Tag Archives: Labor

A Caruso fan on the factory floor

Remember Elizabeth Hasanovitz, the Hebrew school teacher’s daughter who fled Russia for a better life in New York? (If not, you can read about her here.) She’s back, in the second installment of her memoir in the February 1918 Atlantic.

Elizabeth attempted suicide at the end of the last installment, ground down by her life as a seamstress. She recovers quickly and gets a job in a non-union factory, making the princely sum of ten dollars a week.

My cheerfulness returned. Again I went among my friends, entertaining them with song and infecting them with my joyousness. Even in the shop I felt happy.

Factory workers, New York, 1911 (Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress collection)

She starts saving up to send for her younger brother, and her friend Clara helps out with a fifty-dollar loan. Even the conversation at work has improved.

Very little talk about “fellers,” swell evening pumps, lace petticoats that the six dollar wage-earners were constantly discussing, in the sweater shop. Here we talked about questions of the day, world-happenings, music, art, literature, and trade questions.

Once she pays her debt to Clara, Elizabeth starts thinking about the finer things in life.

I at once went to the Opera House, secured tickets for five dollars at twenty-five cents each, so that I was provided with opera tickets for the next few weeks.

Enrico Caruso, New York Times, February 24, 1918

She sees Enrico Caruso sing and Anna Pavlova dance. Her tickets are standing room*, and she often goes straight from work.

If it happened to rain, my dress would be soaked through and through, and with wet clothes I would stand through the performance, changing from foot to foot, while there were often plenty of empty seats in the orchestra. Very often I would pay with a cold the next day.

Back at the factory, Elizabeth tries to get her co-workers interested in joining the Dress-and-Waist-Makers’ Union. The good conditions they enjoy, she argues, were won by activists in unionized factories. The other girls say, “You better shut up; if you don’t you will get fired.” She pays a visit to the union, and word gets back to her colleagues and her boss. They warn her that union leaders are nothing but grafters, after the members’ money.

May Day march, Union Square, 1913 (Bain News Service, Library of Congress collection)

Elizabeth decides to attend the May Day workers’ march.

The day fell on Thursday**, a bright warm spring day. The many thousands of young girls, in uniforms of white waists with red collars, all in line, were ready to march on. The sun illuminated their pale but happy faces as they walked through the avenues and streets. Looking up at the skyscrapers where they slaved all year, their shiny eyes would gleam with pride and hope, as if they would speak and warn the world, “behold you who keep us in the darkness, no more are we to slave for you!”

 The next day, in high spirits, Elizabeth sets out for work, humming a favorite Russian song.

“Good morning,” said I merrily to the foreman, who happened to be the first to meet me when I entered the shop.***

 “Good morning,” came an angry sound from his nose.

That Saturday, Elizabeth receives her pay–and a dismissal notice.

Riverside Park, New York, ca. 1909 (Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress collection)

It’s the slow season, and Elizabeth has no luck finding a new job. She wonders how she will provide for her brother when he arrives. She sits on a bench in Riverside Park, looking out at the Hudson and thinking very Russian thoughts.

Life, life—O Happiness, where is thy sweetness, murmured I, in such mortal anguish for life.

 (To be continued.)

Elizabeth is still a drama queen. And she’s as snooty as ever. When her mother sends her a poem that her sixteen-year-old brother Nathan has written for her, she criticizes his grammar. She says of her friend Clara, who took her in after her suicide attempt and lent her the money for her brother’s passage,

Her spiritual development was on a much smaller scale than mine, and she would easily be inspired by things that did not interest me at all. My temper was a more revolutionary one, and I was more sensitive.

But, amid the flippancy of the fashionable magazines of 1918 and the dullness of the mainstream press, she’s a fresh, genuine voice.

(If you want to read about Elizabeth in her own words, her autobiography is available in several versions at Amazon. The issues of the Atlantic that it was serialized in (January – April 1918) can be accessed at Hathitrust Digital Library here.)

*in a parterre, maybe!

**So it was probably 1913.

***A different translator or editor apparently took over midway through the article, and Elizabeth in inverted sentences begins always to talk.

Factory work by day, Yiddish drama by night: the Lower East Side life of Elizabeth Hasanovitz

photo - Atlantic - 1-2018

It’s only been two weeks, but I already hate 1918 rich people. They’re imperious, self-absorbed, and shallow. When a New Jersey judge makes an incognito coal delivery during a cold snap, the lady of the house threatens to have him fired if he doesn’t take it up to the second floor. (He does, and dumps it in the parlor.) Vanity Fair praises the unsurpassed valor of soldiers from “great schools like Exeter, St. Paul’s, and Groton.” Rich characters in short stories yammer endlessly about their personal dramas, and I say, “You know what you need? A job.” So it was refreshing to come across decidedly-not-rich Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose serialized autobiography “One of Them” begins in the January 1918 Atlantic.

Born into a large and loving family in Russia, Elizabeth began teaching in her father’s Hebrew school at fourteen—illegally, since she lacked a teaching certificate. All she wanted in life was to go on teaching with her father, but it wasn’t to be. When she took the teachers’ exam, fifty-five of the sixty Yiddish candidates failed, including Elizabeth; all nine Russian candidates passed. Meanwhile, the family fell on hard times because of the police chief’s frequent demands for bribes. And there was the constant danger of anti-Jewish violence from drunken peasants.

One night, as the family sat down for the Sabbath meal, Elizabeth said, “I have been thinking and I have decided that—that—I—shall go—to America.” Her mother and sisters burst into tears, and her father rejected the idea out of hand. Elizabeth pleaded with her parents for days. She could send for the rest of the family, she said. “Think of the children going to free schools, growing up free citizens!” But her father wouldn’t budge. Finally, she resorted to a hunger strike. After three days, her father got her a passport.

photo - Lower East Side, the Onion - 1-2018

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive, public domain photo)

Elizabeth ended up in Canada, where she got a factory job. The pay was decent, but she left because of the country’s “provincial mental atmosphere.” Chicago was no more to her liking, so she set out for New York. There, things went well at first. She was making ten dollars a week at a knitting mill and saving five for her brother’s ticket. She joined the Dramatic Club, which aimed to provide higher fare than the “trash” that most Yiddish theaters fed the public. All was well, except for the “common and vulgar” atmosphere in the factory. The other girls’ “frankness in manner and speech would make me blush, and I became an object of their teasing.”

But the good times didn’t last. Business slowed, and Elizabeth was laid off. Luckily, a fellow member of the Dramatic Club had a home textile enterprise, and he took Elizabeth on as a trainee. The atmosphere was congenial—the family members sang merry Russian songs as they worked—but Elizabeth was a hopeless seamstress, constantly sewing a front where a sleeve was supposed to be. Eventually she improved, but she was slow, and she earned only five or six dollars a week, barely enough to live on. Exhausted at night, she abandoned her dream of studying. When she was down to her last two dollars, she fell into despair.

photo - shirtwaist factory workers 1910 - 1-2018

Shirtwaist factory workers, 1910 (Library of Congress, public domain photo)

Elizabeth went to a flower shop and bought a funeral bouquet for $1.50. Back at her rooming house, she turned on the gas. To speed her death along, she soaked matches and drank the liquid. She woke up in the hospital, her friend Clara from the Dramatic Club at her side. Clara invited Elizabeth to live with her, and out of options, she agreed.

To be continued!

Elizabeth has her flaws. She’s a terrible snob, with her haughty dismissal of Canada and her airs and graces on the factory floor. She claims to have almost starved to death on the ocean journey because the other passengers grabbed all the food, but her real problem seems to have been with their disgusting table manners. And she’s quite the drama queen. The hunger strike! The funeral bouquet!

Still, she’s a compelling heroine, and she paints a vivid picture of immigrant life in the Lower East Side. I look forward to reading her further adventures. If you want to know more, you can find her entire autobiography online. Just don’t tell me what happens!