The Problem of
Salvini by Jacob A. Riis
The mere mention of the widow Salvini always brings before me that
other widow who came to our settlement when her rascal husband was dead
after beating her black and blue through a lifetime in Poverty Gap,
during which he did his best to make ruffians of the boys and worse of
the girls by driving them out into the street to earn money to buy him
rum whenever he was not on the Island, which, happily, he was most of
the time. I know I had a hand in sending him there nineteen times, more
shame to the judge whom I finally had to threaten with public
arraignment and the certainty of being made an accessory to wife-murder
unless he found a way of keeping him there. He did then, and it was
during his long term that the fellow died. What I started to say was
that, when all was over and he out of the way, his widow came in and
wanted our advice as to whether she ought to wear mourning earrings in
his memory. Without rhyme or reason the two are associated in my mind,
for they were as different as could be. The widow of Poverty Gap was
Irish and married to a brute. Mrs. Salvini was an Italian; her husband
was a hard-working fellow who had the misfortune to be killed on the
railway. The point of contact is in the earrings. The widow Salvini did
wear mourning earrings, a little piece of crape draped over the gold
bangles of her care-free girlhood, and it was not funny but infinitely
touching. It just shows how little things do twist one's mind.
Signor Salvini was one of a gang of trackmen employed by the New
York Central Railroad. He was killed when they had been in America two
years, and left his wife with two little children and one unborn. There
was a Workmen's Compensation Law at the time under which she would have
been entitled to recover a substantial sum, some $1800, upon proof that
he was not himself grossly to blame, and suit was brought in her name;
but before it came up the Court of Appeals declared the act
unconstitutional. The railway offered her a hundred dollars, but Mrs.
Salvini's lawyer refused, and the matter took its slow course through
the courts. No doubt the company considered that the business had been
properly dealt with. It is quite possible that its well-fed and
entirely respectable directors went home from the meeting at which
counsel made his report with an injured feeling of generosity
unappreciatedthey were not legally bound to do anything. In which
they were right. Signor Salvini in life had belonged to a benefit
society of good intentions but poor business ways. It had therefore
become defunct at the time of his death. However, its members
considered their moral obligations and pitied the widow. They were all
poor workingmen, but they dug down into their pockets and raised two
hundred dollars for the stricken family. When the undertaker and the
cemetery and the other civilizing agencies that take toll of our dead
were paid, there was left twenty dollars for the widow to begin life
When that weary autumn day had worn to an end, the lingering traces
of the death vigil been removed, the two bare rooms set to rights, and
the last pitying neighbor woman gone to her own, the widow sat with her
dumb sorrow by her slumbering little ones, and faced the future with
which she was to battle alone. Just what advice the directors of the
railway that had killed her husbandharsh words, but something may be
allowed the bitterness of such grief as herswould have given then,
surrounded by their own sheltered ones at their happy firesides, I
don't know. And yet one might venture a safe guess if only some kind
spirit could have brought them face to face in that hour. But it is a
long way from Madison Avenue to the poor tenements of the Bronx, and
even fartherpity our poor limping democracy!from the penniless
Italian widow to her sister in the fashionable apartment. As a
household servant in the latter the widow Salvini would have been a sad
misfit even without the children; she would have owned that herself.
Her mistress would not have been likely to have more patience with her.
And so that door through which the two might have met to their mutual
good was closed. There were of course the homes for the little ones,
toward the support of which the apartment paid its share in the tax
bills. The thought crossed the mind of their mother as she sat there,
but at the sight of little Louisa and Vincenzo, the baby, sleeping
peacefully side by side, she put it away with a gesture of impatience.
It was enough to lose their father; these she would keep. And she
crossed herself as she bowed reverently toward the print of the Blessed
Virgin, before which burned a devout little taper. Surely, She knew!
It came into her mind as she sat thinking her life out that she had
once learned to crochet the fine lace of her native town, and that she
knew of a woman in the next block who sold it to the rich Americans.
Making sure that the children were sound asleep, she turned down the
lamp, threw her shawl over her head, and went to seek her.
The lace woman examined the small sample of her old skill which she
had brought, and promised to buy what she made. But she was not herself
the seller, and the price she got was very low. She could pay even
less. Unaccustomed fingers would not earn much at lace-making;
everything depended on being quick at it. But the widow knew nothing
else. It was at least work, and she went home to take up the craft of
her half-forgotten youth.
But it was one thing to ply her needle with deft young fingers and
the songs of sunny Italy in her ears, when the world and its tasks were
but play; another to bait grim poverty with so frail a weapon in a New
York tenement, with the landlord to pay and hungry children to feed. At
the end of the week, when she brought the product of her toil to the
lace woman, she received in payment thirty cents. It was all she had
made, she was told.
There was still the bigger part of her little hoard; but one more
rent day, and that would be gone. Thirty cents a week does not feed
three mouths, even with the thousand little makeshifts of poverty that
constitute its resources. The good-hearted woman next door found a
spare potato or two for the children; the neighbor across the hall,
when she had corned beef for dinner, brought her the water it was
boiled in for soup. But though neighbors were kind, making lace was
business, like running a railway, and its rule was the sameto buy
cheap, lives or lace, and sell dear. It developed, moreover, that the
industry was sweated down to the last cent. There was a whole string of
women between the seller and the widow at the end of the line, who each
gave up part of her poor earnings to the one next ahead as her patron,
or padrone. The widow Salvini reduced the chain of her
industrial slavery by one link when she quit making lace.
Upstairs in the tenement was a woman who made willow plumes, that
were just then the fashion. To her went the widow with the prayer that
she teach her the business, since she must work at home to take care of
her children; and the other good-naturedly gave her a seat at her table
and showed her the simple grips of her trade. Simple enough they were,
but demanding an intensity of application, attention that never
flagged, and deft manipulation in making the tiny knots that tie the
vanes of the feather together and make the droop of the plume.
Faithfully as she strove, the most she could make was three inches in a
day. The price paid was eleven cents an inch. Thirty-three cents a day
was better than thirty cents a week, but still a long way from the
minimum wage we hear about. It was then, when her little margin was all
gone and the rent due again, that the baby came. And with it came the
charity workers, to back the helpful neighborliness of the tenement
that had never failed.
When she was able to be about again, she went back to her task of
making plumes. But the work went slower than before. The baby needed
attention, and there were the beds to make and the washing for two
lodgers, who paid the rent and to whom the charity workers closed their
eyes even if they had not directly connived at procuring them. It is
thus that the grim facts of poverty set at naught all the benevolent
purposes of those who fight it. It had forced upon the widow home-work
and the lodger, two curses of the tenement, and now it added the third
in child labor. Little Louisa's fingers were nimbler than her mother's.
She was only eight, but she learned soon to tie a plume as well as the
mother. The charity visitor, who had all the economic theories at her
fingers' ends and knew their soundness only too well, stood by and saw
her do it, and found it neither in her heart nor in her reason to
object, for was she not struggling to keep her family together?
Five-year-old Vincenzo watched them work.
Could he make a plume, too? she asked, with a sudden sinking of
the heart. Yes, but not so fast; his wee hands grew tired so soon. And
the widow let him show how he could tie the little strange knot. The
baby rolled on the floor, crooning and sucking the shears.
In spite of the reënforcement, the work lagged. The widow's eyes
were giving out and she grew more tired every day. Four days the three
had labored over one plume, and finished it at last. To-morrow she
would take it to the factory and receive for it ninety cents. But even
this scant wage was threatened. Willow plumes were going out of
fashion, and the harassed mother would have to make another start. At
The question was answered a month later as it must, not as it should
be, when to the three failures of the plan of well-ordered philanthropy
was added the fourth: Louisa and Vincenzo were put in the college, as
the Italians call the orphan asylum. The charity workers put them there
in order that they might have proper food and enough of it. Willow
plumes having become a drug in the market, the widow went into a
factory, paying a neighbor in the tenement a few cents a day for taking
care of the baby in her absence. As an unskilled hand she was able to
earn a bare living. One poor home, that was yet a happy home once, was
wiped out. The widow's claim against the railway company still waits
upon the court calendar.
 Her claim has since been settled for $1000.
Such as it is, it is society's present solution of the problem of
the widow Salvini. If any find fault with it, let them not blame the
charity workers, for they did what they could; nor the railway company,
for its ways are the ways of business, not of philanthropy; nor our
highest court, for we are told that impious is the hand that is
stretched forth toward that ark of the covenant of our liberties. Let
them put the blame where it belongsupon us all who for thirty years
have been silent under the decision which forbade the abolition of
industrial slavery in the Bohemian cigar-makers' tenements because it
would interfere with the sacredness and hallowed associations of the
people's homes. That was the exact phrase, if memory serves me right.
Such was the sowing of our crop of social injustice. Shall a man gather
figs from thistles?