Marie E. Zakrzewska.

A Practical Illustration of Woman's Right to Labor A Letter from Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D. Late of Berlin, Prussia online

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Online LibraryMarie E. ZakrzewskaA Practical Illustration of Woman's Right to Labor A Letter from Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D. Late of Berlin, Prussia → online text (page 6 of 9)
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since sunrise; but our friends were bent on entertaining us with stories
and sights of the New World, and we followed them rather reluctantly. I
have since been glad that I did so; for my mind was in a state that
rendered it far more impressible than usual, and therefore better fitted
to observe much that would have been lost to me in a less-excited
condition. Here I first saw the type of common German life on Sunday in
America; and I saw enough of it on that one Sunday afternoon to last a
whole lifetime. My friends called on several of their acquaintances.
Everywhere that we went, I noticed two peculiarities, - comparative poverty
in the surroundings, and apparent extravagance in the manner of living:
for in every house we found an abundance of wine, beer, cake, meat, salad,
&c., although it was between the hours of meals; and every one was eating,
although no one seemed hungry. At nine o'clock in the evening, the visit
was concluded by going to a hotel, where a rich supper was served up to
us; and at eleven at night we returned home. My work in America had
already commenced. Was it not necessary for a stranger in a new country to
observe life in all its phases, before entering upon it? It seemed so to
me; and I had already planned, while on ship-board, to spend the first
month in observations of this kind. I had made a fair beginning; and, when
I saw many repetitions of this kind of life among my countrymen, I feared
that this was their main purpose in this country, and their consolation
for the loss of the entertainments and recreations which their fatherland
offered to them. But, as soon as I got opportunity to make my observations
among the educated classes I found my fear ungrounded; and I also found
that the Americans had noticed the impulse for progress and higher
development which animated these Germans. The German mind, so much honored
in Europe for its scientific capacity, for its consistency regarding
principles, and its correct criticism, is not dead here: but it has to
struggle against difficulties too numerous to be detailed here; and
therefore it is that the Americans don't know of its existence, and the
chief obstacle is their different languages. A Humboldt must remain
unknown here, unless he chooses to Americanize himself in every respect;
and could he do this without ceasing to be Humboldt the cosmopolitan

It would be a great benefit to the development of this country if the
German language was made a branch of education, and not an accomplishment
simply. Only then would the Americans appreciate how much has been done by
the Germans to advance higher development, and to diffuse the true
principles of freedom. It would serve both parties to learn how much the
Germans aid in developing the reason, and supporting progress in every
direction. The revolution of 1848 has been more serviceable to America
than to Germany; for it has caused the emigration of thousands of men who
would have been the pride of a free Germany. America has received the
German freemen, whilst Germany has retained the _subjects_.

The next morning, I determined to return to the ship to look after my
baggage. As Mr. and Mrs. G. were busy in their shop, there was no one to
accompany me: I therefore had either to wait until they were at leisure,
or to go alone. I chose the latter, and took my first walk in the city of
New York on my way to the North River, where the ship was lying. The noise
and bustle everywhere about me absorbed my attention to such a degree,
that, instead of turning to the right hand, I went to the left, and found
myself at the East River, in the neighborhood of Peck Slip. Here I
inquired after the German ship "Deutschland," and was directed, in my
native tongue, down to the Battery, and thence up to Pier 13, where I
found the ship discharging the rest of her passengers and their baggage.
It was eleven o'clock when I reached the ship: I had, therefore, taken a
three-hours' walk. I had now to wait until the custom-house officer had
inspected my trunks, and afterwards for the arrival of Mr. G., who came at
one o'clock with a cart to convey the baggage to his house. While standing
amidst the crowd, a man in a light suit of clothes of no positive color,
with a complexion of the same sort, came up to me, and asked, in German,
whether I had yet found a boarding-place The man's smooth face
instinctively repelled me; yet the feeling that I was not independently
established made me somewhat indefinite in my reply. On seeing this, he at
once grew talkative and friendly, and, speaking of the necessity of
finding a safe and comfortable home, said that he could recommend me to a
hotel where I would be treated honestly; or that, if I chose to be in a
private family, he knew of a very kind, motherly lady, who kept a
boarding-house for ladies alone, - not to make money, but for the sake of
her country-women. The familiarity that he mingled in his conversation
while trying to be friendly made me thoroughly indignant: I turned my back
upon him, saying that I did not need his services. It was not long before
I saw him besieging my sister Anna, who had come with Mr. G.; being
nervous lest I might not have found the ship. What he said to her, I do
not know. I only remember that she came to me, saying, "I am afraid of
that man: I wish that we could go home soon." This meeting with a man who
makes friendly offers of service may seem a small matter to the mere
looker-on; but it ceases to be so when one knows his motives: and, since
that time, I have had but too many opportunities to see for what end these
offers are made. Many an educated girl comes from the Old World to find a
position as governess or teacher, who is taken up in this manner, and is
never heard from again, or is only found in the most wretched condition.
It is shameful that the most effective arrangements should not be made for
the safety of these helpless beings, who come to these shores with the
hope of finding a Canaan.

The week was mostly spent in looking for apartments; as we had concluded
to commence housekeeping on a small scale, in order to be more independent
and to save money. On our arrival, I had borrowed from my sister the
hundred dollars which my father had given her on our departure from
Berlin, and which was to be my capital until I had established myself in
business. I succeeded in finding a suite of rooms, with windows facing the
street, in the house of a grocer; and, having put them in perfect order,
we moved into them on the 6th of June, paying eleven dollars as our rent
for two months in advance.

My sister took charge of our first day's housekeeping while I went to
deliver my letters of introduction. I went first to Dr. Reisig, in
Fourteenth Street. My mother, who had employed him when he was a young man
and we were small children, had spoken of him kindly; and, for this
reason, I had confidence in him. I found him a very friendly man, but by
no means a cordial one. He informed me that female physicians in this
country were of the lowest rank, and that they did not hold even the
position of a good nurse. He said that he wished to be of service to me if
I were willing to serve as nurse; and, as he was just then in need of a
good one, would recommend me for the position. I thanked him for his
candor and kindness, but refused his offer, as I could not condescend to
be patronized in this way. Depressed in hope, but strengthened in will, I
did not deliver any more of my letters, since they were all to physicians,
and I could not hope to be more successful in other quarters. I went home,
therefore, determined to commence practice as a stranger.

The result of my experiment discouraged my sister greatly. After
meditating for some time, she suddenly said, "Marie, I read in the paper
this morning of a dressmaker who wanted some one to sew for her. I know
how to sew well: I shall go there, and you can attend to our little
household. No one here knows me, and I do not think there is any thing
wrong in my trying to earn some money."

She was determined, and went. I put up my sign, and spent my time in
attending to the household duties, and in reading in order to gain
information of the country and the people. Occasionally I took walks
through different parts of the city, to learn, from the houses and their
surroundings the character of life in New York. I am sure that though,
perhaps, I appeared idle, I was not so in reality; for during this time I
learned the philosophy of American life.

But our stock of money was becoming less and less. To furnish the rooms
had cost us comparatively little, as we had brought a complete set of
household furniture with us; but paying the rent and completing the
arrangements had not left us more than enough to live upon, in the most
economical manner, until the 1st of August. My sister obtained the place
at the dressmaker's; and after working a week from seven in the morning
until twelve (when she came home to dinner), then from one in the
afternoon until seven in the evening, she received two dollars and
seventy-five cents as the best sewer of six. She brought home the hardly
earned money with tears in her eyes; for she had expected at least three
dollars for the week's work. She had made each day a whole muslin dress,
with the trimmings. And this was not all: the dressmaker often did not pay
on Saturday nights, because, as she said, people did not pay her
punctually; and the poor girls received their wages by six or eight
shillings at a time. For the last two weeks of my sister's work, she
received her payment seven weeks after she had left.

We lived in this manner until the middle of July, when I lost patience;
for practice did not come as readily as I wished, nor was I in a position
for making money in any other way. My sister, usually so cheerful and
happy, grew grave from the unusual work and close confinement. One of
these nights, on lying down to sleep, she burst into tears, and told me of
her doubts and fears for the future. I soothed her as well as I could, and
she fell asleep. For myself, I could not sleep, but lay awake all night
meditating what I could possibly do. Should I write home, requesting help
from my father? He certainly would have given it; for we had received a
letter two weeks before, offering us all desirable aid. No: all my pride
rebelled against it. "I must help myself," I thought, "and that

The next morning, my sister left me as usual. I went out, and walked
through the city to Broadway turning into Canal Street, where I had formed
an acquaintance with a very friendly German woman by purchasing little
articles at various times at her store. I entered without any particular
design, and exchanged a few commonplaces with her about the weather. Her
husband stood talking with a man about worsted goods, and their
conversation caught my ear. The merchant was complaining because the
manufacturer did not supply him fast enough: upon which the man answered,
that it was very difficult to get good hands to work; and that, besides,
he had more orders than it was possible to fill; naming several merchants
whose names I had seen in Broadway, who were also complaining because he
did not supply them. After he had left, I asked carelessly what kind of
articles were in demand, and was shown a great variety of worsted
fancy-goods. A thought entered my brain. I left the store, and, walking
down Broadway, asked at one of the stores that had been mentioned for a
certain article of worsted goods, in order to learn the price. Finding
this enormous, I did not buy it; and returned home, calculating on my way
how much it would cost to manufacture these articles, and how much profit
could be made in making them on a large scale. I found that two hundred
per cent profit might be made by going to work in the right way. My sister
came home, as usual, to dinner. I sat down with her, but could not eat.
She looked at me anxiously, and said, "I hope you are not sick again. Oh,
dear! what shall we do if you get sick?" I had been ill for a week, and
she feared a relapse. I said nothing of my plan, but consoled her in
respect to my health.

As soon as she had left, I counted my money. But five dollars remained. If
I had been dependent upon money for cheerfulness, I should certainly have
been discouraged. I went to John Street, and, entering a large worsted
store, inquired of a cheerful-looking girl the wholesale price of the best
Berlin wool; how many colors could be had in a pound; &c. The pleasant and
ready answers that I received in my native tongue induced me to tell her
frankly that I wanted but a small quantity at that time, but that I
intended to make an experiment in manufacturing worsted articles; and, if
successful, would like to open a small credit, which she said they
generally would do when security was given.

I purchased four and a half dollars' worth of worsted; so that fifty cents
were left in my pocket when I quitted the store. I then went to the office
of a German newspaper, where I paid twenty-five cents for advertising for
girls who understood all kinds of knitting. When my sister came home at
night, the worsted was all sorted on the table in parcels for the girls
who would come the next morning, while I was busily engaged in the
experiment of making little worsted tassels. I had never been skilful in
knitting; but in this I succeeded so well, that I could have made a
hundred yards of tassels in one day. My sister turned pale on seeing all
this; and hurriedly asked, "How much money have you spent?" - "All, my
dear Anna," answered I; "all, except twenty-five cents, which will be
sufficient to buy a pound of beefsteak and potatoes for to-morrow's
dinner. Bread, tea, and sugar we have still in the house; and to-morrow
night you will bring home your twenty-two shillings." "May you succeed,
Marie! that is all I have to say," was her reply. She learned of me that
evening how to make the tassels; and we worked till midnight, finishing a
large number.

The next day was Saturday, and some women really came to get work. I gave
them just enough for one day, keeping one day's work in reserve. The day
was spent busily in arranging matters, so that, on Monday morning, I might
be able to carry a sample of the manufactured articles to those stores
that I had heard mentioned as not being sufficiently supplied.

In the evening, my sister came home without her money: the dressmaker had
gone into the country in the afternoon, without paying the girls. She was
more than sad, and I felt a little uncomfortable; for what was I to do,
without money to provide for the next two days, or to pay those girls on
Monday with whose work I might not be satisfied? What was to be done? To
go down to our landlord, the grocer, and ask him to advance us a few
dollars? No: he was a stranger, and had no means of knowing that we would
return the money. Besides, I did not wish the people in the house to know
our condition.

My resolution was taken. I proposed to my sister to go to the market with
me to buy meat and fruit for the morrow. She looked at me with blank
astonishment; but, without heeding it, I said calmly, taking from the
bureau-drawer the chain of my watch, "Anna, opposite the market, there is
a pawnbroker. No one knows us; and, by giving a fictitious name, we can
get money, without thanking any one for it." She was satisfied; and,
taking a little basket, we went on our errand. I asked of the pawnbroker
six dollars, under the name of MГјller and received the money; after which
we made our purchases, and went home in quite good spirits.

On Monday morning, the knitters brought home their work. I paid them, and
gave them enough for another day; after which I set about finishing each
piece, completing the task about two in the afternoon. This done, I
carried the articles to Broadway; and, leaving a sample in a number of
stores, received orders from them for several dozens.[3] I then went to
the worsted store in John Street, where I also obtained orders for the
manufactured articles, together with ten dollars' worth of worsted on
credit; having first given my name and residence to the book-keeper, with
the names of the stores from which I had received orders. In the evening,
when my sister came home, I was, therefore, safely launched into a
manufacturing business. The news cheered her greatly; but she could not be
induced to quit her sewing. The new business had sprung up so rapidly and
pleasantly that she could not trust in the reality of its existence.

I must tell you here something of the social life that we led. We had
brought a number of friendly letters with us from our acquaintances in
Berlin to their friends and relatives in America; all of which, upon our
arrival, we sent by post, with the exception of two, - the one sent by a
neighbor to his son, Albert C.; the other to a young artist; both of whom
called for their letters. About four weeks after we were settled in New
York, we received a call from some young men whose sisters had been
schoolmates of my sisters in Berlin, who came to inquire of us where to
find Mr. C. We could give them no information, as we had not seen him
since he called for his letter; neither did we now see any thing of the
G.'s: but the acquaintance thus formed with these young men was continued,
and our solitude was now and then enlivened by an hour's call from them.
Soon after I had commenced my new business, they came one day in company
with Mr. C., whom they had met accidently in the street, and, on his
expressing a wish to see us, had taken the liberty to bring to our house.

My business continued to prosper; and, by constantly offering none but the
best quality of goods for sale, in a very short time I had so much to do,
that my whole time in the day was occupied with out-door business, and I
was forced to sit up at night with my sister to prepare work for the
knitters. At one time, we had constantly thirty girls in our employ; and
in this way I became acquainted with many of those unfortunates who had
been misled and ruined on their arrival by persons pretending friendship.
Two of these in particular interested me greatly. One, the grand-daughter
of Krummacher, and bearing his name, was the daughter of a physician, who
had come to this country, hoping to find a place as governess. Poor girl!
she was a mere wreck when I found her, and all my efforts to raise her up
were in vain. She was sick, and in a terrible mental condition. We took
her into our house, nursed her and cared for her, and, when she had
recovered, supplied her with work; for which we paid her so well, that she
always had three dollars a week, which paid for her board and washing. It
was twice as much as she could earn, yet not enough to make her feel
reconciled with life. At one time, she did not come to us for a whole
week. I went to see her, and her landlady told me that she was melancholy.
I persuaded her to come and stay with us for a few days; but, in spite of
all my friendly encouragement I could not succeed in restoring her to
cheerfulness. She owned that she could not work merely to live: she did
not feel the pangs of hunger; but she felt the want of comforts to which
she had been accustomed, and which, in our days, are regarded as
necessities. She attempted to find a situation as governess; but her
proficiency in music, French, and drawing, counted as nothing. She had no
city references; and, having been two years in New York, dared not name
the place to which she had been conducted on her arrival. She left us at
last in despair, after having been a week with us. She never called again,
and I could not learn from her landlady where she had gone. Three months
afterwards, I heard from one of the girls in our employ that she had
married a poor shoemaker in order to have a home; but I never learned
whether this was true. About a year later, I met her in the Bowery, poorly
but cleanly dressed. She hastily turned away her face on seeing me; and I
only caught a glimpse of the crimson flush that overspread her

The other girl that I referred to was a Miss Mary - - , who came with her
mother to this country, expecting to live with a brother. They found the
brother married, and unwilling to support his sister; while his wife was
by no means friendly in her reception of his mother. The good girl
determined to earn a support for her mother, and a pretended friend
offered to take care of their things until she could find work and rent
lodgings. After four weeks' search, she found a little room and bedroom in
a rear-building in Elizabeth Street, at five dollars a month; and was
preparing to move, when her _friend_ presented a bill of forty dollars for
his services. She could only satisfy his rapacity by selling every thing
that she could possibly spare: after which she commenced to work; and as
she embroidered a great deal, besides working for me (for which I paid her
six dollars a week), for a time she lived tolerably well. After some time,
her mother fell ill; and she had to nurse her and attend to the household,
as well as labor for their support. It was a trying time for the poor
girl. She sought her brother; but he had moved to the West. I did all that
I could for her; but this was not half enough: and, after I had quitted
the manufacturing business and left the city, my sister heard that she had
drowned herself in the Hudson, because her mother's corpse was lying in
the house, while she had not a cent to give it burial, or to buy a piece
of bread, without selling herself to vice.

Are not these two terrible romances of New-York life? And many besides did
I learn among these poor women; so many, indeed, that I forget the details
of all. Stories of this kind are said to be without foundation: I say that
there are more of them in our midst than it is possible to imagine. Women
of good education, but without money, are forced to earn their living.
They determine to leave their home, either because false pride
preprevents their seeking work where they have been brought up as
_ladies_, or because this work is so scarce that they cannot earn by it
even a life of semi-starvation; while they are encouraged to believe that
in this country they will readily find proper employment. They are too
well educated to become domestics; better educated, indeed, than are half
the teachers here: but modesty, and the habit of thinking that they must
pass through the same legal ordeal as in Europe, prevent them from seeking
places in this capacity. They all know how to embroider in the most
beautiful manner; and, knowing that this is well paid for in Europe, seek
to find employment of this kind in the stores. Not being able to speak
English, they believe the stories of the clerks and proprietors and are
made to work at low wages, and are often swindled out of their money. They
feel homesick forlorn and forsaken in the world. Their health at length
fails them, and they cannot earn bread enough to keep themselves from
starvation. They are too proud to beg; and the consequence is, that they
walk the streets, or throw themselves into the river.

I met scores of these friendless women. Some I took into my house; for
others I found work, and made myself a sort of guardian; while to others
I gave friendship to keep them morally alive. It is a curious fact, that
these women are chiefly Germans. The Irish resort at once to beggary or
are inveigled into brothels, as soon as they arrive; while the French are
always intriguing enough either to put on a white cap and find a place as
_bonne_, or to secure a _private_ lover.

I am often in despair about the helplessness of women, and the readiness
of men to let them earn money in abundance by shame, while they grind them
down to the merest pittance for honorable work. Shame on society, that
women are forced to surrender themselves to an abandoned life and death,
when so many are enjoying wealth and luxury in extravagance! I do not wish
them to divide their estates with the poor; I am no friend to communism in
any form: I only wish institutions that shall give to women an education
from childhood that will enable them, like young men, to earn their
livelihood. These weak women are the last to come forth to aid in their
emancipation from inefficient education. We cannot calculate upon these:
we must educate the children for better positions and leave the adults to
their destiny.

How many women marry only for a shelter or a home! How often have I been
the confidante of girls, who the day before, arrayed in satin, had given
their hands to rich men before the altar, while their hearts were breaking

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Online LibraryMarie E. ZakrzewskaA Practical Illustration of Woman's Right to Labor A Letter from Marie E. Zakrzewska, M.D. Late of Berlin, Prussia → online text (page 6 of 9)