Working women in Columbus, circa 1912

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Columbus in 1912 was a city that was rather proud of itself. Founded in 1812, Ohio’s capital city was celebrating its centennial. And there was a lot to celebrate. From a small village of a few hundred people on the edge of the American frontier, Columbus had become by 1912 a center of transportation and trade.
 
And it had become a manufacturing town as well with all of the promise and problems associated with the rise of industrial America.
Such had not always been the case. Columbus, in its early years, did not have a lot to recommend itself. Rather removed in the middle of the state from the Ohio River or Lake Erie, Columbus would not develop like Cincinnati or Cleveland as a major commercial location.
 
But the capital city did experience significant periods of growth and change. A small frontier village until well in the 1830s, Columbus exploded in population with the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road. By 1834, the Borough of Columbus had become the City of Columbus with more than 5,000 residents.
 
Population growth was slow in the 1840s and 1850s and by 1860 the capital city was a town of only 18,000 people. The Civil War brought many changes. Because of its central location, most of the major railroads travelling through the state passed through Columbus. This made the city an obvious location to mobilize troops. Camp Chase on the far west side of the city was the home of more than 26,000 Union troops for most of the war and also was the residence of more than 10,000 Confederate prisoners of war.
 
The presence of all of these people prompted changes in the transportation system. Existing railroads were improved and expanded. And whole new railroads were built as well. Most important among the new roads was the Hocking Valley Railroad. Constructed by Columbus entrepreneurs, the railroad opened immense resources of coal, iron and timber to industrial development.
 
By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Columbus had become an industrial city of more than 125,000 residents. Over the next decade the population would be increased by more than 60,000 new arrivals. Many of these new people found themselves working in new places.
 
The original factory district in Columbus had been in the center of the city along the Scioto River. Since the 1830s, the once pristine riverfront had been crowded first with canal boats and barges and then the land along the river was overshadowed by large factories, foundries and mills.
 
But the growth of the city had led to a rise in value of the land along the river. Old companies needing room for expansion and new companies looking for room to grow began to look beyond the downtown to new locations. Along the major rail lines, Columbus saw new factories being built both to the north and south of the city. To the north, one would find the Jeffrey Manufacturing Co. making coal mining equipment and the Columbus Buggy Co. To the south, Federal Glass would employ many workers and no less than four steel mills would employ hundreds more.
 
And many of the workers in many of these new factories would be women.
 
There was nothing new about women working in factories. Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 1820s, women had been working in European and American spinning mills and other industries. But the numbers of women workers had been not all that great and most American women did not work outside the home. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, that traditional pattern was beginning to change.
 
The years from 1900 to 1914 are often referred to as the Progressive Era. It was in this period that a variety of reform movements began to address some of the more difficult issues facing a rapidly changing society. Among these problems were public health, the safety of food and other consumer products and the role of women and children in the workplace.
 
In July 1912, Bertha Voss completed a three month study of the factories of Columbus for State Labor Commissioner Fred Lange. She did not like what she found. According to one newspaper, she said that “the conditions under which most factory girls were compelled to work are terrible.”
 
“It is no wonder to me that girls stray from the straight and narrow path,” said Mrs. Voss. “The wages paid girls in Columbus factories are pitifully low, averaging $5 per week.” She went on to say that the main reasons for the “fall of young girls” were “Starvation Wages, Yearning for Better Clothes and Finery and an Unhappy Home Life.”
 
“I came across one case ... where a girl of 14 told a horrible tale. She said that, besides working nine hours a day, her drunken father made her entertain his drunken friends at night.” Mrs. Voss vowed to report this case to the local Juvenile Court judge.
 
She went on say that a North Front Street box factory was one of the worst places she visited. “There are no dressing rooms there. The girls are compelled to change their clothes before open windows. Men working in a candy factory across the street look down upon them and cause embarrassment.”
 
“The girls have no place to eat but are compelled to spread out their lunches on tables covered with paste pots and flies. I asked one of the managers to better conditions and he said he had had a lunchroom and that the girls wouldn’t use it.”
 
Mrs. Voss pointed out the plants of the Felber Biscuit Co. and the Godman Shoe Co. as model concerns and that the John Brown Auto Lamp Co. was constructing lunchrooms and restrooms for its employees.
The results of the investigations of Mrs. Voss were turned over to the State Factory Inspector. They provide a window into the world of women in the workplace a century ago.
 
Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek Community News.

 

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