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'An Utterly Unjust Interference': The BootBlack Women of Bromfield Street FIght for Their Jobs

In 1917, Boston's first female bootblacks fought Mayor Curley and Boston's City Council to save their jobs.

By Marta Crilly

On October 22, 1917, Harriet Duffy, Evelyn Webb, Agnes Brennan, and May Williamson signed their names to a petition urging Boston's City Council to preserve their jobs as bootblacks.  Less than five months earlier, the four women had begun work shining shoes and blacking boots in downtown Boston. Formerly factory workers, the women found that they made more money and worked in better conditions in their Bromfield Street shoeshine parlor.

However, after only a few short months of work, on October 15, Boston's Mayor Curley sent a letter urging the City Council to pass an ordinance mandating that "no female person less than 21 years of age shall engage in the trade of bootblacking."  Mayor Curley wrote, "The unfitness of such an occupation for young girls is hardly open to argument and it seems unnecessary to enlarge upon the possible dangers from the standpoint of public morals....."

Ordinance regarding employment of BootBlack Women, October 15, 1917
Communication regarding employment of bootblack women, City Council Proceedings, October 22, 1917

Faced with losing their newly gained employment, the bootblacks joined together to fight the Mayor's proposed ordinance. Their October 22 petition requested that the City Council grant the women a hearing in which they could make a case for continuing to work. The bootblacks gave the Council a preview of their arguments, stating that the ordinance would be "unconstitutional" and an "utterly unjust interference with our right to work." They pointed out that working conditions in shoeshine parlors were "more wholesome" than in factories and sweatshops and played up the womanly nature of the work, stating that "cleaning is women's natural vocation."

Harriet Duffy Petition
Petition from Harriet Duffy et al, October 22, 1917, City Council Proceedings, Boston City Archives

The Mayor's request to Boston's City Council and the bootblacks' petition in response raises intriguing research questions:

  • Who were these bootblacks?
  • Why did they suddenly start working in the shoeshine industry in 1917?
  • Why was the Mayor opposed to their working in this industry to the point that he would try to pass a law against it?
  • Was he alone in his opposition or did others share his concern?
  • And what happened to these groundbreaking workers?

We took a deep dive into the records at the City Archives and combed through newspaper accounts to get answers to some of these questions  - but there is still more work to be done!

Who Were the Bootblacks?

Our first goal was to learn more about these bootblacks. Who were they? The petition was signed by 4 women, but were there others? 

From examining the petition, we can tell that Harriet Duffy appeared to be leading the group. Her name was first on the petition and was also listed as the chief petitioner on flip side of the petition.

1917 Petition, bootblacks
Petition from Harriet Duffy et al, October 22, 1917, City Council Proceedings, Boston City Archives

To find out if there were other women working as bootblacks in Boston, we looked for more documents in our City Council docket collection. We found that the City Council agreed to allow the women present their arguments at a hearing on October 31, 1917. The hearing's sign in sheet was also filed in the City Council dockets. 

October 31 1917 Hearing Sign In
List of hearing attendees, October 31, 1917 City Council Proceedings, Boston City Archives

In addition to the four women who originally signed the petition, we see another apparent bootblack, Helen Russell of 27 Cumberland Street, present at the hearing. We also see a number of other traditionally female names listed. However, the sign in sheet indicates that these women had come to the hearing to testify in favor of banning women from working as bootblacks.

Why Did They Start Working As Bootblacks?

We also wanted to know why these women had recently begun working as bootblacks. Was this a new profession for women? 

Combing through newspaper archives gave us more information on who these women bootblacks were and why they had begun working in shoeshine parlors. On July 18, 1917, the Boston Globe published an article about "the girl shoe polishers" of Bromfield Street. The article stated that 12 "girls" had been hired to shine shoes at a Bromfield Street shoeshine parlor.  Most of the women had formerly worked in shoe factories in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Boston Globe, July 18, 1917
"Shine 'em Up Girls Start Polishing Shoes Saturday," July 18, 1917, Boston Globe

Why did the women start working in the shoeshine parlor in 1917?

Traditionally, bootblacking and shoe polishing was work done by boys and young men. However, in April of 1917, the United States entered World War I, and American women began to enter formerly male professions. According to the Boston Globe article of July 18,  so many men and boys from greater Boston had enlisted in the Army and Navy that the shoeshine parlor was unable to find male bootblacks; thus the shop's management opened the jobs to women. This phenomena was not particular to Boston. In 1918, a photographer from the United States War Department snapped this photo of a "Girl bootblack" to document the male labor shortage. 

Girl bootblack, Hotel McAlpin, New York., United States War Department, 1918
Girl bootblack, Hotel McAlpin, New York., United States War Department, 1918

While women may have been responding to a labor shortage brought on by war, they were also eager to leave factory work and start shoeshine jobs. In the Boston bootblacks' petition to the City Council, they stated that their wages were better than factory wages and the working conditions were "healthful".

Why Was the Mayor Opposed to Women Bootblacks?

Given the labor shortage, we had questions about the Mayor's opposition to female bootblacks. Why was he so opposed to women doing this work? And was he alone in his opposition or did other Bostonians also share his resistance to women working in this field?

In his letter to City Council, Mayor Curley bases his opposition on "public morals." Questioned later, he stated, "I believe that the sanctity of womanhood is the most important thing in the world and that nothing should be permitted to debase or degrade it. I can't imagine any more humiliating thing, for a woman, than to the polish the shoes of men."

"Women Bootblacks Rebuffed by Curley," October 19, 1917, Boston Globe

In the 21st century, it can be a little bit difficult to imagine what Mayor Curley meant by "the sanctity of womanhood" or why he would have been concerned about "public morals." However, this language would have been familiar to the Bostonians reading Mayor Curley's remarks.

Although many women worked outside of their homes in the early twentieth century, the idea that women should confine themselves to the protected space of the home remained a powerful cultural force. Many people thought that women working outside of the home would "masculinize" them. Many also worried that women who worked in public spaces were vulnerable to male advances. As more women entered the workforce during World War I and as suffragettes fought for voting rights, competing ideas about appropriate and safe roles for women clashed.

Did Other Bostonians Share Mayor Curley's Concerns?

Records at the City Archives show that  Mayor Curley was not alone in his opposition to women working in public spaces and providing services to a male clientele. When we examined the sign in sheet for the October 22 hearing, we saw both male and female names listed as supporting the ban on women bootblacks. One of those names was Charlotte Smith. Smith, the President of the New England Woman's Homestead Association, sent the below letter to the City Council explaining her opposition to young women working as bootblacks.

Charlotte Smith to the Boston City Council, October 20, 1917, City Council Proceedings, Boston City Archives

Smith focused on the age of the bootblacks, writing that "no woman under 40 years of age" should be permitted to work as a bootblack. Rather, she suggested that older women with experience shining their husbands' or sons' shoes could be permitted to do this work. Further suggesting that only older women should be allowed to work as barbers, she stated that the age limits would protect men "from the arts and wiles of younger women who plunge into industrial occupations without proper, professional training." Smith's specific opposition to younger women working with men and her advocacy for older married women or widows underscored a cultural concern with the moral purity of young, unmarried women. 

Similarly, the Boston Chapter of the Women's Temperance Union also opposed young women working as bootblacks, sending a special resolution of thanks to Mayor Curley for proposing the ban. 

. C. T. U. BACKS MAYOR IN WAR ON GIRL BOOTBLACKS Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922); Oct 16, 1917; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Boston Globe pg. 12
WCTU Backs Mayor on Girl Bootblacks, October 16, 1917, Boston Globe

While Mayor Curley and some women's organizations opposed the idea of younger women working as bootblacks, others supported the women fighting for their jobs. Both the hearing sign in sheet and newspaper articles document that other working women, including Rebecca Berkman, a secretary, and Mrs. Bert Thomas, a nurse, attended the hearing and spoke in favor of the bootblacks.  Harriet Duffy's mother, Annie, also came to the hearing and spoke in support of her daughter's work. Some male politicians also supported the bootblacks. Former Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald opposed Mayor Curley's proposed ordinance and spoke forcefully to the Boston Globe about his opposition.

Excerpt from WCTU Opposed to Women Bootblacks, Boston Globe, October 21, 1917
Excerpt from WCTU Opposed to Women Bootblacks, October 21, 1917, Boston Globe

In a Boston Globe article, Fitzgerald spoke in support of working women, stating, "Mayor Curley's criticism of women who desire to earn their living at blacking shoes comes with ill grace from a man who, a short time ago, bellowed like a whale on the rights of free speech on the Boston Common. When a woman finds, in these distressing times, that she can enjoy better hours and get better pay by blacking shoes, freedom of opportunity is denied her and her morals attacked by this self-appointed censor of industrial pursuits."

Similarly, newspaper articles document that Reverend Preston Barr of St. John Episcopal Church in Wilkinsonville, a neighborhood of Sutton, Massachusetts, attended the hearing and spoke on behalf of the bootblacks.

City Council Assigns Oct 31 to Women, Boston Globe,  October 23, 1917
Excerpt from City Council Assigns Oct 31 to Women, October 23, 1917, Boston Globe

Barr defended the women's right to work in good conditions and for good pay and used his position as a minister to dismissed claims that shining shoes posed a moral danger to young women. "To say any occupation can degrade human character is pure snobbery," he stated.

What Happened to These Groundbreaking Women?

Initially the bootblacks' advocacy seemed to have paid off. Newspaper articles noted that the bootblacks' arguments to keep their jobs were persuasive and that the October 31 hearing was full of their supporters while only a few individuals spoke in favor of the ordinance banning them from work. "A victory for the girls and defeat of the ordinance would not be a surprise," wrote on Globe reporter on the following day.

However, despite their advocacy and seemingly widespread support, the ordinance quietly passed a few months later, on December 20, 1917. The revised ordinance prohibited female minors sixteen years of age or older from working as bootblacks and prohibited employers from hiring any female minor as a bootblack. The bookblacks had lost the fight to keep their jobs.

City Council Proceedings, December 20, 1917
City Council Proceedings, December 20, 1917

Our final research query was to learn what happened to the bootblacks after the passage of the ordinance. In 1917, anyone under the age of 21 was considered a minor, and thus the ordinance resulted in almost all the female bootblacks who had petitioned the City Council losing their jobs. Though Harriet Duffy was over the age of 21, she also likely lost her job as a manager. Without female bootblacks to manage, the Bromfield Shoe Parlour would have had no need for her.  In the 1920 census, a Harriett Duffy is listed in Lynn, living with her mother Annie and several siblings. Her occupation is listed as "table worker" at shoe factory.  We think this is the Harriet Duffy of the Bromfield Shoe Parlour, but we can't be sure. Though many of the details match, the Harriett Duffy living in Lynn in 1920 is listed as "divorced."  Her mother is named Annie, but this Annie's last name is Kiley. Is this a different Harriet Duffy entirely? Or is there more to Harriet's story than the newspapers reported? Additional archival research is needed to learn more about Harriet and the other women bootblacks' stories. 

We've only scratched the surface of the story of the Women Bootblacks of Bromfield Street. Many questions remain. Why was the ordinance passed when the bootblacks appeared to have popular support? Was their more to Mayor Curley's opposition to women working in the bootblack industry than met the eye? Did the women who fought for their jobs continue to fight for women's rights?  Did they join the suffrage movement? The labor movement? There's much more to explore in this story and we hope some of our researchers will dig deeper!

Further Reading

Marta Crilly is the Archivist for Reference and Outreach at the Boston City Archives.

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