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The Problem of the Widow 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 unappreciated—they 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 with anew.

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 husband—harsh words, but something may be allowed the bitterness of such grief as hers—would 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 farther—pity 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 same—to 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 what?

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.[1]

          [1] 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 belongs—upon 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?


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