Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Woman's Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Italy


In Paris, its fulness of brilliant life so dominates that all shadows seem to fly before it and poverty and pain to have no place, and the same feeling holds for the chief cities of the continent. It is Paris that is the key-note of social life, and in less degree its influence makes itself felt even at remote distances, governing production and fixing the rate of wages paid. Modern improvement has swept away slums, and it is only here and there, in cities like Berlin or Vienna, that one comes upon anything which deserves the name.

The Ghetto is still a part of Rome, and likely to remain so, since the conservatism of the lowest order is stronger even in the Italian than in the French or German worker.

But if civilization does not abolish the effects of low wages and interminable hours of labor, it at least removes them from sight, and having made its avenues through what once were dens, is certain that all dens are done away with. The fact that the avenue is made, that sunshine enters dark courts and noisome alleys, and that often court and alley are swept away absolutely, is a step gained; yet, as is true of Shaftesbury Avenue in London cut through the old quarters of St. Giles, the squalor and misery is condensed instead of destroyed, and the building that held one hundred holds now double or triple that number. For Paris the Rue Jeanne d'Arc already described is an illustration of what may lie within a stone's throw of quiet and reputable streets, and of what chances await the worker, whose scanty wages offer only existence, and for whom the laying up of any fund for old age is an impossibility.

The chief misfortune, however, and one mourned by the few French political economists who have looked below the surface, is the gradual disappearance of family life and its absorption into that of the factory.

With this absorption has come other vices, that follow where the family has no further place, and, recognizing this at last, the heads of various great manufactories--notably in Lyons and other points where the silk industry centres--have sought to reorganize labor as much as possible on the family basis. In the old days, when the loom was a part of the furniture of every home, the various phases of weaving were learned one by one, and the child who began by filling bobbins, passed on gradually to the mastery of every branch involved, and became judge of qualities as well as maker of quantities. In this phase, if hours were long, there were at least the breaks of the ordinary family life,--the care of details taken by each in turn, and thus a knowledge acquired, which, with the development of the factory system on its earliest basis, was quite impossible. There were other alleviations, too, as the store of songs and of traditions testifies, both these possibilities ceasing when home labor was transferred to the factory.

On the other hand, there were certain compensations, in the fixing of a definite number of hours, of the rate of wages, and at first in freeing the home from the workshop element, the loom having usurped the largest and best place in every household. But, as machinery developed, the time of mother and children was again absorbed, and so absolutely that any household knowledge ended then and there, with no further possibility of its acquisition. It was this state of things, with its accumulated results, which, a generation or so later, faced the few investigators who puzzled over the decadence of morals, the enfeebled physiques, the general helplessness of the young women who married, and the whole series of natural consequences. So startling were the facts developed, that it became at once evident that a change must be brought about, if only as a measure of wise political economy; and thus it has happened for Lyons that the factory system has perfected itself, and matches or even goes beyond that of any other country, with the exception of isolated points like Saltaire in England, or the Chenney village in Connecticut. When it became evident that the ordinary factory girl-worker at sixteen or seventeen could not sew a seam, or make a broth, or care for a child's needs so well as the brute, the time for action had come; and schools of various orders, industrial and otherwise, have gradually risen and sought to undo the work of the years that made them necessary. Perfect in many points as the system has become, however, competition has so followed and pressed upon the manufacturer that the wage standard has lowered to little more than subsistence point, this fact including all forms of woman's work, without the factory as well as within.

Leaving France and Germany and looking at Swiss and Italian workers, much the same statements may be made, the lace-workers in Switzerland, for instance, being an illustration of the very minimum of result for human labor. Like the lace-workers of Germany, the fabric must often grow in the dark almost, basements being chosen that dampness may make the thread follow more perfectly the will of the worker, whose day is never less than fifteen hours long, whose food seldom goes beyond black bread with occasional milk or cabbage soup, and whose average of life seldom exceeds forty years. There is not a thread in the exquisite designs that has not been spun from a human nerve stretched to its utmost tension, and the face of these workers once seen are a shadow forever on the lovely webs that every woman covets instinctively.

Why an industry demanding so many delicate qualities--patience, perfection of touch, and long practice--should represent a return barely removed from starvation, no man has told us; but so the facts are, and so they stand for every country of Europe where the work is known. In Germany and Italy alike, the sewing-machine has found its way even to the remotest village, manufacturers in the large towns finding it often for their interest to send their work to points where the lowest rate possible in cities seems to the simple people far beyond what they would dream of asking. It is neither in attic nor basement that the Italian worker runs her machine, but in the open doorway, or even the street itself, sunshine pouring upon her, neighbors chatting in the pauses for basting or other preparation, and the sense of human companionship and interest never for an instant lost. For the Anglo-Saxon such methods are alien to every instinct. For the Italian they are as natural as the reverse would be unnatural; and thus, even with actual wage conditions at the worst, the privations and suffering, which are as inevitable for one as the other, are made bearable, and even sink out of sight almost. They are very tangible facts, but they have had to mean something very near starvation before the Italian turned his face toward America,--the one point where, it is still believed, the worker can escape such fear.

It is hard for the searcher into these places to realize that suffering in any form can have place under such sunshine, or with the apparent joyousness of Italian life; and it is certain that this life holds a compensation unknown to the North.

In Genoa, late in May, I paused in one of the old streets leading up from the quays, where hundreds of sailors daily come and go, and where one of the chief industries for women is the making of various forms of sailor garments. Every doorway opening on the street held its sewing-machine or the low table where cutters and basters were at work, fingers and tongues flying in concert, and a babel of happy sound issuing between the grand old walls of houses seven and eight stories high, flowers in every window, many-colored garments waving from lines stretched across the front, and, far above, a proud mother handing her bambino across for examination by her opposite neighbor, a very simple operation where streets are but four or five feet wide.

Life here is reduced to its simplest elements. Abstemious to a degree impossible in a more northern climate, the Italian worker in town or village demands little beyond macaroni, polenta, or chestnuts, with oil or soup, and wine as the occasional luxury; and thus a woman who works fourteen or even fifteen hours a day for a lire and a half, and at times only a lire (20c.), still has enough for absolute needs, and barely looks beyond.

It is only when the little bundle has ceased to be bambino that she thinks of a larger life as possible, or wonders why women who work more hours than men, and often do a man's labor, are paid only half the men's rate.

In Rome, where these lines are written, the story is the same. There are few statistics from which one can glean any definite idea of numbers, or even of occupations. The army swallows all the young men, precisely as in France; but women slip less readily into responsible positions, and thus earn in less degree than in either France or Germany.

In the Ghetto swarm the crowds that have filled it for hundreds of years, and its narrow ways hold every trade known to man's hands, as well as every form of drudgery which here reaches its climax.

The church has decreed the relieving of poverty as one chief method of saving rich men's souls, and thus the few attempts made by the English colony to bring about some reconstruction of methods as well as thought have met with every possible opposition, till, within recent years, the necessity of industrial education has become apparent, and Italy has inaugurated some of the best work in this direction. Beyond Italy there has been no attempt at experiment. The work at best has been chiefly from the outside; but whether in this form, or assisted by actual statistics or the general investigation of others, the conclusion is always the same, and sums up as the demand for every worker and every master the resurrection of the old ideal of work; the doing away of competition as it at present rules, and the substitution of co-operation, productive as well as distributive; industrial education for every child, rich or poor; and that and recognition of the interests of all as a portion of our personal charge and responsibility, which, if I name it Socialism, will be scouted as a dream of an impossible future, but which none the less bears that name in its highest interpretation, and is the one solution for every problem on either side the great sea, between the eastern and western worker.
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889

Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915


  1. Teresa, your work is so well researched. Every post you write is amazing! I really enjoy your blogs and look forward to reading your fiction. You could, though, probably write an encyclopedia!

  2. Hi Debbie,
    Thank you for the compliment, but the research is all I can really take credit for with these articles. One of the primary benefits of the internet has been the release of so many books and documents compiled at or near the turn of the century detailing the live of women then, and in previous years. Prior to that, the history of ordinary women had been invariably hidden as trivial bits and pieces tucked here and there among the tomes detailing the lives of men and nations.