EXHIBITION: Mission Girls: At Work

The receipt from the New York Labor Exchange at 10 Washington Street, New York, dated November 28, 1891, records that it received from Mr. T. F. Green the sum of $2.00 as the office fee for hiring Annie O’Brien at the wage of $8.00 per month, $1.00 dollar of which was to be deducted from her first month’s wages. A Labor Bureau report for 1882 stated that the average salary for women who obtained positions through their office ranged from $8 to $10 per month.

Mrs. M. L. Stone’s “The Labor Exchange at Castle Garden, “Choosing a Girl,” Harper’s Weekly, January, 1892, depicts a scene at this Labor Exchange. While only domestic service positions were offered by the Labor Bureau, Irish immigrant girls frequently used the Castle Garden Labor Service. In 1882, just before the Mission opened, 80% of the employment secured that year (8,363 of 10,462) were Irish. There was some anti-Irish prejudice which was based on sectarianism. Tracts like The Female Jesuit or the Spy in the Family (1857) warned employers about secret baptism. Walt Whitman in his article “Wants” describes women just arrived in their thick woolen capes, their worn hats and their heavy boots sitting on long benches waiting for a master or mistress to come along and give them a “call.”

Despite anti-Irish prejudice, Irish immigrant women found a ready market for their services. Immigration historian, Oscar Handlin, wrote that as early as 1870, Irish servant girls in Boston had the reputation for cheerfulness and loyalty and they were willing to work for cheap wages. Autobiographies by sons of old Yankee households like Samuel Eliot Morrison talked about the kindness of the Irish cooks and nurses in their homes.