Superior-Type Person Does Undercover Work

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Superior-Type Person Does Undercover Work

Modern-day statue of a garment worker on 7th Avenue in Manhattan
This extract is from a 1922 book called Working with the Working Woman by Cornelia Stratton Parker. Kirkus Review said of her that 'Cornelia Stratton Parker has looked on life and found it good, has lived it to the uttermost of a tremendously vital, energetic nature, and still finds enjoyment in settling down on the Perfect Farm in New England.' They said that while reviewing one of her other books, about her fabulous life. Ms Parker was married to Carleton H Parker, a journalist, economist and labour 'expert'. Of him, writes, 'His reports on conditions in the migrant camps and on union affairs resulted in his being distrusted by both sides.' AMs Parker seems to have taken up writing after her husband's death. She herself died in 1972 in Martha's Vineyard, which is a very expensive place to die in. They appear to have been very well off, these champions of the working class.

In this book, Ms Parker bravely undertakes a number of 'working women' jobs in incognito, just to see how the 'other half' lives. In this episode, she tries out work in a dress factory. I picked this one because my grandmother and great-aunt used to work at this trade in a small Southern town during the Depression. Ms Parker's undercover skills are rudimentary: let's call her the Suzie Q Ferguson of investigative reporting.

We leave you this excerpt, warts and all, and invite you to notice two things: Ms Parker is a very vivid writer, and she can't overcome her own prejudices. Nor does she try to.

The Dress Factory

Behold the dress factory, a little complete world of its own on one small floor where every process of manufacture, and all of it skilled work, could be viewed from any spot. Not quite every process – the designer had a room of her own up front nearer where the woodwork was white.

'Ready-made clothing1!' It sounds so simple – just like that. Mrs. Fine Lady saunters into a shop, puts up her lorgnette, and lisps, 'I'd like to see something in a satin afternoon dress.' A plump blonde2 in tight-fitting black with a marcel wave3 trips over to mirrored doors, slides one back, takes a dress off its hanger – and there you are! 'So much simpler than bothering with a dressmaker.'

But whatever happened to get that dress to the place where the blonde could sell it? 'Ready-made,' indeed! There has to be a start some place before there is any 'made' to it. It was at that point in our dress factory when the French designer first got a notion into her head – she who waved her arms and gesticulated and flew into French-English rages just the way they do on the stage. 'Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!' – gray-haired Madame4 would gasp at our staid and portly Mr. Rogers. Ada could say 'My Gawd!' through her Russian nose to him and it had nothing like the same wilting effect.

Ready-made – yes, ready-made. But first Madame got her notion5, and then she and her helpers concocted the dress itself. A finished article, it hung inside the wire enclosure where the nice young cutter kept himself and his long high table. The cutter6 took a look at the finished garment hanging on the side of his cage, measured a bit with his yardstick, and then proceeded to cut the pattern out of paper. Whereupon he laid flat yards and yards of silks and satins on his table and with an electric cutter sliced out his parts. One mistake – one slice off the line –   Mon Dieu7! it's too terrible to think of! All these pieces had to be sorted according to sizes and colors, and tied and labeled. (Wanted – bright and useful girl right here.)

Next came the sewing machine operators (electric power) – a long narrow table, nine machines at a side, but not more than fourteen operators were employed – thirteen girls and one lone young man. They said that on former piece rates this man used to make from ninety dollars to one hundred dollars a week. The operators were all well paid, especially by candy, brass, and laundry standards8, but they were a skilled lot. A very fine-looking lot too – some of the nicest-looking girls I've seen in New York. Everyone had a certain style and assurance. It was good for the eyes to look on them after the laundry thirteen-dollar-a-week type9.

When the first operators had done their part the dresses were handed over to the drapers. There were two drapers; they were getting around fifty dollars a week before the hard times. One of the drapers was as attractive a girl as I ever saw any place – bobbed hair10, deep-set eyes, a Russian Jewess11 with features which made her look more like an Italian12. She spoke English with hardly any accent. She dressed very quietly and in excellent taste. All day long the two draped dresses on forms – ever pinning and pinning. The drapers turned the dresses over to certain operators, who finished all machine sewing. The next work fell to the finishers.

In that same end of the factory sat the four finishers, getting 'about twenty dollars a week,' but again no one seemed sure. Two were Italians who could talk little English. One was Gertie, four weeks married – 'to a Socialist13.' Gertie was another of the well-dressed ones. If you could know these dress factory girls you would realize how, unless gifted with the approach of a newspaper reporter – and I lack that approach14   – it was next to impossible to ask a girl herself what she was earning15. No more than you could ask a lawyer what his fees amounted to16. The girls themselves who had been working long together in the same shop did not seem to know what one another's wages were. It was a new state of affairs in my factory experience.

The finishers, after sewing on all hooks and eyes and fasteners and doing all the remaining handwork on the dresses, turned them over to the two pressers, sedate, assured Italians17, who ironed all day long and looked prosperous and were very polite.

They brought the dresses back to Jean and her helper – two girls who put the last finishing touches on a garment before it went into the showroom – snipping here and there, rough edges all smoothed off. It was to Jean the boss called my second morning, very loud so all could hear: 'If you find anything wrong mit a dress, don't look at it, don't bodder wid it – jus' t'row it in dere faces and made dem do it over again! It's not like de old days no more18!' (Whatever he meant by that.) So – there was your dress, 'ready-made.'

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

18.03.19 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1For most of western history before this, children, the vast majority of people made their own clothes. That is, somebody in the family did. Rich people, of course, had 'people' for that: dressmakers and tailors and the like. 'Ready-to-wear' was a new concept. It had repercussions both social and economic.2Yes, size-ist. This is also a class-conscious statement. Blondes weren't the coolest people back then: blondes were often the result of peroxide. Peroxide blondes were pretentious, lower-class, and cheap. It's a value judgement.3See marcel wave here. Also obviously low-class, along with the tight skirt, because 'trendy'.4Ethnic prejudices? Check. You ain't seen nothin' yet.5Idea, not sewing notion. We're not sure Ms Parker learned anything from her stint in the dress factory.6Okay, I can't stand it. I have to tell this joke, which I got from an acquaintance who converted from Judaism to Christianity and became a Baptist preacher. Rev Tintenfass [not his real name] said he went home to New York City to visit a cousin, who worked in the garment district. His cousin introduced him to his business partner: 'Hey, Mort, this is my cousin Shmuel. You'll never guess what he does for a living?'

Mort looks the Reverend over. 'I dunno. I'm not a good guesser. What does he do?'

The cousin, beaming: 'He's a man of the cloth!'

Mort: 'So, he's a cutter? So what?'

My acquaintance found this extremely funny. I found it broadminded on everybody's part.
7Oh, come on. You went to finishing school. You know more French than that.8She tried all these jobs. At least, long enough to get a chapter out of them.9Yes, lookism, if you're keeping score. Give us a break, lady.10Presumably without marcel waves.11She's not trying to be rude this time. People really did use words like that unironically. Heck, there was a time when they would have referred to Lucretia Mott as a 'Quakeress' and thought they were being polite.12Okay, now that's rude. Italian, marginally better than Jewish?13We refuse to try to sort out the political prejudices, other than to point out that Eugene V Debs was a fine human being. Just ask Bernie Sanders.14That is the understatement of 1922. Remind us again: why did you write this book? Oh, you're into experimental jobbing.15Because it was NOYB. Who are you, the Internal Revenue Service?16Well, I suppose if one has to ask, one can't afford a lawyer.17She seems to like Italians. Very broad-minded of her in the days of Sacco and Vanzetti.18The owner was German-Jewish. Making fun of German accents was very 'in' in the aftermath of the Great War. We hope you've kept count of all of the writer's clever putdowns for other nationalities and classes of people.

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