People & Events
Nellie's First Job
After her divorce, Nellie Bly's mother Mary Jane took her daughter to Allegheny
City, an unincorporated part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where two of her sons
were living. By that time the city, the steel capital of the country, had
earned the reputation as the "blackest, dirtiest, grimiest city in the United
States," as one contemporary described it.
The city had only 60,000 people, yet boasted seven daily newspapers. The
Pittsburgh "Dispatch" was one of the city's two major morning papers and
employed the most revered newspaper columnist in town, Erasmus Wilson. He was
the newspaper's "Quiet Observer," or Q.O. for short, author of a column that
ran for more than three decades.
One of the column's most avid readers was the 20-year-old Elizabeth Jane
Cochrane. (Pinky, as she was called, added the "e" to her last name to give it
more sophistication.) She read the series in which Wilson complained about
women who were entering the work force. He told women to let up on the business sphere and make the "home a little paradise" and to play "the part of
angel." In another piece, Q.O. wrote that a woman who worked outside the home
was "a monstrosity.... There is no greater abnormality than a woman in
breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats."
Bly, like many women in the city, was offended by the series, and unleashed her
anger in a letter to the paper. Bly wrote that Q.O. had no understanding of the
plight of young women, explaining that she had spent the last four years in
working class Allegheny row houses. There, she had met the poor young women who
so often were unable to find a good job. She signed it "Lonely
The letter first landed on the desk of George Madden, managing editor for the "Dispatch," who was struck by its spirit. He passed it on to Wilson
saying "she isn't much for style, but what she has to say she says right out
regardless of paragraphs or punctuation." He thought the girl might be able to
bring something to the newspaper and the men placed an ad asking for the girl
to identify herself by name and address.
Bly skipped the letter and instead showed up at the office. Madden, impressed
with her, asked her to compose an article on "the woman's sphere." Bly obliged.
The piece was a harbinger of things to come, as Bly spoke of the rights of
women and the injustices of poverty. It was entitled "The Girl Puzzle."
In the piece, she spoke of those "without talent, without beauty, without
money." She continued: "We cannot let them starve. Can they that have full and
plenty of this world's goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman,
abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her
threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying
herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the
landlord's frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has,
begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare
rooms she calls home."
Showing her flare for powerful and dramatic insight, Bly went on to tell the
wealthy that these poor women "read of what your last pug dog cost and think of
what that vast sum would have done for them -- paid father's doctor bill, bought
mother a new dress, shoes for the little ones, and imagine how nice it would be
could baby have the beef tea that is made for your favorite pug, or the care
and kindness that is bestowed upon it."
The young Bly even suggested remedies. If ambitious young men could start as
errand boys and climb up the ladder to responsible and well-paying positions,
why not girls? "Just as smart and a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can
they not do the same?" Instead of working young women in airless factories, Bly
suggested employing them as messengers or office "boys." She asked: why not
make a girl a conductor on the Pullman Palace car?
The "Dispatch" paid her for her first article, and her second, on divorce,
entitled "Mad Marriages." Bly recommended that Pennsylvania's divorce laws be
reformed and called for potential spouses to reveal who they were in writing
before they be allowed to sign a marriage license. In an echo of her mother's
own failed marriage to an alcoholic, Bly also asked that women be allowed to
get a divorce from men who were criminals or "by means of dissolute habits,
laziness or poverty, are likely to make the home wretched."
Bly then suggested she write a series on the factory girls of Pittsburgh for
the newspaper. Madden had seen enough. He hired her at $5 a week, a little more
than made by the factory girls Bly would soon be interviewing.
Madden knew the name "Orphan Girl" would no longer do as a byline. In the
custom of the period, women journalists were not supposed to reveal their true
identities. Madden called for a name that was "neat and catchy." The men in the
newsroom made suggestions and the name "Nellie Bly" was proffered. The name had
been made famous by one of Pittsburgh's favorite sons, the great songwriter
Stephen Foster. The working class reporter was named after a "colored servant"
that Foster had made famous in a song written before the Civil War.
In his haste, though, Madden spelled the Nelly of the song as "Nellie." It
didn't matter. However her name was spelled, it was clear that the reporter
Nellie Bly, just 20 years old, was named appropriately as she would continue to
write for the likes of Nelly and her many under-privileged sisters.