Friday, June 10, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty and Sweatshops - Dressmakers


“An Englishman’s house is his castle,” and an Englishwoman’s no less, and both he and she ward off intruders with an energy inherited from the days when all men were fighters, and intensified by generations of practice. Even a government inspector is looked upon with deep disfavor as one result of the demoralization brought about by liberal and other loose ways of viewing public rights. The private, self-constituted one, it may then be judged rightly, is regarded as a meddlesome and pestilent busybody seeking knowledge which nobody should wish to obtain, and another illustration of what the nineteenth century is coming to. Various committees of inquiry, from the Organized Charities and from private bodies of workers, visit manufactories and industries in general, where women are employed, to make it evident that there is a desire to know how they fare. Why this wish has arisen, and why things are not allowed to remain as the fathers left them, are two questions at present distracting the British employer’s mind, and likely, before the inquiry is ended, to distract it more, as, day by day, the numbers increase of those who persist in believing that they are in some degree their brothers’ keepers,–a doctrine questioned ever since the story of time began. Obstacles of every nature are placed in the way of legalized inspection, and evasion and subterfuge, masterly enough to furnish a congress of diplomatists with ideas, are in daily practice. Years of experience make the inspector no less astute, and so the war goes on.

It will be seen then, what difficulties hedge about the private inquirer, who must go armed with every obtainable guarantee, and even then leave the field quite conscious that the informants are chuckling over a series of misleading statements, and that not much will be made of that case. So little organization exists among the workers themselves, and there is such deadly fear of losing a place that women and girls listen silently to statements, which they denounce afterwards as absolutely false. Natural as this is,–and it is one of the inevitable results of the system,–it is one of the worst obstacles in the way, not only of inquiry but any statements of results.

“Of course he lied or she lied,” they say, “but don’t for anything in the world let them know that we said so or that you know anything about it.”

This injunction, which for the individual worker’s sake must be scrupulously attended to, hampers not only inquiry but reform, and delays still further the attempts at organization made here and there. The system applied to dressmaking, our present topic, differs from anything known in America save in one of its phases, and merits some description, representing as it does some lingering remnant of the old apprentice system.

For the West End there is generally but one method. And here it may be said that the West End ignores absolutely any knowledge of what the East End methods may be. Between them there is a great gulf fixed, and the poorest apprentice of a West End house regards herself as infinitely superior to the mistress of an East End business. For this charmed region of the West, whether large or small, has spent years in building up a reputation, and this is a portion of the guarantee that goes with the worker, who has learned her trade under their auspices. It is a slow process,–so slow, that the system is not likely to be adopted by hasty Americans. In a first-class house in the West End, Oxford and Regent Streets having almost a monopoly of this title, the premium demanded for an apprentice is from forty to sixty pounds. This makes her what is known as an “indoor apprentice,” and entitles her to board and lodgings for two years. Numbers are taken at once, beds are set close together in the rooms provided, and board is made of the cheapest, to prevent loss. This would seem very small, but add to it the fact, that the apprentice gives from twelve to sixteen hours a day of time and a year of time as assistant after the first probation is past, and it will be seen, that, even with no fee, the house is hardly likely to lose much.

The out-door apprentices pay usually ten pounds and board and lodge at home, but hours are the same; never less than twelve, and in the busy season, fourteen and sixteen. Tea is furnished them once a day, but no food, nor is there definite time for meals. In the case of in-door apprentices, with any rush of work, a supper is provided at ten, but the “out-doors” must bring such food as is needed. For them there is, as for learners, no pay for over-time; and the strain often costs the life of the country girls unused to confinement, who fall into quick consumption, induced not only by long hours of sitting bent over work, but by breathing air foul with the vile gas and want of ventilation, as well as, in many cases, the worst possible sanitary conditions. If the initiatory period is safely past, the apprentice becomes an “improver;” that is, she is allowed larger choice of work, looks on or even tries her own hand when draping is to be done, and if quick is shortly ranked as an assistant. With this stage comes a small wage. An out-door apprentice now earns from four to five shillings ($1.25) a week. The in-door one still receives only board, but soon graduates from second to first assistant, though the whole process requires not less than four years and is often made to cover six. As first assistant she is likely to have quarters slightly more comfortable than those of the apprentices, and she receives one pound a week,–often less, but never more. In case of over-time, this meaning anything over the twelve hours which is regarded as a day’s work, various rates are paid. In the mourning department of one of the best known Oxford Street establishments, fourpence an hour is allowed. This rate is exceptionally high, being given because of the objection to evening work on black. The same house pays in the colored-suit department two and a half pence (5c.) an hour, and provides tea for the hands. Twopence an hour is given in several other houses, but for the majority nothing whatever.

The forewoman of one of these establishments began as an apprentice something over thirty years ago, and in giving these details and many others not included, expressed her own surprise that the amount of agitation as to over-time had produced so little tangible result.

“The houses are on the lookout, it’s true,” she said; “and each one is afraid of getting into the papers for violating the law, so the apprentice is looked out for a little better than she was in my time. I’ve worked many a time when there was a press of work–some sudden order to be filled–all night long. They gave us plenty of tea, a hot supper at ten, and something else at two, but they never paid a farthing, and it never came to one of us that we’d any right to ask it. There was one–a plucky little woman and a splendid hand. She was first assistant and we’d been going on like this a week one year. The girls fell fainting from their chairs. I did myself though I was used to it; and she stood up there at midnight, just before the manager came in and said, ‘Girls, you’ve no right to take another stitch without pay. Who’ll stand by me if I say so when Mr. B. comes in.’ Not one spoke. ‘Oh, you cowards!’ she said. ‘Not one? Then I’ll speak for you.’ Two rose up then and threw down their work. ”Tis a burning shame,’ says they. ‘Say what you like!’ Mr. B. was there before the words were out of their mouths, ‘What’s this? what’s this?’ he said. ‘Not at work and the order to go out at noon?’ ‘Pay us then for double work, and not drive us like galley slaves,’ said Mrs. Colman, standing very straight, ‘I speak for myself and for the rest. We are going home.’

“The manager got purple. ‘The first one that leaves this room, by G–, she’ll never come back. What do you mean getting up this row, damn you?’ ‘I mean we’re earning double, and ought to have it. Why shouldn’t our pockets hold some of the profits on this order as well as yours?’ ‘Will you hush?’ he says with his hand up as if he’d strike. ‘No; not now, nor ever,’ she says, she white and he purple, and out she walked; but none followed her. She never came back, and she was marked from that time, so she found it hard to get work. But she married again and went out to the Colonies, so she hadn’t to fight longer. It’s over-time now, as much as then, that is the greatest trouble. We had a Mutual Improvement Society when I was young, but oh, what hard work it was to go to it after nine in the evening and try to work, and it’s hard work now, though people think you can be as brisk and wide awake after sewing twelve hours as if you’d been enjoying yourself.”

In 1875 a few dressmakers, who had observed intelligently various organizations among men-tailors, boot-makers, etc., started an association of the “dressmakers, milliners, and mantua makers,” designed for mutual benefit, a subscription of twopence per week being added to a small entrance fee. Rules were drawn up, one or two of which are given illustratively.

“Each person on joining is required to pay one penny for a copy of the rules, one penny for a card on which her payments will be entered, and one shilling entrance fee–but the last may be paid by instalments of fourpence each. After thirty years of age the entrance fee shall be 6d. extra for every additional ten years.

“Members not working in a business house, or not working in the above trades, can only claim sick benefits, but the usual death levy shall also be made for them.

“In case of death each member will be called upon to contribute sixpence to be expended as the deceased member may have directed.

“When a member is disabled by sickness (excepting in confinements), a notice must be signed by two members as vouchers to the secretary, who shall appoint the member living nearest to the sick member, with one member of the committee, to visit her weekly, and report to the committee before the allowance is paid, unless special circumstances require a relaxation of this rule. The committee may require a medical certificate.”

Excellent as every provision was, and admirable work as was accomplished, the women, as is too often the case with women, lost mutual confidence, or could not be made to see the advantage of paying punctually, and the association dwindled down to a mere handful. In 1878 it reorganized, and its secretary, a working dressmaker, who learned her trade in a West End house, has labored in unwearied fashion to bring about some esprit du corps and though often baffled, speaks courageously still of the better time coming when women will have some sense of the value of organization. Her word confirms the facts gathered at many points in both East and West End. The East has reduced wages to starvation limit. A pound a week can still be earned in some houses at the West End–though fourteen or sixteen shillings is more usual; but for the other side, fourteen is still the highest point, and the scale descends to five and six–in one case to three and sixpence. Over hours, scanty food, exhaustion, wasting sickness, and death, the friend at last, when the weary days are done;–this is the day for most. The American worker has distinct advantages on her side, the long unpaid apprenticeship here having no counterpart there, and the frightfully long working day being also shortened. Many other disabilities are the same, but in this trade the advantage thus far is wholly for the American worker.
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
MyLadyWeb’s primary goal is improving the financial condition of women (including myself) and men by providing such free and low cost tools as reliable domains and hosting, self-installing websites, turnkey websites, brandable ebooks, SEO tools, PLR and unique articles and so on and so on and so on…. So why in the world would I post women’s history on a blog dedicated to helping people build and maintain a low-cost business online? Well, because 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
Founder of The LadyWeb Family Of Informational & Educational Websites
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

No comments:

Post a Comment