D is for Dressmaker

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Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.

Ballgown

Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.


[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013

C is for Charwoman

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In the census of England and Wales of 1901, there were 111,841 women recorded as being a charwoman, or which 86, 463 were married or widowed. Every single Census Enumerator’s Book studied during the course of my research has charwomen listed, often in great number, and so it seems sensible to consider the role of the charwoman for the letter C in the alphabet.

 

The title, ‘Charwoman’ covers a fairly wide range of activities, but the vast majority were ‘cleaners’ – women going around cleaning other women’s houses. Some of the women they worked for would have been working-class too, but a significant number also cleaned for the middle-classes – the households that either couldn’t afford a full time maid of all work or live in housemaid, or were happy to rely on the cheaper charwomen. Some chars worked doing the cleaning or sometimes even the washing in commercial buildings, however, by the end of the nineteenth-century we see the title, ‘office cleaner’ coming into usage, thereby providing, at least a partial, delineation between domestic and commercial chars.

 

Again, as with B, there are a great deal of occupations beginning with C, some of which also were very popular jobs; Cigar Making for example provided an occupation for a great number of women in most of the London enumeration districts, if not the rural ones, others like Cat Meat Vendor were, understandably, less well populated, but still more so than the single cornet maker seen in a district in Camberwell – here is the list of occupations beginning with C for the same Bethnal Green enumeration district as the Bs:

Cabinet Maker
Cabinet Polisher
Cane Spreader
Cap Front Maker
Cap Maker
Capsule Maker
Captain in Salvation Army
Carpet Bag Maker
Cart Minder in Market
Chair Caner
Chandler’s Shop
Charwoman
Church Servant
Cigar Box Paperer
Cigar Light Seller
Cigar Maker
Cigarette Maker
Cleaner
Coffee House Keeper
Collar Dresser
Collar Ironer
Collar Machinist
Collar Maker
Confectioner
Confectioner’s Assistant
Cook
Cordwainer
Corsage Hand
Costermonger
Cotton Winder

 

None of these, however, come anywhere close to the numbers recorded as being Charwomen in each and every census. By the end of the nineteenth century charwomen had their own Union – the Association of Trained Charwomen and Domestic Workers, which was founded in 1898.  The Women’s Industrial Council was particularly worried about the conditions faced by those working as charwomen, primarily because they were unregulated in any way, their wages, even in comparison to our artificial flower makers, were argued by many (often incorrectly) to be pitiful, and there was absolutely no way to protect them from unscrupulous employers.

 

So why did women put themselves in this position?  All of the contemporary reports and surveys all suggest similar causes, some more charitably than others. Consider this report from the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1881:

 

Fetch

[1]

The key phrase here appears to be: ‘just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of the charwoman a like refuge for another class.’ He (I presume this is a ‘he’) goes on to discuss whether a woman works her way down through the domestic service hierarchy, failing at all else, before landing at the bottom with a resounding crash, and resorting to charring to make a living.  It has to be said that this particular report is rather uncharitable, cruel even, suggesting that those that can will do anything rather than char, which may well have been the case, but charring is argued here to be more than that, charring is a sign of failure in life.

 

Clementina Black was far more charitable.  She discussed at great length (an entire section of the survey was dedicated to the issues surrounding charwomen) how women’s work was unvalued and carried little esteem because any occupation carried out by women would always revert to that of being a domestic drudge, whether in her own home, or someone else’s. To put it simply, Black argued that in every household at that time, where a woman was in residence, that woman would be involved in ‘working’ as a wife, a mother, a nurse and a homemaker, and that work would be unpaid.

‘In a commercial age, work which is unremunerated and a worker who is unpaid are alike of small value and little esteemed. But all women, or with exceptions so few as to be negligible, have been, or are, or will be engaged as unpaid workers in unpaid work, with the consequence that all work done by women and all wage-earning women are paid at a lower rate than would be the case if their work were not cheapened, and it is cheapened because either they will later engage in domestic work, so that they are not worth training for anything else; or they are, in fact, doing unpaid domestic work all the time, and to their employer their value in other work is therefore less; or they have been spending their life in domestic work and cannot therefore claim proficiency in the new industry they may be compelled to turn to.’[2]

She went on to point out how in other industries, agriculture for example, which she insisted used to be unpaid (serfdom? she doesn’t elaborate), organisation and legislation had changed things and she felt that domestic work would and should follow. However, domestic work was problematic in that, in her words, ‘charing, especially, is just the work that every woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile is able to perform.’[3] It was, therefore, unspecialised, and needed little training; girls having been brought up from a young age to know how to clean and carry out domestic chores, often working at home having left school, keeping house themselves, while their own mother went cleaning other people’s houses, until the next daughter left school, could take the place of the eldest, who would then go into service.

 

Black, however, claimed that the single greatest reason that women were driven to charring was that of the irregularity of MEN’S work, not that of the women’s. Over the course of nearly twenty years of constant research, the Women’s Industrial Council found that where men’s work was irregular, where their hours were seasonal or unreliable, for example dock workers, it was then that women took to charring. So, charring itself was, in a way, seasonal, in that in the times when men were likely to have more work there were fewer chars, and when the men were not working or their hours reduced, the numbers or charwomen increased hugely. This, in itself, led to greater problems and fed the issue of low pay – the market was drowned with charwoman all wanting to work at similar times – the basic concept of supply and demand keeping down wages.

 

It was not all bad though, charring in itself could be argued to have been an ideal (if low paid) option for working mothers. The hours were fewer, they were worked at the convenience (to a certain extent) of the woman herself, and she could dictate where and when she worked and for whom. Again, turning to Black:

‘Over and over again the women say that it is better than the trade they followed before marriage, which means that it is possible to earn as much, or more, with less expenditure of time; that one can regulate the amount of work one does in a week without losing the job; that the hours admit far more attention to one’s own housework and children than do those worked in any factory, and that you do get for yourself good food, and often something to bring home to the children as well.’[4]

That final phrase says a lot, good food for yourself, and often something to bring home to the children. This goes beyond money, it goes beyond cash for the rent – food, and good, decent food for yourself and the children would have been priceless for a woman working only because her husband was on short hours, or injured or sick.

 

There was also the issue of respectability. To us, the word ‘char’ might bring to mind a drudge in a dirty skirt and apron doing the very worst of the housework. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Of course some of them would fit the stereotype, but something that is brought up again and again is this idea of working to ‘oblige the lady’ – they are helping out, looking after the lady, thereby raising themselves, if even in their own head, to a higher level and keeping up with the Joness’. Still though, this wasn’t a job that very many women did unless they had to, and many had to. There were a few instances recorded of women charring to provide a higher income that they ‘needed’, but these were few and far between.

 

It is quite interesting to see the wages these women were earning. There hours were not as long as many other occupations, often only (only?!) nine or ten a day, but for that they would be paid on average 2/-, sometimes less. Still, however, this amounts to more in many cases than we have seen so far in artificial flower making and boot making if you average out the hours – it could certainly be said that charring was an extremely useful stopgap. It was something any woman could do, and most did daily anyway, that could be picked up and put down when needed, and which paid a relatively good wage. It is hardly surprising then that in the census we see them in pretty much every parish!


[1] THE LONDON CHARWOMAN .
The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, January 21, 1881; pg. 4; Issue 4201. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 106.

[3] Black, p. 107.

[4] Black, p. 109.

The post C is for Charwoman appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

C is for Charwoman

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/c-is-for-charwoman/

In the census of England and Wales of 1901, there were 111,841 women recorded as being a charwoman, or which 86, 463 were married or widowed. Every single Census Enumerator’s Book studied during the course of my research has charwomen listed, often in great number, and so it seems sensible to consider the role of the charwoman for the letter C in the alphabet.

 

The title, ‘Charwoman’ covers a fairly wide range of activities, but the vast majority were ‘cleaners’ – women going around cleaning other women’s houses. Some of the women they worked for would have been working-class too, but a significant number also cleaned for the middle-classes – the households that either couldn’t afford a full time maid of all work or live in housemaid, or were happy to rely on the cheaper charwomen. Some chars worked doing the cleaning or sometimes even the washing in commercial buildings, however, by the end of the nineteenth-century we see the title, ‘office cleaner’ coming into usage, thereby providing, at least a partial, delineation between domestic and commercial chars.

 

Again, as with B, there are a great deal of occupations beginning with C, some of which also were very popular jobs; Cigar Making for example provided an occupation for a great number of women in most of the London enumeration districts, if not the rural ones, others like Cat Meat Vendor were, understandably, less well populated, but still more so than the single cornet maker seen in a district in Camberwell – here is the list of occupations beginning with C for the same Bethnal Green enumeration district as the Bs:

Cabinet Maker
Cabinet Polisher
Cane Spreader
Cap Front Maker
Cap Maker
Capsule Maker
Captain in Salvation Army
Carpet Bag Maker
Cart Minder in Market
Chair Caner
Chandler’s Shop
Charwoman
Church Servant
Cigar Box Paperer
Cigar Light Seller
Cigar Maker
Cigarette Maker
Cleaner
Coffee House Keeper
Collar Dresser
Collar Ironer
Collar Machinist
Collar Maker
Confectioner
Confectioner’s Assistant
Cook
Cordwainer
Corsage Hand
Costermonger
Cotton Winder

 

None of these, however, come anywhere close to the numbers recorded as being Charwomen in each and every census. By the end of the nineteenth century charwomen had their own Union – the Association of Trained Charwomen and Domestic Workers, which was founded in 1898.  The Women’s Industrial Council was particularly worried about the conditions faced by those working as charwomen, primarily because they were unregulated in any way, their wages, even in comparison to our artificial flower makers, were argued by many (often incorrectly) to be pitiful, and there was absolutely no way to protect them from unscrupulous employers.

 

So why did women put themselves in this position?  All of the contemporary reports and surveys all suggest similar causes, some more charitably than others. Consider this report from the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1881:

 

Fetch

[1]

The key phrase here appears to be: ‘just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of the charwoman a like refuge for another class.’ He (I presume this is a ‘he’) goes on to discuss whether a woman works her way down through the domestic service hierarchy, failing at all else, before landing at the bottom with a resounding crash, and resorting to charring to make a living.  It has to be said that this particular report is rather uncharitable, cruel even, suggesting that those that can will do anything rather than char, which may well have been the case, but charring is argued here to be more than that, charring is a sign of failure in life.

 

Clementina Black was far more charitable.  She discussed at great length (an entire section of the survey was dedicated to the issues surrounding charwomen) how women’s work was unvalued and carried little esteem because any occupation carried out by women would always revert to that of being a domestic drudge, whether in her own home, or someone else’s. To put it simply, Black argued that in every household at that time, where a woman was in residence, that woman would be involved in ‘working’ as a wife, a mother, a nurse and a homemaker, and that work would be unpaid.

‘In a commercial age, work which is unremunerated and a worker who is unpaid are alike of small value and little esteemed. But all women, or with exceptions so few as to be negligible, have been, or are, or will be engaged as unpaid workers in unpaid work, with the consequence that all work done by women and all wage-earning women are paid at a lower rate than would be the case if their work were not cheapened, and it is cheapened because either they will later engage in domestic work, so that they are not worth training for anything else; or they are, in fact, doing unpaid domestic work all the time, and to their employer their value in other work is therefore less; or they have been spending their life in domestic work and cannot therefore claim proficiency in the new industry they may be compelled to turn to.’[2]

She went on to point out how in other industries, agriculture for example, which she insisted used to be unpaid (serfdom? she doesn’t elaborate), organisation and legislation had changed things and she felt that domestic work would and should follow. However, domestic work was problematic in that, in her words, ‘charing, especially, is just the work that every woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile is able to perform.’[3] It was, therefore, unspecialised, and needed little training; girls having been brought up from a young age to know how to clean and carry out domestic chores, often working at home having left school, keeping house themselves, while their own mother went cleaning other people’s houses, until the next daughter left school, could take the place of the eldest, who would then go into service.

 

Black, however, claimed that the single greatest reason that women were driven to charring was that of the irregularity of MEN’S work, not that of the women’s. Over the course of nearly twenty years of constant research, the Women’s Industrial Council found that where men’s work was irregular, where their hours were seasonal or unreliable, for example dock workers, it was then that women took to charring. So, charring itself was, in a way, seasonal, in that in the times when men were likely to have more work there were fewer chars, and when the men were not working or their hours reduced, the numbers or charwomen increased hugely. This, in itself, led to greater problems and fed the issue of low pay – the market was drowned with charwoman all wanting to work at similar times – the basic concept of supply and demand keeping down wages.

 

It was not all bad though, charring in itself could be argued to have been an ideal (if low paid) option for working mothers. The hours were fewer, they were worked at the convenience (to a certain extent) of the woman herself, and she could dictate where and when she worked and for whom. Again, turning to Black:

‘Over and over again the women say that it is better than the trade they followed before marriage, which means that it is possible to earn as much, or more, with less expenditure of time; that one can regulate the amount of work one does in a week without losing the job; that the hours admit far more attention to one’s own housework and children than do those worked in any factory, and that you do get for yourself good food, and often something to bring home to the children as well.’[4]

That final phrase says a lot, good food for yourself, and often something to bring home to the children. This goes beyond money, it goes beyond cash for the rent – food, and good, decent food for yourself and the children would have been priceless for a woman working only because her husband was on short hours, or injured or sick.

 

There was also the issue of respectability. To us, the word ‘char’ might bring to mind a drudge in a dirty skirt and apron doing the very worst of the housework. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Of course some of them would fit the stereotype, but something that is brought up again and again is this idea of working to ‘oblige the lady’ – they are helping out, looking after the lady, thereby raising themselves, if even in their own head, to a higher level and keeping up with the Joness’. Still though, this wasn’t a job that very many women did unless they had to, and many had to. There were a few instances recorded of women charring to provide a higher income that they ‘needed’, but these were few and far between.

 

It is quite interesting to see the wages these women were earning. There hours were not as long as many other occupations, often only (only?!) nine or ten a day, but for that they would be paid on average 2/-, sometimes less. Still, however, this amounts to more in many cases than we have seen so far in artificial flower making and boot making if you average out the hours – it could certainly be said that charring was an extremely useful stopgap. It was something any woman could do, and most did daily anyway, that could be picked up and put down when needed, and which paid a relatively good wage. It is hardly surprising then that in the census we see them in pretty much every parish!


[1] THE LONDON CHARWOMAN .
The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, January 21, 1881; pg. 4; Issue 4201. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 106.

[3] Black, p. 107.

[4] Black, p. 109.

B is for Bootmakers

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B is a tricky one, there are so many Bs showing up as occupations for married women in the census; these are the Bs from just one single enumeration district in Bethnal Green:

Backgammon Table Maker
Bag Maker
Baker
Baking Powder Packer
Barmaid
Basket Maker
Bead Embroiderer
Bead Trimmer
Bobbin Winder
Bonbon Maker
Bonnet Maker
Book Binder
Book Filler
Book Folder
Book Sewer
Boot Lining Maker
Boot Machinist
Boot Maker
Boot Polisher
Boot Tacker
Boot Trimmer
Bottle Labeller
Bottle Packer
Box Maker
Braid Machinist
Braider
Broad Weaver
Brush Drawer
Brush Maker
Bugle Trimmer
Butcher
Button Hole Maker
Button Maker

As you can see, there are a vast array of occupations I could look at for B in my A-Z, as opposed to the As for the same enumeration district which were Apprentice and Artificial Flower Maker (of course, there are far more than that in reality when looking further afield, Actress comes up – surprisingly – with great regularity).  I decided to write about the occupation group in which the greatest number of women were employed in my samples, and that was those working in boot manufacture (a close run thing with book folding).

Bootmaking was such a huge part of the Victorian economic structure that Charles Booth dedicated an entire section of Life and Labour of the People in London to a discussion regarding the ways in which the trade had developed and changed over the preceding 25-30 years, the working patterns of those involved in the trade, and the problems faced by men and women alike in a rapidly evolving sector of the clothing industry.[1]

One of the biggest issues faced by our bootmaking ladies was a drop in payment rates over a very short period of time. Whereas, previously, bootmaking had been a specialist trade carried out by artisans in small workshops and mainly by hand, by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century most boots were made by machine to a standard last (the wooden or metal ‘foot’ used to size shoes), rather than being made to measure for each customer.  It should be noted that we mustn’t confuse ‘machine’ with our current understanding of factory work; each process was still carried out by hand at this time in the majority of cases, but machines were involved in the sewing and finishing of the boots and shoes, thus cutting down on the time take to hand sew every upper, and to then sew it to every sole.

Booth, however, points out that for some in the trade the mechanisation of bootmaking was a positive thing. He notes, whereas in the mid 1800’s a family could not earn more than £1 a week bootmaking sewing by hand, the introduction of the sewing machine greatly reduced the price per pair of boots, but the bootmaker could make far more pairs per day.[2]  This was of great advantage to the owners of the growing bootmaking companies, but the profits were not always passed down to the employees.

Even within ‘boot making’ there are several different trades, and many different ways in which a woman could have been working.  Put very basically this comes down to home-work (most favoured by the married women) and factory work. By the 1880s most boots were made in factories, and many of the women recorded in the census as working in the boot trade were employed by factories. The areas in which women tended to do most of the work were fitting (pasting the pieces of the boot together in preparation for sewing), machining, button-holing and finishing (otherwise known as table hands) and these are the main boot making occupations seen in the list above (sometimes under slightly different names as given in the householder schedule).[3] It may seem surprising that so much of the work of the bootmaker was carried out by women, but as Booth points out, ‘Male labour is too costly a luxury to be employed by the manufacturer when he can get the work done well enough for his purposes by women willing to accept wages much lower than those demanded by men.’[4]

Wages varied greatly depending on the employer, the time of year (boot and shoe making, whilst not so seasonal as many of the other trades, was still quieter at times, the busiest months being from the middle of February until the middle of July),  and the experience of the woman herself.  Top class machinists in the late 1880s would earn in the region of 18s a week to 22s (if they were exceptional), whereas those who were still learning their trade could only expect to earn 14-16s a week. Apprentices worked for nothing for the first three months of their time with a company, and they would then rise very slowly from 2s-3s a week, up to a staggering 7s a week when they were at the end of their three years of apprenticeship.  The other female workers were on lower rates, button-hole makers could sometimes make up to 18s a week, trimmers on average 10s-12s, whilst the room-girls – young girls employed to fetch and carry, on 2s 6d.[5]

The hours of the women employed in the manufactories were not so long as those found in other occupations, indeed, by Victorian standards they were quite reasonable – a woman only expected to work from around 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday and a nice half day of 8am to 2pm on a Saturday – the overtime could be problematic, increasing their hours into the night on occasion, but still, bootmaking was seen as a relatively genteel occupation for a woman.

Certainly by the last years of the nineteenth century most women were employed by factories, and very few independent bootmaking families remained in business, but this didn’t mean that they were all actually working in a factory environment. Bootmaking was another one of the trades in which most of the work was still carried out at home.  Then, as now, premises were expensive and added to the cost of the product, it made far more sense to ship out most of the finishing and stitching work to women in their own homes.  Indeed, some of these women made their own little manufactories in their living rooms, employing friends, daughters and neighbours to come and carry out the work.  Booth offers some examples of the experiences of these women, and the money they were able to earn. Below is the profit and loss account for a mother working in her own home, in possession of three machines, one of which she works, in May of c1890:[6]

Gross Receipts £2. 15s. 5 ½d
£     s    d £   s    d
Expenses. Wages: 1 fitter 0   13   0
1 Machinist (improver) 0    9    0
1 Machinist (daughter) 0    6    0
1 shop-girl (table-hand and room-girl) 0    8    0
Grindery and repairs to machines 1  16   0
Rent 0   9    0
Light 0   3    0
Railway fares of shop-girltaking work to warehouse 0   0    6
Total 2   8   10
£    s    d
Gross Receipts 2   15   5 ½
Expenses 2    8   10
Nett Earnings 0    6    7 ½

So it can be seen that the woman who took in bootmaking and employed her daughter, a neighbour and a shop-girl earned less than the shop-girl by the time she had paid for the repairs to her machines and all of their wages. This was not always a profitable exercise.

Clementina Black also writes about the problems facing home-workers, which, it must be stressed, made up the majority of women working the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century she explains how the normal payment for soling babies’ leather boots has dropped to 8d a dozen pairs (so 24 little boots for 8p), as opposed to the 1/- a dozen which had been the norm in previous years.  Not only this, but many women were employed purely on piece work, and not on any form of permanent contract, so rather than being assured of work on a regular basis, they would have to walk from factory to factory to try and seek out some work to carry out. The plight of Mrs. W, a married mother of five small children, is pointed out by Black:

 ‘when visited she was busy upon babies’ shoes of blue ribbed silk; she stitched on the soles by hand, an operation always performed inside out, and necessitating the turning of the shoe to its right sided afterwards; then she pasted and inserted the stiffening at the heel, and finished off the inside. She was paid 1/- per dozen pairs, and could not do more than three dozen in a day, even if she sat at work from 9 to 11 or 11.30. One evening her husband timed her unawares, and reported that she had earned 2d. an hour – presumably four shoes. At that rate she would have taken 18 hours to do the 72 that she described as barely possible between 9 and 11.30.’[7]

Black goes on to explain how Mrs W’s fares for collects her work amounted to 9d. per week, and that she also had to provide her own thread, paste and needles, frequently using half a penny’s worth of needles per dozen pairs.  Even with her husband working, having a lodger and taking in washing (when did she have the time?) Mr and Mrs W still could only scrape together 30s a week, not enough to live on, Mrs W working to within a few hours of the birth of her most recent baby, and being back at work within six days, propped up in bed with pillows to try and make ends meet.[8]

When we consider that, according to the 1881 census of England and Wales, just in the borough of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch alone, over 2600 women were occupied in the boot trade, we can see that a vast number of women were living and working in these conditions, sewing, cutting or pasting for over 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours, for these rates of pay. And bootmaking was a ‘good’ occupation choice!


[1] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co., 1893), pp.69-137.

[2] Booth, p.78

[3] Booth, p.75

[4] Booth, p. 75.

[5] Booth, p. 87.

[6] Booth, p. 90.

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 64.

[8] Black, p. 68.

The post B is for Bootmakers appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

B is for Bootmakers

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This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/b-is-for-bootmakers/

B is a tricky one, there are so many Bs showing up as occupations for married women in the census; these are the Bs from just one single enumeration district in Bethnal Green:

Backgammon Table Maker
Bag Maker
Baker
Baking Powder Packer
Barmaid
Basket Maker
Bead Embroiderer
Bead Trimmer
Bobbin Winder
Bonbon Maker
Bonnet Maker
Book Binder
Book Filler
Book Folder
Book Sewer
Boot Lining Maker
Boot Machinist
Boot Maker
Boot Polisher
Boot Tacker
Boot Trimmer
Bottle Labeller
Bottle Packer
Box Maker
Braid Machinist
Braider
Broad Weaver
Brush Drawer
Brush Maker
Bugle Trimmer
Butcher
Button Hole Maker
Button Maker

As you can see, there are a vast array of occupations I could look at for B in my A-Z, as opposed to the As for the same enumeration district which were Apprentice and Artificial Flower Maker (of course, there are far more than that in reality when looking further afield, Actress comes up – surprisingly – with great regularity).  I decided to write about the occupation group in which the greatest number of women were employed in my samples, and that was those working in boot manufacture (a close run thing with book folding).

Bootmaking was such a huge part of the Victorian economic structure that Charles Booth dedicated an entire section of Life and Labour of the People in London to a discussion regarding the ways in which the trade had developed and changed over the preceding 25-30 years, the working patterns of those involved in the trade, and the problems faced by men and women alike in a rapidly evolving sector of the clothing industry.[1]

One of the biggest issues faced by our bootmaking ladies was a drop in payment rates over a very short period of time. Whereas, previously, bootmaking had been a specialist trade carried out by artisans in small workshops and mainly by hand, by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century most boots were made by machine to a standard last (the wooden or metal ‘foot’ used to size shoes), rather than being made to measure for each customer.  It should be noted that we mustn’t confuse ‘machine’ with our current understanding of factory work; each process was still carried out by hand at this time in the majority of cases, but machines were involved in the sewing and finishing of the boots and shoes, thus cutting down on the time take to hand sew every upper, and to then sew it to every sole.

Booth, however, points out that for some in the trade the mechanisation of bootmaking was a positive thing. He notes, whereas in the mid 1800’s a family could not earn more than £1 a week bootmaking sewing by hand, the introduction of the sewing machine greatly reduced the price per pair of boots, but the bootmaker could make far more pairs per day.[2]  This was of great advantage to the owners of the growing bootmaking companies, but the profits were not always passed down to the employees.

Even within ‘boot making’ there are several different trades, and many different ways in which a woman could have been working.  Put very basically this comes down to home-work (most favoured by the married women) and factory work. By the 1880s most boots were made in factories, and many of the women recorded in the census as working in the boot trade were employed by factories. The areas in which women tended to do most of the work were fitting (pasting the pieces of the boot together in preparation for sewing), machining, button-holing and finishing (otherwise known as table hands) and these are the main boot making occupations seen in the list above (sometimes under slightly different names as given in the householder schedule).[3] It may seem surprising that so much of the work of the bootmaker was carried out by women, but as Booth points out, ‘Male labour is too costly a luxury to be employed by the manufacturer when he can get the work done well enough for his purposes by women willing to accept wages much lower than those demanded by men.’[4]

Wages varied greatly depending on the employer, the time of year (boot and shoe making, whilst not so seasonal as many of the other trades, was still quieter at times, the busiest months being from the middle of February until the middle of July),  and the experience of the woman herself.  Top class machinists in the late 1880s would earn in the region of 18s a week to 22s (if they were exceptional), whereas those who were still learning their trade could only expect to earn 14-16s a week. Apprentices worked for nothing for the first three months of their time with a company, and they would then rise very slowly from 2s-3s a week, up to a staggering 7s a week when they were at the end of their three years of apprenticeship.  The other female workers were on lower rates, button-hole makers could sometimes make up to 18s a week, trimmers on average 10s-12s, whilst the room-girls – young girls employed to fetch and carry, on 2s 6d.[5]

The hours of the women employed in the manufactories were not so long as those found in other occupations, indeed, by Victorian standards they were quite reasonable – a woman only expected to work from around 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday and a nice half day of 8am to 2pm on a Saturday – the overtime could be problematic, increasing their hours into the night on occasion, but still, bootmaking was seen as a relatively genteel occupation for a woman.

Certainly by the last years of the nineteenth century most women were employed by factories, and very few independent bootmaking families remained in business, but this didn’t mean that they were all actually working in a factory environment. Bootmaking was another one of the trades in which most of the work was still carried out at home.  Then, as now, premises were expensive and added to the cost of the product, it made far more sense to ship out most of the finishing and stitching work to women in their own homes.  Indeed, some of these women made their own little manufactories in their living rooms, employing friends, daughters and neighbours to come and carry out the work.  Booth offers some examples of the experiences of these women, and the money they were able to earn. Below is the profit and loss account for a mother working in her own home, in possession of three machines, one of which she works, in May of c1890:[6]

Gross Receipts £2. 15s. 5 ½d
£     s    d £   s    d
Expenses. Wages: 1 fitter 0   13   0
1 Machinist (improver) 0    9    0
1 Machinist (daughter) 0    6    0
1 shop-girl (table-hand and room-girl) 0    8    0
Grindery and repairs to machines 1  16   0
Rent 0   9    0
Light 0   3    0
Railway fares of shop-girltaking work to warehouse 0   0    6
Total 2   8   10
£    s    d
Gross Receipts 2   15   5 ½
Expenses 2    8   10
Nett Earnings 0    6    7 ½

So it can be seen that the woman who took in bootmaking and employed her daughter, a neighbour and a shop-girl earned less than the shop-girl by the time she had paid for the repairs to her machines and all of their wages. This was not always a profitable exercise.

Clementina Black also writes about the problems facing home-workers, which, it must be stressed, made up the majority of women working the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century she explains how the normal payment for soling babies’ leather boots has dropped to 8d a dozen pairs (so 24 little boots for 8p), as opposed to the 1/- a dozen which had been the norm in previous years.  Not only this, but many women were employed purely on piece work, and not on any form of permanent contract, so rather than being assured of work on a regular basis, they would have to walk from factory to factory to try and seek out some work to carry out. The plight of Mrs. W, a married mother of five small children, is pointed out by Black:

 ‘when visited she was busy upon babies’ shoes of blue ribbed silk; she stitched on the soles by hand, an operation always performed inside out, and necessitating the turning of the shoe to its right sided afterwards; then she pasted and inserted the stiffening at the heel, and finished off the inside. She was paid 1/- per dozen pairs, and could not do more than three dozen in a day, even if she sat at work from 9 to 11 or 11.30. One evening her husband timed her unawares, and reported that she had earned 2d. an hour – presumably four shoes. At that rate she would have taken 18 hours to do the 72 that she described as barely possible between 9 and 11.30.’[7]

Black goes on to explain how Mrs W’s fares for collects her work amounted to 9d. per week, and that she also had to provide her own thread, paste and needles, frequently using half a penny’s worth of needles per dozen pairs.  Even with her husband working, having a lodger and taking in washing (when did she have the time?) Mr and Mrs W still could only scrape together 30s a week, not enough to live on, Mrs W working to within a few hours of the birth of her most recent baby, and being back at work within six days, propped up in bed with pillows to try and make ends meet.[8]

When we consider that, according to the 1881 census of England and Wales, just in the borough of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch alone, over 2600 women were occupied in the boot trade, we can see that a vast number of women were living and working in these conditions, sewing, cutting or pasting for over 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours, for these rates of pay. And bootmaking was a ‘good’ occupation choice!


[1] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co., 1893), pp.69-137.

[2] Booth, p.78

[3] Booth, p.75

[4] Booth, p. 75.

[5] Booth, p. 87.

[6] Booth, p. 90.

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 64.

[8] Black, p. 68.

A is for Artificial Flower Makers

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A is for Artificial Flower Makers

One of the very few predominantly female occupations to appear consistently in urban and suburban census enumerators’ books throughout the period 1851-1901 is that of artificial flower maker, or artificial florist.  It is rare to find an urban enumerator’s book from the period which does not include at least one woman recording herself as an artificial flower maker, in most cases numerous women appear as such, despite the fact that making artificial flowers was generally a poorly paid and seasonal occupation. Artificial flowers were to be seen everywhere in Victorian Britain; it was not unusual for Hanson cabs to have a bunch in their windows,[1] and women’s clothing was regularly decorated with them.

2008BT6507_jpg_ds

Figure 1: Bonnet c1845 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bonnets were adorned with masses of blooms and leaves, as were dresses and coats, giving a splash of colour to an otherwise plain garment. Even the working-classes had their bonnets trimmed with artificial flowers, which at as little as a penny a bunch, were affordable to many of those who were in the higher ranks of the working-classes.  As such, artifical flower making was a big business, and thousands of women were employed both in factories, and in their homes, making the little blooms for a few shillings a day.

In a time when many of the options for home-working involved time consuming, tedious and frequently dangerous work, artificial flower making was arguably one of better options open to women, and there was real potential, if working enough hours, for a woman to earn enough money to help to support her family.

When we talk about artificial flower makers, it is perhaps best to acknowledge that, for most of the working-class married women involved in the profession, it was more a case of artificial flower mounting – also known as ‘sticking and papering’, or ‘sticking and wiring’, than artificial flower making.  Like most piece work jobs of the time, much of the better paid, more highly skilled work, was carried out in the factories, the more basic ‘finishing’ work being the kind farmed out to the women working in their homes, with few women involved in creating the entire flower, or flower spray, most simply making the leaves, or the flowers, or putting together the sprays of flowers made by other women.

We can still read of the experiences of many of the women carrying out this work, for example:

‘Mrs A. therefore, as the family increased, took up the occupation of “sticking and papering”; that is to say she spent what spare time she could command in affixing little artificial green leaves to stalks of wire, and in winding around the wire strips of thing green paper. The leaves, thus provided with stalks, were packed together in dozens, and the payment for doing a gross varied from 1 ¾ d to 2 ½ d; the gross took about an hour. Mrs A. worked usually from 9.30 in the morning, to the same hour at night, less some two or three hours occupied by housework,  preparation of meals etc., and earned – when work was not slack – from 5/- to 7/6 a week.’[2]

Mrs A. lived in London with her husband, who also worked full time, and her four children. As well as somehow managing to work from early morning to late at night, working on average 72 hours a week, and covering some 3,360 stalks in those 72 hours, she also had to travel to the factory to collect her supplies for her work, and to take back to her employer, the stalks she had completed. At times she could send one of her children to enable her carry out her household chores – but all of this travelling across London also cost money and time. When her wages were combined with her husband’s, they barely covered the cost of the rent, which, when paid, left only 4/1 ½ a week per head for everything else that they required, their heating, food, clothing and household goods.  Clementina Black explains how this was totally inadequate and meant that hard working families were cast into even deeper poverty, despite the mother and the father working long hours.  Black describes in colourful, and emotionally laden terms how Mr and Mrs A. were a ‘model pair’, who didn’t marry early (she calculates them having married when Mrs A would have been in her late 20s), and how her children, although ‘pale and delicate’, were well-kept; ‘they had lost none’.[3]

Mrs A. is an example of a ‘sticker and paperer’ – Black also introduces us to the ‘sticker and mounter’ – the women who were provided with the flowers and leaves already prepared (by the likes of Mrs A.), and who then formed bunches of flowers (as seen on the bonnet illustrated above) for clothing and decoration. As with everything else in this form of work, there were high quality flowers prepared with the finest materials by skilled workers, and some, which Black notes, were arguably for the lower end of the market:

‘No. 2 presented the investigator with a specimen of her work, a poor flattened sample of execution. It consisted of leaves which, from their form, appear intended to represent rose leaves, but of which the colour, an unshaded emerald green, belongs to no rose leaf that ever grew. The leaves, made of a sort of calico and waxed are mounted in four groups, two or three leaves, one of five, and one of seven, and the wire stalks of these groups are then bound together with fine wire so that each spray seems to grow from a main stem. Each bunch thus comprises eighteen leaves, and for the making up a dozen branches the worker was paid 2d. For sprays of one rose, one bud, and three leaves, tied up in dozens, she was paid 3/9 a gross.”[4]

Through contemporary social surveys it is possible to get close to the women making the flowers, and to observe the conditions in which they were working.  It is also possible to see the ways in which their working conditions, and, arguably more importantly, wages changed over the decades as cheaper imports drove down prices and changing working patterns, such as the training of blind children to mount artificial flowers in institutions, created a situation where some home-working women were forced to work longer hours, for less money.

Of course, artificial florists were not alone in seeing their hours increase as their wages decreased, but their wages appear to have taken a particularly severe downward turn in the latter years of the nineteenth-century.  When comparing reports on the income and working conditions of these women in Booth’s study of the trades of the East End of London, published in 1893 with the work carried out by a team of social researchers led by Clementina Black c1905-1908, it is possible to see in graphic detail how fast, and how far, the women’s labour had been devalued. What is interesting to note is that in Black’s survey, some women suggest that their wages have plummeted, whereas others insist that either their piece rate has not changed, or, had dropped, but had recently improved again.[5]

In Booth’s survey we see that: ‘skilled hands, mounters, can earn 18s a week, and rose makers at home can earn over 20s’[6]  This clearly shows a how wages have dropped by the time Black carries out her survey (15 years later).

Artificial florists were everywhere – it was a job that a woman could do in her own home, with little experience, and which could supplement the household income, and if not actually raise the family out of poverty maybe at least ensure that the roof stayed over their heads for another week.


[1] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 35

[2] Black, p. 31

[3] Black, p.  33

[4] Black, p. 35

[5] Black, pp. 31-36

[6] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the people in London: The trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893), p. 294

The post A is for Artificial Flower Makers appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

A is for Artificial Flower Makers

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/a-is-for-artificial-flower-makers-2/

A is for Artificial Flower Makers

One of the very few predominantly female occupations to appear consistently in urban and suburban census enumerators’ books throughout the period 1851-1901 is that of artificial flower maker, or artificial florist.  It is rare to find an urban enumerator’s book from the period which does not include at least one woman recording herself as an artificial flower maker, in most cases numerous women appear as such, despite the fact that making artificial flowers was generally a poorly paid and seasonal occupation. Artificial flowers were to be seen everywhere in Victorian Britain; it was not unusual for Hanson cabs to have a bunch in their windows,[1] and women’s clothing was regularly decorated with them.

2008BT6507_jpg_ds

Figure 1: Bonnet c1845 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bonnets were adorned with masses of blooms and leaves, as were dresses and coats, giving a splash of colour to an otherwise plain garment. Even the working-classes had their bonnets trimmed with artificial flowers, which at as little as a penny a bunch, were affordable to many of those who were in the higher ranks of the working-classes.  As such, artifical flower making was a big business, and thousands of women were employed both in factories, and in their homes, making the little blooms for a few shillings a day.

In a time when many of the options for home-working involved time consuming, tedious and frequently dangerous work, artificial flower making was arguably one of better options open to women, and there was real potential, if working enough hours, for a woman to earn enough money to help to support her family.

When we talk about artificial flower makers, it is perhaps best to acknowledge that, for most of the working-class married women involved in the profession, it was more a case of artificial flower mounting – also known as ‘sticking and papering’, or ‘sticking and wiring’, than artificial flower making.  Like most piece work jobs of the time, much of the better paid, more highly skilled work, was carried out in the factories, the more basic ‘finishing’ work being the kind farmed out to the women working in their homes, with few women involved in creating the entire flower, or flower spray, most simply making the leaves, or the flowers, or putting together the sprays of flowers made by other women.

We can still read of the experiences of many of the women carrying out this work, for example:

‘Mrs A. therefore, as the family increased, took up the occupation of “sticking and papering”; that is to say she spent what spare time she could command in affixing little artificial green leaves to stalks of wire, and in winding around the wire strips of thing green paper. The leaves, thus provided with stalks, were packed together in dozens, and the payment for doing a gross varied from 1 ¾ d to 2 ½ d; the gross took about an hour. Mrs A. worked usually from 9.30 in the morning, to the same hour at night, less some two or three hours occupied by housework,  preparation of meals etc., and earned – when work was not slack – from 5/- to 7/6 a week.’[2]

Mrs A. lived in London with her husband, who also worked full time, and her four children. As well as somehow managing to work from early morning to late at night, working on average 72 hours a week, and covering some 3,360 stalks in those 72 hours, she also had to travel to the factory to collect her supplies for her work, and to take back to her employer, the stalks she had completed. At times she could send one of her children to enable her carry out her household chores – but all of this travelling across London also cost money and time. When her wages were combined with her husband’s, they barely covered the cost of the rent, which, when paid, left only 4/1 ½ a week per head for everything else that they required, their heating, food, clothing and household goods.  Clementina Black explains how this was totally inadequate and meant that hard working families were cast into even deeper poverty, despite the mother and the father working long hours.  Black describes in colourful, and emotionally laden terms how Mr and Mrs A. were a ‘model pair’, who didn’t marry early (she calculates them having married when Mrs A would have been in her late 20s), and how her children, although ‘pale and delicate’, were well-kept; ‘they had lost none’.[3]

Mrs A. is an example of a ‘sticker and paperer’ – Black also introduces us to the ‘sticker and mounter’ – the women who were provided with the flowers and leaves already prepared (by the likes of Mrs A.), and who then formed bunches of flowers (as seen on the bonnet illustrated above) for clothing and decoration. As with everything else in this form of work, there were high quality flowers prepared with the finest materials by skilled workers, and some, which Black notes, were arguably for the lower end of the market:

‘No. 2 presented the investigator with a specimen of her work, a poor flattened sample of execution. It consisted of leaves which, from their form, appear intended to represent rose leaves, but of which the colour, an unshaded emerald green, belongs to no rose leaf that ever grew. The leaves, made of a sort of calico and waxed are mounted in four groups, two or three leaves, one of five, and one of seven, and the wire stalks of these groups are then bound together with fine wire so that each spray seems to grow from a main stem. Each bunch thus comprises eighteen leaves, and for the making up a dozen branches the worker was paid 2d. For sprays of one rose, one bud, and three leaves, tied up in dozens, she was paid 3/9 a gross.”[4]

Through contemporary social surveys it is possible to get close to the women making the flowers, and to observe the conditions in which they were working.  It is also possible to see the ways in which their working conditions, and, arguably more importantly, wages changed over the decades as cheaper imports drove down prices and changing working patterns, such as the training of blind children to mount artificial flowers in institutions, created a situation where some home-working women were forced to work longer hours, for less money.

Of course, artificial florists were not alone in seeing their hours increase as their wages decreased, but their wages appear to have taken a particularly severe downward turn in the latter years of the nineteenth-century.  When comparing reports on the income and working conditions of these women in Booth’s study of the trades of the East End of London, published in 1893 with the work carried out by a team of social researchers led by Clementina Black c1905-1908, it is possible to see in graphic detail how fast, and how far, the women’s labour had been devalued. What is interesting to note is that in Black’s survey, some women suggest that their wages have plummeted, whereas others insist that either their piece rate has not changed, or, had dropped, but had recently improved again.[5]

In Booth’s survey we see that: ‘skilled hands, mounters, can earn 18s a week, and rose makers at home can earn over 20s’[6]  This clearly shows a how wages have dropped by the time Black carries out her survey (15 years later).

Artificial florists were everywhere – it was a job that a woman could do in her own home, with little experience, and which could supplement the household income, and if not actually raise the family out of poverty maybe at least ensure that the roof stayed over their heads for another week.


[1] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 35

[2] Black, p. 31

[3] Black, p.  33

[4] Black, p. 35

[5] Black, pp. 31-36

[6] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the people in London: The trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893), p. 294