may tell the Dundee girls that I have never seen any girl go to work here of any kind unless she was dressed “up to dick,” for they all wear their bonnets, shawls, gloves, &c, no matter what they work at. The girls who work at the tailoring trade go to work as well dressed as any of Baxter’s or Gilroy’s girls are when they are walking out the Perth Road with their beloved ones.

The foregoing result concerning wages being arrived at, the subject of the cost of living becomes an interesting question. As there is a great deal of boarding here I will take that matter first, and as I have three years’ experience of boarding in different places, I know a little about it. Men will get good board for four dollars per week, some places four and a-half. This does not include washing; you have either to take your clothes to a private individual, or go and get your “checkie” from Johnny Chinaman; but there is no comparison with boarding here and boarding in Scotland. There are always two or three kinds of dishes set before you—roast beef, steak, mutton, or pork being always on the table. Potatoes, and tea or coffee are served at all three meals; all sorts of pies or tarts and custards, along with fruits and vegetables in their season. Porridge is not known; I have only got it once since I came here, and, as it turned out, once too often. It happened in this wise:—Going home from work one night my boarding mistress asked me if I would take mush for supper. I said if I knew what it was I would tell her. She replied you would call it porridge. I immediately answered “Yes,” thinking I was going to get a treat. She brought a piece on a plate with fork and knife. I cut a piece and put it in my mouth. But, O horror, the porridge had no salt among t. Spitting it out again, and asking her how there was no salt in it, she replied “There is both salt and sugar on the table, you can use any of them you please.” “Well,” I said, “take and give those to the hens, and make no more mush for me,” and she was quite indignant, and so was I.

A woman’s board costs about three dollars per week. Those keeping house complain about the rise in house rents that has been made of late. This is about the dearest thing we have here. Of course, there are all sorts of houses and rents. A working man can get a good house for from two to three dollars per week, according to locality. The house I am boarding in at present is two dollars a week, but it is nearly two miles form the centre of the town. If it was nearer the public works it would command a dollar more. As working people’s houses are all pretty much the same, I will give an outline of the one I am in. There is a cellar, a kitchen (with pantry), a dining room, a large parlour, a small bedroom. Up stairs are two large bedrooms and clothes-press. Outside is a large plot of ground. You can either make a green of it or plant vegetables, just as you choose. There are all conveniences on this ground. The rent of all houses here pays everything—all taxes, water, &c. The houses are apart from one another at least ten or twelve feet, and some a good deal more. This is required, for, as they are built of wood, if you had them close together and one taking fire some more would be sure to follow suit. They have all got two entrances, one in front and the other at the side or back. There are no open fire-places here—all stoves, a cooking one in the kitchen and a parlour one in one of the rooms. Wood is cheap, and is much used in the summer time for fuel, as it allows the housewife to let the fire out after breakfast, and she can kindle it again with wood before dinner is cooked. This is needful, as it is too hot in the summer time to keep on fires all day. Coal is burned in the winter time. It is dear here—from five to six dollars per ton. There is not one house in a hundred in which gas is burned. It is all kerosene oil, which is very cheap—ten cents a gallon—and gives a nice, clear, bright, clean light. The women all bake and fire their own bread. These cooking stoves are well adapted for this, as well as for cooking purposes of all kinds.

As to the price of provisions, I will give you a resume of the most necessary commodities that working people require. But it must be kept in mind that at the present time provisions are very dear, especially potatoes time provisions are very dear, especially potatoes and butter. Potatoes are one dollar per bushel; better, 30 cents per pound. (Please to keep in mind that a cent is equal to one halfpenny.) Flour, one dollar per 25 pounds; roast beef and soup beef, 8 cents; milk, 6 cents per quart; eggs, 30 cents per dozen; tea, 60 cents; soap, 18 cents per bar; oatmeal not in the market, unless you got to a druggist’s store for as much a make a poultice to a sore finger; pork steak, 12 cents per pound; ham, 14 cents; sugared ham, 12 cents; fruits of all kinds are very cheap in their season, but there are lots of kinds of fruit used here which are not much used at home, such as peaches, cranberries, cherries, grapes, and other kinds. Now these are all used at the table daily when in season. Vegetables are cheap are plentiful. There is one kind which is used here most plentifully—viz., tomatoes. Oyster dinners and suppers are quite common. As for apples, a year ago you could buy them for 10 cents per bushel; in fact, you could almost have got them for the carrying away. But this year they are not so plentiful—about 3 or 4 cents per pound. There is always one good year, and the next a bad one, in the apple crop. I think these are about the principal requirements for working man’s home, so it may give your readers an idea of what it takes to keep a house in this part of the globe. Furniture is all made by machinery, and is very cheap and very slim. But the Yankees have very little furniture in their houses. In their bedrooms all they have got is a chair, a small table, a looking-glass, and a bedstead. I may add I have not seen an iron bedstead since I came to this country—all are low-set, old-fashioned looking wooden ones. The highest priced articles in the houses are the stoves. The cooking store costs about 30 dollars, a parlour one about 35 or 40, but anyone can get one cheaper by going to places where they sell second-hand ones. Every year all the makers of them get up new designs. This is an invariable thing. As plenty of people always like something new they dispose of their old ones, as they term them, and get a new fashioned one, so that one can always get a good second-hand one at a much less rate than the present year’s ones. Crockery ware is very dear. Tin ware very cheap. Boots and shoes are much about the same as at home. Cotton clothing of all kinds is very cheap. You can buy a man’s cotton shirt for 25 cents, or three pairs of socks for 25 cents. But woollen and flannel and worsted clothing as they possibly can. As for outward clothing, it is dear. A man will not get a really good suit of tweeds for much less than 30 dollars; and as for a good black, Sunday suit, it will cost about 50 dollars, or ten pounds English. One would just need to put them on at a christening, a marriage, or a death. And ladies, when they come out here, should bring their silks and velvets with them, for if they expect to get them here their husbands will require to be something above a common mechanic. The foregoing is about as far as I can go regarding the income and expenditure of working people here.

As for the prospects of trade for the future, if we can believe the trades newspapers such as the Iron Age, American Mechanic, Scientific Machinist, Carpenter and Builder, and others, trade is going to be very busy for some time to come. The Iron Moulders’ Report for December says—“Altogether the prospects are good for a continuance of an active and prosperous business.” My own limited knowledge coincides with their opinion. I know for a fact that in many places the workshops are inadequate for the orders they have on hand. The consequence is that many employers are either building new shops or enlarging their present establishments. There is a full in trade just at present (Christmas), but that is always the case at this time of the year, more so than at home, for the reason that all outdoor work is suspended on account of the weather, and of course inside work feels its effects. But everything points to the conclusion that trade will, as it did last year, rise Phoenix-like from its ashes of temporary apathy, and go into active life in the spring.

I hope intending emigrants won’t think me presumptuous in offering them a small bit of advice, for it is well meant—Do not come here if you belong to the Dick Whittington class; the streets here are paved with mud and dirt, instead of gold. You are well paid for your labour, but at the same time you have to work hard and long for it—ten hours all the six working days of the week. You take your breakfast before you start. Commence at 7 A.M., work five hours; dinner at 12; start again at 1 and drop at 6. Thus you are no longer away from home than if you only wrought nine hours, for the reason you have only got one meal hour; but you have to work ten hours all the same. It is not so bad the first five days of the week, but when Saturday comes it makes you think of the time when you got clear of work at 1 P.M. on Saturday, and then away to see some match in the Baxter Park, or away down town with some of your shop-mates getting your pint and your spelding. A few days ago a relation of my own was grumbling about working on the Saturday afternoon. I told him we could not help it, but I added, “You have the consolation of knowing that a few months ago you were working in Dundee for your 28 shillings a-week, and you come home every Saturday now with your 75 shillings. But still I would be quite willing to take a little less money for a little shorter working day. But you and I and all that follow us will, I am afraid, have to do what Paddy said—“When you care in Turkey you must do as the Turkies do.”

Correspondent.

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