Working Girl 1910-1919
One of the strengths of Betty Smith's novels are that they provide concrete descriptions of the conditions of everyday working life in various blue and white collar jobs throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. In that sense she serves as a cultural historian, documenting a social reality about which few authors had first hand experience: the lives of working women in early twentieth-century New York. It seems that she started work in 1910, when she was fourteen years old. In an autobiographical statement written in 1936, Smith records her early working experience with the preface: "At fourteen, my father died and left my mother and her three children destitute. Mother and I went to work, I was fourteen but insisted I was eighteen and worked at following jobs." Of course John Wehner died in 1915, not in 1910, so that Smith was nineteen when her father died; since she continually adjusted the date of her birth, she had to adjust the dates in her autobiographical statements as well. However, it is likely that she left school to work five years before her father died. This leads one to believe that John Wehner did not make enough money to support his family, and reinforces the theory that he was an alcoholic, much like Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Jobs Described Within the Narrative of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In the novel, Francie's first job is in the kitchen of the bar where her father spent most of his time and money. Smith lists that her first job was in a restaurant. The bar and restaurant business seemed to run in the family: her father had been a bartender and a waiter, and her brother Bill eventually opened up Keogh's Bar and Grill, a successful gas station and restaurant combination, on a major highway in town. Smith lists her second job as a "leaf putter-onner in artificial flower factory," a job which is also described in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The flower workers were "Brooklyn migratory workers following seasonal work from one part of the borough to the other" (326); at first Francie had a hard time fitting in with the older, hardened women: they all sat at the table doing the piecework together, and for entertainment they poked fun at the newcomer. However, when Francie discovered that she could laugh with them at the boy who came in to collect the work, she relaxed and fit in. She also had to slow her work down to keep pace with her fellow workers, since they knew that when they finished this job, they would be laid off and have to look for another. When the migratory workers moved on to a different neighborhood, Francie didn't follow.
Smith then lists that she worked as cashier in a Manhattan department store. Although there are no descriptions of this job, Smith describes Francie's reactions to riding the subway to work:
Like Francie, Smith must have felt overwhelmed at having financial responsibility for her family and by entering the adult world, for which she was unequipped.
The next job she lists, as reader of complaint letters in mail order house, is documented in Tomorrow Will Be Better. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this description is the rituals enacted in the women's washroom while the workers are on break. There they sought for and held social positions, discussed engagements, marriage and the absent girls. In the novel, Margy is not an outcast, but she is not popular either, since "the girls were beginning to notice she had no decent clothes" (73). And like in the novel, Smith was giving all of her earnings to her mother so that she could not afford any new clothes.
Favorite Job - Clipping Bureau
Smith's favorite job was in a clipping bureau; there she read two hundred newspapers a day. This job is also recorded in detail in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Finally Francie had found a job that used her skills as a reader, and it paid well too. However, this job also had its drawbacks. Because she read so much fine print during the day, Francie cannot read at night, or even go "to the movies because they jumped around so and hurt her eyes" (360). As a consequence, Francie had nothing to do in the evenings, and was lonely:
In the Betty Smith papers in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, one of the earliest items that Smith saved and donated was an autograph book with her eighth-grade friends writing notes to her. I must have been difficult to separate from them and join the working world.
Part of the difficulties that Smith faced as a girl worker was that she was essentially unprotected from the adults who were around her. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Smith describes the job in the clipping bureau, she notes that although Francie was the fastest reader they had, she was never paid as much as the other workers. When she was finally given a small raise, the boss warned her not to engage in "washroom gossip" and tell the others because they would be jealous; "Since Francie never became friendly enough with the girls to be taken into their confidence, she had no way of knowing how grossly underpaid she was" (329). In this way, Smith was taken advantage of because of her youth and her inability to negotiate the difficult and competitive adult world.
Girl's High School
The next thing that Smith did was learn to be a teletype telegrapher so that she could work nights and go to high school in the day. This was in 1915, the year her father died. She had "the Columbus Ohio to New York line and liked working nights in a skyscraper where my window overlooked New York Harbor. Did my studying on L trains back and forth to Brooklyn. Learned to get along on very little sleep." Smith went to Girl's High School from age 19 to age 21. There she was the editor of the school paper. She spent time at the Jackson Street Settlement House, an institution for the education and advancement of immigrants' children: there she taught sewing Saturday afternoons. She also acted in plays for the first time, and learned to dance. Smith's social life revolved around the settlement house. There is only one scene in her books about the settlement house, however; in Tomorrow Will Be Better, an upper-class woman who is volunteering her time makes fun of the lower-class accents.
The most important thing that happened to Smith at the settlement house was that she met George Smith while debating. By then it was 1917 and Smith was in her last year of High School, at age 21; George was 19. George was an extremely ambitious young man. He was attending Brooklyn College during the day, taking law courses in the evenings, and working weekends in the Long Island Train office as a telegrapher. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith describes "Ben" as being very ambitious:
Perhaps this is what attracted her to him: they were both poor kids working hard and striving to get out of the city. But it must have been hard for a woman with an artistic temperament to live with such a hard-driving rational man: Smith always writes about him with a bit of irony. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, after listing more of Ben's accomplishments (you can almost imagine Ben listing them to her) she ends up: "At nineteen, his life was planned out in a straight unswerving line" (380). Like Ben, George probably preceded Smith to Ann Arbor, leaving her to her own devices for another year.
The last job that Smith held during this period was in 1918, the year her mother married Michael Keogh. Smith took a civil service exam, and, not surprisingly, did very well. Consequently she qualified for a high-paying job detecting forgeries for the postal service. She also edited the weekly newsletter of the money-order department. She abandoned high-school again for this job: she was 22, and for the first time in her life, her mother did not need her financial help. Smith had a ball. Her mother permitted her "to keep my money and live a life of extreme luxury for nearly a year. Bought expensive perfumes and hats and lingerie and clothes and ate at expensive places. All this in reaction to the lean years when we were so poor." Smith also interacted with her peers for the first time, recording their fun with a camera. From the photographs, in which she and her friends are clowning and laughing, it is likely that this was one of the happiest times in her life. Then, in 1919 when she was 23, she eloped to Ann Arbor with George.
All of this work experience was valuable for Smith. Not only did she
put it into her plays and novels, making them urban folk-lore, but she
learned lessons from each of these various experiences. When she went
to school at Michigan and Yale and when she moved to Chapel Hill to be
a writer, she was more equipped with skills and with business sense than
her peers. In this way, she knew how to negotiate the world of business
in New York and did not fear it, and consequently could get further, with
greater confidence that many other aspiring writers.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003