Life in Quincy

Third and Hampshire Streets, Quincy, Illinois, c. 1878.
Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County

It is not known how the family survived immediately after reaching Quincy. It is believed that they lived for a time with a widow named Mrs. Davis and her teenaged daughter, Mary Ann. The only other bit of information that is known about the family’s first years in Quincy is that young Charley died in the winter of 1863.

Despite his young age, Augustus was required to find work in order to help support his family. He found a job with the Harris Tobacco Factory, located at Fifth and Ohio Streets. Quincy’s tobacco industry was booming during the Civil War. The Harris factory, which produced plug (chewing) tobacco, had a contract during the war to supply the Union army with tobacco. When the factory began it produced 200,000 pounds of tobacco and by 1870 it was selling over 850,000 pounds of tobacco each year. By the mid-1870’s Quincy had two of the largest tobacco factories in the country, employing eight hundred people and manufacturing $3 million worth of cigars each year.

Augustus worked as a stemmer, whose job it was to strip the stems from the moistened tobacco leaves and bind them together into books. He earned 50 cents a week for his work.

The family was eventually able to afford their own lodgings, because according to the 1864-1865 Quincy city directory the family was living on the north side of Ohio Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Cyanotype of the Harris, Beebe & Co. tobacco plant, c. 1871-1879.
Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County

By 1870, Martha was working as a washerwoman, a back breaking, low paying occupation, but one of the few that was open to African-American women in that time period. In 1870, there were close to 60,000 laundry workers in the United States, almost all of whom were women and a large number of those were African-American. Washing clothes was an arduous process – laundresses would boil water on the stove then transfer it to a washtub where they scrubbed the laundry with soap they usually made themselves. After rinsing the garments in boiling water they would wring out the water with a small hand-cranked wringing machine. For all this work they would earn between $4 to $8 dollars a month.

The family was poor and worked very hard to survive, but that does not mean that their lives were without joy or entertainment. In a letter written to a friend, Father Tolton wrote that he would spend evenings in a neighbor’s yard and listening to a man named Joe playing the accordion. Father Tolton wrote that he learned to play the instrument by “catching every air I could then go privately to myself and practice the same aim until I could play it, then it was a pleasure to me when Joe asked me to come over and bring my accordeon [spelling error in the original] with me and I sat and heard him for hours and heard your sister sing so many songs…”


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Last Updated on Thursday, 16 June 2011 15:12