Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 2 - Match-Box Makers

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MATCH-BOX making is one of the standard supplementary industries of women who work at home in East End districts.
    The worker fetches the materials, i.e., thin wood shavings and papers, supplies the labour, paste, and hemp (the latter is used to tie the boxes up in bundles), and carries back the completed boxes. Every box consists, as we all know, of two parts, the case and the tray. Each box must pass eight times through the maker's hands. The tray, or drawer, consists of a strip of wood, notched for the four corners. This has to be bent into form ; if it is bent on the wrong side the wood snaps, and is spoiled. Then a strip of thin coloured paper (which has already been pasted) is folded round it, leaving a deeper margin at the bottom than the top. The upper edge is folded down over the upper rim, the lower edge is flattened out to support the bottom of the [-34-] drawer, and the bottom is then neatly dropped in, and pressed flat upon the pasted paper. Thus there are four operations (1) the bending and papering; (2) the folding of the upper edge; (3) the folding of the lower edge ; (4) the putting in of the bottom. That is for the tray.
    Now for the case. This, like the tray, has to be bent up and held together by the pasted paper. But the larger surface of paper demands a second operation of smoothing. Finally, a strip of sand-paper has to be fixed on the side, the pressing on of which makes unaccustomed fingers sore. There are thus three operations for the case. The eighth, and final process, is the fitting together of case and drawer, which must not be done until both are dry. After this the boxes have to be tied up in packets of one or two dozen.
    Just now there seems to be a run on magenta match-boxes. There is quite a peculiar glow of colour in the bare uncarpeted room of a matchbox maker, strewn as it is with these brightly-coloured little objects.
    The most successful match-box maker our Commissioners have seen is a young unmarried woman, who lives alone in a back room, in a dull little street in Bow. She is an independent girl, who is not inclined, as she says, "to work under [-35-] anybody. Her room, though bare, is bright and above the average as to cleanliness. The deal table stands under the window, and on it are arranged her papers, strips of wood, and paste. Her floor is pink with boxes. Of course a fire burns in her grate, for the match-boxes must be dried one way or another. If they are taken back damp she is obliged to carry them all home again. In fine weather they will dry in the air, but if the sun is too hot they curl up and warp. Then they remain upon the maker's hands, useless. Miss O--- presents quite a pleasant picture as she sits plying her deft handicraft by the clean deal table. Her dark hair might be better brushed, perhaps; her brass earrings are rather too long for the taste of the fastidious, and her working dress is a little shabby. But there is nothing abject or down-trodden about her. She is one of the few who have deliberately followed match-box making as a trade to live by. She has worked at it from childhood ; so have all her sisters until they married. She fetches her work from a well-known great factory.
    "Do they ever keep you waiting?" inquired our Commissioner.
    "They don't keep me waiting," replied Miss O---, rather loftily.
    All the time she was talking her hands were [-36-] busy with little strips of magenta bordering, over which she passed her paste with great rapidity.
    "How many gross can you make in a day?" asked our Commissioner.
    "By getting up at five, and working till nine in the evening, I can do eight gross."
    "Does that include the time spent in fetching and carrying?"
    "Do you always get up at five o'clock?"
    Miss O--- is not loquacious.
    She receives, of course, 2¼. per gross ; and we must subtract, say, 1d. a day for flour to make paste, and 1½d. per day for hemp to tie up the parcels. That is to say, she earns 1s. 6d. per day, less  2½d. Thus by working thirteen hours a day she makes 1s. 3d. Miss O--- is fortunate enough to have a constant supply of work, and not to be kept waiting for it ; but she is exceptional in these points, as well as in her skill.
    "I was told," said our Commissioner, "that the girls on view at the People's Palace some time since made twelve gross a day, and that the public was convinced match-box making was not ill-paid after all."
    "I daresay they might," said Miss O---; "they had all their things laid ready for 'em, and [-37-] had not to stop to pick 'em up, or put 'em to dry, or fit 'em together, or fetch 'em and carry 'em back again. They asked me to be one of 'em at the People's Palace, but I was ill and I couldn't go."
    This little statement led our Commissioner to think that Miss O--- is a quick "hand," and also furnished an instructive commentary upon the value of the exhibition, which appeased the public conscience. On the other hand, it shows that the price of 9d. per day, recently given as the earnings of a match-box maker, is certainly not the highest reached. The average matchbox maker-when she can get the work-who works steadily during the greater part of the day, would seldom fall below six gross a day, which gives 1s. net earnings. Putting the working hours at twelve (a low estimate), this gives a wage of precisely 1d. per hour.
    Miss O--- has preferences for some kinds of match-boxes. She does not like to do the smaller ones, which, on the other hand, some workers prefer. She is in the fortunate position of being able to have what she chooses. Most women must take what they can get.
    A daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, who work together in Bethnal Green, have a different fancy.
    "I can't make the case," says the daughter-in-[-38-]law, "and my mother-in-law, she can't make the tray."
    This mother-in-law is an Irish woman, who worked in a lead factory until lead poisoning compelled her to give it up. Before going to the lead factory she had been a regular hand at match-box making, and declares that she could then make her ten gross a day. This statement is, however, probably due to her Hibernian imagination ; for it is certain that she cannot make anything near ten gross at present. These two women live in the Old Nichol Street district of Bethnal Green. This small area lies close to Shoreditch Church, and was once the seat of the French silk-weaving trade. Some of the names, such as Turville, Fournier, and Chambord Streets, still speak of a French origin, and many of the houses have long windows in their upper storeys, under which the weavers wrought at their looms. Some trace of French descent still lingers-or so we fancy-about the faces and the manners of the people in Old Nichol Street district. The neighbourhood has a bad name, and is said to be the resort of thieves, but our Commissioners report that the people seem to be engaged in honest industries. The houses are poor and in ill repair, and the observant will see reason to suspect a general absence of dust-bins and other [-39-] sanitary conveniences. But with all their faults the houses have some good old work in them, and the large weavers' windows let in light and air. Unfortunately, the inhabitants do not appreciate these blessings ; as a rule, they seem to relish a stuffy atmosphere. The window of one house visited by our Commissioner stood open, and close by were two flower-pots. The one contained a rhubarb plant, the other a crop of parsley. On the window-sill were rows of pink boxes drying. There was no fire in the grate. Our Commissioner congratulated the woman on the good drying weather, but the woman shook her head, saying that she had no money to buy coals to dry the match-boxes. At the bottom of the staircase was a baby, just able to walk. The mother looked ill-fed, but the baby was fat and rosy, its golden hair was brushed, and its little scarlet pinafore was whole. It was too young to be at work with its mother; but children of three or four are often seen at work match-box making.
    A Commissioner has been shown a little girl in a Board School who at six years of age could make four gross a day, and whose dexterity in this way is the constant temptation to her mother, who also makes match-boxes.
    The girls who work at home are not very many in number; and they are generally the daughters [-40-] of careful mothers who prefer to keep their children at home, or else independent-minded young women who, like Miss O---, do not find marriage per se an attraction. The latter are girls of some individuality and considerable self-reliance. They are, on the whole, a little more "stand-off-ish " than their married sisters, and have to be won by degrees to give information. Theirs is rather the tone, "Oh yes ; I can show you if you like;" while the married woman shows a more sociable, not to say gossiping, disposition. The single woman of this type is apt to explain that " she keeps herself to herself," and does not care to know other people's business.
    Miss O--- explained that such was her case but her plan of "keeping to herself" did not exclude a little girl belonging to the house. This child stole in with a shy smile at the stranger, picked her way among the boxes on the floor, and sat herself down on the floor, taking for her seat a bundle of firewood.
    Lottie mostly comes and sits with me," said Miss O--- ,looking at the child with a kind smile, "and she's as quiet and good as possible."
    The child was evidently quite at home, and quite happy in the room full of match-boxes.
    Another match-box maker, a young woman [-41-] with several children, who lives near Miss O--- supports herself and family by this trade. Work is slack with her. She is not such a hand as Miss O--- , and three gross a day are all she has made lately. The eldest girl, now over school-age, helps her.
    The trade of match-box making was not always so ill-paid as at present. An old woman in Bethnal Green, who claims to have been working in the trade from its beginning, speaks of a golden age in which 4d. per gross was paid. One of the firm of Bryant and May, however, denies that that firm ever paid so much; 3½d. is a price named by several women as formerly paid. Competition among the workers, and monopoly among the makers, have brought about the reduction.
    A rumour is current in Bow that the boxes are now beginning to be made by machinery, and the work is said to be slack on this account· Metal match-boxes, of course, are, and have long been, made by machinery ; but the introduction of machine-made wooden boxes - if it has indeed taken place - can only be very recent.
    The whole industry, however, of matchmaking, with the vast percentages of the shareholders and the scanty pittances of the box makers, will probably be extinguished during the [-42-] next ten years by the development of electric lighting. In the meantime foreign competition presses hard. The box makers of Bethnal Green complain sadly that work is slack "because of them Swedish matches."
    "I daresay you don't know what they are," said one woman to a Commissioner. "These are what's ruining us."
    And she took down from her own mantelshelf a box of the foreign matches!
    Closely allied to match-box making is fancy-box making-namely, the forming of boxes for boots, collars, ties, corsets, buttons, bonnets, etc.
    This occupation is pursued both in homes and factories. The rate of payment varies considerably.
    Some women can earn comfortable wages by reasonable hours of work; some say justly that they think the match-box making is not quite so bad as their trade.
    A Commissioner visited a woman lodging in Bethnal Green. There was a little shop on the ground-floor containing one sack of something. The landlord had up a notice that he mended boots ; but he was sitting unoccupied in his dark shop, with a gloomy smile on his face. He was very old, very grimy, and very ill-tempered. Being asked for Mrs. Goodluck, he broke out-
    [-43-] "Good luck! Not much good luck she brought him. She owed him her rent, and out she would have to go. He was not going to keep her. Goodluck, indeed!"
    The Commissioner went up a filthy staircase. Two scared, dirty little children, inheritors of the cruelly ironical name, replied, when they could be made to understand who was wanted, "mother was out."
    They did not seem to know their mother's name or their own, whither she had gone, or when she would return. That they were Mrs. Goodluck's children was only learned from a young woman on the other side of the landing. This young woman opened her door very cautiously, and looked out with the scared eyes of a hunted animal. She was perhaps twenty- three, very thin, and very dirty. Her room, as seen from the doorway, looked literally and absolutely bare. There was nothing visible in it but dozens of bright green boxes-such boxes as buttons or collars might be packed in-and the materials for making more. These boxes have to be made and covered, and the lids have to be made and covered. The worker finds paste or glue (generally glue), and hemp for tying up the completed work. The price paid for these boxes is 3½d. per gross. She did not seem [-44-] to know how many she could make in a day, but the testimony of a woman who makes such boxes seems to point to three gross being the outside number it is possible to make daily. I' he entire covering both of box and lid with stiff paper, necessitating the covering of the whole surface of cardboard with paste or glue, takes a long time. In fact, this work is, in the most literal sense, paid at a starvation rate. The woman was afraid to open her door on account of the landlord; she clearly lacked food, she had apparently no change of clothing, and was without any of the ordinary necessaries of life. Her room was filthy in the extreme. But how can a woman too poor to possess brush, broom, or pail clean her room ? How can she even wash her face or hands? Our Commissioner says that she will never be able to look at a bright green square box in a draper's shop without recalling that woman's face, and the frightened eyes fixed on the staircase up which the landlord would come later on to demand the rent of her dirty apartment.
    A woman who makes boot boxes, and who also lives in Bethnal Green, was visited afterwards. Her work is done in a kitchen. Everything there is of the same hue - one grimy grey - wood, walls, floor (the last a shade blacker), [-45-] dress, even the hair of the worker. Piles of scored rnillboard and strips of paper-blue, orange, white, and green-lie in a corner, and a pot of glue stands on the table.
    "What do you get for them?" inquired our Commissioner.
    "One and ninepence a gross, and I have to find the glue and the hemp for tying 'em up, you know. And it takes a lot of glue, too, for these big boxes. I reckon a pound to the gross. You can't get it for less than 5d. and the hemp's ¾d a ball, and it takes two to tie up a gross-that's 1½d. for hemp."
    "So, taking it altogether, you get 1s. 2½. a gross. How many can you make in a day?"
    "Well, not a gross, do what I will; and I can't take in a whole gross at once, they arc so big. It's cruel, that's what it is ! it's worse than the match-box making."
    Our Commissioners say that they experienced great difficulty in finding the homes of these poor box-makers. In the neighbourhoods in which such people live few doors retain any numbers. A scrawl of chalk is all in most cases. The non-existence of numbers does not, however, seem to be felt as an inconvenience by the inhabitants.
    "The next house but one to the public-house [-45-] on the other side of the way," is the sort of direction given in these districts.
    One fancy-box maker was found in a street that has quite a different aspect. This lies a little to the east of the old Nichol Street district. Here doorsteps are white, windows are clean, birdcages hang on the walls. Mrs. W inhabits a clean room, and shows her work readily. She is quite young, and wears the deep fringe and exaggerated dress-improver of the factory girl ; but she is neat, not to say smart in appearance. She makes the square bonnet-boxes covered with bronze paper used by milliners. Before her marriage she worked in a City factory, where she made boxes for ties, "block-work "- that is to say, boxes fitted with a block on each side, and having a space between for the ties. She gets 6d. a dozen for her bronze paper boxes, which is good money.
    Box-making is well paid in most of the large factories; but all about the East End women are to be found making boxes in their own homes at a starvation rate of payment.