Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber moved in the same circles as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward in the Algonquin Round Table. Ferber wrote Show Boat, So Big, and Giant, in addition to several other novels adapted into musicals and Oscar-winning films. Her 1913 story “The Girl Who Went Right” follows a new department store salesgirl learning the tricky business of selling lingerie in the ritzy part of town.
Published on August 16, 1913
There is a story — Kipling, I think — that tells of a spirited horse galloping in the dark suddenly drawing up tense, hoofs bunched, slim flanks quivering, nostrils dilated, ears pricked. Urging being of no avail the rider dismounts, strikes a match, advances a cautious step or so, and finds himself at the precipitous brink of a newly formed crevasse.
So it is with your trained editor. A miraculous sixth sense guides him. A mysterious something warns him of danger lurking within the seemingly innocent oblong white envelope. Without slitting the flap, without pausing to adjust his tortoise-rimmed glasses, without clearing his throat, without lighting his cigarette — he knows.
The deadly newspaper story he scents in the dark. Cub reporter. Crusty city editor. Cub fired. Stumbles on to big story. Staggers into newspaper office wild-eyed. Last edition. “Hold the presses!” Crusty C. E. stands over cub’s typewriter grabbing story line by line. Even foreman of pressroom moved to tears by tale. “Boys, this ain’t just a story this kid’s writin’. This is history!” Story finished. Cub faints. C. E. makes him star reporter.
The athletic story: “I could never marry a mollycoddle like you, Harold Hammond!” Big game of the year. Team crippled. Second half. Halfback hurt. Harold Hammond, scrub, into the game. Touchdown! Broken leg. Five to nothing. “Harold, can you ever, ever forgive me?”
The pseudo-psychological story: She had been sitting before the fire for a long, long time. The flame had flickered and died down to a smoldering ash. The sound of his departing footsteps echoed and reechoed through her brain. But the little room was very, very still.
The shop-girl story: Torn boots and temptation, tears and sneers, pathos and bathos, all the way from Zola to the vice inquiry.
Having thus attempted to hide the deadly commonplaceness of this story with a thin layer of cynicism, perhaps even the wily editor may be tricked into taking the leap.
Four weeks before the completion of the new 12-story addition the store advertised for 200 experienced saleswomen. Rachel Wiletzky, entering the superintendent’s office after a wait of three hours, was Applicant No. 179. The superintendent did not look up as Rachel came in. He scribbled busily on a pad of paper at his desk, thus observing rules one and two in the proper conduct of superintendents when interviewing applicants. Rachel Wiletzky, standing by his desk, did not cough or wriggle or rustle her skirts or sag on one hip. A sense of her quiet penetrated the superintendent’s subconsciousness. He glanced up hurriedly over his left shoulder. Then he laid down his pencil and sat up slowly. His mind was working quickly enough though. In the 12 seconds that intervened between the laying down of the pencil and the sitting up in his chair he had hastily readjusted all his well-founded preconceived ideas on the appearance of shop-girl applicants.
Rachel Wiletzky had the coloring and physique of a dairymaid. It was the sort of coloring that you associate in your mind with lush green fields, and Jersey cows, and village maids, in Watteau frocks, balancing brimming pails aloft in the protecting curve of one rounded upraised arm, with perhaps a Maypole dance or so in the background. Altogether, had the superintendent been given to figures of speech, he might have said that Rachel was as much out of place among the preceding 178 bloodless, hollow-chested, stoop-shouldered applicants as a sunflower would be in a patch of dank white fungi.
He himself was one of those bleached men that you find on the office floor of department stores. Gray skin, gray eyes, graying hair, careful gray clothes — seemingly as void of pigment as one of those sunless things you disclose when you turn over a board that has long lain on the moldy floor of a damp cellar. It was only when you looked closely that you noticed a fleck of golden brown in the cold gray of each eye, and a streak of warm brown forming an unquenchable forelock that the conquering gray had not been able to vanquish. It may have been a something within him corresponding to those outward bits of human coloring that tempted him to yield to a queer impulse. He whipped from his breast-pocket the gray-bordered handkerchief, reached up swiftly and passed one white corner of it down the length of Rachel Wiletzky’s Killarney-rose left cheek. The rude path down which the handkerchief had traveled deepened to red for a moment before both rose-pink cheeks bloomed into scarlet. The superintendent gazed rather ruefully from unblemished handkerchief to cheek and back again.
“Why — it — it’s real!” he stammered.
Rachel Wiletzky smiled a good-natured little smile that had in it a dash of superiority.
“If I was putting it on,” she said, “I hope I’d have sense enough to leave something to the imagination. This color out of a box would take a spiderweb veil to tone it down.”
Not much more than a score of words. And yet before the half were spoken you were certain that Rachel Wiletzky’s knowledge of lush green fields and bucolic scenes was that gleaned from the condensed milk ads that glare down at one from billboards and street-car chromos. Hers was the ghetto voice — harsh, metallic, yet fraught with the resonant music of tragedy.
“H’m — name?” asked the gray superintendent. He knew that vocal quality.
A queer look stole into Rachel Wiletzky’s face, a look of cunning and determination and shrewdness.
“Ray Willets,” she replied composedly. “Double l.”
“Clerked before, of course. Our advertisement stated — ”
“Oh, yes,” interrupted Ray Willets hastily, eagerly. “I can sell goods. My customers like me. And I don’t get tired. I don’t know why, but I don’t.”
The superintendent glanced up again at the red that glowed higher with the girl’s suppressed excitement. He took a printed slip from the little pile of paper that lay on his desk.
“Well, anyway, you’re the first clerk I ever saw who had so much red blood that she could afford to use it for decorative purposes. Step into the next room, answer the questions on this card and turn it in. You’ll be notified.”
Ray Willets took the searching, telltale blank that put its questions so pertinently. “Where last employed?” it demanded. “Why did you leave? Do you live at home?”
Ray Willets moved slowly away toward the door opposite. The superintendent reached forward to press the button that would summon Applicant No. 180. But before his finger touched it Ray Willets turned and came back swiftly. She held the card out before his surprised eyes.
“I can’t fill this out. If I do I won’t get the job. I work over at the Halsted Street Bazaar. You know — the Cheap Store. I lied and sent word I was sick so I could come over here this morning. And they dock you for time off whether you’re sick or not.”
The superintendent drummed impatiently with his fingers. “I can’t listen to all this. Haven’t time. Fill out your blank, and if — ”
All that latent dramatic force which is a heritage of her race came to the girl’s aid now.
“The blank! How can I say on a blank that I’m leaving because I want to be where real people are? What chance has a girl got over there on the West Side? I’m different. I don’t know why, but I am. Look at my face! Where should I get red cheeks from? From not having enough to eat half the time and sleeping three in a bed?”
She snatched off her shabby glove and held one hand out before the man’s face.
“From where do I get such hands? Not from selling hardware over at 12th and Halsted. Look at it! Say, couldn’t that hand sell silk and lace?”
Someone has said that to make fingers and wrists like those which Ray Willets held out for inspection it is necessary to have had at least five generations of ancestors who have sat with their hands folded in their laps. Slender, tapering, sensitive hands they were, pink-tipped, temperamental. Wistful hands they were, speaking hands, an inheritance, perhaps, from some dreamer ancestor within the old-world ghetto, some long-haired, velvet-eyed student of the Talmud dwelling within the pale with its squalor and noise, and dreaming of unseen things beyond the confining gates — things rare and exquisite and fine.
“Ashamed of your folks?” snapped the superintendent.
“N-no — No! But I want to be different. I am different! Give me a chance, will you? I’m straight. And I’ll work. And I can sell goods. Try me.”
That all-pervading grayness seemed to have lifted from the man at the desk. The brown flecks in the eyes seemed to spread and engulf the surrounding colorlessness. His face, too, took on a glow that seemed to come from within. It was like the lifting of a thick gray mist on a foggy morning, so that the sun shines bright and clear for a brief moment before the damp curtain rolls down again and effaces it.
He leaned forward in his chair, a queer half-smile on his face.
“I’ll give you your chance,” he said, “for one month. At the end of that time I’ll send for you. I’m not going to watch you. I’m not going to have you watched. Of course your sale slips will show the office whether you’re selling goods or not. If you’re not they’ll discharge you. But that’s routine. What do you want to sell?”
“What do I want to Do you mean — Why, I want to sell the lacy things.”
“The lacy — ”
Ray, very red-cheeked, made the plunge. “The — the lawnjeree, you know. The things with ribbon and handwork and yards and yards of real lace. I’ve seen ’em in the glass case in the French Room. Seventy-nine dollars marked down from 100.”
The superintendent scribbled on a card. “Show this Monday morning. Miss Jevne is the head of your department. You’ll spend two hours a day in the store school of instruction for clerks. Here, you’re forgetting your glove.”
The gray look had settled down on him again as he reached out to press the desk button. Ray Willets passed out at the door opposite the one through which Rachel Wiletzky had entered.
Someone in the department nicknamed her Chubbs before she had spent half a day in the underwear and imported lingerie. At the store school she listened and learned. She learned how important were things of which Halsted Street took no cognizance. She learned to make out a sale slip as complicated as an engineering blueprint. She learned that a clerk must develop suavity and patience in the same degree as a customer waxes waspish and insulting, and that the spectrum’s colors do not exist in the costume of the girl-behind-the-counter. For her there are only black and white. These things she learned and many more, and remembered them, for behind the rosy cheeks and the terrier-bright eyes burned the indomitable desire to get on. And the finished embodiment of all of Ray Willets’ desires and ambitions was daily before her eyes in the presence of Miss Jevne, head of the lingeries and negligées.
Of Miss Jevne it might be said that she was real where Ray was artificial, and artificial where Ray was real. Everything that Miss Jevne wore was real. She was as modish as Ray was shabby, as slim as Ray was stocky, as artificially tinted and tinctured as Ray was naturally rosy-cheeked and buxom. It takes real money to buy clothes as real as those worn by Miss Jevne. The soft charmeuse in her graceful gown was real and miraculously draped. The cobweb-lace collar that so delicately traced its pattern against the black background of her gown was real. So was the ripple of lace that cascaded down the front of her blouse. The straight, correct, hideously modern lines of her figure bespoke a real 18-dollar corset. Realest of all, there reposed on Miss Jevne’s bosom a bar pin of platinum and diamonds — very real diamonds set in a severely plain but very real bar of precious platinum. So if you except Miss Jevne’s changeless color, her artificial smile, her glittering hair and her undulating head-of-the-department walk, you can see that everything about Miss Jevne was as real as money can make one.
Miss Jevne, when she deigned to notice Ray Willets at all, called her “girl,” thus: “Girl, get down one of those Number Seventeens for me — with the pink ribbons.” Ray did not resent the tone. She thought about Miss Jevne as she worked. She thought about her at night when she was washing and ironing her other shirtwaist for next day’s wear. In the Halsted Street Bazaar the girls had been on terms of dreadful intimacy with those affairs in each other’s lives which popularly are supposed to be private knowledge. They knew the sum which each earned per week; how much they turned in to help swell the family coffers and how much they were allowed to keep for their own use. They knew each time a girl spent a quarter for a cheap sailor collar or a pair of near-silk stockings. Ray Willets, who wanted passionately to be different, whose hands so loved the touch of the lacy, silky garments that made up the lingerie and negligee departments, recognized the perfection of Miss Jevne’s faultless realness — recognized it, appreciated it, envied it. It worried her too. How did she do it? How did one go about attaining the same degree of realness?
Meanwhile she worked. She learned quickly. She took care always to be cheerful, interested, polite. After a short week’s handling of lacy silken garments she ceased to feel a shock when she saw Miss Jevne displaying a robe-de-nuit made up of white cloud and sea-foam and languidly assuring the customer that of course it wasn’t to be expected that you could get a fine handmade lace at that price — only 27.50. Now if she cared to look at something really fine — made entirely by hand — why —
The end of the first 10 days found so much knowledge crammed into Ray Willets’ clever, ambitious little head that the pink of her cheeks had deepened to carmine, as a child grows flushed and too bright-eyed when overstimulated and overtired.
Miss Myrtle, the store beauty, strolled up to Ray, who was straightening a pile of corset covers and brassieres. Miss Myrtle was the store’s star cloak-and-suit model. Tall, svelte, graceful, lovely in line and contour, she was remarkably like one of those exquisite imbeciles that Rossetti used to love to paint. Hers were the great cowlike eyes, the wonderful oval face, the marvelous little nose, the perfect lips and chin. Miss Myrtle could don a 40-dollar gown, parade it before a possible purchaser, and make it look like an imported model at 125. When Miss Myrtle opened those exquisite lips and spoke you got a shock that hurt. She laid one cool slim finger on Ray’s ruddy cheek.
“Sure enough!” she drawled nasally. “Whereja get it anyway, kid? You must of been brought up on peaches ‘n’ cream and slept in a pink cloud somewheres.”
“Me!” laughed Ray, her deft fingers busy straightening a bow here, a ruffle of lace there. “Me! The L-train runs so near my bed that if it was ever to get a notion to take a short cut it would slice off my legs to the knees.”
“Live at home?” Miss Myrtle’s grasshopper mind never dwelt long on one subject.
“Well, sure,” replied Ray. “Did you think I had a flat up on the Drive?”
“I live at home too,” Miss Myrtle announced impressively. She was leaning indolently against the table. Her eyes followed the deft, quick movements of Ray’s slender, capable hands. Miss Myrtle always leaned when there was anything to lean on. Involuntarily she fell into melting poses. One shoulder always drooped slightly, one toe always trailed a bit like the picture on the cover of the fashion magazines, one hand and arm always followed the line of her draperies while the other was raised to hip or breast or head.
Ray’s busy hands paused a moment. She looked up at the picturesque Myrtle. “All the girls do, don’t they?”
“Huh?” said Myrtle blankly.
“Live at home, I mean? The application blank says — ”
“Say, you’ve got clever hands, ain’t you?” put in Miss Myrtle irrelevantly. She looked ruefully at her own short, stubby, unintelligent hands, that so perfectly reflected her character in that marvelous way hands have. “Mine are stupid-looking. I’ll bet you’ll get on.” She sagged to the other hip with a weary gracefulness. “I ain’t got no brains,” she complained.
“Where do they live then?” persisted Ray.
“Who? Oh, I live at home” — again virtuously — “but I’ve got some heart if I am dumb. My folks couldn’t get along without what I bring home every week. A lot of the girls have flats. But that don’t last. Now Jevne — ”
“Yes?” said Ray eagerly. Her plump face with its intelligent eyes was all aglow.
Miss Myrtle lowered her voice discreetly. “Her own folks don’t know where she lives. They says she sends ’em money every month, but with the understanding that they don’t try to come to see her. They live way over on the West Side somewhere. She makes her buying trip to Europe every year. Speaks French and everything. They say when she started to earn real money she just cut loose from her folks. They was a drag on her and she wanted to get to the top.”
“Say, that pin’s real, ain’t it?”
“Real? Well, I should say it is! Catch Jevne wearing anything that’s phony. I saw her at the theater one night. Dressed! Well, you’d have thought that birds of paradise were national pests, like English sparrows. Not that she looked loud. But that quiet, rich elegance, you know, that just smells of money. Say, but I’ll bet she has her lonesome evenings!”
Ray Willets’ eyes darted across the long room and rested upon the shining black-clad figure of Miss Jevne moving about against the luxurious ivory-and-rose background of the French Room.
“She — she left her folks, h’m?” she mused aloud.
Miss Myrtle, the brainless, regarded the tips of her shabby boots.
“What did it get her?” she asked as though to herself. “I know what it does to a girl, seeing and handling stuff that’s made for millionaires, you get a taste for it yourself. Take it from me, it ain’t the six-dollar girl that needs looking after. She’s taking her little pay envelope home to her mother that’s a widow and it goes to buy milk for the kids. Sometimes I think the more you get the more you want. Somebody ought to turn that vice inquiry on to the tracks of that 30-dollar-a-week girl in the Irish crochet waist and the diamond bar pin. She’d make swell readin’.”
There fell a little silence between the two — a silence of which neither was conscious. Both were thinking, Myrtle disjointedly, purposelessly, all unconscious that her slow, untrained mind had groped for a great and vital truth and found it; Ray quickly, eagerly, connectedly, a new and daring resolve growing with lightning rapidity.
“There’s another new baby at our house,” she said aloud suddenly. “It cries all night pretty near.”
“Ain’t they fierce?” laughed Myrtle. “And yet I dunno — ”
She fell silent again. Then with the half-sigh with which we waken from daydreams she moved away in response to the beckoning finger of a saleswoman in the evening coat section. Ten minutes later her exquisite face rose above the soft folds of a black charmeuse coat that rippled away from her slender, supple body in lines that a sculptor dreams of and never achieves.
Ray Willets finished straightening her counter. Trade was slow. She moved idly in the direction of the black-garbed figure that flitted about in the costly atmosphere of the French section. It must be a very special customer to claim Miss Jevne’s expert services. Ray glanced in through the half-opened glass and ivory-enamel doors.
“Here, girl,” called Miss Jevne. Ray paused and entered. Miss Jevne was frowning. “Miss Myrtle’s busy. Just slip this on. Careful now. Keep your arms close to your head.”
She slipped a marvelously wrought garment over Ray’s sleek head. Fluffy drifts of equally exquisite lingerie lay scattered about on chairs, over mirrors, across showtables. On one of the fragile little ivory-and-rose chairs, in the center of the costly little room, sat a large, blonde, perfumed woman who clanked and rustled and swished as she moved. Her eyes were white-lidded and heavy, but strangely bright. One ungloved hand was very white too, but pudgy and covered so thickly with gems that your eye could get no clear picture of any single stone or setting.
Ray, clad in the diaphanous folds of the robe-de-nuit that was so beautifully adorned with delicate embroideries wrought by the patient, needle-scarred fingers of some silent, white-faced nun in a far-away convent, paced slowly up and down the short length of the room that the critical eye of this coarse, unlettered creature might behold the wonders woven by this weary French nun and, beholding, approve.
“It ain’t bad,” spake the blonde woman grudgingly. “How much did you say?”
“Ninety-five,” Miss Jevne made answer smoothly. “I selected it myself when I was in France my last trip. A bargain.”
She slid the robe carefully over Ray’s head. The frown came once more to her brow. She bent close to Ray’s ear. “Your waist’s ripped under the left arm. Disgraceful!”
The blonde woman moved and jangled a bit in her chair. “Well, I’ll take it,” she sighed. “Look at the color on that girl! And it’s real too.” She rose heavily and came over to Ray, reached up and pinched her cheek appraisingly with perfumed white thumb and forefinger.
“That’ll do, girl,” said Miss Jevne sweetly. “Take this along and change these ribbons from blue to pink.”
Ray Willets bore the fairy garment away with her. She bore it tenderly, almost reverently. It was more than a garment. It represented in her mind a new standard of all that was beautiful and exquisite and desirable.
Ten days before the formal opening of the new 12-story addition there was issued from the superintendent’s office an order that made a little flurry among the clerks in the sections devoted to women’s dress. The new store when thrown open would mark an epoch in the retail dry goods business of the city, the order began. Thousands were to be spent on perishable decorations alone. The highest type of patronage was to be catered to. Therefore the women in the lingerie, negligee, millinery, dress, suit and corset sections were requested to wear during opening week a modest but modish black one-piece gown that would blend with the air of elegance which those departments were to maintain.
Ray Willets of the lingerie and negligée sections read her order slip slowly. Then she reread it. Then she did a mental sum in simple arithmetic. A childish sum it was. And yet before she got her answer the solving of it had stamped on her face a certain hard, set, resolute look.
The store management had chosen Wednesday to be the opening day. By eight-thirty o’clock Wednesday morning the French lingerie, millinery, and dress sections, with their women clerks garbed in modest but modish black one-piece gowns, looked like a levee at Buckingham when the court is in mourning. But the ladies-in-waiting, grouped about here and there, fell back in respectful silence when there paced down the aisle the queen royal in the person of Miss Jevne. There is a certain sort of black gown that is more startling and daring than scarlet. Miss Jevne’s was that style. Fast black you might term it. Miss Jevne was aware of the flurry and flutter that followed her majestic progress down the aisle to her own section. She knew that each eye was caught in the tip of the little dog-eared train that slipped and slunk and wriggled along the ground, thence up to the soft drapery caught so cunningly just below the knee, up higher to the marvelously simple sash that swayed with each step, to the soft folds of black against which rested the very real diamond and platinum bar pin, up to the lace at her throat, and then stopping, blinking and staring again gazed fixedly at the string of pearls that lay about her throat, pearls rosily pink, mistily gray. An aura of self-satisfaction enveloping her, Miss Jevne disappeared behind the rose-garlanded portals of the new cream-and-mauve French section. And there the aura vanished, quivering. For standing before one of the plate-glass cases and patting into place with deft fingers the satin bow of a hand-wrought chemise was Ray Willets, in her shiny little black serge skirt and the braver of her two white shirtwaists.
Miss Jevne quickened her pace. Ray turned. Her bright brown eyes grew brighter at sight of Miss Jevne’s wondrous black. Miss Jevne, her train wound round her feet like an actress’ photograph, lifted her eyebrows to an unbelievable height.
“Explain that costume!” she said.
“Costume?” repeated Ray, fencing.
Miss Jevne’s thin lips grew thinner. “You understood that women in this department were to wear black one-piece gowns this week!”
Ray smiled a little twisted smile. “Yes, I understood.”
“Then what — ”
Ray’s little smile grew a trifle more uncertain. “I — I had the money — last week — I was going to — The baby took sick — the heat I guess, coming so sudden. We had the doctor — and medicine — I Say, your own folks come before black one-piece dresses!”
Miss Jevne’s cold eyes saw the careful patch under Ray’s left arm where a few days before the torn place had won her a reproof. It was the last straw.
“You can’t stay in this department in that rig!”
“Who says so?” snapped Ray with a flash of Halsted Street bravado. “If my customers want a peek at Paquin I’ll send ’em to you.”
“I’ll show you who says so!” retorted Miss Jevne, quite losing sight of the queen business. The stately form of the floor manager was visible among the glass showcases beyond. Miss Jevne sought him agitatedly. All the little sagging lines about her mouth showed up sharply, defying years of careful massage.
The floor manager bent his stately head and listened. Then, led by Miss Jevne, he approached Ray Willets, whose deft fingers, trembling a very little now, were still pretending to adjust the perfect pink-satin bow.
The manager touched her on the arm not unkindly. “Report for work in the kitchen utensils, fifth floor,” he said. Then at sight of the girl’s face: “We can’t have one disobeying orders, you know. The rest of the clerks would raise a row in no time.”
Down in the kitchen utensils and household goods there was no rule demanding modest but modish one-piece gowns. In the kitchenware one could don black sateen sleevelets to protect one’s clean white waist without breaking the department’s tenets of fashion. You could even pin a handkerchief across the front of your waist, if your job was that of dusting the granite ware.
At first Ray’s delicate fingers, accustomed to the touch of soft, sheer white stuff and ribbon and lace and silk, shrank from contact with meat grinders, and aluminum stewpans, and egg beaters, and waffle irons, and pie tins. She handled them contemptuously. She sold them listlessly. After weeks of expatiating to customers on the beauties and excellencies of gossamer lingerie she found it difficult to work up enthusiasm over the virtues of dishpans and spice boxes. By noon she was less resentful. By two o’clock she was saying to a fellow clerk:
“Well, anyway, in this section you don’t have to tell a woman how graceful and charming she’s going to look while she’s working the washing machine.”
She was a born saleswoman. In spite of herself she became interested in the buying problems of the practical and plain-visaged housewives who patronized this section. By three o’clock she was looking thoughtful — thoughtful and contented.
Then came the summons. The lingerie section was swamped! Report to Miss Jevne at once! Almost regretfully Ray gave her customer over to an idle clerk and sought out Miss Jevne. Some of that lady’s statuesqueness was gone. The bar pin on her bosom rose and fell rapidly. She espied Ray and met her halfway. In her hand she carried a soft black something which she thrust at Ray.
“Here, put that on in one of the fitting rooms. Be quick about it. It’s your size. The department’s swamped. Hurry now!”
Ray took from Miss Jevne the black-silk gown, modest but modish. There was no joy in Ray’s face. Ten minutes later she emerged in the limp and clinging little frock that toned down her color and made her plumpness seem but rounded charm.
The big store will talk for many a day of that afternoon and the three afternoons that followed, until Sunday brought pause to the thousands of feet beating a ceaseless tattoo up and down the thronged aisles. On the Monday following thousands swarmed down upon the store again, but not in such overwhelming numbers. There were breathing spaces. It was during one of these that Miss Myrtle, the beauty, found time for a brief moment’s chat with Ray Willets.
Ray was straightening her counter again. She had a passion for order. Myrtle eyed her wearily. Her slender shoulders carried an endless number and variety of garments during those four days and her feet had paced weary miles that those garments might the better be displayed.
“Black’s grand on you,” observed Myrtle. “Tones you down.” She glanced sharply at the gown. “Looks just like one of our 18-dollar models. Copy it?”
“No,” said Ray, still straightening petticoats and corset covers. Myrtle reached out a weary, graceful arm and touched one of the lacy piles adorned with cunning bows of pink and blue to catch the shopping eye.
“Ain’t that sweet!” she exclaimed. “I’m crazy about that shadow lace. It’s swell under voiles. I wonder if I could take one of them home to copy it.”
Ray glanced up. “Oh, that!” she said contemptuously. “That’s just a cheap skirt. Only twelve-fifty. Machine-made lace. Imitation embroidery — ”
She stopped. She stared a moment at Myrtle with the fixed and wide-eyed gaze of one who does not see.
“What’d I just say to you?”
“Huh?” ejaculated Myrtle, mystified.
“What’d I just say?” repeated Ray.
Myrtle laughed, half understanding. “You said that was a cheap junk skirt at only 12.50, with machine lace and imitation
But Ray Willets did not wait to hear the rest. She was off down the aisle toward the elevator marked “Employees.” The superintendent’s office was on the ninth floor. She stopped there. The gray superintendent was writing at his desk. He did not look up as Ray entered, thus observing rules one and two in the proper conduct of superintendents when interviewing employees. Ray Willets, standing by his desk, did not cough or wriggle or rustle her skirts or sag on one hip. A consciousness of her quiet penetrated the superintendent’s mind. He glanced up hurriedly over his left shoulder. Then he laid down his pencil and sat up slowly.
“Oh, it’s you!” he said.
“Yes, it’s me,” replied Ray Willets simply. “I’ve been here a month today.”
“Oh, yes.” He ran his fingers through his hair so that the brown forelock stood away from the gray. “You’ve lost some of your roses,” he said, and tapped his cheek. “What’s the trouble?”
“I guess it’s the dress,” explained Ray, and glanced down at the folds of her gown. She hesitated a moment awkwardly. “You said you’d send for me at the end of the month. You didn’t.”
“That’s all right,” said the gray superintendent. “I was pretty sure I hadn’t made a mistake. I can gauge applicants pretty fairly. Let’s see — you’re in the lingerie, aren’t you?”
Then with a rush: “That’s what I want to talk to you about. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to stay in the lingeries. I’d like to be transferred to the kitchen utensils and household goods.”
“Transferred! Well, I’ll see what I can do. What was the name now? I forget.”
A queer look stole into Ray Willets’ face, a look of determination and shrewdness.
“Name?” she said. “My name is Rachel Wiletzky.”
“Man’s work is from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done,” reads the distich in the article “The Health of Working-Women” by Woods Hutchinson, A.M., M.D., from the November 20, 1909 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
The good doctor examined the changing roles of women in America. He discussed the long hours and meager rewards of the a housewife during the early part of the 20th century, comparing the hours, wages, and conditions of men working in industry to women working at home.
“Most factories have got down to the ten-hour day and many to the eight, and all are rapidly approaching this standard; but the average household day, whether for housekeeper or for domestic, still runs from fourteen to sixteen hours,” reads the Post article. The author also noted that while men working in factories leave their work behind, women do not share these same benefits. “He would certainly be a rash man who would assert that the hours of any factory or sweatshop were longer than those of housework, or that the wages were lower. For almost every man or boy who has to rise in the gray dawn of the winter morning to report for work in the factory or shop at six or seven a.m., some woman has to rise an hour or more earlier in order to prepare his breakfast. And at whatever hour he plods wearily home in the dusk of evening to his supper, some woman has to go on working an hour longer to clear up the table and wash the dishes.”
A century later…
The February 2, 2009, issue of The New York Times reported: “With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history,” from the article “As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force,” by Catherine Rampell.
Today, though job security is rare during an economic downfall, statistics show women are more likely to retain jobs for a number of reasons, including the fact that men were heavily represented in distressed industries such as manufacturing and construction.
This raises the question: With record numbers of women whose primary positions were once full-time housewives now becoming breadwinners for their families, will the lot of household responsibilities shift as well?
“Many women say they expect their family roles to remain the same, even if economic circumstances have changed for now,” reads The New York Times story.