Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 20 - East End Tailoresses

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THERE is just now, all up and down the I social scale, a furore for social facts.
    A noble lord, who shall be nameless, created quite a sensation last season in a West End drawing-room.
    "Only think," he said, "I've actually seen a woman making a match-box!!"
    The people who collect social facts may be divided into three classes:-
1. The notoriety-seeker, who makes capital by satisfying the curiosity of the public. If any man or woman wishes to become a celebrity (i.e., to be talked about) he or she has only to take up some social question. It is the cheapest sort of advertisement.
2. The economist, who collects and classifies, with the view to founding a true science of economics.
    3. The humanitarian, who studies the condition of his fellow-men in order to help them.
    [-216-] The inquiry into sweating is more advanced than any other social inquiry at present, so the three kinds of collectors have come under our notice, and we must give them a passing word.
    The notoriety-seeker will be best seen in the following illustration:-
    A Commissioner visited a man who was a sweater, and who now sweats himself, who is well known in connection with sweating. This individual was discovered, in a negligé costume, sitting on the counter of a small shop, surrounded by herrings, pickles, and other savoury articles. None, lie said, knew so much about sweating as himself, but he was not going to be pumped. He had editors at his command, and gentlemen stepping out of carriages at his door; he had promised to take a certain nobleman into some of the sweating dens; but he would do nothing for the classes. He cared for the people; he worked for them ; he did not believe in the classes. Besides, he had no time, for he was sweating all day and writing all night.
    Imagine, then, how surprised the Commissioner was to see this individual a few days later enjoying a first-rate dinner in a first-rate restaurant, patronised solely by "the classes!"
    We would advise the above-mentioned nobleman to take his little son to visit the sweaters. [-217-] They are proverbially bad-tempered, and little Lord ----- has discovered an excellent cure for temper.
    Not long ago, at lunch, he suddenly began to gulp, to grow red in the face. Frightened footmen and anxious parents rushed to his assistance.
    "I've done it!" he said, with great satisfaction, after he had finished.
    "What have you done?" inquired his mother.
    "I've swallowed my temper."
    The economist is of quite recent growth. A number of men and women, belonging to what are called "the educated classes," are convinced that we have as yet no foundation for a true science of economics. They look upon our present political economists as empiricists, and they desire to collect and classify social facts before attempting to build up a science of economics. As yet they move hither and thither, studying different trades, tabulating the inhabitants of various localities ; but they talk of founding a society in order that their work may not overlap. It is very doubtful if they will ever get really accurate information without State assistance. They rather overrate the value of their work, because it is the first attempt in this direction to be accurate ; and they use the slang of a trade with great effect upon the uninitiated. [-218-] It is amusing to find words such as "slop," "bespoke," etc., treated like scientific terms agreed upon by scientists. They have a curious love of hoarding information. Instead of feeling that the things they are studying need no special talent to be studied, they act just like scholars who bore into dead languages. They snarl at humanitarians much as scholars snarl at their foreign brethren.
    The humanitarian is the easiest of the three to work with. He will sit up all night in order to give information, if he is convinced that he burns the midnight oil to a good purpose; lie will walk a dozen miles to get an apt illustration, if he thinks by so doing he can help on the cause in which he is so deeply interested. But he has fads; and he is not just to the economist. He thinks the economist has no heart because he does not understand the scientific temperament, and he resents the way in which the economist scoffs at him as a sentimentalist.
    "Do you think any good will be done by this inquiry into sweating?" we have asked again and again.
    The answer of the sweater and the sweated is the same:
    "No; the evidence has been so contradictory."
    "You might as well set me to give an opinion [-219-] on politics as them lords to give an opinion on sweating," a woman said with supreme contempt. "Why, one of them actually thought we used machines as finishers; he didn't seem to understand if we'd machines we'd be machinists."
    It must be explained here that trousers and vests - i.e., waistcoats - are made by two sets of people, machinists and finishers. Women do not make coats - they help the men to finish coats; but the "slop" (lowest class of work) coat trade is entirely in the hands of Jewish tailors.
    Mr. Schloss says in his articles on Sweating in The Fortnightly Review, December, 1887 : "With a coat, style - 'form,' as it is called in the trade - is of the first importance ; and a coat, if it is to possess 'form,' and so command a ready sale, must of necessity be one in the making of which male labour has largely preponderated. Female labour has always been found fatally deficient in 'form.'"
    In the sweaters' "blackholes of industry" one woman may be found working with eight or ten men, finishing coats. The Jewish tailors prefer Gentile women as finishers, because they will work on the Hebrew Sabbath, and they will, as a rule, take lower wages than Jewesses.
    Mr. Lakeman, H.M. senior Metropolitan Inspector of Factories, says of the sweaters' dens [-220-] in East London : "No greater squalor in houses can be seen ; no more unhealthy workshops can be found.
    The following is Mr. Schloss's account of such a house:-  "Directing our steps through the narrow passage of a four-storied tenement dwelling of average size, we find ourselves in a yard which, though never spacious, was formerly of sufficient proportions to supply a reasonable amount of back ventilation. But a few years ago there was erected upon a large portion of this area a three-storied building, each floor of which is a workroom, and is connected with the tenement house we have just quitted by a narrow bridge. Examining what little is left of the original yard, we find that the uneven pavement is studded with pools of stagnant water, while the numerous cracks in the flagstones are filled with noxious rubbish. This area is supposed to be drained by a bell-trap, which, since its cover--as is usual with these unserviceable inventions - has long since disappeared, permits the sewer-gas to escape unchecked from the drain below. The dust-bin stands immediately under the windows of the ground-floor work-shop, which, however - perhaps to avoid the stench from the bin, but certainly with the result of rendering ventilation of the interior impracticable - are carefully constructed [-221-] in such a manner that it is impossible to open them. The lid of the bin is thrown back at right angles to its proper place, so as not to interfere with the exhalations which proceed from a huge pile of refuse. . . . Finding that the ground-floor workshop is to-day without a tenant, we re-enter the house, and having ascended the cramped staircase, reach the stone-flagged bridge leading to the workroom on the floor above. From this gangway the light is all excluded by a high hoarding on both sides-a style of architecture which has been adopted with the view of preventing the tenants of the upper floors from casting forth rubbish from this convenient elevation on to the pavement below. . . . The workshop on the first floor we find in possession of a cabinet-making sweater, who employs from four to fifteen men, according to the orders which he may have on hand ; while the sweater in the fur trade, on the second story, has invited from five to nine workers to enjoy with him the stifling fumes of his coke fire. The tenement house, to which these workshops form an appendix, affords accommodation (the limited character of which may be imagined) for nineteen individuals, belonging to six different families, while its ground floor is used as a butcher's shop.
    In a house like this we find the sweater's den, [-222-] about which we have heard so much lately. We will describe one of the worst. The room, twelve feet square, held ten people-the sweater, eight men, and one girl. The window-panes were nearly all broken, and filled up with paper or canvas. The gas was burning, also a large coke fire. There was no ventilation whatsoever, and the men were covered with sweat, although they had on the veriest apologies for clothes. The girl wore an old ragged dress, open at the chest. Her forehead was studded with perspiration, and her hair was wet. The men had tins of beer beside their machines, and a large mug of beer stood on the pressers' table. All the men were Jews, but the girl was a Gentile.
    Such rooms are found chiefly in Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and the Jewish ghetto.
    But the greater number of East End tailoresses make trousers and vests at home ; comparatively few are found working in "the blackholes of industry." Their number is said to be 25,000, and they are mostly Gentiles, living in Stepney, Bow, and Shoreditch.
    It is extremely difficult to get accurate information about the hours of work and the payment of these East End tailoresses. The following figures have been most kindly supplied by an excellent authority:-
[-223-] Lowest Class of Trousers.- 6d. per pair paid to sweater by manufacturer ; 1¾d. or 2d. per pair paid by sweater to machinist ; 2½d. per pair paid by sweater to finisher. Profit of sweater 1½d.
Second Class of Trousers.-  9d. per pair paid to sweater by manufacturer ;  2¾d.. per pair paid by sweater to machinist ; 3¾d. per pair paid by sweater to finisher, including pressing. Profit of sweater 2½d
Third Class of Trousers.- 1s. 2d. per pair paid to sweater by manufacturer ; 3¾d per pair paid by sweater to machinist ; 4d. per pair, with extra 1d. for pressing, paid by sweater to finisher. Profit of sweater 5¼d.
Vests or Waistcoats.- These are made right out by one woman.- 6d. per vest paid to sweater by manufacturer; 4½d. per vest paid by sweater to tailoress. Profit of sweater 1½d.
9d. per vest paid to sweater by manufacturer; 7d. per vest paid by sweater to tailoress. Proflt of sweater 2d.
1s. per vest paid to sweater by manufacturer; 9d. per vest paid by sweater to tailoress. Profit of sweater 3d.
Juvenile Suits in Two Garments.-6d. per suit paid to sweater ; 1¾d. per suit paid by sweater to machinist ; 2¾d. per suit paid by sweater to finisher. Profit of sweater 1½d.
[-224-] These figures give the payment per garment but, with the machinists, money must be deducted for the hire of the machine, soap, thread, and firing. Singer's machines cost 2s. 6d. per week, and although machines can be hired at lower prices, they do not work well under 2s. or 1s. 6d. per week. These machines are often forfeited during slack times, and the women find it difficult to buy them by weekly instalments. Finishers provide their own cotton, gimp, silk, irons, press- cloths, firing, and oil, for they get the work late, and sit up at night. Both machinists and finishers are often kept hours waiting for their work in the sweaters' shops, and as seats are seldom provided, they find the loads heavy to carry home after hours spent standing. The hours they work vary of course, but it has been calculated that their work lasts sixteen or seventeen hours a day when they can get employment, and is paid at the rate of little more than a penny an hour. Slack seasons are from the second week of December to the first week in February, also for two weeks after Whitsuntide and three weeks after the August Bank Holiday. The slackest season is just about Christmas.
    We do not intend to discuss the sweating system ; the public has heard too much already about it. We merely wish to point out that there [-225-] are about 25,000 East End tailoresses working sixteen or seventeen hours a day, at the rate of about 1d. per hour, when they can get employment. Making trousers and vests is a home industry; but the rooms of the workers are not much better than the dens of the sweaters.
    The sweater works hard himself. It is the giver-out who makes the greatest profit. The foremen and passers, or givers-out, have not been sufficiently noticed. The sweaters could afford to pay their workers better if they were not obliged to tip these men; but these men will not give the sweaters work until they have taken a heavy toll, which ultimately comes out of the workers' pockets.
    We have not space to notice the Workwomen's Co-operative Association, Limited, but it is making a profit while it gives good wages. It has raised the pay of the tailoresses all round the district, and is doing away, to some extent, with the evils connected with the sweating system, namely, "excessive lowness of wages, unduly prolonged hours of labour, irregularity of employment, and unhealthy workshops."