Monday, May 23, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - General Tradeswomen


As investigation progresses, it becomes at times a question as to which of two great factors must dominate the present status of women as workers; competition, which blinds the eyes to anything but the surest way of obtaining the proper per cent, or the inherited Anglo-Saxon brutality, which, in its lowest form of manifestation, makes the English wife-beater. It is certain that the English workingwoman has not only the disabilities which her American sister also faces,–some inherent in herself, and as many arising from the press of the present system,–but added to this the apparent incapacity of the employer to see that they have rights of any description whatsoever. Even the factory act and the various attempts to legislate in behalf of women and child workers strikes the average employer as a gross interference with his constitutional rights. Where he can he evades. Where he cannot he is apt to grow purple over the impertinence of meddling reformers who cannot let well-enough alone.

Such a representative of one class of English employers is to be found in a little street, not a stone’s throw from Fleet Street, the great newspaper centre, where all day long one meets authors, editors, and journalists of every degree. Toward eight in the morning, as at the same hour in the evening, another crowd is to be seen, made up of hundreds upon hundreds of girls hurrying to the countless printing establishments of every grade, which are to be found in every street and court opening from or near Fleet Street. It is not newspaper interests alone that are represented there. The Temple, Inner, Outer, and Middle, with the magnificent group of buildings, also a part of the Temple’s workings–the new courts of law, have each and all their quota of law printing, and a throng made up of every order of ability, from the reader of Greek proof down to the folder of Mother Siegel’s Almanac, hurries through Fleet Street to the day’s work.

In a building devoted to the printing and sending out of a popular weekly of the cheaper order, the lower rooms met all requisitions as to space and proper ventilation.

“We have nothing to hide,” said the manager, “nothing at all. You may go from top to bottom if you will.”

This was said at what appeared to be the end of an hour or two of going from room to room, watching the girls at work at the multitudinous phases involved, and wondering how energy enough remained after twelve hours of it, for getting home.

A flight of dark little stairs led up to a region even darker, and he changed color as we turned toward them.

“This is all temporary,” he said hastily. “We are very much crowded for space, and we are going to move soon. We do the best we can in the mean time. It’s only temporary.”

This was the reason for the darkness. Stumbling up the open stairs, hardly more than a ladder, one came into a half story added to the original building, and so low that the manager bowed his head as he entered; nor was there any point at which he could stand freely upright, this well-fed Englishman nearly six feet tall. For the girls there was no such difficulty, and nearly two hundred were packed into the space, in which folding and stitching machines ran by steam, while at long tables other branches of the same work were going on by hand. The noise and the heat from gas-jets, steam, and the crowd of workers made the place hideous. The girls themselves appeared in no worse condition than many others seen that day, but were all alike, pale and anemic. Their hours were from 8 A. M. to 8 P. M., with an hour for dinner, usually from one to two. The law also allows half an hour for tea, but in all cases investigated, this time is docked if the girl takes it. Cheap “cocoa rooms” are all about, where a cup of tea or cocoa and a bun may be had for twopence; but even this is a heavy item to a girl who earns never more than ten shillings ($2.50) a week, and as often from four to seven or eight. No arrangement for making tea on the premises was to be found here or anywhere.

“We mean to have a room,” the employers said, “but we have so many expenses attendant on the growing business that there doesn’t seem any chance yet.”

This employer brought his wage-book forward and showed with pride that several of his girls earned a pound a week ($5.00). But on turning back some pages, the record showed only fourteen and sixteen shillings for these same names, and after a pause the manager admitted that the pound had been earned by adding night work.

This question of whether night work is ever done had been a most difficult one to determine. The girls themselves declared that it often was, and that they liked it because they got three shillings and their breakfast; but the managers had in more than one case denied the charge with fury.

“It’s over-work,” the present one said, his eyes on the rows of figures.

“When?” asked my companion quietly, and he burst into a laugh.

“You’ve got me this time,” he said. “You’ve given your word not to mention names, so I don’t mind telling you. It’s like this. There’s a new firm to be floated, and they want two hundred thousand circulars on two days’ notice. Of course it has to be night-work, and we put it through, but we give the girls time for supper, and provide a good breakfast, and there’s hundreds waiting for the chance. But you’ve seen for yourselves. Some of them make a pound a week. What in reason does a woman want of more than a pound a week?”

This remark is the stereotyped one of quite two-thirds the employers, whether men or women. The old delusion still holds that a man works for others, a woman solely for herself, and although each woman should appear with those dependent upon her in entire or partial degree arranged in line, it would make no difference in the conviction. It is quite true that many married women work for pocket-money, and having homes, can afford to underbid legitimate workers. But they are the smallest proportion of this vast army of London toilers, whose pitiful wage is earned by a day’s labor which happily has no counterpart in length with us, save among the lowest grade of needlewomen.

In the case under present consideration pay for over-time was allowed at the rate of fourpence an hour and a penny extra. If late five minutes the workwoman is fined twopence, and if not there by nine is “drilled,” that is, sent away, or kept waiting near until two, when she goes on for half a day. If tardy, as must often happen with fogs and other causes, she is often “drilled” for a week, though “drilling” in this trade is used more often with men than with women, who are less liable to irregularities caused by drink. In some establishments the bait of sixpence a week for good conduct is offered, but this is deducted on the faintest pretext, and the worker fined as well, for any violation of regulations tacit or written.

In another establishment piece-work alone was done, a popular almanac being folded at fourpence a thousand sheets. Railway tickets brought in from eight to ten shillings a week, and prize packages of stationery, fourpence a score, the folding and packing of prize doubling the length of time required and thus lessening wages in the same ratio.

I have given phases of this one trade in detail, because the same general rules govern all. The confectionery workers’ wages are at about the same rate, although a pound a week is almost unknown, the girls making from three shillings and sixpence (84c.) to fourteen and sixteen shillings weekly. A large “butter-scotch” factory pays these rates and allows the weekly good-conduct sixpence which, however, few succeed in earning. This factory is managed by two brothers who take alternate weeks, and the younger one exacts from the girls an hour more a day than the older one. Here the factory act applies, and inspectors appear periodically; but this does not hinder the carrying out of individual theories as to what constitutes a day. If five minutes late, sevenpence is deducted from the week’s wages, which begin at three and sixpence and ascend to nine, the latter price being the utmost to be earned in this branch of the trade.

In the cocoa rooms which are to be found everywhere in London where business of any sort is carried on, the pay ranges from ten to twelve shillings a week. The work is hard and incessant, although hours are often shorter. In both confectionery factories and the majority of factory trades, an hour is allowed for dinner, but the tea half hour refused or deducted from time. London in this respect, and indeed in most points affecting the comfort and well-being of operatives of every class, is far behind countries, the great manufacturing cities of which are doing much to lighten oppressive conditions and give some possibility of relaxation and improvement. Some of the best reforms in a factory life have begun in England, and it is thus all the more puzzling to find that indifference, often to a brutal degree, characterizes the attitude of many London employers, who have reduced wages to the lowest, and brought profits to the highest, attainable point. It is true that he is driven by a force often quite beyond his control, foreign competition, French and German, being no less sharp than that on his own soil. He must study chances of profit to a farthing, and in such study there is naturally small thought of his workers, save as hands in which the farthings may be found. Many a woman goes to her place of work, leaving behind her children who have breakfasted with her on “kettle broth,” and will be happy if the same is certain at supper time.

“There’s six of us have had nought but kettle broth for a fortnight,” said one. “You know what that is? It’s half a quarter loaf, soaked in hot water with a hap’orth of dripping and a spoonful of salt. When you’ve lived on that night and morning for a week or two, you can’t help but long for a change, though, God forgive me! there’s them that fares worse. But it’ll be the broth without the bread before we’re through. There’s no living to be had in old England any more, and yet the rich folks don’t want less. Do you know how it is, ma’am? Is there any chance of better times, do you think? Is it that they want us to starve? I’ve heard that said, but somehow it seems as if there must be hearts still, and they’ll see soon, and then things’ll be different. Oh, yes, they must be different.”

Will they be different? It is unskilled workers who have just spoken, but do the skilled fare much better? I append a portion of a table of earnings, prepared a year or two since by the chaplain of the Clerkenwell prison, a thoughtful and earnest worker among the poor, this table ranking as one of the best of the attempts to discover the actual position of the workingwoman at present:–

“Making paper bags, 4½d. to 5½d. per thousand; possible earnings, 5s. to 9s. a week. Button-holes, 3d. per dozen; possible earnings, 8s. per week.

“Shirts 2d. each, worker finding her own cotton; can get six done between 6 A. M. and 11 P. M.

“Sack-sewing, 6d. for twenty-five, 8d. to 1s. 6d. per hundred; possible earnings, 7s. per week.

“Pill-box making, 1s. for thirty-six gross; possible earnings, 1s. 3d. a day.

“Button-hole making, 1d. per dozen; can do three or four dozen between 5 A. M. and dark.

“Whip-making, 1s. per dozen; can do a dozen per day.

“Trousers-finishing, 3d. to 5d. each, finding own cotton; can do four per day.

“Shirt-finishing, 3d. to 4d. per dozen.”

So the list runs on through all the trades open to women. A pound a week is a fortune; half or a third of that amount the wages of two-thirds the women who earn in working London; nor are there indications that the scale will rise or that better days are in store for one of these toilers, patient, heavy-eyed, well-nigh hopeless of any good to come, and yet saying among themselves the words already given:–

“There must be hearts still, and they’ll see soon, and then things’ll be different. Oh, yes, they must be different.”
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
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

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