Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Victorian Seamstress

Imagine yourself in a poorly lit garret in Victorian England, working agonisingly long hours with no time for substantial food or even a chance to stretch your legs.  Your fingers are bleeding, your eyes are swollen and your ribs and spine endure on-going pain, day after day after day.  Your eyesight inevitably deteriorates as the many years go by, but you must tolerate this suffering in order to support your family on a deplorable wage.  This was the reality for many women during the Victorian era…


Seamstresses in Victorian Britain endured endless misery and pain through the exploitation of their occupation.  Young Victorian girls often entered this strenuous line of work to financially support their families.  This was often after their fathers had found themselves in hardship, leaving their daughters to provide the household income.  This is evident in Elizabeth Gaskell’s, Mary Barton.  Mary finds herself an apprenticeship with the dressmaker, Miss Simmonds, after her father had fallen into hard times.  Mary’s father was not too fond of this idea,

…he considered domestic servitude as a species of slavery; a pampering of artificial wants on the one side, a giving up of every right of leisure by day and quiet rest by night on the other
(Gaskell, 26).

Sources later discussed will support John Barton’s accurate thoughts on the lives of seamstresses.

The two most common fields of work in the nineteenth century for middle-class women were a governess and a seamstress.  However, not all women were able to reach the academic expectations to become a governess, so becoming a seamstress was the next respectable employment option for many middle class women.  It was much safer for young women to work as a seamstress in their own garrets, rather than walking to their employment.  However, though working in their own homes provided them better safety, they still endured agonising labour.  And though being a Seamstress was a respectable occupation for young women in Victorian society, it was still extremely punishing mentally, physically and emotionally. 

This exhausting work had young women living a life of pain and misery.  This distressing situation for many women of the nineteenth century became a strong influential concept in both art and in literature.

Figure 1. Richard Redgrave's 'The Sempstress'
Richard Redgrave’s ‘The Sempstress’ (Figure 1), is the first artistic portrayal of a seamstress I will be discussing.  This particular painting depicts the familiar image of an isolated and tiresome seamstress.  The notion of Victorian seamstresses dreary working and living conditions are shown through various aspects of this painting.  She is working through the night to the early hours of the morning (as indicated by the clock on the wall reading 2:30am).  Her eyes appear swollen, almost blind, which emphasises the intense repetitive physical labour Victorian seamstresses was forced to face.  The table beside her illustrates, almost unnoticeably, a small plate of food.  The minimal focus on this aspect reflects the attitude towards food that seamstresses were accustomed to.  It emphasises the level of labour they endured, as they had to work robotically through devastatingly long hours eating little to no food in order to utilise their time for clothes making. 


If you look closely out the window, we can see another lit garret in a neighbouring house.  This suggests that there are many more middle class women in other garrets in the same dismal situation.  The way the lighting falls onto the seamstress in Redgrave’s painting illustrates her as a saintly figure.  She is illuminated and is looking up, perhaps in the hope that God will save her from the circumstances that she has found herself in.  Another painting depicting the seamstress as a saintly figure is Anna Elizabeth Blunden’s ‘The Seamstress’ (Figure 2).  She looks as though she is praying to God.


Figure 2. Anna Elizabeth Blunden's,
'The Seamstress'

The horrors of the cruel experiences of the distressed seamstresses were unmasked through the 1843 publication of the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, which shocked the Victorian public.  This report exposed the exploitation of the young women through numerous interviews and became a cause célèbre.  This report influenced many pieces of literature and poetry.  They depicted the monstrosity of the distressed seamstresses working conditions and welfare.  One of the most well known poetic demonstrations of the seamstresses’ nightmarish reality is Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’, published in the 1843’s Christmas Issue of Punch magazine.

Through my first reading of this poem I felt that its clarity and unconcealed descriptions of the nature of seamstresses’ lives were hard-hitting.  This caused me to greatly sympathise with them, as it forced me to imagine the constant ordeals they experienced.   The semantic field of death was an important aspect to the poem, I felt that it strengthened and emphasised the exploitation of the seamstresses and the damage that their employment had on their health and mental state.  Here is an image of the poem taken from the popular magazine Punch, (if you enlarge this image and zoom in, you will be able to read the full poem)...

Punch Magazine - Thomas Hood's, 'The Song of the Shirt'


This poem tells the story of a young seamstress making clothes for men.  The tone of this poem expresses great sorrow and distress.  The semantic field of death clarifies the seamstress’s tribulation, one example of this is shown through the lines,

“It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!”
(27-28).

This conveys quite a sinister image of the seamstress sewing her own body into the clothes that she is making.  This emphasises the idea of her dying from the consistent harsh labour she suffers.  It also shows the oblivious and inattentive attitude of those who wear the clothes made by the suffering seamstresses. 

This was an idea that was a popular topic in the mid-nineteenth century Punch magazine, as “many of the pieces in Punch are as concerned with awakening the customer to [their] responsibility as with revealing the conditions in which seamstresses worked and lived” (Alexander, 67).  Here are a few examples of illustrations depicting the relationship between the seamstress and the customer,




(Figure 3) depicts a customer vainly admiring her new gown, completely disregarding the exhausted and ghostly figure of the seamstress in the reflection of the mirror.  (Figure 4) relates to line 32 in Hood’s poem, “Sewing at once, with a double thread / A Shroud as well as a Shirt”, this idea is also depicted in (Figure 5), which emphasises the idea of seamstresses deaths arising from the exertion of their commodity. (Figure 6) presents the seamstress as a figure of death, as if her job has forced the life out of her.


Rose Dawson and her mother, Ruth
Dewitt Bukater in Titanic

This fear of one falling into hard times and finding oneself in the horrific situation of being a seamstress is also shown in the ‘corset scene’ from the famous 1997 blockbuster Titanic.  Rose’s mother fears that if her daughter fails to marry the wealthy Caledon Hockley, their family’s wealth and status will crumble.  This is Rose’s mother’s response to her daughter’s refusal to the marriage, “Do you want to see me working as a seamstress? Is that what you want?”  This reflects the possibility that women of a higher/middle class background were commonly at risk of finding themselves in the dismal situation of becoming a seamstress due to falling in harsh financial times.



Becoming a seamstress was a great fear for some young women in Victorian England.  But for the unlucky ones, it was their living nightmare...




Bibliography 


Gaskell, Elizabeth.  Mary Barton. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics, 2012. Print.

The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission (1843). Parliamentary Papers. Vol. 14.


Alexander, Lynn. Women, Work and Representation. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. Print.



Picture Sources


Figure 2 - Anna Elizabeth Blunden, ‘The Seamstress’ - http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/misc/blunden1.html

Figure 3 - (4 July 1863) “The Haunted Lady, or ‘The Ghost’ in the Looking-Glass,” John Tenniel, Punch 45 (p. 45)

Figure 4 - (19 August 1848) “’A Shroud as well as a Shirt.’” Punch 15 (p.76)

Figure 5- (23 July 1853) “A Startling Novelty in Shirts”, John Leech, Punch 25 (p.31)

Figure 6 - (October 1844) “Death and the Drawing Room, or the Young Dressmakers of England,” Kenny Meadows, The Illuminated Magazine 3 (p.97)


4 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this blog post Amy! It was such an easy and interesting read. I like your choice of paintings/images and the way you analyse them. It really creates a greater understanding of what being a seamstress would have been like during the Victorian period.

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  2. Thanks, Kae! Before writing this blog entry I never quite knew the extent of the sufferings endured by Victorian seamstresses. It was very enlightening and gave me an insight into the harsh working world for many women in the Victorian era.

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  3. Your eyesight inevitably deteriorates as the many years go by, but you must tolerate this suffering in order to support your family on a deplorable wage. This was the reality for many women during the Victorian era… The Classic Sempstress

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  4. I'm confused by the suggestion that it's abnormal to push out the placenta separately. As any mother who didn't have a Caesarian and alert enough to understand her birth knows, that is ALWAYS THE (normal) CASE. It would be much more outside of normal birth progression to have one come out with the baby. A more actual problem would've been the attendant using the cord to forcibly pull out the placenta before the body expels it-- has been common practice at some points in the past--leading to which can lead to hemorhage retained pieces causing puerperal fever.

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