Another home industry that was popular at that time was the making of cloth flowers for women's hats. Much of this work was done in the homes near Hull House. The women would gather around the kitchen table all the children who were old enough to wrap green paper around a wire stem and they would make flowers.
Of these young workers, the one who comes back to me most vividly is Carlotta, a beautiful Italian girl with haunting black eyes set in a pale face. She was about my age, and on rare occasions we would play jacks on the cement doorstep of the house where she lived. I remember how this simple game brought a sparkle into her otherwise sad eyes. She was not on the street as often as some of the other children, and one day I called her to come out and play. She came to the door and told me that she could not come out as she had to help her mother make flowers.
"Make flowers," I said. "You must be fooling; flowers are not made, they grow."
She took me by the hand and pulled me into the kitchen of a small dark flat. There on the table were piles of cloth petals of various colors, green leaves that had been stamped out on a machine, and coils of thin wire. Her mother and four children were sitting around the table making flowers. I left that room forever hating artificial flowers. Every time I saw a woman wearing a hat with flowers, I thought of Carlotta who could not come out to play.
Carlotta told me that her mother and two sisters and a brother worked almost every working hour at making flowers. The father had died of "the consumption," as it was then called. But with all this effort they did not earn enough to have adequate food. The flat, where the family lived, was dark and damp and many times they did not have enough money to buy enough coal to keep the place warm in the winter. And so little Carlotta became ill with the consumption and soon followed her father.
I remember the day when her frail little body was carried from the gloomy flat in a small, white-velvet-covered coffin. The weeping mother was supported by Jane Addams, who had placed a small bouquet of real flowers on the coffin.
It was incidents of this nature that caused Jane Addams to begin her untiring fight for humane child labor laws which have now become an accepted way of life for American children.
Excerpt from: Hilda Satt Polacheck, I Came a Stranger, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989; pp. 53-55
In 1889, Jane Addams opened Hull House in the worst slum district on the West Side of Chicago. Addams and her associates developed programs to educate and improve the living conditions of immigrants--about half the population of Chicago at the time.
© Illinois State Museum 31-Dec-96