Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Purple Dress

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From O. Henry: 101 Stories

The Purple Dress, 1908–10, oil on canvas by American painter William Glackens (1870–1938). Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 1912, four years after the end of his second term as President, Theodore Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for a third term, this time as the nominee for the Progressive Party rather than as a Republican. He came out strongly in favor both of women’s suffrage and of better working conditions for female workers, including a federal minimum wage, eight-hour days, six-day weeks, and a form of enforced maternity leave: the suspension of “employment in manufacturing, commerce, or other trades where work compels standing constantly . . . for a period of at least eight weeks at time of childbirth.” In his stump speeches, Roosevelt revealed how the “dreadful suffering and misery” of working women had convinced him to support these new (for him) positions. “Any man who goes to the night session of such a court as the Jefferson Market Women’s Night Court in New York City,” he said in one speech, “and who follows up some of the cases brought before that court, will soon learn for himself just what misery and immorality are produced among women when they receive less than a living wage. . . . We intend to put a stop to the misery which now actually exists, and we believe that a minimum wage plank is a humane, practical, and effective method of attacking that misery.” The following year, in An Autobiography, he argued, “Women should have free access to every field of labor which they care to enter, and when their work is as valuable as that of a man it should be paid as highly.”

Roosevelt expressed concern not only for the women who toiled in factories and sweatshops but also for the young women flooding into cities to work as office employees and “shopgirls.” Perhaps a little hyperbolically, he credited a short story writer with his epiphany: “It was O. Henry who started me on my campaign for office girls!” he exclaimed in a letter to biographer C. Alphonso Smith—an endorsement that would be used as an advertising headline by O. Henry’s publishers well into the 1920s.

O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter, had died two years before Roosevelt’s unsuccessful Presidential campaign. During the previous decade he had written dozens of stories describing the lives of working women, including such tales as “The Trimmed Lamp,” “The Third Ingredient,” and “Brickdust Row.” Our introduction to a previous Story of the Week selection, “An Unfinished Story,” details how, before O. Henry became famous, a writer named Anne Partlan introduced him to actresses, secretaries, waitresses, and servants who barely scraped by in the tenements of the city he called “Bagdad of the Hudson.” His stories came from observations of their apartment furnishings, living conditions, financial struggles, and recreational activities.

Shortly after O. Henry died, the editor George Jean Nathan gathered anecdotes about him in a piece titled “O. Henry in His Own Bagdad.” One friend had brought up the shopgirl stories and asked O. Henry, “Do you ever go into the department stores to study them?” “Indeed, not," he answered. “It is not the sales-girl in the department store who is worth studying, it is the sales-girl out of it.” Soon enough, editorial writers mentioned O. Henry’s stories when discussing the hardships of “shop-girls.” One columnist wrote, “Across every counter of the New York department store is the shadow of O. Henry.” What distinguished his stories from the usual sentimental pap was their lack of moralizing—at least in his depictions of the women. (Managers and store owners did not always escape his judgment, however.) The stories he wrote about the women were hardly about their occupations but instead about their lives and poverty, their hopes and disappointments.

His reputation as a friend and advocate of the underpaid women endured. Five years after O. Henry died, the author Christopher Morley published in The Saturday Evening Post a sonnet that included the lines:
But still the heart of his well-loved Bagdad
Upon-the-Subway is to him renewed.
He knew, beneath her harmless platitude,
The gentler secrets that the shopgirl had.
“The Purple Dress,” our current Story of the Week selection, reveals those gentler secrets; the tale is less about the clash between management and workers than about the community that develops among the women—both their rivalries and their friendships. And, as with many O. Henry tales, it features what the literary scholar Patricia Marks called one of his famous “twist endings that turn minor personal tragedies into comic triumphs.”

Notes: In the story, O. Henry puns on the name of G. Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright whose play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, had been published in 1898 “to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.” It was first performed in 1902.

*   *   *
We are to consider the shade known as purple. It is a color justly in repute among the sons and daughters of man. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.