Margaret Sanger, "Impressions of the East Side," 03 Sep 1911.
Published Article. Source: New York Call, Sept. 3, 1911, 15 .
For Part II of this article see Impressions of the East Side, Sept. 10, 1911.
When you walk through the streets of the much talked about East Side you come away with the feeling that you have seen all of it you wish to see. When you pass through Cherry street and emerge from its depths with fish scales and fruit stains on your clothing, you feel quite satisfied with the glimpse you have had of it, and with both hands up exclaim "Never again!"
But the East Side thus seen from the outside is nothing compared to the living hell within its walls. To eat with its people, to sleep with them, to buy where they buy, to listen to their quarrels, gossip, tales of sorrow, sickness and fears, is to see them as they are in their daily life.
Everything is thrown out of the windows; garbage is rolled up in newspapers and thrown into the courts, when there is one; if not, then into the streets. A piece of meat is eaten and the bone thrown out of the window; so are dead rats, dead cats, decayed vegetables. And in cases where the toilets are in use by the many families on the same floor, the mother allows the children to use paper as toilet receptacles, and that, too, is thrown out of the window.
In very clean places the courts are cleaned once a month, but where the windows overlook so-called sheds, these are cleaned only when conditions become so vile that the tenants threaten to leave.
Everybody complains of this filthy habit of throwing things out of the windows, and every one denies having any part in doing it!
Then the vermin. In one of the small flats, the kitchen was swarming with, not thousands, but millions of roaches. They were piled four layers high in places and in corners they were stacked up several inches high. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and touched your head as you entered. Bed bugs, too, are everywhere, and on the hot nights the moaning and crying of the little children show how their sleep is disturbed by the vermin. It is pitiful to hear the cries of often ten or more children all at once as the houses are so near; it of course keeps every one near by awake, and shouts of "Shut up" issue forth from the men who must get their night's rest in order to keep their jobs.
After the poverty and filth, the next thing which leaves its lasting impression on you is the ignorant cruelty with which the people of the East Side treat their children. Everybody strikes the children, parents, neighbors, sisters, boarders; in fact, every one seems to take a slap at the children, for any trifling thing, and yet every parent thinks himself a model parent. It is most common to see a father strike his 6 or 8-year-old boy with the same force he would strike at a man. "I'll smash you," he says, but fortunately the little fellow has learned how to dodge.
Thousands of mothers leave their little children in the care of the older boy or girl (usually not over 9 years old) and go to work early in the morning in the factories or work shops to return at night to do the work of the family. First the mother does the washing which takes until 2 in the morning; the next night she irons, which takes the same time, and so on with the scrubbing, cleaning, and mending. Then it is time to do the washing again, and so on, in this terrible existence, day after day this worn out and half-famished mother continues her burden of life. The woman who does not do this work at night, being too tired or half sick, is considered "lazy" by the neighbors, and all her misfortune is summed up in her "laziness."
With the food that one gets at even the "rich" families it is difficult to continue work until noon without stocking up again, so little do they understand combinations of food or the requirements of the human system. It is a common sight, too, to see a workingman, working on the streets, stop at the noon hour and with the hunk of bread which he brought with him, go to a nearby stand and buy a penny's worth of watermelon.
Some of the mothers close the house all day, and give the children bread and tea to stay in the parks until night time. Others give over the responsibility to the oldest child and let them run in and out as they choose, with no guidance, no care or instruction. Is it not marvelous that they continue meek and docile?
One of the greatest blessings of the East Side came when the milk stations were instituted. The milk is prepared at the stations by trained nurses, for special ages, and it is increased according to age. Should the child not thrive and the parent think it is not doing well, the mother takes it to the station where it is examined by physicians, and either barley water or a different preparation is given for the child, all without extra cost. They give nine bottles with two and a half ounces of milk for an infant (and that is all they can have), at 1 cent a bottle. Later on, when the quantity of milk is increased, the charges are a little more, but the fact that the bottles are washed, sterilized, and sealed by trained hands almost insures the life of the child against disease. The infant at least has the proper food, for even when the mother is in the factory the children go for the milk, give the name of the child and receive the milk and give it to the baby during the day. Every individual child is registered and has its special milk.
Again, one of the terrible sights which meets your gaze is the army of little pale-faced children which come into the streets at night to play. Accustomed to seeing the children, although ragged and filthy at least browned by the sun, playing about in the day time, your attention is attracted to these white and drawn faces and you inquire about them. You are told that these little children, anywhere around 10 years of age, are products of the sweatshops. There they work all day, sometimes in cellars, picking over old rags, and sometimes in "shops" carrying huge bundles from place to place.
The very thought is nauseous, that where there are thousands of able-bodied men willing and glad to work, these little pale-faced girls with shoulders already bent, should spend their childhood days struggling for an existence. The parents of these little ones are loathe to send them to work, but each added baby makes it harder for them to fight off starvation, and anything which offers relief from worry and debt is acceptable to even the most loving parents. And as they watch these little toilers join hands with the other children and sing "Sweet Land of Liberty" the hope springs up in their breasts that perhaps some "luck" will come to them, and the children be able to go to school again.
The younger generation of women are no more anxious than their uptown sisters to have large families, and these young women are easy victims for the many fake and quack physicians who inhabit the East Side. One woman aged 72, said she would gladly have another baby if nature were willing, but her daughters and sons, who had endured poverty and neglect, remembering what a nightmare their childhood had been, preferred risking imprisonment and death, rather than bearing children and have them go though what they lived through.(To be continued.)
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project