Two women workers become public heroines  

At the Laundry Minimum Wage Conference of May 1914, three laundry girls gained a face. They were Johanna Hilts and Hilda O'Connor from Seattle, and "Mother" Julia Wilson of Spokane.


The papers closely reported on the 1914 Laundry Minimum Wage Conferences, especially the wranglings over what it cost a laundry girl to live.

Only the delegates were willing to speak as laundry girls, yet many laundry owners attended as lobbyists. (From Seattle, Pacific Laundryman listed representatives of the Troy, Model, Model Electric, Rainier, Cascade, Washington, American, Nelson, New Method, Metropolitan and Peerless Laundries). "Some 25 to 30 laundrymen," wrote the Seattle Star, "came to caucus..and with them the minimum wage law was interpreted to mean WHAT IS THE IRREDUCIBLE MINIMUM UPON WHICH A GIRL CAN EXIST?"

Delegates argued over the necessity of petticoats, the quality of hats and shoes a laundry girl deserved - even the amount of handkerchiefs needed per year.

The passionate testimony of Seattle laundry girls Joanna Hilts and Hilda O'Connor captured public imagination. Owners rebuked O'Connor, whose husband was a laundry driver, for requiring a "higher standard of living than a single girl".

Yet, when O'Connor was asked how much girls required for shoes, "she said the laundry girls required three pairs per year, at $3 a pair for shop use and one pair at $3 for 'dress'." When an owner asked if one pair of $4 shoes might not do, the Star reported O'Connor smiled as she replied, "I cannot answer...I never had a pair of $4 shoes in my life." She had worked as a laundry girl, the paper noted, for 14 years.

"Miss Hilts,' they wrote, "knows the laundry business from top to bottom, having worked in all departments. Her description of the effects of operating the different kinds of machines in the laundries and how the strain and jar of this work crippled and otherwise broke down the women...until serious operations and long periods of sickness were of frequent occurrence."

"She also told of the effect of the hot stench that came from the dirty clothes" and the "temperature that frequently ran to 100 degrees". One paper described it as a "bombshell" thrown "into the camp of the laundry-owners".

Laundry owner Frank Nixon opposed the girls' every plea, eventually provoking O'Connor to demand, "Do you know what it means to eat on $2 a week...It means less than ten cents a meal. Have you ever eaten a ten-cent meal?" When Nixon replied that he had, the hearing adjourned for lunch.

Hilts and O'Connor trailed Nixon to Doan's restaurant - and secretly pocketed the receipt for his lunch. How she used it made Hilts a public heroine.

Taking the stand that afternoon, she addressed Nixon directly, saying, "It's easy enough for you to say that girls can eat at ten cents a meal. Talking that way doesn't hurt your stomach and it doesn't make your heart faint and your head swim as you slave, slave, slave. What do you know about ten-cent meals, Mr. Nixon? Your meal at noon today - here in Olympia - cost $2.40 all for yourself. You've allowed yourself at one sitting more than you would give a laundry girls for all week!"