Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Baby It's Dark in Here

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Loretta reports:

Here's a tailor at Colonial Williamsburg, hard at work on a lady’s habit made of white jean. I’m not going to talk about the habit but about work habits. We learned that our 18th C tailors and dressmakers in America, on account of not belonging to guilds, had more liberty in setting working hours than did their London counterparts. In Williamsburg our 18th C tailor would work six days a week from sunup to sundown--during daylight hours, in other words. But we need to remember that daylight isn’t always bright. My photo shows the contrast between outside and inside--and he’s working at the window on a sunny day. On a rainy day, Susan informed me, it’s very dark in there. And those are very, very tiny stitches he’s making. By hand.

The London tailor, according to the rules of the Merchant Taylors Guild, would be making the same tiny stitches from 6AM to 9PM, with an hour break for a midday meal--which meant he’d be working by candlelight for a chunk of that time, at least during winter. When we compare and contrast working conditions then and now, it's good to remember that long hours are only one working condition. The workplace is another. How well lit is it? How hot or cold does it get?

Then I look at the work and have to marvel. Under what many of us would consider spirit-killing conditions, these skilled and patient craftsmen created such beautiful things. I have to believe that they didn't find it spirit-killing necessarily--after all, everyone was in the same boat--and that many must have taken not only pride but joy in what they did. It made me realize that, had I lived in the time period, maybe I'd like to be making clothes. What about you?


Vanessa Kelly said...

Oy! Can you imagine how tough that must have been on the eyes? But I bet you're correct, Loretta. Working conditions must have been much the same for everyone, and there would be no reason not to take pride in your work. Plus, the finest-made clothing would attract the highest-paying customers.

I have a feeling I'd be working in the retail end of things as a shop girl. But my natural inclinations would lead me to want to teach - perhaps in one of those ladies's seminaries we read about.

Monica Burns said...

Have made all my clothes in highschool because I couldn't afford to buy fashionable items...there is NO WAYY in hell that I would want to go back and make more. I'll pay someone at the alterations shop to sew on a button before I do it myself! LOL But they did make some wonderful garments. I LOVE the Hessian green coats. And the blues of the Colonial Army were very becoming.

LorettaChase said...

Vanessa, we learned so much about these trades. Dressmaking was a good one, especially if you owned the shop. I see it as akin to writing, actually: hard work on the eyes, long hours (if you're as slow as I am) trying to make it perfect, and always striving to create something original. Monica, I regret deeply never taking advantage of my many opportunities to learn how to sew my own clothes. I learned to be a bargain shopper instead--but I'm still at the mercy of the whims of retailers. If I made my own, they could be precisely what I wanted. Oh, and those blue coats are beautiful. Expect to see photos in coming days.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

I've read a couple historical fiction novels in which the lives of young working women were depicted in really unfavorable light. The tedium and hopelessness, especially, were highlighted. I'm thinking of 'Slammerkin,' and 'Girl/Pearl Earring.' Can we be imagining that working craftsfolk were happy, busy bees? Or can it be that time was 'slower,' people were more resigned to what made for satisfaction with a job or lot in life? Sorry for being so philosophical. This is what happens when NHGs show us no carriages or stockinette inexpressibles.

LorettaChase said...

Michelle, philosophy was definitely an element of my post. CW always helps me remember that we don't see the world the way people in the past did. We heard about kids starting work at 8 years old--but this was a good thing, because they helped their family live better. They grow up expecting to work long hours, and the conditions are what they are. This isn't to say they were all happy peasants. Some jobs were simply horrendous, and acknowledged as such. Workers could be badly treated. But some conditions, like living in a relatively dark world or going to work at a younger age than 21st C Americans deem proper, weren't seen as horrible oppression. For the plight of, say, a 19th C worker, I'm more likely to be looking at contemporary non-fiction sources, or novels like Dickens's. It's hard to get the perspective of the workers themselves, since they were so unlikely to write about their experience, but the CW folk read all kinds of firsthand accounts to try to get as close to the truth as they can. So when they're pointing out the positives and negatives, I listen closely.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

According to the CW tailors and mantua-makers, the goal for "good" stitching was 10-12 stitches an inch. I know, I know, that sounds impossibly tiny; but clearly it's a matter of practice, plus a gift with the needle, for these folk did it effortlessly while they spoke to us. I was IMPRESSED. *g*

However, the mantua-maker also told us that while the 10-12 stitch gauge was the ideal, it wasn't always achieved. She said that in inspecting original garments, she has come across stitches far longer than that in places that wouldn't show -- a hidden shortcut. Then, as now, (as always!) time was money....

Ingrid said...

I always get the impression that having to work to earn a living was a bad deal for women during the Industrial Revolution.
In the first half of the 19th century (before the sewing machine was invented) the one thing all women could do was sew, and according to the Song of the Shirt it was miserable drudgery to be dependent on your needle for your livelihood.

Owning a shop and having apprentices to exploit, would be an entirely different matter! You read about sempstresses having to subsidise their earnings with a little prostitution in the evenings.

And doesn't Elizabeth Gaskell have a sempstress go blind in Mary Barton from sewing mourning clothes by candle light?

LorettaChase said...

Working isn't that much fun for a great many people, whatever the time period, including now. But I'd be wary of sentimental Victorian poems about the plight of this one or that one. Tragedy and misery and maiming and death were popular in a time when sex was suppressed. I'm wary of Dickens, too, although he brings a reporter's eye to his fiction. In his time, working conditions worsened in many cases simply because of the horrendous pollution: London was darker and filthier. This is well past the time period for CW. It also doesn't tell us about conditions in, say, a country village. One of the things the CW interpreters do is try to help us get past our 21st C assumptions about the past, to allow us to see it in all its fascinating complexity.

Ingrid said...

I agree with you about work not being fun now either. I for one have never had a job I would have taken if I didn't have to eat and pay the rent. There's no proverb so wrong as the one that hard work never killed anyone. People are probably still dying from asbestos lungs, but in the 19th century employers paid very little attention to workers' welfare. I have been following the BBC's 'Who do you think you are?', a programme in which well-known Brits are helped to research their ancestors. Some of them discover horrific poverty only a few generations back. I remember with horror photographs of girls working in match factories with holes in their faces because of the chemicals used.
I agree that industrial cities are different from rural villages, but if agricultural labour were wonderful, people would not have been so eager to flock to the cities. Life has always been harsh to people at the bottom of the pile. It still is to most people in the world, but there are more of us slightly luckier people now.
I see your point about literature exaggerating things, but there had to be something to start these writers off. We need never underestimate people's willingness to exploit others.

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