Nettie pressed on the fabric with her palm to hold it flat as she inched it toward the spinning felt-covered rollers. The rollers took the edge of the tablecloth, pulling it, so that the fabric now moved on its own under Nettie’s hand. Her skin stuck to the wet linen for a moment too long; now her hand was between the rollers. Nettie screamed and tried to pull her hand free. The rollers pulled her forward with the linen tablecloth, grinding her palm against the steam-heated iron roller inside the machine. A co-worker rushed over, stomped on the foot-pedal to turn off the spinning rollers, and threw the lever to open up enough space between for Nettie to pull her hand free from the crushing and burning rollers.

She drew her hand from the machine, or what was left of her hand. The back of her hand was black and blue to the wrist. Bone stuck through the skin on her first three fingers, and the flesh looked like boiled meat. Three other women in the laundry fainted at the sight. After extensive and painful surgeries, Nettie would end up with her index, middle, and ring fingers amputated (the middle at the large knuckle, the other two at the next knuckle after), and her thumb and little finger with greatly reduced mobility.

The machine that took Nettie’s hand in 1902 was called a mangle, a machine used in laundries in businesses across the United States. Nettie worked in a laundry in the basement of a hotel, laundering bed linens, table cloths, and other items used in the hotel. Nettie worked on a Troy mangle, made by the Troy Laundry Machine Company in Troy, New York. The mangle consisted of two rows of felt covered rollers and in the middle of the bottom row a larger metal roller which was steam-heated to approximately 375 degrees F. The purpose of the mangle was to dry and press linens. The felt rollers fed the cloth forward to the steam roller. The upper row of rollers press the cloth down on the steam roller. Rollers beyond the steam roller continued to move the cloth through the machine to where it would be removed by a second worker.

Mangles were the most dangerous machines in laundries at the time. (Not only for workers’ hands – the boilers that generated the steam for the mangles were known to sometimes explode, as in a New York laundry in 1893 where ten workers were badly hurt.) The particular mangle Nettie worked on had no guard at the front of the machine. Many mangles did. The guard consisted of a board which made the opening of the machine narrower, too narrow to permit fingers to come within the grip of the rollers. Mangles without guards on the feeding end were extraordinarily dangerous. Even those with a guard on the feeding side usually lacked a guard on the receiving side, where a second worker would take the fabric that had come from the mangle and either carry it back around to the feeding side if it was still wet or if it was sufficiently dry and pressed take it to a folding table to fold it and put it away for removal from the laundry.

Often linens went through the mangle three times in order to get them fully dry. Prior to being fed through the mangle, workers placed wet linens in an extractor, a machine which spun the linens to remove water from them. The longer the linens spun, the more water was removed and the less times they would need to pass through the mangle. Wetter linens not only need more passes, but were more likely to stick to the felt rollers and to wind around them, gumming up the machine. Wet linens also dripped onto the floor, making it slippery, and had a tendency to stick to the skin of the workers who worked the mangle. The more linens the workers had to launder in less time, the less time each item was in the extractor, which meant the wetter the cloth was when it was run through the mangle. This meant the workers were not only working faster – trying to accomplish more tasks in less time, stretching their energy and attention – but were working with materials that made the already dangerous machines even more dangerous.

Nettie took her employer to court for her injuries. She received no compensation. Since she was a bright, intelligent woman of 28 with experience working in laundries, she knew that the lack of a guard made the mangle very dangerous. This knowledge meant that, according to the legal doctrine at the time, Nettie had assumed the risk of working on this machine, meaning that she was liable rather than her employer. By continuing to work on a dangerous mangle, Nettie had implicitly agree that the risk was her own or agree to waive her right hold her employer liable for injury resulting from the mangle. In this respect, Nettie’s experience with the courts was common for workers at the time, prior to the creation of the Workers’ Compensation laws we have now.

Up until now I’ve used the gender neutral “workers.” The foreman might be – and often was – male, but Nettie and the other laundry workers, were all women. Steam laundries at the time advertised in the female help wanted section of local newspapers, looking for “girls.” Courts referred to the women as “girls” throughout the cases as well, and the “girls” often received room and board as part of their work agreement placing them in an additional position of dependence on their employer.

*
[Notes and questions for now – check my notes for all the facts on Nettie Blom; look up the ads and patents and such for the mangles; look up who made the other kinds; see google books for the reference to “Troy Laundry Machine Company” in On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture By Louis A. Pérez and the reference to “laundry mangle” in American Government: A Consideration of the Problems of Democracy By Frank Abbott Magruder; consolidate notes on the explosion cases too and make a list of what I’m looking for in newspaper records; find citations for the above; more secondary works?; trade journals and associations and laundry workers unions – that’s enough for now]

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