During the Gilded Age, hundreds of thousands of young women worked long hours for low pay in sweat shops and factories. Some couldn’t get enough to eat, and some contracted tuberculosis in the crowded, dirty workplaces. Upper-class women came up with a way to help them: The Working Girls Vacation Society. It gave certain girls a two-week, supervised vacation in the country.
The rich ladies were as concerned about the morality of the working girls as much as their health. They worried the girls, once outside the home, would succumb to the blandishments of men or, worse, turn to prostitution. Getting them away from the temptations of the city and into the wholesome countryside seemed like a good way to prevent that.
And so in Boston and New York they started working girls vacation societies or clubs. They then sent the girls for two weeks to one of more than a dozen country homes — in rural Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey. There they got three square meals a day, fresh air and in some cases medical attention.
They could read and knit and learn how to make paper flowers. On Sunday they went to church. They helped with the housework, a nod to the rich ladies’ preference that they find a morally safer line of work as domestic servants.
Led by copper heiress Grace Dodge, wealthy women philanthropists after the Civil War started the YWCA and a network of working girls clubs. The reformers then saw a need to to keep the girls from going unchaperoned to vaudeville shows, amusement parks, dance halls and sporting events. In 1894, Edith A. Sawyer described in The Churchman the horrors of a such a places, “where crowds congregate, and where there are electric lights, cheap music, pink lemonade and ‘merry-go-rounds’.”
In such public places, they believed, the working girls could succumb to sinful temptations presented by men.
“There being so few week-end resources, the public amusement places with their doubtful attractions are all that is left,” reported Far and Near, the journal of the national coalition of working girls’ clubs, in 1890.
The Working Girls Vacation Society
Katharine W.D. Herbert, wife of a wealthy stockbroker, founded the Working Girls Vacation Society in 1883 as an offshoot of the New York Working Girls Club. She was a philanthropist known for donating thousands of pieces of carved jade to the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Herbert was “struck with the monotony of their ceaseless toil year in and out.”
To start the vacation club, she and her wealthy friends held a bazaar and raised nearly $1,000. She set up an advisory board that consisted of prominent men and half a dozen ministers.
The Society then found homes. In East Haddam, Conn., three houses and three barns once owned by the Working Girls Vacation Society is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1890, the Society’s social worker, Annie White Strathern, furnished one of the farmhouses as a vacation home for young working women.
The Getaway Spots
Other vacation clubs and houses formed in Boston and New York during the Gilded Age, offshoots of the YWCA, the Working Girls Club in New York and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston.
The New York Working Girls Vacation Society eventually had 10 houses. Uplands and Hillcrest in the Adirondacks, for example, were gifts of George Dodge, Grace Dodge’s uncle.
Girls could go to Connecticut, to Farmington Lodge in Farmington, Breezy Cottage at Penfield Beach in Fairfield, and to two in Westport, including Green Cottage in Green’s Farms. Or they could stay at lodgings in New York: at Elmcote in Chester or Neversink Manse in Huguenot.
New York’s Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society had two vacation houses, one in Bellport, Long Island, and one at Big Indian in the Catskills.
Boston’s working girls went to Fernside in Princeton, Mass., Good Rest in Lancaster, Mass., The Homestead Inn in the Temple Hills of New Hampshire and one in Methuen, Mass., called The Girls Boarding House.
Churches and settlement houses also maintained vacation homes for working girls; so did Bloomingdale’s, which had a vacation house in Long Branch, N.J., for its employees.
The Working Girls Vacation Society Vacation
The wealthy ladies realized some working girls didn’t like to accept charity, so they charged a nominal fee – about $3 – for a two weeks’ vacation. They’d lend money to those who couldn’t afford it. Some got a free ride.
But you couldn’t go if you had a reputation as a floozy. Harriet Comstock in the Christian Observer in 1907 made it clear that girls with loose morals weren’t welcome. The society sent “the better class of working girls to beautiful country homes for pure fun,” she wrote. [Emphasis added.]
How much fun? Certainly not too much.
In East Haddam, the girls’ supervisor carefully noted their weight gains and the amount of milk they drank as measures of their health improvement. The responsibilities of the trained resident social worker included “instruction in crafts such as making paper flowers and tooled leather purses, and leading hikes and motoring excursions to local sites.”
Every Friday evening the girls came up with their own entertainment, and they went to dances held in the recreation center.
At Fernside in western Massachusetts they could read, sew, walk, take a drive in a wagon or do nothing. At least the old mansion had a theater where they could put on amateur theatricals.
In 1890, Far and Near described a typical vacation, perhaps overselling the “fun” part.
How the girls enjoy the complete change from work and worry to good country air, the tramping to the mountains and the places of interest, or, if at the seaside, the bathing; the dances in the barn, the games and the music. On rainy days fancywork, crocheting, knitting, and reading make the time fly as if on wings.
Prayers Twice a Day
In 1913, Hugh Thompson reported the working girls chafed at the restrictions during their getaways. Thompson wrote in “The Vacation Savings Movement,” in Munsey’s Magazine:
[T]hey were unpopular because of the restrictions imposed on the inmates. In most of them the girls had to live by rigid rule; there was no freedom of action. The situation was summed up by a saleswoman who told an investigator: “Why, you can’t even look at a man if you go there! I do not want to be bound to go to prayers twice a day.
The general feeling, Thompson wrote, was that the self-supporting women who worked so hard wanted absolute freedom to rest or seek innocent amusement.
They also may have resented their benefactress’ condescension. Harriet Comstock, who promoted the Working Girls Vacation Society in her writing for church magazines, described a missive from the society’s secretary. The secretary had written to a vacation home supervisor about a working woman:
“I am sending you a little forlornity; try to make her think she is in heaven.”
The 1900 census reported 261,081 unmarried working women between the ages of 10 and 35 living in the state of New York. By 1909, the New York vacation societies hosted about 1400 working girls a year, according to Amy E. Spingarn. “A trifle over 2-1/2 percent are provided for,” she wrote.
Springarn had conducted a survey on vacation resources for working girls and reported her findings in “Summer Vacations for Working Girls” in the The Survey.
Their income, she wrote, ranged from $1 a week to $16 a week, and their average age about 20. The vacation societies charged a few dollars, but most come free. The girls are factory workers, sales clerks, teachers, dressmakers and stenographers. Sometimes the girls didn’t have clothes, and sometimes the Society repaid the family for lost wages.
“Do the people of New York City realize how many working girls have tubercular and cardiac trouble?” the New York Vacation Club Society asked the editor of the New York Times in 1923.
Some of the girls with symptoms of tuberculosis went to the Adirondacks for treatment. They could stay at Hillcrest year-round for treatment.
Anna Buchanan, the assistant treasurer of the Working Girls’ Vacation Society, in 1891 gave an example of a working girl helped by a visit to Santa Clara in a letter to The Christian Union.
One of these was a young dressmaker, who was very feeble and had a bad cough. She was sent to the mountains, where she not only gained strength, but her cough disappeared, and she came home comparatively well, and ready for her winter’s work.
In 1945, the Working Girls Vacation Society of New York shut down. Katharine Herbert died that same year.
The New York Working Girls’ Vacation Society mission continues as a successor organization, the Stony Wold-Herbert Fund, which provides grants for study and research in pulmonary diseases.
In East Haddam, the owner of the Phebe Howell House is undertaking a historically accurate restoration of the Phebe Howell House, aka Rose Cottage. You can see pictures at Facebook.com/
Images: Coney Island bathers Campbell, Alfred S. On the beach, Coney Island. New York, ca. 1897. Elizabeth, N.J.: Alfred S. Campbell, Publisher, April 20. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005677854/. Fernside By Izzysanime – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21538381. Merry go round Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The carousel, or merry-go-round, at Richland Carrousel Park opened inin downtown Mansfield, Ohio. United States Ohio Richland County Mansfield, 2016. -10-07. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016632407/. Sweatshop By Unknown – http://americansformorality.com/civilrights/civilrights.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27485325.