Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Around the World in 72 Days Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience

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.

Nellie Bly 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 Orphan Girl."

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.

previous | return to people & events list | next

The Film & More | Special Features | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

©  New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH