"In 1886, the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, in
session at Richmond, VA., appointed as general investigator of woman's work and wages, Mrs.
Leonora M. Barry, with the main object of furthering the cause of the order
(Knights of Labor) among the
female wage-workers of the land, whose very unsatisfactory condition is due, primarily, to
the absence of organization. Here are a few extracts from Mrs. Barry's first report, from
October 1886-7, which are particularly interesting because the scene of a considerable
part of her labors was in this State:
...December 6th I went to Trenton, N.J., in compliance with the request of L.A. 4925.
While there made an investigation in three woolen mills, and found the condition of the
female operatives to be in every respect above the average. Also visited the potteries,
where many women are employed. Those people stand greatly in need of having their
condition bettered, as they receive poor wages for laborious and unhealthy employment.
Also visited the State Prison, and noticed with regret, the vast amount of work of various
kinds the inmates were turning out to be put on the market in competition with honest
labor. While in the city, I addressed five local assemblies and held one public meeting of
December 10th went to Newark to investigate the matter concerning the sewing-women of that
city, which was referred to our committee at the General Assembly at Richmond.
Found, after a careful study of the matter, that the case reported by the boys'
shirt-waist makers was not only true, but that in general the working-women of Newark were
very poorly paid, and the system of fines in many industries was severe and unjust.
Instance: A corset factory where a fine is imposed for eating, laughing, singing or
talking, of 10 cents each. If not inside the gate in the morning when the whistle stops
blowing, an employee is locked out until half-past seven; then she can go to work, but is
docked two hours for waste power; and many other rules equally slavish and unjust. Other
industries closely follow these rules, while the sewing-women receive wages which are only
one remove from actual starvation. In answer to all my inquiries, of employer and
employed, why this state of affairs exists, the reply was, monopoly and competition. On
January 6, 1887 took up the work again in Trenton, N. J., per instruction. Held several
meetings, both public and private, of working-women for the purpose of getting them into
the order, as the women of this city are not well organized. Went to Bordentown to a shirt
factory there, but the unjust prejudice which they have always held toward organized labor
cropped out on this occasion and they refused me admission.
At Lambertville I found a good local assembly, but no women had as yet joined the order
there. I held several open meetings, and addressed eight local assemblies with such words
of instruction as I was competent to give.
...March 14, was sent to Paterson to look into the condition of the women and children
employed in the linen-thread works of that city. There are some fourteen or fifteen
hundred persons employed in this industry, who were at that time out of employment for
this reason: Children who work at what is called doffing were receiving $2.70 per week,
and asked for an increase of 5 cents per day. They were refused, and they struck,
whereupon all the other employees were locked out. This was what some of the toadying
press called "Paterson's peculiar strike", or "unexplainable
phenomena". The abuse, injustice and suffering which the women of this industry
endure from the tyranny, cruelty and slave-driving propensities of the employers is
something terrible to be allowed existence in free America. In one branch of this industry
women are compelled to stand on the stone floor in water the year round, most of the time
barefoot, with a spray of water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the
breast; and the coldest night in winter as well as the warmest in summer those poor
creatures must go to their homes with water dripping from their under-clothing along their
path because there could not be space or a few moments allowed them wherein to change
their clothing. A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any
who dare rebel against the iron-clad authority of those in charge. The law is evaded in
this matter; but the passage-tickets on the Inman Steamship Line, that are advanced at
from $5 to $7 more than they actually cost to the friends of those employed here or in the
factory of this firm in Belfast, Ireland, and which are paid for after they commence work
for the firm on this side of the ocean in $1 installments, at their semi-monthly payments,
furnish good ground for a test case in the near future. Add to this the most meagre wages,
crowded, badly ventilated rooms, want of proper sanitary conditions, and many other
cruelties, and a fair-minded public can form some solution of this unexplainable
"phenomena". A thorough account of all this was placed in the hands of State
Deputy Factory Inspector Hall. Also notified L. T. Fell, Chief Factory Inspector, and
through his efforts much child labor has been abolished and other defects somewhat
remedied. But there is very much yet to be done."