Plumes that Pay

A poem from the Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children

How doth the manufacturer
Improve the ostrich tail?
By willowing the scraggy ends
Until they’re fit for sale.
How cheerfully he sits and smiles
Throughout the livelong day,
While children knot the tiny flues
And make the plumes that pay.

‘Willowing’ consists of lengthening the short strands, called flues, of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three flues until the feather has the desired depth and grace. The work was paid for by the inch and varied with the number of sets of knots to the inch. The Work and Wages Committee of the New York Child Welfare Committee did a study of the ‘willowing’ trade in 1910, the results of which are written up in the Elizabeth C. Watson’s “Home Work in the Tenements”, Survey 25 (4 February 1911), 772-781:

Three years ago when the trade started, few knew how to willow, and fifteen cents was paid for tying one set of knots (per inch). The following season more workers were in the field and the price went down to thirteen cents an inch. Then it dropped to eleven cents (an inch), nine cents, seven cents, five cents and last summer (1910) the workers were receiving but three cents an inch while some of them in late summer were beginning to work by the piece. One feather fourteen and a half inches long, tied three times to the inch, brought its maker one dollar and ten cents. The woman who made it said “Pretty soon, the bossa, he wants us work for nothing.”

One plume bringing the set price of three cents an inch contained 8,613 knots. A woman and two children worked at it for a day and a third, tying at the rate of forty-one knots for a cent.

The neighborhood chosen for study was in the upper East Side, where the feather industry flourishes. In one block between Second and Third avenues there are eighteen factories or shops in which the older girls of the district work, and where the families living in the upper floors and in adjacent houses secured their supplies for home work. In one house (above one of these shops), occupied by fourteen families, we found twenty-eight children under twelve years of age busily plying this trade. The streets and stoops are full of ostrich feather refuse, the stairways are littered and the air full of feather particles. The houses are filled with homeworkers, regardless of license. During the summer 370 homes were visited in order to get the history of one hundred families not engaged in home work and not one-half of these houses were licensed.

To show how impossible it would be to inspect and license this trade properly the story of Fortunata must be told.

A group of Italian men stood around the door of No. 324. “Yes, Fortunata live here.” Then one cried at the top of his voice: “Fortunata, Fortunata,” which promptly brought a stout, good-natured, rugged-faced South Italian woman carrying a black oilcloth bag fairly bulging with greens, peppers and their curious Italian squashes.

“She my girl, she my girl. She live upstairs. What you want? You Board of Health?”

On being told I was not the Board of Health, she said: “I takes you upstairs to see her. I take you up.” then, turning to a little girl on the doorstep, in Italian: “Quick, sopra (up). Sopra! Tell Fortunata give her plume to her godmother. Go, Mara. A lady comes who will arrest her if she work on feathers.”

Slowly she toiled up the stairs, I behind her. No use trying to speed beyond her portly figure. In the middle of the first flight she stopped, slowly wiped her brow, and said: “I big, big woman–takes me much time to go upstairs. My house way upstairs.” Meanwhile she called at the top of her voice in Italian: “Fortunata, Fortunata, take the plumes into your godmother’s. There comes a lady.”

Reaching the first floor nothing would do–we must stop at a neighbor’s and admire the baby. Meanwhile she explained to her neighbor that the lady was from the Board of Health, coming to arrest the children who worked on feathers, and that she wanted Fortunata to put the feathers away before we reached the apartment.

Slowly we climbed the second flight. This time we paused in the middle of the hallway where, with many gesticulations, she showed me the bad places in the plaster. “The boss he no care–house look bad.” Later “the boss” we find is her own brother.

Laboriously we climbed the third flight, stopping at the head of the stairs to visit in the hallway, with all the neighbors who had come out to look over the “lady from the Board of Health, who had come to arrest them for making feathers.” One of them even went so far as to say me no one ever made feathers in that house. In vain did I tell them I did not come from the Board of Health; I could not arrest them if they made feathers in their own homes.

Finally we reached the home of Fortunata. Four rooms clean as a pin, save for one little place by the front window where there still remained a few tiny remnants of the snipped flues of the feathers. After talking to Fortunata for some time we ask her if she makes feathers. Her mother replies for her.

“No, no! She no make feathers. Feathers hurt their eyes. I no let Fortunata tie them.”

Turning to Fortunata, I said: “Fortunata, go into your godmother’s and bring the plume.”

She looked at me as if she were dazed. “Bring me your plume from your godmother’s, Fortunata”–and she did. When her mother saw her returning with the feather she said: “Senorina, you speak Italian?”

“I speak a little, but I understand more,” and with that she put her hands to her side and rolled with laughter. Then we all laughed together, whereupon she patted me on both cheeks and said: “You very nice lady! You very nice lady! You very happy lady!”

A glance at the budgets of the families in the next column–particularly of the wages of the fathers–tell their own story and show why home work is necessary.

This budget is not small because the fathers are lazy. Some of them are city employes in the street cleaning department, others are carpenters, bricklayers, rock drillers, etc. Many of them are skilled workmen earning good pay by the day, but one woman summed up the whole situation when she said: “Everybody, all a people, they willow the plumes. It hurts the eyes, too, bad, bad. How we can help it? The man he no work, two days, three days, may be in one week, two weeks. Sundays he no work, no pay. The holidays, no work, no money. Rainy, snowy days, bad days, he no work. Well, what we can do? My girl, me, we maka the feathers. The children must have to eat.”

So, to supplement the family income, the children work, tying these feathers, bringing all kinds of eye trouble and strain in their wake, remaining out of school–whenever possible.


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