Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - The Toilers In TheSweatshops


“‘Nine tailors to make a man,’ they say. Well, now if it takes that amount, and from some lots I’ve seen I should say it did, you’ve got to multiply by nine again if you count in the women. Bless your ‘art!” and here, in his excitement, the inspector began to drop the h’s, which the Board School had taught him to hold to with painful tenacity. “Bless your ‘art! a woman can’t make a coat, and every tailor knows it, and that’s one reason ‘e beats ‘er down and beats ‘er down till ‘ow she keeps the breath of life in the Lord only knows. Take the cheapest coat going and there’s a knack to every seam that a woman don’t catch. She’s good for trousers and finishing, and she can’t be matched for button-holes when she gives her mind to it, but a coat’s beyond her. I’ve wondered a good bit over it. The women don’t see it themselves, but now and again there’s one that’s up to every dodge but a coat seam, and she wants more money and couldn’t be persuaded, no, not if Moses himself came to try it, that she isn’t worth the same as the men. That’s what I ‘ear as I go, and I’ve been hup and down among ‘em three years and over. Their dodges is beyond belief, not the women’s,–poor souls! they’re too ground down to ‘ave mind enough left for dodges,–but the sweaters; Parliament’s after ‘em. There’s enough, but ther’s no man halive that I’ve seen that knows how to ‘old a sweater to ‘em. How’s one or two inspectors to get through every sweating place in Whitechapel alone, let alone hall the East End? It’s hup an’ down an’ hin and hout, and where you find ‘em fair and square in a reg’lar shop, or in rooms plain to see, you’ll find ‘em in basements and backyards, and washhouses, and underground,–anywheres like so many rats, though, I’m blessed if I don’t think the rats has the hadvantage. Now, the law says no working over hours, and I go along in the evening, about knocking-off time, and find everything all clear only a look in the sweater’s heye that I know well enough. It means most likely that ‘e’s got ‘is women locked up in a bedroom where the Parliament won’t let me go, and that when my back’s turned ‘e’ll ‘ave ‘em out, and grin in his sleeve at me and Parliament too. Or else ‘e’s agreed with ‘em to come at six in the morning instead of eight. It’s a twelve-hour day ‘e’s a right to, from eight to eight, but that way he make it fourteen and more, if I or some other inspector don’t appear along.

“Now, suppose I drop down unexpected,–an’ that’s the way,–before I’ve made three calls, and likely nailed every one in the house for violation, it’s down the street like lightening that the hinspector’s after ‘em. Then the women are ‘ustled out anywhere, into the yard, or in a dust bin. Lift up ‘most anything and you’d find a woman under it. I’ve caught ‘em with their thimbles on, hot with sewing, and now they drop ‘em into their pockets or anywhere. They’d lose a job if they peeped, and so there’s never much to be done for ‘em. But why a woman can’t make a coat is what I study over. Did you ever think it out, ma’am? Is it their ‘ands or their heyes that isn’t hup to it?”

This position of the little inspector’s problem must wait, though in it is involved that fatal want of training for either eye or hand which makes the lowest place the only one that the average needlewoman can fill. Their endurance equals that of the men, and often, in sudden presses of work, as for a foreign order, work has begun at seven o’clock on a morning and continued right on through the night and up to four or five of the next afternoon. The law demands an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea, but the first is halved or quartered, and the last taken between the stitches, but with no more stop than is necessary for swallowing. The penalties for violation of these acts are heavy and the inspectors work very thoroughly, various convictions having been obtained in 1886, the penalties varying from two pounds to ten pounds and costs. But the sweaters, though standing in terror of such possibility, have learned every device of evasion, and, as before stated, the women necessarily abet them for fear of losing work altogether.

Let us see now what the profit of the average sweater is likely to be, and then that of the workwoman, skilled and unskilled, taking our figures in every case from the Blue Book containing Mr. Burnett’s report and confirmed by many workers. A small sweater in Brunswick Street employed a presser and a machinist, with two women for button-holes and felling, his business being the production of tunics for postmen. For each of these he received two shillings, or half a dollar a coat, which he considered a very good price. He paid his presser 4s. 6d. ($1.12) per day; his machinist 5s. ($1.25); his button-holer 2s. 6d. (60c.), from which she must find twist and thread; and the feller 1s. 3d. (30c.), a total of thirteen shillings threepence. For twelve coats he received twenty-four shillings, his own profit thus being ten shillings and ninepence ($2.68) for his own labor as baster and for finding thread, soap, coke, and machine. The hours were from seven in the morning to ten in the evening, less time not sufficing to finish the dozen coats, this bringing the rate of wages for the highest paid worker to 4½d., or nine cents an hour. For the small sweater the profit is slight, but each additional machine sends it up, till four or five mean a handsome return. If work is slack, he has another method of lessening expenses, and thus increasing profits, arranging matters so that all the work is done the three last days of the week, starting on a Thursday morning, for instance, and pressing the workers on for thirty-three to thirty-six hours at a stretch, calling this two days’ work, and paying for it at this rate. If they work fractions of a day, eight hours is called a half and four a quarter day, and the men submit with the same patience as the women.

For the former this is in part a question of nationality, the sweater’s workmen being made up chiefly of German and Polish Jews and the poorer foreign element. An English worker has generally learned the trade as a whole, and is secure of better place and pay; but a Polish Jew, a carpenter at home, goes at once into a sweater’s shop, and after a few weeks has learned one branch of the trade, and is enrolled on the list of workers. For the women, however, there is a smaller proportion comparatively of foreigners. The poor Englishwoman, like the poor American, has no resource save her needle or some form of machine work. If ambitious, she learns button-holing, and in some cases makes as high as thirty shillings per week ($7.50). This, however, is only for the best paid work. Out of this she must find her own materials, which can never be less than two and sixpence (60c.). A woman of this order would do in a day twelve coats with six button-holes each, for the best class of work getting a penny a hole, or two cents. For commoner kinds the prices are a descending scale: three-quarters of a penny a hole, half a penny, eight holes for threepence, and the commonest kinds three holes for a penny. These are the rates for coats. For waistcoats the price is usually a penny for four button-holes, a skilled worker making sixteen in an hour. Many of these button-hole makers have become sweaters on their own account, and display quite as much ingenuity at cutting rates as the men at whose hands they may themselves have suffered.

For the machinists and fellers the rates vary. A good machinist may earn five shillings a day ($1.25), but this only in the busy season; the feller, at the best, can seldom go beyond three or four, and at the worst earns but six or eight per week; while learners and general hands make from two to six shillings a week, much of their time being spent in carrying work between the shops and the warehouses. Six shillings a week represents a purchasing power of about forty cents a day, half of which must be reserved for rent; and thus it will be seen that the English workwoman of the lower grade is in much the same condition as the American worker, hours, wages, and results being nearly identical. The Jewish women and girls represent a formidable element to contend with, as they are now coming over in great numbers, and the question has so organized itself that each falls almost at once into her own place, and works with machine-like regularity and efficiency.

In one of the houses in a narrow little street opening off from Whitechapel, were three women whose cases may be cited as representative ones. The first was a trouser machinist, and took her work from another woman, a sweater, who had it from city and other houses. She was paid threepence (6c.) a pair, and could do ten pairs a day, if she got up at six and worked till ten or eleven, which was her usual custom. In the next room was a woman who stitched very thick large trousers, for which she received fourpence a pair. She also had them from a woman who took them from a sub-contractor. She could make six and sometimes seven shillings a week, her rent being two shillings and sixpence. On the floor above was a waistcoat maker, who, when work was brisk, could earn eight and sometimes nine shillings a week; but who now, as work was slack, seldom went beyond six or seven. Out of this must be taken thread, which she got for eightpence a dozen. She worked for a small exporter in a street some ten minutes’ walk away; but often had to spend two hours or more taking back her work and waiting for more to be given out. She fared better than some, however, as she knew women who many a time had had to lose five or six hours–”just so much bread out of their mouths.”

“The work has to be passed,” she said, “and there’s never any doubt about mine, because I was bound to the trade, and my mother paid a pound for premium, and I worked three months for nothing–two months of that was clear gain to them, for I took to it and learned quick. But it’s a starvation trade now, whatever it used to be.”

“Why don’t some of the best workers among you combine and get your work direct from the city house?”

“I’ve ‘ad that in me mind, but there’s never money enough. There’s a deposit to be made for guarantee, and the machine-rent and all. No, there’s never money enough. It’s just keeping soul and body together, and barely that. We don’t see butcher’s meat half a dozen times a year; it’s tea and bread, and you lose your relish for much of anything else, unless sprats maybe, or a taste of shrimps. I was in one workshop a while where there was over-hours always, and one night the inspector happened along after hours, and no word passed down, and the man turned me into the yard and turned off the gas; but I had to work two hours after he was gone. I’m better off than the woman in the next room. She makes children’s suits–coats and knickerbockers–for ha’penny a piece, with tuppence for finishing, and her cotton to find; and, do ‘er best, she won’t make over four shillings and threepence a week, sometimes less. There’s a mother and daughter next door that were bound to their trade for three months, and the daughter gave three months’ work to learn it; but the most they make on children’s suits is eight shillings and sixpence the two, and they work fifteen and sixteen hours a day.”

This record of a house or two in Whitechapel is the record of street after street in working London. No trade into which the needle enters has escaped the system which has been perfected little by little till there is no loophole by which the lower order of worker can escape. The sweaters themselves are often kind-hearted men, ground by the system, but soon losing any sensitiveness; and the mass of eager applicants are constantly reinforced, not only by the steady pressure of emigrants of all nations, but by an influx from the country. In short, conditions are generally the same for London as New York, but intensified for the former by the enormous numbers, and the fact that outlying spaces do not mean a better chance. This problem of one great city is the problem of all; and in each and all the sweater stands as an integral part of modern civilization. Often far less guilty than he is counted to be, and often as much a sufferer as his workers from those above him, his mission has legitimate place only where ignorant and incompetent workers must be kept in order, and may well give place to factory labor. With skill comes organization and the power to claim better wages; and with both skilled labor and co-operation the sweater has no further place, and is transformed to foreman or superintendent. Till this is accomplished, the word must stand, as it does to-day, for all imaginable evil that can hedge about both worker and work.
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
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

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