"Slaves of the Needle:" The Seamstress in the 1840s

by Beth Harris
Assistant Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York

In the early 1840s, lower middle-class, middle-class, and even upper-class women ("distressed gentlewomen") were increasingly put in the position of having to support themselves. Mrs. Jameson noted that "attorneys and apothecaries, tradesmen and shopkeepers, banker's clerks &c, in this class more than two-thirds of the women are now obliged to earn their own bread" ([Mrs. Jameson], "Condition of the Women and the Female Children," The Athenaeum, 16 (March 18, 1843). Unlike painting or writing, which some middle-class women were taking up as professions, needlework and teaching were seen as "natural" professions for women, and so would have been appropriate for those from the middle- and upper-classes. Whereas only some women had the education to be a governess, virtually all women had the necessary experience for needlework.

Millinery and dressmaking constituted the higher end of female employment with the needle; they were "respectable" occupations for young women from middle-class or lower middle-class families. The number of women involved in dressmaking alone in the early 1840s was estimated to be 15,000 (House of Commons, Reports from Commissioners: Children's Employment, Trade and Manufactures, Sessional Papers XIV (1843) 555). Milliners and dressmakers came from families who had enough money to pay for them to be apprenticed to learn the trade. This type of employment was part of an old, established apprenticeship system (like tailoring among men), and it was one of only a few occupations open to women which offered a skill and a sense of belonging to a trade, and which promised, at least after the apprenticeship period was served, a decent and respectable living.

Dressmakers were involved in an old type of commerce the business of producing women's clothes made to order. However, in the 1830s and 1840s, the growing middle class created a new demand for cheap ready-made men's clothing (the work of the bespoke tailor was simply not affordable). Like many trades in the 1830s and 1840s, tailoring had therefore shifted from the unionized labor of skilled male artisans to the cheaper labor of women. To serve this growing market for cheap clothing, many women worked at home sewing ready-made clothing (also called "slop" and "slop-work") for very low piece-rates. The women who sewed slop could be young, but they were sometimes older and widowed with children and other relatives to support. Sewing men's shirts, even for starvation wages, was often preferable to the only other option, domestic service, because it allowed one to remain independent (an important factor for middle-class women and distressed gentlewomen).

In the spring of 1843, the Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission shocked the public with horror stories of the cruel and heartless exploitation of needlewomen in the backrooms and garrets of London. The public was appalled to learn that so many "delicate" young women lived, worked, and died, in such miserable conditions, and what was worse for Victorian sensibilities, that some resorted to or succumbed to prostitution.

Soon after the publication of the Second Report, the distressed seamstress became something of a cause celebre. The public was barraged with newspaper articles, pamphlets, novels, short stories, poetry (the most famous of which is Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt"), and plays, many of which utilized the information on needlewomen "uncovered" by the government's commissioners (often quoting it verbatim and at length). In October of 1843, a report in The Times about a needlewoman who had illegally pawned the clothing she was given to sew, because she and her child were starving, escalated the concern for seamstresses into something of a hysteria. Two months later, in December 1843, another scandal (also reported in The Times) erupted when a shirt-maker tried to kill herself and her child. Together, these cases (and a handful of others) shaped public opinion about the condition of all needlewomen in London. They became the symbol of how poor, helpless English women were driven to criminal activity and even infanticide by unfeeling and (significantly) Jewish merchants. Jewish slop-sellers were frequently blamed by The Times and Punch for what was really simply the unheeding and often cruel progress of capitalism. The Times also used seamstress stories as part of their longstanding (and sometimes scandal-mongering) campaign to discredit the New Poor Law of 1834.

Given the vast amount of literature on seamstresses produced during this period, it seems remarkable at first that virtually every source one consults tells the same story: a story in which a happy, healthy and virtuous young woman leaves her home in the countryside to become a seamstress in the big city where she encounters an evil employer and/or seducer, and begins an irreversible decline leading to death and/or prostitution.

Even the evidence in the Second Report offered this narrative, although in a professional, semi-detached manner and format. Writers of fiction, motivated to bring the "facts" of the parliamentary report before a wider audience, created engrossing narratives by pitting sympathetic, young, blameless, and virtuous seamstress characters against cruel, evil (and often Jewish) employers. Like the narrative that was constructed of the prostitute, the downward progression of the seamstress in these stories was nearly irreversible. In most stories, the seamstresses' only choice was to succumb to vice (prostitution), or to retain her "virtue" and die. Authors often used two protagonists to demonstrate the inevitability of these two fates. The sense of urgency evident in the constant repetition of the seamstress's decline, the use of one-imensional characters and a melodramatic plot, indicate that the narrative was being called on to negotiate, and find solutions for, the question on everyone's mind is who or what was to blame for (and what ought to be done about) the volatile, angry, impoverished, and potentially revolutionary working class. Whenever the question grew pressing, as it did in 1843-1844 (and then again in 1848-1850), due to fears of working-class unrest, the distressed seamstress reappeared as the focus of public concern and outrage.

Why the seamstress though, and not some other type of laborer? The answer to this question is complex. The people who wrote about the seamstress all had political agendas of one kind or another. England, many people felt in the decade of the "hungry forties," was facing a crisis, and the seamstress fit perfectly into almost every way the problem was analyzed. The problem involved (depending on who was asked): a lack of communication between the rich and the poor (Disraeli's "two nations), unemployment among men while women were working in increasing numbers, and the related breakdown of the working-class family, the New Poor Law of 1834, and not enough decently paid work for women.

Sewing was, in many ways, the ultimate sign of femininity. It was sedentary and passive, and it was traditionally done by women only for the care and maintenance of the family and home. In the literature of the period the needle itself often stood for women's "natural" place in the home, and carried powerful associations of domestic bliss and maternal devotion. Where other female workers were seen to develop masculine characteristics, the seamstress remained a "woman." It is no wonder then that needlework performed by women for the marketplace, for strangers (not unlike prostitution), became a source of intense anxiety. Ideological notions of motherhood, home, morality and national stability all became dislocated when the needle moved from the home to the garret.

On the other hand, for those women who yearned for a place in the world outside the home, the dull, repetitious act of plying the needle represented their unfair confinement to the domestic sphere (see Charlotte Bronte's