Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Street Trades


“With hall the click there is to a woman’s tongue you’d think she could ‘patter’ with the best of the men, but, Lor’ bless you! a woman can’t ‘patter’ any more’n she can make a coat, or sweep a chimley. And why she can’t beats me, and neither I nor nobody knows.”

“To patter” is a verb conjugated daily by the street seller of any pretensions. The coster needs less of it than most vendors, his wares speaking for themselves; but the general seller of small-wares, bootlaces, toys, children’s books, and what not, must have a natural gift, or acquire it as fast as possible. To patter is to rattle off with incredible swiftness and fluency, not only recommendations of the goods themselves, but any side thoughts that occur; and often a street-seller is practically a humorous lecturer, a student of men and morals, and gives the result in shrewd sentences well worth listening to. Half a dozen derivations are assigned to the word, one being that it comes from the rattled off paternosters of the devout but hasty Catholic, who says as many as possible in a given space of time. Be this as it may, it is quite true that pattering is an essential feature of any specially successful street-calling, and equally true that no woman has yet appeared who possesses the gift.

In spite of this nearly fatal deficiency, innumerable women pursue street trades, and, notwithstanding exposure and privation and the scantiest of earnings, have every advantage over their sisters of the needle. Rheumatism, born of bad diet and the penetrating rawness and fogs of eight months of the English year, is their chief enemy; but as a whole they are a strong, hardy, and healthy set of workers, who shudder at the thought of bending all day over machine or needle, and thank the fate that first turned them toward a street-calling. So conservative, however, is working England, that the needlewoman, even at starvation point, feels herself superior to a street-seller; and the latter is quite conscious of this feeling, and resents it accordingly. With many the adoption of such employment is the result of accident, and the women in it divide naturally into four classes: (1) The wives of street-sellers; (2) Mechanics, or laborers’ wives who go out street-selling while their husbands are at work, in order to swell the family income; (3) The widows of former street-sellers; (4) Single women.

Trades that necessitate pushing a heavy barrow, and, indeed, most of those involving the carrying of heavy weights, are in the hands of men, and also the more skilled trades, such as the selling of books or stationery,–in short, the business in which patter is demanded. Occasionally there is a partnership, and man and wife carry on the same trade, she aiding him with his barrow, but for the most part they choose different occupations. In the case of one man in Whitechapel who worked for a sweater; the wife sold water-cresses morning and evening, while the wife of a bobbin turner had taken to small-wares, shoe-laces, etc. as a help. Both tailor and turner declared that, if things went on as they were at present, they should take to the streets also; for earnings were less and less, and they were “treated like dirt, and worse.”

The women whose trades have been noted are dealers in fish, shrimps, and winkles, and sometimes oysters, fruit, and vegetables,–fruit predominating, orange-women and girls being as much a feature of London street life as in the days of pretty Nelly Gwynne. Sheep-trotters, too, are given over to women, with rice-milk, which is a favorite street-dainty, requiring a good deal of preparation; they sell curds and whey, and now and then, though very seldom, they have a coffee or elder-wine stand, the latter being sold hot and spiced, as a preventive of rheumatism and chill. To these sales they add fire-screens and ornaments (the English grate in summer being filled with every order of paper ornamentation), laces, millinery, cut flowers, boot and corset laces, and small-wares of every description, including wash-leathers, dressed and undressed dolls, and every variety of knitted articles, mittens, cuffs, socks, etc.

It will be seen that the range in street trades is far wider for the English than for the American woman, to whom it would almost never occur as a possible means of livelihood. But London holds several thousands of these women, a large proportion Irish, it is true, with a mixture of other nationalities, but English still predominating. The Irishwoman is more fluent, and can even patter in slight degree, but has less intelligence, and confines herself to the lower order of trades. For both Irish and English there is the same deep-seated horror of the workhouse. All winter a young Irishwoman has sat at the corner of a little street opening from the Commercial Road, a basket of apples at her side, and her thin garments no protection against the fearful chill of fog and mist. She had come to London, hoping to find a brother and go over with him to America; but no trace of him could be discovered, and so she borrowed a shilling and became an apple-seller.

“God knows,” she said, “I’d be betther off in the house [workhouse], for it’s half dead I am entirely; but I’d rather live on twopence a day than come to that.”

Practically she was living on very little more. An aunt, also a street-seller, had taken her in. She rented a small room near by, for which they paid two shillings a week, their whole expenses averaging sixpence each a day. Naturally they were half starved; but they preferred this to “the house,” and no one who has examined these retreats can blame them.

It is the poor who chiefly patronize these street-sellers, and they swarm where the poor are massed. The “Borough,” on the Surrey side of the river, with its innumerable little streets and lanes, each more wretched than the last, has hundreds of them, no less than the better-known East End. Leather Lane, one of the most crowded and distinctive of the quarters of the poor, though comparatively little known, has also its network of alleys and courts opening from it, and is one of the most crowded markets in the city, rivalling even Petticoat Lane. The latter, whose time-honored name has foolishly been changed to Middlesex Street, is an old-clothes market, and presents one of the most extraordinary sights in London; but the trade is chiefly in the hands of men, though their wives usually act as assistants and determine the quality of a garment till the masculine sense has been educated up to the proper point. Any very small, very old, and very dirty street at any point has its proportion of street-sellers, whose dark, grimy, comfortless rooms are their refuge at night. Other rooms of a better order are occupied, it may be, by some relative or child to be supported; and higher still rank those that are counted homes, where husband and wife meet when the day’s work is done.

Like the needlewomen, the diet of the majority is meagre and poor to a degree. The Irishwoman is much more ready to try to make the meal hot and relishable than the Englishwoman, though even she confines herself to cheap fish and potatoes, herring or plaice at two a penny.

A quiet, very respectable looking woman, the widow of a coster, sold cakes of blacking and small-wares, and gave her view of this phase of the question.

“It’s cheaper, their way of doing. Oh, yes, but not so livening. I could live cheaper on fish and potatoes than tea and bread and butter; but that ain’t it. They’re more trouble, an’ when you’ve been on your legs all day, an’ get to your bit of a home for a cup of tea, you want a bit of rest, and you can’t be cooking and fussing with fish. There’s always a neighbor to give you a jug of boiling water, if you’ve no time for fire, or it’s summer, and tea livens you up a bit where a herring won’t. I take mine without milk, and like it better without, and often I don’t have butter on me bread. But I get along, and, please God, I’ll be able to keep out of the ‘house’ to the end.”

The married women fare better. The men decline to be put off with bread and tea, and the cook-shops and cheap markets help them to what they call good living. They buy “good block ornaments,” that is, small pieces of meat, discolored but not dirty nor tainted, which are set out for sale on the butcher’s block. Tripe and cowheel are regarded as dainties, and there is the whole range of mysterious English preparations of questionable meat, from sausage and polonies to saveloys and cheap pies. Soup can be had, pea or eel, at two or three pence a pint, and beer, an essential to most of them, is “threepence a pot [quart] in your own jugs.” A savory dinner or supper is, therefore, an easy matter, and the English worker fares better in this respect than the American, for whom there is much less provision in the way of cheap food and cook-shops. In fact the last are almost unknown with us, the cheap restaurant by no means taking their place. Even with bread and tea alone, there is a good deal more nourishment, since English bread is never allowed to rise to the over-lightness which appears an essential to the American buyer. The law with English breads and cakes of whatever nature appears to be to work in all the flour the dough can hold, and pudding must be a slab, and bread compact and dense to satisfy the English palate. Dripping is the substitute for butter, and the children eat the slice of bread and dripping contentedly. Fat of any sort is in demand, the piercing rawness of an English winter seeming to call for heating food no less than that of the Esquimaux for its rations of blubber and tallow. But the majority of the women leave dripping for the children, and if a scrap of butter cannot be had, rest contented with bread and tea, and an occasional pint of beer. For workingwomen as a class, however, there is much less indulgence in this than is supposed. To the men it is as essential as the daily meals, and the women regard it in the same way. “We do well enough with our tea, but a man must have his pint,” they say; and this principle is applied to the children, the girls standing by while the boys take their turn at the “pot of mild.”

This for the best order of workers. Below this line are all grades of indulgence ending with the woman who earns just enough for the measure of gin that will give her a day or an hour of unconsciousness and freedom from any human claim. But the pressure of numbers and of competing workers compels soberness, the steadiest and most capable being barely able to secure subsistence, while below them is every conceivable phase of want and struggle, more sharply defined and with less possibility of remedy than anything found in the approximate conditions on American soil.
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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