Newspapers competed fiercely for readers in the late 19th century. One of the innovations of the time was the undercover reporter, particularly women, called “girl stunt reporters.” They could anonymously take on the role of the lowly victim and uncover injustice. Nellie Bly got herself committed to an insane asylum for a story. In another example, when publisher James J. West took over The Chicago Times in 1887, he wanted to turn the paper around and make it a respectable news source.
Nothing worked, though, until a schoolteacher-turned-reporter named Helen Cusack donned a shabby frock and brown veil and went looking for a job in the rainy July of 1888. In factories and sweat shops, she stitched coats and shoe linings, interviewed her fellow workers in hot, unventilated spaces and did the math. At the Excelsior Underwear Company, she was handed a stack of shirts to sew—80 cents a dozen—and then was charged 50 cents to rent the sewing machine and 35 cents for thread. Nearby, another woman was being yelled at for leaving oil stains on chemises. She’d have to pay to launder them. “But worse than broken shoes, ragged clothes, filthy closets, poor light, high temperature, and vitiated atmosphere was the cruel treatment by the people in authority,” she wrote under the byline Nell Nelson. Her series, “City Slave Girls,” ran for weeks.
The Chicago Times followed that series up with one even more sensational: an exposé of doctors willing to provide illegal abortions. Read how they did it, and how readers reacted, at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Center for Research Libraries - Chicago)