Early Morning Riders of the “Owl” Cars

In depression era Milwaukee, the streetcar was the only way to get to work for most of the people who held jobs. These cars were busy even early in the morning with women heading to cleaning work. This story from the Milwaukee Journal of 1933 tells about a few of these women and the hardship they endured.

Milwaukee Journal, July 23, 1933

Early Morning Riders of the “Owl” Cars

Every weekday at 5 a.m., when the last of the Delaware av. owl cars from Bay View reaches the Milwaukee city hall, an elderly woman, well along in the sixties, cautiously steps off and makes her way to the transfer zone in front of the Pabst theater. She waits for a Wells st. car and proceeds westward. She has been doing this for 13 years. Blizzards may be blowing or the cold be biting, rain storms may be raging or the heat be blistering, this woman is nearly always on time. Only when that owl car fails her and is late, does her schedule vary.

Who Is she? Just one of the city’s early workers, one of hundreds of women, who at that hour are on their way to work. Between 4:30 and 6 a.m. many such women are on the downtown streets. In the winter they are out long before the night’s darkness ends. In the summer they arrive with the sun. They come from all points of the city and when they reach the downtown district they scatter in all directions. They give just a glimpse of how some of the other half live – a picture those who sleep normal hours never see.

This Bay View woman modestly told her story. She lives on Idaho st. She arises at 4 o’clock. After a hurried breakfast, she sets forth to catch the last Delaware owl car which leaves the Oklahoma av. terminal at 4:35 a.m. When she boards the Wells st. car she goes to one of the west side hospitals, where she works in the laundry. When work was more plentiful, she worked on a monthly scale, but now she works on an hourly basis. She puts in six hours a day at 30 cents an hour. That figures $1.80 a day or $10.80 a week.

Isn’t It trying to get up at 4 o’clock every morning?

She thinks for a moment and then with a somewhat sad smile answers that when one has been doing it for 18 years one gets used to it.

Her voice sounded hollow. Just then a Wells st. car came rattling down the hill from Broadway. She excused herself, saying she must not miss her car and was on her way again.

The last of the inbound owl cars that arrive downtown at about 5 o’clock and the first of the regular day cars that come half an hour later, carrying almost as many women passengers as men. They all belong to the army of early workers. Many of the women are well advanced in years, others are in middle life, a few are in their twenties. Most of the older women look like mothers of families. Some are married and others are widows. All carry the signs of hard work. Some are still wearing heavy winter clothes. Their hats are old and out of fashion. There are no high heels on their shoes – those are things for the younger women. Many of the faces are wrinkled and careworn.

Probably the greater part of the women scrub and clean offices and office buildings. Some sweep and dust the stores and movie theaters. Some work in restaurants and hotels. Others in bakeries and other food shops. All are the advance guard which is getting ready for the day’s business. By the time the stores, shops, offices and other places are ready to throw open their doors, these early workers will have everything tidy and neat for the people who come to work later on.

Women whose work is to clean the offices, shops and buildings do not all toil during the same hours. There are those who start early in the morning and are among the passengers coming on the late owl cars. There are others who board the early cars homeward bound. Some may have started at midnight and have just finished their night’s work. Some come from the hotels and clubs. There are maids and domestics whose employers gave them a night off and who spent the time visiting their parents. In order to get back to their places they also get an early start. Some of the better dressed and younger women seen on the streets early in the morning are telephone operators. Telephone people work all sorts of hours.

At N. Water and E. State sts. every morning a woman of 60 or more leaves one of the south side cars. Her unsteady stride and her swollen ankles tell that she is not in good health. She knows the street car crews because she has long been a passenger on the early cars. Fellow passengers say she works in one of the breweries and each morning before 6 o’clock she can be seen walking north on N. Water st.

Before 5 o’clock on N. Third st. a woman was polishing the windows of the ticket booth of one of the smaller movie houses. She was in her bare feet and was bespattered with the dirt and grime she had been battling all night. She starts to work every night when the last of the theater crowd departs. Long before the first show starts in the morning, she has cleaned up the show house. Many other women work all night at the theaters. At about the time the office help of the theater arrives, they are ready to go home to sleep.

A young negress was walking on W. Wisconsin av. at 5 o’clock the other morning. No, she was not going to work; she was just getting through after having cleaned and scrubbed in a beauty parlor all night. Her duties began at 10 o’clock at night. Her wages are $12 a week. There are many colored women among the army of early workers.

A woman of about 50 was entering one of the many home bakeries at 4 o’clock in the morning. She can be seen doing this every morning at that hour.

“I have just given the owner notice that I am quitting my work Aug. 1,” she said “You know I am married and have three grown children. My husband lost his job nearly two years ago. The children could not help us because they had troubles also. My husband could not find another place. We had no money, so when I had a chance to come here and do the baking I took the job. I love to bake and while the hours are early and long I have enjoyed the work. They pay me well—$18 a week. With that income we got along fine. If it had not been for this job of mine, we would now be on the county. That would have been awful.

“About three weeks ago the foreman my husband worked for came to our home ‘William.’ said he. ‘I bring you some good news. We are starting up again and are calling back some of the old gang. Be on hand next Monday. I was sleeping at the time, but my husband called me and told me to go right down to the bakery and quit. Then we had an argument and that is why I am still here. I told him I would stay a few weeks more until we could pay a few small bills that had piled up. I told him it wasn’t fair to quit on short notice, so I am still working. But on Aug. 1 I am through. I am going to have a good long sleep that day William is working again and with two wages coming in every week we will soon have the bills paid. But really I am sorry to leave this place. It has been a life saver to us — it kept us off the county. And I’ll miss that fine bread and kuchen that I had ready every morning at 9 o’clock. You must love to bake to get good results and I have had loads of fun during the time I worked. But I am going back to run my home now.”

There are probably more women like this baker. During the economic turmoil many women have supported their families when the husbands were unable to find work. Among the early workers there are others who have kept their families off the county.

One of the large insurance companies employs 40 women to clean and scrub the offices and the building. These women begin at 4 o’clock every afternoon and work until 9 o’clock in the evening. On Monday mornings at 5 o’clock a part of this crew comes on the owl cars. They dust for two hours and go over the work they did the Saturday evening before. The dust that accumulated on Sunday soon disappears. By the time the 1,300 employes come in at 9 o’clock the place is as clean as a whistle.

Another large building downtown has a large staff of cleaners who work from 11 o’clock at night until 4 o’clock in the morning. One woman who works in one of the oldest office buildings in the city said that there are so many vacant offices about town that many cleaning women have lost their jobs. She said the average wages are from $10 to $14 a week, depending on the hours and amount of work that has to be done.

A woman of about 30, neatly dressed in inexpensive clothes, was sauntering on one of the downtown streets the other morning at about 5:15 o’clock. She carried a small box in her hand.

No, she said, she was not working in any of the buildings downtown. She was formerly employed as a maid and at housework, but lost her job and could not find another place. She was now selling razor blades and opened the box to exhibit her wares. The blades sold at 25 cents a package. They cost her 15 cents, so she had 10 cents a package profit. She sold most of her blades in West Allis. She and another woman canvassed the houses and at noon worked among factory employes while the latter were having lunch. She was able to earn $2 or more a day.

Why was she out so early?

She said she had always been an early riser when she had employment and now that she did not have to get up so early she could not remain in bed after 4.30 o’clock in the morning. She had gotten out early and was walking to West Allis, where she expected to sell more razor blades.