Monday, April 4, 2011

Women Surviving Poverty In Historic Times - Dressmakers and Milliners


"If a revolution come again, I think well, madame, it will be the great shops that will fall, and that it is workwomen who will bear the torch and even consent to the name of terror, pétroleuses. For see a moment what thing they do, madame. Everywhere, the girl who desires to learn as modiste, and who, in the day when I had learned, became one of the house that she served, and, if talent were there, could rise and in time be mistress herself, with a name that had fame even,--that girl must now attempt the great shop and bury her talent in always the same thing. No more invention, no more grace, but a hundred robes always the same, and with no mark of difference for her who wears it, or way to tell which may be mistress and which the servant. It is not well for one or the other, madame; it is ill for both. Then, too, many must stand aside who would learn, since it is always the machine to sew that needs not many. It is true there are still houses that care for a name, and where one may be artiste, and have pride in an inspiration. But they are rare; and now one sits all day, and this one stitches sleeves, perhaps, or seams of waists or skirts, and knows not effects, or how to plan the whole, or any joy of composition or result. It is bad, and all bad, and I willingly would see the great shops go, and myself urge well their destruction."

These words, and a flood of more in the same direction, came as hot protest against any visit to the Magasins du Louvre, an enormous establishment of the same order as the Bon Marché, but slightly higher in price, where hundreds are employed as saleswomen, and where, side by side with the most expensive productions of French skill, are to be found the occasions,--the bargains in which the foreigner delights even more than the native.

"Let them go there," pursued the little modiste, well on in middle life, whose eager face and sad dark eyes lighted with indignation as she spoke. "Let those go there who have money, always money, but no taste, no perception, no feeling for a true combination. I know that if one orders a robe that one comes to regard to say, 'Yes, so and so must be for madame,' but how shall she know well when she is blunted and dead with numbers? How shall she feel what is best? I, madame, when one comes to me, I study. There are many things that make the suitability of a confection; there is not only complexion and figure and age, but when I have said all these, the thought that blends the whole and sees arising what must be for the perfect robe. This was the method of Madame Desmoulins, and I have learned of her. When it is an important case, a trousseau perhaps, she has neither eaten nor slept till she has conceived her list and sees each design clear. And then what joy! She selects, she blends with tears of happiness; she cuts with solemnity even. Is there such a spirit in your Bon Marché? Is there such a spirit anywhere but here and there to one who remembers; who has an ideal and who refuses to make it less by selling it in the shops? Again, madame, I tell you it is a debasement so to do. I will none of it."

Madame, who had clasped her hands and half risen in her excited protest, sank back in her chair and fixed her eyes on a robe just ready to send home,--a creation so simply elegant and so charming that her brow smoothed and she smiled, well pleased. But her words were simply the echo of others of the same order, spoken by others who had watched the course of women's occupations and who had actual love for the profession they had chosen.

Questions brought out a state of things much the same for both Paris and London, where the system of learning the business had few differences. For both millinery and dressmaking, apprenticeship had been the rule, the more important houses taking an entrance fee and lessening the number of years required; the others demanding simply the full time of the learner, from two to four years. In these latter cases food and lodging were given, and after the first six months a small weekly wage, barely sufficient to provide the Sunday food and lodging. If more was paid, the learner lived outside entirely; and the first year or two was a sharp struggle to make ends meet. But if any talent showed itself, promotion was rapid, and with it the prospect of independence in the end, the directress of a group of girls regarding such talent as developed by the house and a part of its reputation. In some cases such girls by the end of the third year received often five or six thousand francs, and in five were their own mistresses absolutely, with an income of ten or twelve thousand and often more.

This for the exception; for the majority was the most rigid training,--with its result in what we know as French finish, which is simply delicate painstaking with every item of the work,--and a wage of from thirty to forty francs a week, often below but seldom above this sum.

In the early stages of the apprenticeship there was simply an allowance of from six to ten francs per month for incidental expenses, and even when skill increased and services became valuable, five francs a week was considered an ample return. In all these cases the week passed under the roof of the employer, and Sunday alone became the actual change of the worker. The excessive hours of the London apprentice had no counterpart here or had not until the great houses were founded and steam and electric power came with the sewing-machine. With this new regime over-time was often claimed, and two sous an hour allowed, these being given in special cases. But exhausting hours were left for the lower forms of needle-work. The food provided was abundant and good, and sharp overseer as madame might prove, she demanded some relaxation for herself and allowed it to her employés. The different conditions of life made over-work in Paris a far different thing from over-work in London. For both milliners and modistes was the keen ambition to develop a talent, and the workroom, as has already been stated, felt personal pride in any member of the force who showed special lightness of touch or skill in combination.

"Work, madame!" exclaimed little Madame M., as she described a day's work under the system which had trained her. "But yes, I could not so work now, but then I saw always before me an end. I had the sentiment. It was always that the colors arranged themselves, and so with my sister, who is modiste and whose compositions are a marvel. My back has ached, my eyes have burned, I have seen sparks before them and have felt that I could no more, when the days are long and the heat perhaps is great, or even in winter crowded together and the air so heavy. But we laughed and sang; we thought of a future; we watched for talent, and if there was envy or jealousy, it was well smothered. I remember one talented Italian who would learn and who hated one other who had great gifts; hated her so, she has stabbed her suddenly with sharp scissors in the arm. But such things are not often. We French care always for genius, even if it be but to make a shoe most perfect, and we do not hate--no, we love well, whoever shows it. But to-day all is different, and once more I say, madame, that too much is made, and that thus talent will die and gifts be no more needed."

There is something more in this feeling than the mere sense of rivalry or money loss from the new system represented by the Bon Marché and other great establishments of the same nature. But this is a question in one sense apart from actual conditions, save as the concentration of labor has had its effect on the general rate of wages. Five francs a day is considered riches, and the ordinary worker or assistant in either dressmaking or millinery department receives from two and a half to three and a half francs, on which sum she must subsist as she can. With a home where earnings go into a common fund, or if the worker has no one dependent upon her, French thrift makes existence on this sum quite possible; but when it becomes a question of children to be fed and clothed, more than mere existence is impossible, and starvation stands always in the background. For the younger workers the great establishments, offer many advantages over the old system, and hours have been shortened and attempts made in a few cases to improve general conditions of those employed. But there is always a dull season, in which wages lessen, or even cease for a time, the actual number of working days averaging two hundred and eighty. Where work is private and reputation is established, the year's earnings are a matter of individual ability, but the mass of workers in these directions drift naturally toward the great shops which may be found now in every important street of Paris, and which have altered every feature of the old system. Whether this alteration is a permanent one, is a question to which no answer can yet be made. Wages have reached a point barely above subsistence, and the outlook for the worker is a very shadowy one; but the question as a whole has as yet small interest for any but the political economists, while the women themselves have no thought of organization or of any method of bettering general conditions, beyond the little societies to which some of the ordinary workers belong, and which are half religious, half educational, in their character. As a rule, these are for the lower ranks of needlewomen, but necessity will compel something more definite in form for the two classes we have been considering, as well as for those below them, and the time approaches when this will be plain to the workers themselves, and some positive action take the place of the present dumb acceptance of whatever comes.
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

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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