Most of us are familiar with the important social justice issues of the 19th century, causes like abolition and child labor. But there was another one that became quite fashionable to champion: the plight of workers who fashioned fashions. Women who worked as seamstresses, dressmakers, and milliners were vulnerable to exploitation, and as the pathos and romance of their situation caught public fancy, there was a flurry of response in literature, art, “committees,” laws, private philanthropy and even investigative journalism.
The seamstress who sewed shirts was the poster-child for the cause; you can see one period image I used in a post a few years ago here. Shirt-making was tedious and poorly paid, but the pattern was simple and most of the women who could sew knew how to make one. There was also a steady market for the product, at least until the sewing machine and mass production made hand sewn shirts obsolete.
Dressmaking was different. It required greater skill and was more susceptible to the whim of the patron (and employer if a woman worked for a dressmaking establishment) and vagaries of the trade. But it retained some shreds of respectability as a way to earn a living for those women who were not born to the working class, and yet found themselves with no means of support.
The images here are from a set of stereoviews, the one above titled “Pin Money,” with the model carelessly displaying her wealth of finery. The other is called “Needle Money,” implying that the plainly dressed lady in shabby surroundings must be earning her bread with her needle.
Apparently public sympathy didn’t quite translate into action – or not enough to bring about significant change. A decade or two after Thomas Hood’s famous poem The Song of the Shirt appeared, the image of the genteel but impoverished worker persisted. The poem below was by Francis Charles Weeden, c1860s. It was republished with the explanation:
* These two poems are printed, as written by the author, in juxtaposition, to make the contrast more striking.
Many bloggers have covered the subject, so if you’re interested try a search for “song of the shirt” – it will get you started. If you prefer the old-fashioned-read-a-book way, try The Ghost in the Looking Glass, by Christina Walker – not recent, but fascinating!
Sadly, the days of sweatshops aren’t gone forever. If you want to help, here’s one place to start.