Ruth Sapinsky Hurwitz

Born: unknown

Died: June 1961

Technically a native of New Albany, Indiana (across the river from Louisville), Ruth Sapinksy worked as Assistant Superintendent of the Neighborhood House in Louisville and was involved in Louisville women's clubs.("Miss Ruth" 1917) She married Henry Hurwitz, editor of The Menorah Journal, in 1917 and contributed articles to that journal under the name Ruth Sapin.(Finding)

In 1911 a commission was appointed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky to investigate the working conditions of women in Kentucky. A number of Louisville women served on the committee including Ruth Sapinsky, Annie A. Halleck, Mrs. Morris B. Belknap, Frances Ingram, Dr. Julia Ingram, Patty Semple, and more.(Report 1911) They investigated 186 factories in Kentucky and determined that two-thirds of the employed women were unable to earn the sum of $6.50 per week – the amount the commission had determined to be the minimum amount of money on which a woman could provide herself food, shelter, and clothing. As a part of that report Ruth Sapinsky, took work in one of the factories and reported her findings.

In November, I sought and obtained employment in a nut factory in the city of Louisville.

A nut factory, let me say for the unenlightened, is a place whither the unshelled nuts – pecans especially – are sent to be cracked and picked before being sold to the confectioner or fancy grocer who uses them on cakes and candies, or as "salted nuts," for receptions and other convivial occasions. The factory which afforded me employment was one of four similar workshops which together employ over two hundred girls. It requires no previous experience from a girl, no recommendation – girls are so constantly leaving the factory – that anyone who comes seeking work can have it for the asking.

Piece wages are the rule. For the broken nuts a girl receives three and one-half cents per pound, for the unbroken halves she receives seven cents per pound for "number threes" a medium-sized nut, or six cents for "number fours," a nut a trifle larger. With such wages in prospect I set out to see how many pounds of nuts I could crack and pick in the course of a nine-hour day. I worked for three days pausing only twenty minutes for luncheon, worked conscientiously and with all the industry and intelligence I could summon. When I "weighed in" my nuts before quitting the factory I found that I had five pounds of broken nuts, two pounds of "number threes," and one pound of "number fours."

For the steady work of three long days, for the work of over twenty-seven hours, I had earned thirty-seven and one-half cents!

Before "weighing in" my nuts I had had forebodings that I was not making over twelve cents per day, and I gloomily told the girls that "I guessed I wasn't very smart not to make any more." But they consoled me saying "I wasn't doing so bad" for a beginner. The girl who sat next to me and who began work the same day as I, did not crack and pick any more nuts each day; Mrs. J., a pathetic old lady, who sat across from me and who had been working a month, was even slower than I; the smartest girl in the factory, who had been there some five years and had reached the enviable wages of six and seven dollars each week, had only made thirteen cents a day as a beginner. The girls were kindly encouraging. They prophesied that when "I got my hand in" I would make as much as they. Upon my inquiries as to what they earned... I found three dollars [per week] to be the average wage throughout the factory.

But this wage I learned to my astonishment included night work as well as day work. The pernicious system of allowing girls and women who are working nine hours a day in the factory to take their work home in order to eke out scant day wages by evening work, a system for which we berate large cities like New York and Chicago, I found actually existing in Louisville. To be sure, a girl was not actually compelled to take the nuts home, but it was either that or the certain alternative of finding only a dollar and a half in her pay envelope at the end of the week. Three dollars meant a never ending round of nut picking day and night, but it also meant doubled wages, so practically every girl left the factory after her ten-hour day with a basket of nuts for home work over her arm. My first day at the factory I could not understand the constant sighing for "Sunday" and "Thanksgiving" and "Christmas," but at the end of the experience I realized fully how keen can be the longing for a day's respite from the never ceasing struggle for the dollar...

The nuts were all cracked in the factory before being taken out for picking, a fact which necessitated the employment of children and girls who did nothing all day except crack nuts. The cracking machines were miserable contrivances which required a back and forth movement of a heavy iron lever for each nut. One hour of standing at these machines (no seats were provided) and feeding the machine a nut with one hand while the other worked the lever was for me a fatiguing and arduous task. A day's work at the machines left the girls miserably worn and fagged. Some of the girls had attained a remarkable speed at cracking, a speed for which they often paid by mashed and blistered fingers.

The cracking room was about twenty-five by ten feet and contained twenty-two machines, so that it was overcrowded with girls practically all day. The picking room was not so congested as the cracking room – it was large – which is all that can be said in its favor. There was no janitor and so the girls were required at the end of their day's work to "sweep up" the shells which fell in profusion around the table. No dust pans being provided the girls quite serenely used the same tins in which they kept their nuts during the day as dust pans. The nut shells were used as the only fuel in the two stoves which heated the place and the smoke from the burning shells cast over the room a gloom that permeated one's very being. Poorly lighted, poorly ventilated, with the paper and the plaster hanging from the walls the picking room provided a locale thoroughly in keeping with the dull and miserable and monotonous occupation at which the girls were engaged.

Numerous visits to factories during the investigation into the conditions of working women had taught me much concerning the exploitation of women workers in this State, but the days of actual work in a factory, the days of first-hand experience of the long hours and the inhuman pay and the miserable surroundings, or actual contact with the girls so stoical in the acceptance of their servitude, brought the facts home to me with a new and vitalized emphasis. My experience was significant not so much because it revealed the intolerable conditions in a specific factory (I could probably have found similar conditions in many another factory in Louisville), but because it was a living experience of what the larger investigation into the conditions of working women showed must be true.(Report 1911)


"Finding Aid to the Henry Hurwitz Papers. 1905-1963." American Jewish Archives, accessed 2020,
"Miss Ruth Sapinsky's Marriage Also of Interest." Courier - Journal, February 11, 1917, A9.
"Report of the Commission to Investigate the Conditions of Working Women in Kentucky." In Frances MacGregor Ingram Collection, Filson Historical Society. December 1911.