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SEAMSTRESSES
Industrial Revolution

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womeninworldhistory.com

As the demand for clothes grew among newly wealthy middle class women, jobs in the dress-making work industry increased. Young women coming to the cities sought work as seamstresses in homes and sweat shops. Some noted, however, that young women living on their own without a family were compelled to seek other ways to earn some money.


1) EVIDENCE TAKEN BY
Children's Employment Commission
February 1841

"Miss --- has been for several years in the dress-making business...The common hours of business are from 8 a.m. til 11 P.M in the winters; in the summer from 6 or half-past 6 A.M. til 12 at night. During the fashionable season, that is from April til the latter end of July, it frequently happens that the ordinary hours are greatly exceeded; if there is a drawing-room or grand fete, or mourning to be made, it often happens that the work goes on for 20 hours out of the 24, occasionally all night....The general result of the long hours and sedentary occupation is to impair seriously and very frequently to destroy the health of the young women. The digestion especially suffers, and also the lungs: pain to the side is very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise, "never seeing the outside of the door from Sunday to Sunday." [One cause] is the short time which is allowed by ladies to have their dresses made.

Miss is sure that there are some thousands of young women employed in the business in London and in the country. If one vacancy were to occur now there would be 20 applicants for it. The wages generally are very low...Thinks that no men could endure the work enforced from the dress-makers."

[Source: Hellerstein, Hume & Offen, Victorian Women: A Documentary Accounts of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States, Stanford University Press.]


QUESTIONS

Why do you think young girls wanted to become seamstresses?

What health problems occurred with this type of work?

What health problems have been cited with regard to similar types of small muscle and close eye work in the sewing and electronic industries today?

Imagine the types of clothing and the life of the Victorian era middle and upper class woman. Name some ways this was in sharp contrast to the life of working class women.


2) SONG: THE DISTRESSED SEAMSTRESS

(Sung to the air "Jenny Jones")

You gentles of England, I pray give attention,
Unto those few lines, I'm going to relate,
Concerning the seamstress,I'm going to mention,
Who long time has been, in a sad wretched state,
Laboriously toiling, both night, noon, and morning,
For a wretched subsistence, now mark what I say.
She's quite unprotected, forlorn, and dejected
For sixpence, or eightpence, or tenpence a day.

Come forward you nobles, and grant them assistance,
Give them employ, and a fair price them pay,
And then you will find, the poor hard working seamstress,
From honour and virtue will not go astray.

To shew them compassion pray quickly be stirring,
In delay, there is danger, there's no time to spare,...
The pride of the world is o'er whelmed with care,
Old England's considered, for honour and virtue,
And beauty the glory and pride of the world,
Nor be not hesitating, but boldly step forward,
Suppression and tyranny, far away hurl.

 

[Source: Roy Palmer, A Ballad History of England:
From 1588 to the Present Day,
B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1979]


QUESTIONS

To whom was the song directed?

What societal concerns about the "distressed seamstress" did the song reveal?

What appeals did it use to convey its message?

If you were writing a song which addressed the plight of the seamstress, what reasons for hiring and giving girls a decent wage might you include?


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