Monday, March 5, 2012

"Industrial Girls," a Boomtown, and the YWCA

In the decades straddling the 20th century, Fort Wayne factories routinely advertised an urgent need for new female workers. Typical adds in daily newspapers were the following: "Wanted Girls: Boss Manufacturing Company," "Wanted Girls: Wayne Knitting Mills," "Wanted Girls: General Electric Company," "Wanted Girls: Foster's Shirt Waist Factory." While today this might seem like an economic developer's dream, Fort Wayne's female workers were particularly vulnerable to the evils of a rapidly growing industrial city, workplace hazards, and exploitation. For thousands of young working women, the local YWCA offered a helpful protective umbrella.

Between 1900 and 1920, Fort Wayne's population nearly doubled, growing from a mid size town of 45,000 to a bustling city of over 86,000. Much of this growth was due to manufacturing jobs that brought thousands of new workers to town. Fort Wayne became Indiana's second largest industrial center, a leading producer of electrical appliances, light bulbs, magnet wire, railroad cars, knit stockings, gasoline pumps, clothing and trucks.

Fort Wayne also became well known for its unusually high number of young women in the workforce. By 1920 local factories employed roughly 6,000 female workers, about one third of its entire workforce. In comparison, female workers made up approximately 20 percent of the national workforce. While other factory towns drew recent immigrants, the majority of our city's young workers were native born and shared a German American heritage. A significant number were as young as 14.

As in other industrial centers, female workers were mostly unmarried. Jobs were unskilled and considered gender specific. While national tragedies such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City alerted local factories to hazardous conditions, changes came slowly. By 1920 the typical 55 hour work week was shortened to 48 hours. Female employees earned approximately half of what unskilled male workers were paid. While their low wages kept production costs competitive, young women were lucky to earn enough to cover basic living costs.

Employers justified such wages with the overly simplified assumption that young women lived at home and would only work for a few years before marrying. Public opinion reinforced prejudices against married women in the workpace. In a factory town known for its unlicensed saloons, prostitution and "droves of blackguards," low wages added still more risks.

In Fort Wayne, as across the country, the YWCA was organized to serve as an ally for young working women. Our local story also involves a very special young woman who was part of a large family of famous women leaders.

Fort Wayne's YWCA was organized by 26 year old Agnes Hamilton* as a result of her volunteer work in a church mission established near the Wayne Knitting Mills on West Main Street. In this neighborhood known as Nebraska, Agnes met young girls who lived "in the midst of low squalor, troubles, frightful temptations." She experienced first hand poverty aggravated by the economic depression of 1893-1894. Recognizing the special needs of young women, she took charge of a low cost tea and lunch service known as the "Noon Rest" at 25 West Wayne Street. A boarding house to accomodate 20 roomers soon followed at 51-53 West Berry Street. The Y also kept a registry of acceptable rooms for referral. Following the national movement, the Y promoted physical, social, intellectual and spiritual interests of the women they served.

As factories grew, the scarcity of housing became ever more alarming. It was not unusual for young women to arrive at the train station with little more than the hope of a job. Moreover, employers faced a shortage of workers, what they called "the girl problem." This combination of humanitarian concern and economic self-interest led to building larger dormitories and offering programs to keep young women safe.

In 1910, Wayne Knitting Mills, the city's largest employer of young women, built a large dormitory to accomodate 100 workers. Publicity assured parents that the three story dorm and clubhouse [still standing near West Main Street] provided a safe and attractive environment.

Soon the YWCA, supported by leading city manufacturers, launched a $100,000 building drive for a new Y dormitory. In the same West Wayne Street block where the Allen County Public Library now stands, a 50 room,three story dorm and clubhouse opened in 1913. An attractive dining room seated 100 people. A spacious lounge and library, basement gym, and rooftop garden along with classes and Sunday teas turned the Y into a popular home and social center.

Housing nevertheless remained a major concern. By 1919 the Y took over another building to house 40 more young women. To meet the continued demand, the WCTU opened yet another downtown dorm.

Through its factory based clubs organized as the Federation of Industrial Clubs, the Y coordinated programs for thousands of young working women. Because local leaders shared the philosophy that young women were only short term workers, Y clubs emphasized traditional female activities. Annual meeetings of the federation brought hundreds of young women from across the city together for fellowship.

With World War I, female workers took on some new jobs vacated by men who had joined the military. Working conditions improved with growing recognition of women's importance in the workfoarce. Mirroring national concerns, women became more conscious of opportunities and wages. Some joined unions for the first time. Out of financial necessity, more women remained in the workforce. A small number were trained as supervisors.

By 1920 Y programs had become more diverse and sophisticated as well. A popular Engish teacher from Central High School, for example, offered a class in the American short story. The Y emphasized the importance of a healthy lifestyle and offered free health conferences. While the YWCA still extended a needed hand of security and friendship, their programs began to reflect broader opportunities for women. For Wayne's "Industrial Girls" were moving into a new era.

*Agnes Hamilton became well known as a settlement house leader in Philadelphia. Cousin Alice became a pioneer leader in public health and workplace safety and an advocate for world peace. Cousin Edith achieved fame for her book on Greek mythology and for many years as an educator. Their grandmother Emerine Hamilton was well known in Fort Wayne as a woman's advocate. Other Y founders were Rena Nelson and Minnie Moon.

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