Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - French Bargain Counters


“Yes, it is the great shops that have done that, madame. Once, you saw what was only well finished and a credit to the worker, and, even if the reward was small, she had pride in the work and her own skill, and did always her best. But now, what will you? The thing must be cheap, cheapest. The machine to sew hurries everything, and you find the workwoman sans ambition and busy only to hurry and be one with the machine. It is wrong, all wrong, but that is progress, and one must submit. When the small shops had place to live, and the great magasins were not for ladies or any who wished the best, then it was different, but now all is changed, and work has no character. It is all the same; always the machine.”

More than once this plaint has been made, and the sewing-machine accused as the cause of depression in wages, of deterioration of all hand needlework, and of the originality that once distinguished French productions; and there is some truth in the charge, not only for Paris, but for all cities to which needlewomen throng. Machinery has gradually revolutionized all feminine industries in Paris, and its effect is not only on the general system of wages, but upon the moral condition of the worker, and family life as a whole has become to the student of social questions one of gravest importance. On the one hand is the conviction, already quoted, that it has brought with it deterioration in every phase of the work; on the other, that it is an educating and beneficent agent, raising the general standard of wages, and putting three garments where once but one could be owned. It is an old story, and will give food for speculation in the future, quite as much as in the past. But in talking with skilled workers, from dressmakers to the needlewomen employed on trousseaux and the most delicate forms of this industry, each has expressed the same conviction, and this quite apart from the political economist’s view that there must be a return to hand production, if the standard is not to remain hopelessly below its old place. Such return would not necessarily exclude machinery, which must be regarded as an indispensable adjunct to the worker’s life. It would simply put it in its proper place,–that of aid, but never master. It is the spirit of competition which is motive power to-day, and which drives the whirring wheels and crowds the counters of every shop with productions which have no merit but that of cheapness, and the price of which means no return to the worker beyond the barest subsistence.

Subsistence in Paris has come to mean something far different from the facts of a generation ago. Wages have always been fixed at a standard barely above subsistence; but, even under these conditions, French frugality has succeeded not only in living, but in putting by a trifle month by month. As the great manufactories have sprung up, possibilities have lessened and altered, till the workwoman, however cheerfully she may face conditions, knows that saving has become impossible. If, in some cases, wages have risen, prices have advanced with them till only necessities are possible, the useful having dropped away from the plan, and the agreeable ceased to have place even in thought. Even before the long siege, and the semi-starvation that came to all within the walls of Paris, prices had been rising, and no reduction has come which even approximates to the old figures. Every article of daily need is at the highest point, sugar alone being an illustration of what the determination to protect an industry has brought about. The London workwoman buys a pound for one penny, or at the most twopence. The French workwoman must give eleven or twelve sous, and then have only beet sugar, which has not much over half the saccharine quality of cane sugar. Flour, milk, eggs, all are equally high, meat alone being at nearly the same prices as in London. Fruit is a nearly impossible luxury, and fuel so dear that shivering is the law for all but the rich, while rents are also far beyond London prices, with no “improved dwellings” system to give the utmost for the scanty sum at disposal. For the needlewoman the food question has resolved itself into bread alone, for at least one meal, with a little coffee, chiefly chicory, and possibly some vegetable for the others. But many a one lives on bread for six days in the week, reserving the few sous that can be saved for a Sunday bit of meat, or bones for soup. Even the system which allows of buying “portions,” just enough for a single individual, is valueless for her, since the smallest and poorest portion is far beyond the sum which can never be made to stretch far enough for such indulgence.

“I have tried it, madame,” said the same speaker, who had mourned over the degeneration of finish among the workwomen. “It was the siege that compelled it in the beginning, and then there was no complaining, since it was the will of the good God for all. But there came a time when sickness had been with me long, and I found no work but to stitch in my little room far up under the roof, and all the long hours bringing so little,–never more than two and a half francs, and days when it was even less; and then I found how one must live. I was proud, and wished to tell no one; but there was an ouvrière next me, in a little room, even smaller than mine, and she saw well that she could help, and that together some things might be possible that were not alone. She had her furnace for the fire, and we used it together on the days when we could make our soup, or the coffee that I missed more than all,–more, even, than wine, which is for us the same as water to you. It was months that I went not beyond fifty centimes a day for food, save the Sundays, and then but little more, since one grows at last to care little, and a good meal for one day makes the next that is wanting harder, I think, than when one wants always. But I am glad that I know; so glad that I could even wish the same knowledge for many who say, ‘Why do they not live on what they earn? Why do they not have thrift, and make ready for old age?’ Old age comes fast, it is true. Such years as I have known are double, yes, and treble, and one knows that they have shortened life. But when I say now ‘the poor,’ I know what that word means, and have such compassion as never before. It is the workers who are the real poor, and for them there is little hope, since it is the system that must change. It is the middleman who makes the money, and there are so many of them, how can there be much left for the one who comes last, and is only the machine that works?

“All that is true of England, and I have had two years there, and thus know well; all that is true, too, here, though we know better how we can live, and not be always so triste and sombre. But each day, as I go by the great new shops that have killed all the little ones, and by the great factory where electricity makes the machines go, and the women too become machines,–each day I know that these counters, where one can buy for a song, are counters where flesh and blood are sold. For, madame, it is starvation for the one who has made these garments; and why must one woman starve that another may wear what her own hands could make if she would? Everywhere it is occasions [bargains] that the great shops advertise. Everywhere they must be more and more, and so wages lessen, till there is no more hope of living; and, because they lessen, marriage waits, and all that the good God meant for us waits also.”

On the surface it is all well. There is less incompetency among French than English workers, and thus the class who furnish them need less arraignment for their lack of thoroughness. They contend, also, with one form of competition, which has its counterpart in America among the farmers’ wives, who take the work at less than regular rates. This form is the convent work, which piles the counters, and is one of the most formidable obstacles to better rates for the worker. Innumerable convents make the preparation of underwear one of their industries, and, in the classes of girls whom they train to the needle, find workers requiring no wages, the training being regarded as equivalent. Naturally, their prices can be far below the ordinary market one, and thus the worker, benefited on the one hand, is defrauded on the other. In short, the evil is a universal one,–an integral portion of the present manufacturing system,–and its abolition can come only from roused public sentiment, and combination among the workers themselves.
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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