Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - London Shirtmakers


Bloomsbury has a cheerful sound, and, like Hop Vine Garden and Violet Lane, and other titles no less reassuring, seems to promise a breath of something better than the soot-laden atmosphere offered by a London winter. But Hop Vine Garden is but a passage between a line of old buildings, and ends in a dark court and a small and dirty “public,” the beer-pots of which hold the only suggestion of hops to be discovered. Violet Lane is given over to cat’s-meat and sausage makers, the combination breeding painful suspicions in the seeker’s mind, and Bloomsbury has long since ceased to own sight or smell of any growing thing.

But, in a gray and forlorn old group of houses known as Clark’s Buildings, will be found, on certain evenings in the month, a little knot of women, each with open account-book, studying over small piles of pence and silver, and if their looks are any indication, drawing very little satisfaction from the operation. They are the secretaries of the little societies organized by the late Mrs. Patterson, who, like many other philanthropists, came to see that till the workers themselves were roused to the consciousness of necessity for union, but little could be accomplished for them. A few of the more intelligent, stirred by her deep earnestness, banded together twelve years ago, and organized a society known as “The Society of Women Employed in Shirt, Collar, and Under-linen Making;” and here may be found the few who have, from long and sharp experience, discovered the chief needs of workers in these trades. When outward conditions as they show themselves at present have been studied, when homes and hours and wages and all the details of the various branches have become familiar, it is to this dim little hall that one comes for a final puzzle over all that is wrong.

For it is all wrong; nor in any corner of working London, can any fact or figures make a right of the toil that is an old, old story; so old that there is even impatience if one tells it again. Numbers are unknown, each one who investigates giving a different result; but it is quite safe to say that five hundred thousand women live by the industries named in the society’s title, not one of whom has ever received, or ever will receive, under the present system, a wage which goes beyond bare subsistence. Here, as in New York, or any other large city of the United States, the conditions governing the trade are much the same. The women, untrained and unskilled in every other direction, turn to these branches of sewing as the possibility for all, and scores wait for any and every chance of work from manufactory or small house. As with us, the work is chiefly put out, and necessarily at once arises the middle-man, or a gradation of middle-men, each of whom must have his profit, taken in every case–not from employer, but worker. The employer fixes his rates without reference to these. He is fighting, also, for subsistence, plus as many luxuries as can be added from the profits of his superior power over conditions. He may be, and often is, to those nearest him, kind, unselfish, eager for right. But the hands are “hands,” and that is all; and the middle-man, of whom the very same statement may be true, deals with the hands with an equal obliviousness as to their connection with bodies and souls.

The original price per dozen of the garments made may be the highest in the market, but before the woman who works is reached there are often five, and sometimes more, transfers. Where workers are employed on the premises, they fare better, being paid by the piece. The minutest divisions of labor prevail, even more than with us–a shirt passing through many hands, the weekly wage differing for each. The “fitter,” for instance, must be a skilled workwoman, the flatness and proper set of the shirt front depending upon correct fitting at the neck. For this fitting in West End houses, the fitter receives a penny a shirt, and can in a week fit twenty dozen–this meaning a pound a week. But slack seasons reduce the amount, so that often she earns but nine or ten shillings, her average for the year being about fourteen. For the grades below her the sum is proportionately less. The most thoroughly skilled hand in either shirt-making or under-linen has been known to make as high as twenty-eight shillings a week ($7.00), but this is phenomenal; nor, indeed, does any such possibility remain, prices having gone down steadily for some years. A pound a week for a woman, as has been stated elsewhere, is regarded even by just employers as all that can be required by the most exacting; and with this standard in mind, a fall of three or four shillings seems a matter of slight importance.

Taking the various industries in which women are employed, the needle, as usual, leading, and the shirt-makers being a large per cent of the number, there are in London nearly a million women, self-supporting and self-respecting, and often the sole dependence of a family. This excludes the numbers of thriftless and otherwise helpless poor whose work is variable, and who, at the best, can earn only the lowest possible wages as unskilled laborers. For the skilled ones, doing their best in long days of work, never less than twelve hours, the average earnings, after all chances of slack seasons and accidents have been taken into account, is never over ten shillings a week. It is worth while to consider what ten shillings can do.

The allowance per head for rations for the old people in the Whitechapel Workhouse, one of the best of its class, is according to the authorities, three shillings eleven pence (96c.) per week, the quantity falling somewhat below the amount which physiologists regard as necessary for an able-bodied adult. These supplies are purchased by contract, and thus a full third lower than the single buyer can command. But she has learned that appetite is not a point to be considered, and for the most part confines herself to tea and bread and butter, with a cheap relish now and then. Thus four shillings a week is made to cover food, and three shillings gives her a small back room. For such lights, fire, and washing as cannot be dispensed with, must be counted another shilling. Out of the remaining two shillings must come her twopence a week, if she belongs to any trades-union, leaving one shilling and ten-pence for clothes, holidays, amusements, saving, and the possible doctor’s bill, a sum for the year, at the utmost, of from four pounds fifteen shillings and ninepence, or a trifle under twenty dollars. These women are, every one of them, past-mistresses in the art of doing without; and they do without with a patient courage, and often a cheerfulness, that is one of the most pathetic facts in their story. It is the established order of things. Why should they cry or make ado? Yet, as the workshop has its own education for men, and gives us the order known as the “intelligent workman,” so it gives us also the no less intelligent workwoman, possessing not only the natural womanly gift of many resources, but the added power of just so much technical training as she may have received in her apprenticeship to her trade.

Miss Simcox, who has made a study of the whole question, comments on this, in an admirable article in one of the monthlies for 1887, emphasizing the fact that these women, fitted by experience and long training for larger work, must live permanently, with absolutely no outlook or chance of change, on the border-land of poverty and want. They know all the needs, all the failings of their own class. Many of them give time, after the long day’s work is done, to attempts at organizing and to general missionary work among their order; and by such efforts the few and feeble unions among them have been kept alive. But vital statistics show what the end is where such double labor must be performed. These women who have character and intelligence, and unselfish desire to work for others, have an average “expectation of life” less by twenty years than that of the class who know the comfortable ease of middle-class life.

It is one of these workers who said not long ago, her words being put into the mouth of one of Mr. Besant’s characters: “Ladies deliberately shut their eyes; they won’t take trouble; they won’t think; they like things about them to look smooth and comfortable; they will get things cheap if they can. What do they care if the cheapness is got by starving women? Who is killing this girl here? Bad food and hard work. Cheapness! What do the ladies care how many working girls are killed?”

The individual woman brought face to face with the woman dying from overwork, would undoubtedly care. But the workers are out of sight, hidden away in attic and basement, or the upper rooms of great manufactories. The bargains are plain to see, every counter loaded, every window filled. And so society, which will have its bargains, is practically in a conspiracy against the worker. The woman who spends on her cheapest dress the utmost sum which her working sister has for dress, amusements, culture, and saving, preaches thrift, and it is certain the working classes would be better off if they had learned to save. Small wonder that the workers doubt them and their professed friendship, and that the breach widens day by day between classes and masses, bridged only by the work of those who, like the workers in the Women’s Provident League, know that it is to the rich that the need for industry must be preached, not to the poor. Organization holds education for both, and it is now quite possible to know something of the methods of prominent firms with their workwomen, and to shun those which refuse to consider the questions of over-time, of unsanitary workrooms, of unjust fines and reductions, and the thousand ways of emptying some portion of the workwoman’s purse into that of the employer. It is women who must do this, and till it is done, justice is mute, and the voice of our sisters’ blood cries aloud from the ground.
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

1 comment:

  1. The idea of getting a penny per shirt is horrific . From time to time I make my own clothes (for pleasure) and it's hard work...and that's with a modern machine.