Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Shop Girls

“It’s the ladies that’s in the way, mum. Once get a lady to think that a girl isn’t idling because she’s sitting down, and the battle’s won. But a lady comes into a shop blacker ‘n midnight if every soul in it isn’t on their feet and springing to serve her. I’ve got seats, but, bless you! my trade ‘d be ruined if the girls used them much. ‘Tisn’t that I’m not willing, and me brother as well. It’s the customers, the lady customers, that wouldn’t stand it. Its them that you’ve got to talk to.”

Once more it is a woman who is apparently woman’s worst enemy, and London sins far more heavily in this respect than New York, and for a very obvious reason, that of sharply defined lines of caste, and the necessity of emphasizing them felt by all whose position does not speak for itself. A “born lady” on entering a shop where women clerks were sitting, might realize that from eleven to fourteen hours’ service daily might well be punctuated by a few moments on the bits of board pushed in between boxes, which do duty for seats, and be glad that an opportunity had been improved. Not so the wife of the prosperous butcher or baker or candlestick maker, rejoicing, it may be, in the first appearance in plush and silk, and bent upon making it as impressive as possible. To her, obsequiousness is the first essential of any dealing with the order from which she is emerging; and her custom will go to the shop where its outward tokens are most profuse. A clerk found sitting is simply embodied impertinence, and the floor manager who allows it an offender against every law of propriety; and thus it happens that seats are slipped out of sight, and exhausted women smile and ask, as the purchase is made, “And what is the next pleasure?” in a tone that makes the American hearer cringe for the abject humility that is the first condition of success as seller.

Even the best shops are not exempt from this, and as one passes from west to east the ratio increases, culminating in the oily glibness of the bargain-loving Jew, and his no less bargain-loving London brother of Whitechapel, or any other district unknown to fashion.

This, however, is a merely outward phase. The actual wrongs of the system lie deeper, but are soon as apparent. For the shop-girl, as for the needlewoman or general worker of any description whatsoever, over-time is the standing difficulty, and a grievance almost impossible to redress. That an act of parliament forbids the employment of any young person under eighteen more than eleven hours a day, makes small difference. Inspectors cannot be everywhere at once, and violations are the rule. In fact, the law is a dead letter, and the employer who finds himself suddenly arraigned for violation is as indignant as if no responsibility rested upon him. A committee has for many months been doing self-elected work in this direction, registering the names of shops where over-hours are demanded, informing the clerks of the law and its bearings, and urging them to make formal complaint. The same difficulty confronts them here as in the attempts to reduce over-time for tailoresses and general needlewomen–the fear of the workers themselves that any complaint will involve the losing of the situation; and thus silent submission is the rule for all, any revolt bringing upon them instant discharge.

In a prolonged inquiry into the condition of shop-girls in both the West and East End, the needs to be met first of all summed themselves up in four: (1) more seats and far more liberty in the use of them; (2) better arrangements for midday dinner–on the premises if possible, the girls now losing much of the hour in a hurried rush to the nearest eatinghouse; (3) with this, some regularity as to time for dinner, this being left at present to the caprice of the manager, who both delays and shortens time; (4) much greater care in the selection of managers. A fifth point might well be added, that of a free afternoon each week. This has been given by a few London firms, and has worked well in the added efficiency and interest of the girls, but by the majority, is regarded as a wild and very useless innovation.

The first point is often considered as settled, yet for both sides of the sea is actually in much the same case. Seats are kept out of sight, and for the majority of both sellers and buyers, there is the smallest comprehension of the strain of continuous standing, or its final effect. It is the popular conviction that women “get used to it,” and to a certain extent this is true, the strong and robust adjusting themselves to the conditions required. But the majority must spend the larger portion of the week’s earnings on the neat clothing required by the position, and to accomplish this they go underfed to a degree that is half starvation. It is this latter division of shop girls who suffer, not only from varicose veins brought on by long standing, but from many other diseases, the result of the same cause; yet, till women, who come as purchasers to the shops where women are employed, realize and remember this, reform under this head is practically impossible. The employer knows that, even if a few protest against the custom, his trade would suffer were it done away with; and thus buyer and seller form a combination against which revolt is impossible.

The inquiry brought one fact to light, which, so far as I know, has as yet no counterpart in the United States, and this is, that in certain West End shops every girl must conform to a uniform size of waist, this varying from eighteen to twenty inches, but never above twenty. Tall or short, fat or lean, Nature must stand aside, and the hour-glass serve as model, the results simply adding one more factor of destruction to the number already ranged against the girl.

The matter of regular meals has also far less attention than is necessary. Dinner is a “movable feast.” The girls are allowed to go out only two or three at once, and often it is three o’clock or even later before some have broken the fast. Though there is often ample room for tea and coffee urns, the suggestion seems to be regarded as a dangerous innovation, holding under the innocent seeming, a possible social revolution. The thing that hath been shall be, and the obstinate hide-bound conservatism of the English shop-keeper is beyond belief till experience has made it certain. A few employers consider this matter. The majority ignore it as beneath consideration.

The question of suitable floor managers is really the comprehensive one, including almost every evil and every good that can come to the shop girl, whether in the East or West End. Here, as with us, the girl is absolutely in his power. He governs the whole system of fines, one uncomfortable but necessary feature of any large establishment, and injustice in these can have fullest possible play.

“The fines are an awful nuisance, that they are,” said a bright-faced girl in one of the best-known shops of London–a great bazar, much like Macy’s. “But then it all depends on the manager. Some of them are real nasty, you know, and if they happen not to like a girl, they stick on fines just to spite her. You see we’re in their power, and some of them just love to show it and bully the girls no end. And worse than that, they’re impudent too if a girl is pretty, and often she doesn’t dare complain, for fear of losing the place, and he has it all his own way. This department’s got a very fair manager, and we all like him. He’s careful about fines, and plans about our dinners and all that, so we’re better off than most. The manager does what he pleases everywhere.”

These facts are for the West End, where dealings are nominally fair, and where wages may, in some exceptional case, run as high as eighteen shillings or even a pound a week. But the average falls far below this, from ten to fourteen being the usual figures, while seven and eight may be the sum. This, for the girl who lives at home, represents dress and pocket-money, but the great majority must support themselves entirely. We have already seen what this sum can do for the shirt-maker and general needlewoman, and it is easy to judge how the girl fares for whom the weekly wage is less. In the East End it falls sometimes as low as three shillings and sixpence (84c.). The girls club together, huddling in small back rooms, and spending all that can be saved on dress. Naturally, unless with exceptionally keen consciences, they find what is called “sin” an easier fact than starvation; and so the story goes on, and out of greed is born the misery, which, at last, compels greed to heavier poor rates, and thus an approximation to the distribution of the profit which should have been the worker’s.

Here, as in all cities, the place seems to beckon every girl ambitious of something beyond domestic service. There are cheap amusements, “penny-gaffs” and the like, the “penny-gaff” being the equivalent of our dime museum. There is the companionship of the fellow-worker; the late going home through brightly-lighted streets, and the crowding throng of people,–all that makes the alleviation of the East End life; and there is, too, the chance, always possible, of a lover and a husband, perhaps a grade above, or many grades above, their beginning or their present lives. This alone is impulse and hope. It is much the same story for both sides of the sea; and here, as in most cases where woman’s work is involved, it is with women that any change lies, and from their efforts that something better must come.
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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