Working Girls Beware!

Nellie Bly

New York World/February 3, 1889

Nellie Bly Exposes A Snare For Swindling Poor Women.

A Contemptible Scheme To Rob Needy Girls Who Seek Employment.

Heartless Women Who Promise to Find Work for Scarf-Makers and Lure Them Into Their Clutches—Demanding Pay for Instruction They Never Give, and, After Taking the Last Penny, Turning Them out with No Effort to Secure Employment—Sad Stories of the Wretched Swindle, from the Lips of Helpless Girls and Bereaved Mothers.


Beware of women who advertise for scarf learners and guarantee work. They are swindlers. You will have more for your money if you buy a toy balloon and immediately sit on it then you will receive for what you pay them. For hours last week I sat and listened to the stories of girls who have been swindled out of their last cent by these lying creatures. Talk of man’s inhumanity to man! Woman’s meanness to woman would, by comparison, rise like a cathedral beside a tombstone and ring its own chimes.

For several days I have been noticing the long list of advertisements in the newspapers calling for women to learn scarf-making. I thought that kind of work was strangely abundant or those advertisers were swindlers. Then letters began to come to the World thick and fast. Every day some poor girl wrote that she had answered some of these scarf advertisements and had been cheated out of her money. The letters came in such numbers that I could tack one to each of the many scarf advertisements and label them “Frauds.”

What did the swindlers do? They merely advertised for women to learn scarf-making–$3 to $5 for instruction—and that then they would furnish plenty of work. Most of them do not know anything about the work themselves. They buy a scarf and rip it apart, keeping it for a pattern with which to delude working-girls. Some of these swindling scarf-makers do make scarfs for wholesale houses. They advertise for girls, get the girl’s money and then put them on work for which they do not pay. In this way they realize twofold from one lot of work, but they cruelly rob hundreds of poor girls.

The first victims of this new swindle who came to me were three women. They were plainly clad, but all were clean and neat. I looked them over carefully and then I asked:

“Have you all been scarf-making?”

At this they all smiled and one replied that they had not made scarfs, but that they wanted to.

“You have learned?” I asked.

“We paid for instructions and were guaranteed work, but we never got it,” was the reply.

“What is your name?” I asked the woman nearest to me.

“Mrs. Carroll. I live on Second avenue,” who replied, gently. “I need work very much. I am a widow and have to support myself. But I am not as badly off as Miss Armstrong,” indicating the third woman. “She needs work very badly.”

Given No Instruction

“I have had no work since Nov. 19,” Miss Armstrong interposed. “I was a machine operator and I worked on dark goods until it affected my eyes. I had to give it up, so I thought I would learn scarf-making. We all went to the same woman for instructions—a Miss Quinn, at No.102 Lafayette place. She advertised work guaranteed.”

“But she never gave it. She never even taught us correctly,” said the little girl with black eyes and cherry-ripe cheeks, who sat between the other two. “We had to pay $3.50 before we were permitted to go in where the other girls were, and we might as well have thrown it away. She never taught us anything. The only thing she did was to cut out the first scarf for us and tell us to put it together. She wouldn’t show us how it should be done or examine our work to see if it was done properly. We had to furnish our own needles, thimbles and scissors,” said the pretty, black-eyed girl, “and then she only gave us cotton work, and we had to do it the best we could without instructions. She cut our first scarf—the four-in-hand and we cut the others. She would not give us silk work. I made eight dozen knot-pieces for her”—

“And she didn’t get a cent for them,” said Miss Armstrong.

“And then I asked her to teach me how to make the ‘Took’ scarf so I could get some work, and she said I would have to give her another dollar first.”

“Did the $3.50 you gave her only pay for the one style?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she replied, “she promised to teach all styles, and then when you want her to she wants more money. I even went to the expense of buying some silk, thinking that then she would show me how to make fine scarfs. She told me to do it, and when I did she said it was wrong. When I asked her to show me how it was done, she said to tear out the scarf and do it over.”

“Does she never teach any one?”

“Once she did,” Mrs. Carroll replied. “Mr. Allbach, of Thirteenth street and Broadway, sent two girls down to learn and Miss Quinn’s sister gave them instructions. Miss Quinn says she instructs girls for Allbach’s.”

“But when I begged her to get me work at Allbach’s she told me I would have to work somewhere else first” said the pretty girl with a suspicious tremble in her voice.

“Did any other girls ever learn?” I asked.

“No. When we were there I saw ten girls who had paid for instruction, and not one got work.” Said Mrs. Carroll.

“One girl had been coming from Brooklyn since last September,” said the pretty girl, “and it cost her 26 cents car fare every time. Another girl had been coming from somewhere in Jersey since before Christmas, and every trip cost her 36 cents. There were also two young girls coming from Summerville.”

“Some of the girls needed money so badly, too,” said Miss Armstrong, softly. “Miss Freelander, who came from One Hundred and Third street, had just lost her father. I think she needed work very badly. She tried so hard to learn, but she got no more instructions than to rest of us.”

The Frauds Known At the Scarf Factories.

“Then Miss Quinn kept the room so cold that we could not work if we had it to do. It was very dark, also, and when she was going to give a music lesson she put us all in the back room, which was worse yet,” the pretty girl said.

“Did any of you ever try to get work from the scarf factories?”

“We all did,” said Miss Armstrong, in her quiet way. “I have walked over every foot of the city where there are scarf factories, and I have got no work.”

“They laugh at us when we tell them where we learned, or, rather, tried to learn,” said the pretty girl, while her black eyes filled with tears.

“One foreman told me that fifty young women had come from Miss Quinn’s, and that no girl who ever went to these advertised scarf-makers could get work. He said that it was a money making scheme, and that these women just robbed girls of their money and time for nothing.”

Just then a pleasant-faced Irish woman came in. Her name was Kelly, and she lives with some friends at No. 10 Franklin street. She was a little, chubby woman with red cheeks and a cheery laugh.

“You have been learning to make scarfs, I suppose?” I said, turning to her, while the others waited her answer.

“Well, I paid my money for it,” she said, looking about with a smile; “but what I learned I had to teach myself.”

“Where did you go for instructions?”

“To Miss Smith, 288 Eight avenue. She does drawing and lace work and all these things. She advertised to give plenty of work at home, or to guarantee a place in a factory.” Sympathetic murmurs from the others. “But what does she do? I paid her my $3, and the first thing she does after the money is in her pocket is to tell me to go out and buy wadden, muslin and thread. Ye see, she has no work to give one, but she advertises plenty of work furnished in three different papers every day. You buy your own stuff, from 25 to 40 cents, and she gives you a pattern, and that’s the end of her teaching. You know as much in the morning as you do in the evening, and at the end of the week you don’t know any more than you did at first.”

“Maybe you are slow to learn,” I suggested when I got a chance.

“Slow to learn! Sure, and I learned braid making in one day. I learn everything easily. I am a good sewer, and I can embroider and make lace, and if I was once showed I could make scarfs. I worked at braid-making until before Christmas, when work got dull, and since then I’ve worked at anything I can get housework, or anything. This scarf-making is all a fraud. When the teachers won’t show you how to put scrafs together you can’t learn, an it’s no use, any way, in girls who have no machine to learn on. They can’t do much work without one.”

A Heroic Girl

“I had a chance to do hand work on jerseys,” she continued, “for a Broadway house, but by working ten hours a day I could only make $1.25 a week, so I decided I would rather walk the streets and pick up crusts instead.”

“Why did you want to learn scarf-making?” I asked the pretty, black-eyed girl who was listening to the conversation.

“I wanted to learn so I could teach my mother. There are six of us children, and mother had to do something, as only two are old enough to work. She wanted to take in washing, but I did not want to see her do that, so I said that I would learn scarf-making and then teach her. I didn’t want to see her go to learn, for fear the girls would laugh at her for being an old woman, but I spent my time and money for nothing. My sister, seventeen years old, is a shirt-maker. She earns $4 a week.”

“Well, there is no use in any one spending money for scarf learning,” said the Irish woman. “They are throwing their money away and the teachers are swindlers. There was one woman learning while I was, and she was a grandmother, she was so old. I felt awful sorry for her. She had to change cars twice every time she came for a lesson, and even then she wasn’t taught anything.”

Another woman then came. She had such a frank, honest face. She was dressed in black, and had a crepe veil tied over her bonnet.

“I was just going to see if I could get some umbrella-covering to do, and I thought I would stop in,” she said. “My name is Condron, and I live at 308 West Twenty-fourth street. I never learned scarf-making, but my daughter did from a man and woman who lived in University place. I have forgotten their name and number. My daughter paid him $3 first, and then he said they were not making that sort of ties now, and if she would give him $3 more he would teach her the new shapes. I gave her the money, but he never gave her any work. When she asked for work he told her to go to the wholesale houses, and not to tell where she learnt or she would never got work. She never did get one tie to do, so now I am going back to get some umbrella work. I used to do it nicely, but I am old now, and they don’t want old women.”

Boycotted By The Bosses

I wished her success, and she left on her search for work. The others went at the same time, and I was left with Mrs. Marion Prestone, the boycotted clockmaker whose testimony before the Ford Investigating Committee has kept her out of work ever since.

“I went with another woman to Mrs. Quinn, on Broadway, to learn scarf-making,” she said. “Her terms were $4 and we paid $3.50 each. She made it less because there were two of us together, but we never got any work. I have tried to get work at anything, but as soon as they find out my name I am discharged.”

“What are you doing now?”

“I am doing housework for a lady for my board.”

After a little talk on working girls and the treatment of them, Mrs. Prestone’s place was taken by a young woman from Ravenswood, L.I., another victim of scarf swindlers.

“My sister and I are thorough seamstresses. We embroider and paint. I read an advertisement of a woman in Fourth street who guaranteed plenty of home work. I went to her—she was a widow, a young woman—and she told me if I would learn from her that she would give me plenty of work, as she had more than she could do. I paid her $3, and it cost me 20 cents every day for my fare to the city, and then for my lunch, for I got sick if I did not eat. She did not show me much about the work, but let me teach myself. She tried to induce me to rent the top floor, where she lived, and she said then she could keep me busy with scarf-making. I had intended to do it, until I thought she was not right. At last, when I asked for work she said that she had none to give me, and she flatly refused to do anything for me. She had plenty of girls come every week to her to learn.”

Miss Schwab, who came next, was a bright, intelligent girl, who felt her need of work but knew there was no use in crying over it. She managed to find something interesting in all her ill luck. She was a tall girl with plenty of fair hair. Her eyes were blue and frank, and the smile which came and went while she described her various experiences was very pleasing.

“I gave up a good position in Philadelphia last fall to come home to live with and support my mother. I determined to get work immediately. I live on West One Hundred and Twenty fifth street. The first thing I saw in the newspapers was an advertisement of scarf instruction. ‘Plenty of beautiful home work furnished,’ it said, so I went to answer it. The teacher, Miss Thurston, was on Sixth avenue, some number about 22 or 23. I asked her if she would give me work after I learned and she said she would, as she did work for Broadway houses and had more than she could do. I paid her $3 for instructions, and as soon as I saw the money in her hand I regretted it. Anyway, I went there every day. I bought all my own materials for scarf-making and she gave me a pattern, cutting out the first scarf herself. But she would not and did not show me how to put the scarf together. I kept on going there, but she wouldn’t give me anything to do.”

“Did you try elsewhere for work?”

A Barefaced Robbery

“Yes, I walked from one end of Broadway to the other and I made from one to four sample scarfs in every scarf house, but when they would ask me where I learned and I would tell them they would laugh at me and give me no work. One foreman scolded me and said that I should have better sense than to be taken in by such swindlers.”

“Did you never tell Miss Thurston about your disappointments?”

“Yes, every day her advertisements, in three English papers and one German, kept saying, ‘Plenty of beautiful home work furnished.’ So I went back and asked for some. She told me to hunt work myself, but I told her that no one would take me and that she promised me work. She said she had none, and I asked her why she promised it then. She said she had work, but she had given it out to a girl to do, and as soon as the girl returned the work she would give me some. I went every day for a long while, but the girl never returned the work. I met a friend of mine then, and when I told her about Miss Thurston she said that she had been swindled at the same place. Afterwards I learned that Miss Thurston advertised to send samples of lace for 10 cents and furnish home work, and that she kept the 10 cents and sent no return. She also pretended to do pictures in crayon and oil.”

Two young girls came in then and sat down on the sofa, waiting their turn to speak.

One day while I was there a young girl came to learn. By the second day she had met someone who told her it was a swindle: so she came back with her mother to get her money. Miss Thurston would not give it back, and the mother said she would take her to the court.

“Very well, see what you can do,” Miss Thurston said. She was very angry.

“It is not far. I can walk to Jefferson Market, and I’ll enter a complaint against you for swindling,” the mother said.

“You can’t, you can’t, “Miss Thurston said, “I don’t refuse to teach your daughter. She may come here as long as she wants.” I don’t know what was done. That’s the last we knew of it.

Reaping A Harvest By the Swindle

I saw the young girls on the sofa nudge one another, so I said:

“I suppose you girls know Miss Thurston?”

“Indeed we do,” they replied in chorus.

“Where is she now?” I asked.

“At 202 Eight avenue,” answers the smaller one, a pretty Miss Murray, of West Fifteenth street. “Miss Thurston is tall, fair and plump, dresses very well and has nicely furnished apartments. She gets on an average eight new scholars a day and everyone has to pay her $3 down before she can get into the workroom.”

“Does she teach you, then?”

“Indeed she does not,” said the other girl, Miss Larkin, of East Thirty-second street.

“She cuts out the first scarf and you have to do the best you can.”

“And you buy your own material,” said Miss Murray,” and it costs 40 cents. She said we could make $6 or $7 a week, and when I asked a foreman what prices they paid he said 95 cents a gross.”

“She flatters every girl about her work. She smiles and says. ‘Oh, you must have done this work before for your brother, you do it so nicely,’” said Miss Larkin, with a sorrowful smile.

“She told me the same thing,” said Miss Schwab, “and I told her I never had a brother.”

“And she makes servants of all the girls, too,” from Miss Murray. “She had me run all her errands and some of the girls helped to do her work.”

“She wanted me to run errands,” from Miss Schwab, “but I told her that wasn’t what I paid her $3 for.”

“Well, I have known her to borrow money from girls and never pay it back,” said Miss Larkin.

“We went back for our aprons,” said Miss Murray, “and we intended to tell the other girls that she was a fraud, but she was too clever. She would only allow us in the hall.”

“I went back once to tell her what I thought of her, and she had some new victims in the front room, so she kept me in the hall,” said Miss Schwab, laughing, “but I got even. I talked just as loud as I could until the people upstairs opened their door. She would say ‘sh!’ ‘sh!’ but I would talk all the louder.”

“One girl from Jersey was so angry about being cheated that she threatened to write to The World to expose her. Miss Thurston said; ‘All right: you can’t harm me.’ I don’t know what the girl did. She also pretends to teach embroidery, painting and lace-making,” Miss Larkin informed me.

Refused Work Everywhere

“We have been in every scarf house in New York and we can’t get work anywhere,” said Miss Murray, “At 316 Canal street they told us if we wished to go to their operators in West Fifty-first street and work for six weeks for nothing that maybe afterwards they could give us work.”

Another victim came in. Mrs. Cinke, of No.326 East Twenty-ninth street. She has a sick husband and four little children to care for, and it was necessary to have home work. She went to Miss Smith, at No. 288 Eight avenue, paid her $3 and spent 25 cents for material. Miss Smith gave her no instructions, and when Mrs. Cinke told her that she was defrauding poor women she told Mrs. Cinke to call at several scarf-houses and mention her as reference. Everywhere she called Miss Smith was not known. Even at the place where she learned the business she had never been heard of before. Then Mrs. Cinke went to a corset-house on Fourteenth street for which Miss Smith said she took learners. They maintained that they knew nothing of the woman.

“Plenty of women go to Mrs. Smith,” said Mrs. Cinke. “I have known eight new ones to come in one day. I have been very sorry to see poor old widows go and give up their money. I went back to tell the people, but Miss Smith would not let me in the workroom.”

“Did you get any work at all?”

“Yes, one woman on East Thirteenth street advertised for scarf hands. I went there early in the morning and she said that she could give me work. She said she made scarfs for Spindel’s on Broadway. I worked all day at four-in-hands. I had no lunch and I had nothing to get lunch with. Late that night I had finished three dozen.”

“And I suppose she did not pay you.” I said.

“Oh! yes: she did. I would not leave until she did. She paid me eight cents a dozen, and for my day’s work I had 24 cents!”

This is only a brief portion of what was told me that long day. Can nothing be done to punish these swindlers?

(Source: Undercover Reporting,