The recent debate over raising the minimum wage in Madison brings to mind the wages paid to “hired girls” in the early part of the last century.
“The Madison hired girl has a life of drudgery,” reported the Wisconsin State Journal on August 15, 1907. Two thousand girls and women were annually employed as domestics in Madison homes. Most came from surrounding towns. Miss Hess of the employment bureau on Williamson Street went on recruiting trips to Stoughton, Mt. Horeb and other villages; Mr. O’Keefe of the State Street bureau preferred to post bills in surrounding train depots to attract workers. Each fall, as Madisonians returned to town from their summer homes on the lakes and UW student boarding houses reopened, the demand for hired girls increased. An inexperienced girl earned $3 per week, an experienced girl who did no family washing received $4, and a “good” cook made $6. The monthly wage of a hotel dining room girl was $16 to $20, a hotel cook $25 to $70, a kitchen girl $17 to $24, and a chambermaid $14 to $18. Most hired girls worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., or 13 hours daily. They had Thursday afternoon off, worked on Sunday, and cared for the family children in the evenings. Around December 1 nearly half the girls left their positions to work in tobacco warehouses, where they earned $10 to $15 per week with evenings and Sundays free. Once the factories closed in May and June, they returned to private homes.
Due to a shortage of girls in 1907, wages were fifty cents to two dollars per week higher than in 1906.
Three decades later the lot of the girl worker had not improved significantly. In a sermon broadcast over WIBA in December 1933, Reverend Alfred W. Swan, pastor of the Congregational Church, criticized what he called “a new era of slavery that has sprung up in this city. The fact is that many Madison women have taken advantage of the Depression to employ women for room and board to work as many as 80 hours a week, and if they are giving them any wages at all they are far below the minimum $4.25 per week. Many women who have never enjoyed the help of a servant before have taken these girls into their homes. They have worked them long hours detrimental to health and morale, and under conditions we find it hard to believe could exist today. Girls and women have humbly accepted these conditions because they did not wish to accept charity. The operator at the YWCA told me she was getting calls for women to work for as low as $1.50 per week. When we explained over the phone that we could only furnish girls where the specifications [of the minimum wage law] were fulfilled, the reply from the other end of the wire was ‘oh, piffle.’ I find that girls are compelled to sleep in unfinished attics on army cots, in damp basements, and with children.”