14 April 2010

Gertie was a Street Car Conductor

Technically, I'm not related to Gertie Stroder. He was, however, a brother of William A. Stroder. William married my 2nd cousin 4x removed, Maggie D. Estes. Upon the deaths of William and Maggie, their children (my third cousins) often lived with their uncle Gertie and his wife. If you read Maggie's Timeline, you also know that things are made more interesting by the fact that Gertie's wife was also a step-daughter to Maggie. So learning more about the life of Gertie helps me learn more about the lives of several other relatives.

The 1930 Federal census for Cape Girardeau County, Missouri shows Gertie and his family living at 713 North Main Street in the city of Cape Girardeau.

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That puts them in downtown, on a street that ran along the Mississipi River. Gertie's occupation was listed as "street car conductor." To be honest, I have never really thought of a street car conductor as being a particularly tough job. Researching the position by reading some old articles on the subject changed my mind.

According to the University of Houston's Digital History, "The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves was originally published in 1906. It collected interviews with a number of ordinary Americans such as former slaves, immigrants, sweatshop workers, housewives, and farmers wives. These articles were first published in Holt's reformist newspaper The New York Independent during the early 1900s." One such article was Experiences of a Street Car Conductor. Here's an excerpt:
Working on the back platform of a street car is generally the last resort of a man who has lost everything but industry. I do not say this to belittle conductors or motormen. I consider it high praise. What I mean is that I know of no form of labor, however difficult, that is harder than working on a street car. Many men who fail in business, cannot make ends meet in their profession, or lose clerical positions, say "No, thank you," when they are offered positions on the cars. They would sooner beg, steal or live off their friends. You may rest assured that the conductor or motorman, whatever his faults, is not afraid of hard work. It must not be assumed that it is easy to secure employment on the cars. In the last few years there has been a slight increase in the pay, and there are hundreds waiting for men to die or resign. Some of them do one or the other, after a while; and now and then but rarely tho some man is discharged. In my time, and since the introduction of the trolley in Chicago, where I first went on the cars, there has been a distinct improvement in the class of men who seek the work. And yet the business is not made up wholly of Chesterfields and college professors. It could not be.
The conductor being interviewed reported earning between $2 and $2.40 for a 10-11 hour work day. He goes on to say, "A conductor on a trolley car can scarcely call his soul his own. This may sound strange to the casual observer, who regards the conductor as a petty tyrant, lording it over his poor passengers. As a matter of fact, he is subject to the whims of the most insignificant person who enters his car. Any one can report him for incivility or worse lie about him, and he has a black mark put down against his name at the office. Then there is that awful book of rules and regulations. Every man employed by the company has to have one, and every man has to learn the regulations by heart. He soon discovers that there is a fine and a threat of dismissal for nearly everything under the sun except breathing..."

Another article found in a February 1897 edition of the New York Times describes a situation in which new conductors get very little work. When first starting out, however, they are still required to show up at 4 a.m. every morning and "required to hold himself in readiness of duty" until 2 p.m. This is regardless of the fact they may only receive one day of work every couple of weeks. At the end of a year, if able to get on regularly, a salary could be $1.35 to $2 a day.

The common thread through all the articles read includes long, hard days with little pay, as well as precious little time left for family. I now have a new-found respect for the street car conductor.

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