Last updated: January 10, 2023
Jennie Curtis, who was a seamstress in the repair shops, one of the most common jobs at the Pullman car shops for women. Her testimony in the U.S. Strike Commission Report gives us some insight into the nature of work at the Pullman factory. As she described her job:
“We made all the carpets, and all the silk, satin, plush, and velvet drapings for the dining cars, made all the linen for the sleepers, berth curtains and vestibule curtains, and we sewed the tapestry for the covering of the seats; we bound the blankets, made the mattresses for the bunks, and all such work as that”.
Also, as part of her testimony about the Strike of 1894, she detailed the hardship brought on by reduced wages especially for female workers:
“Whenever the men were cut in their wages the girls also received a cut. We were cut twice inside of a week in November 1893, and in January our wages were cut again….The most experienced of us could only make 80 cents per day, and a great many of the girls could only average 40 to 50 cents per day.”
Compared to $1.50 - $2.25 per day in pre-recession years. Beyond pay discrepancies, Curtis wrote a letter complaining of the abuses she and her fellow workers endured:
“When [our forewoman] was put over us by the superintendent as our forewoman, she seemed to delight in showing her power in hurting the girls in every possible way. At times her conduct was almost unbearable. She was so abusive to certain girls that she disliked, that they could not stand it, and would take their time and leave, who would otherwise have been working there to- day...She was getting $2.25 a day and she did not care how much we girls made, whether we made enough to live on or not, just so long as she could figure to save a few dollars for the Company. When a girl was sick and asked to go home during the day, she would tell them to their face they were not sick, the cars had to be got out, and they could not go home.”
Curtis is significant not just because of the testimony she gave to the Strike Commission but because she was the president of The Girls Local Union 269, which had 125 members in 1894. Curtis famously gave a speech at the American Railway Union (ARU) convention of June 1894 that convinced the union members to support a boycott of Pullman trains to support the strike effort. Curtis is an excellent example of the strong-willed Pullmen women who lived and worked in the community. Her mark on Pullman’s complex history in indelible.