Victorian London - Women - Education, Employment and Emancipation - Occupations open to women


THERE are very few things a woman's wit and will cannot accomplish, if she is so minded -- no assertion she will not make, if duty, necessity, or inclination call for it. From ruling a mighty empire, through all gradations of intellect and industry, she has been tried, and not found wanting. Now and then we are surprised at the situation in which we find the fairer portion of the creation. There have been several instances of hardy mariners restored, late and reluctantly, to the proper position and costume of their own sex. Within the last few years, too, a clergyman, on taking possession of a small living in Devonshire, found that the duties of sexton were performed by one able-bodied female. In another parish, the offices of churchwarden and overseer of the poor had been held, with credit, by a strong-minded individual of the gentler sex ; if she added that of constable, we will hope the executive was performed by deputy.
    In France, it is much more common for women to undertake what we consider masculine employments than with us. The wife quietly puts her husband aside—he, we presume, consenting and acts as clerk or cashier, as manager or chief, as diplomatist or banker, as the case may be. It is an arrangement that seems particularly to suit our Gallic neighbours ; the man does the talking and the frippery, the woman the valuable and the reliable ; though, far be it from us to underrate her power in the former qualifications as well.
    It will be very interesting to examine what are the occupations of women in this country, and how their industry is connected with many of the enjoyments and necessaries of life. The vision that generally disturbs the mind when this subject presents itself is that depicted in Hood's well-known song
        "With fingers weary and worn,
                With eyelids heavy and red,
         A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
                Plying her needle and thread -
         Stitch ! stitch ! stitch!
                In poverty, hunger, and dirt."
Or we see the wan milliner or factory girl, and gladly turn our thoughts to some more hopeful subject. Happily, Christian benevolence and public feeling are doing much for these classes.
    How much the large number of persons who read, and think, and feel, are indebted to woman, is in some degree known. The excitement of admiration and philanthropy produced by the gifted author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has not yet subsided. Many clever authoresses have given their time and talents to the best purposes and highest influences amongst ourselves, and are known and honoured by name. A great proportion of our periodicals - a class of literature constantly increasing in number and importance -  are supplied with articles by the genius and research of females, who look not for the reward of fame, but are enabled, by the slender means thus afforded, to assist a sick relative, or educate a friend-less child. But women not only write books - they assist also in all the labours necessary to render them fit for the public eye. The very steel pen by which the author's mind is revealed was in a great measure manufactured by her. She cut it from the sheet of metal, stamped it, ground it, shaped and polished it, packed it in the box, or sewed it on the card. At the paper-mill, women and girls prepare and clean the rags of which the article is made, count the sheets into quires, divide and set the reams and half reams for the packers, arrange cards and note-paper, and reject the damaged sheets. At the printing-office, too, though not to so great an extent in this country as in America, they are found capable of the duty of composites, arranging the type in various languages with great accuracy. Then another band of females fold and stitch the sheets in a wonderfully rapid manner, and stitch them in the sewing- presses ready for the binder. Should the work, according to the fashion of the day, be illustrated, the engraving on wood is sometimes designed or executed by women. Flowers and botanical specimens employ numbers of clever girls, who exercise their pleasant talent in the retirement and shelter of their own home.
    It is a beautiful sight to go into the higher departments of a china manufactory, in Worcester for instance, and see the rows of comfortable females, of all ages, engaged in painting, with exquisite taste, flowers and landscapes and armorial bearings, in strange mineral colours, on the various services intended for the table; and again they may be found, amid noise and clatter, burnishing such as are edged and otherwise adorned with gold. In the art of designing, whose taste is likely to be so chaste and elegant as that of women? We accordingly find them, in every department, exercising their talents -- in paper-hangings, and ladies' shawls, and dresses of every description ; in collars and veils, and in the delicate arrangement of pearls as ornaments. At one of the largest jewellers in London, the lady who undertook this part of the business was paid, it is said, a salary of no less than three hundred pounds a year.
    Buttons, too, are not only designed, but made by women. The covered buttons called Florentine are entirely her handiwork. She cuts the metal from the rolled sheet, the lining from one material, the covering from another, and the stuffing from a slab of spongy paper. All these materials are piled one upon another, and a magic stroke on the little press in which they are laid ushers into the world the finest finished button. It requires harder hands to make them ; but hundreds of families, including women and girls, are to be found by the side of the forge making nails. In most places, as might be supposed, the trade is a very poor one but nail-cutting, another branch of the business, is more remunerative.
    An unlimited supply of pickles is the usual stipulated indulgence of the returning schoolboy. The greater quantity of the article consumed in this pickle-loving; country is also prepared by women. The vegetables are gathered and cleansed by them in suburban or far-off country gardens ; by them they are pickled, bottled, and corked. At the latter occupation, an industrious woman can earn two shillings a day.
    Pill-box making, including all the ornamental receptacles of things nice and things nasty --things useful and things that are of no use at all -- whereby we are tempted, employs an amount of female labour quite amazing. The designers and makers of these things are well paid for their work, and take it very easy. Not so, however, the poor lace- maker, who gains a bare subsistence by unceasing industry,
        " Shuffling her threads about the live-long day ;"
and who has no chance of earning even a bare subsistence, unless taught her trade almost in infancy. But the triumph of her art was seen and acknowledged in the Honiton and other laces displayed at the Great Exhibition. No machinery has ever produced any lace of equal beauty. It is the slowness and delicacy of the process of making that renders it so unremunerative. The making of artificial flowers of every kind employs thousands of females. It is the resource of many who have seen better days, and who bring to it the taste that has been formed amid scenes of refinement and elegance. Many young women materially improve and enrich their wardrobes by the exercise of their skill and industry in this department of art. It may be seen in the delicate wax bouquet, bought at a fabulous price, and sheltered by glass, on the nobleman's table, and in the unknown vegetable production stuck into the cap or bonnet of the dirty, slip-shod maid-of-all-work. No one can wonder at the love of flowers, natural or artificial, but they should always be associated with that which is pure and simple, as well as consistent in place and purpose. Those girls and women who arrange flowers for sale in Covent-garden market must have a pleasant trade, for which, if skilful, they are well paid. A great improvement has taken place in this art, as well as in most others, during the last few years. The purple and the white, the lilac and the orange or scarlet, flowers are contrasted, with an attention to colouring and effect that make them quite artistic. The lover may make a selection, with reference to the taste or complexion of his fair one, that will be sure to win her regard to the nosegay if not to himself.
    Almost every article purchased in shops is now sent home in paper bags ; and often you receive your change neatly done up in one. The straw bonnet - that truly English and becoming article of attire - that has been platted and made up by a woman's hands, is forwarded to you in a green bag, also made by a woman. So great is the convenience afforded to shopkeepers and others by these bags, that the demand for them is enormous. Tons of paper are daily converted into them, with an economy that wastes not a visible strip. Envelope-making, and all sorts of fancy stationery, employ also a vast number of female hands. Basket-making, further, is a truly feminine occupation. The myriads of pottles used for the sale of all kinds of fruit, in London especially, are all made by women and girls. The same sex is also largely employed in the manufacture of brushes, and particularly in the delicate process of arranging badger's hair in shaving-brushes. Umbrella and parasol making is also largely assisted by female workers.
    Woman never seems so much in her element as when she has a needle and thread in her hands. We naturally expect to find her assisting the tailor and the cap-maker, binding shoes and sewing gloves, retained by the upholsterer, and finishing off the work of the hatter. Over every article of female attire it is but right she should reign supreme ; and a passing thought of its infinite variety will convince us how much ingenuity and how many hands must be employed in its details. The stay-maker, the milliner, and the mantua-maker, are all separate departments, subject in many instances to subdivisions ; but this is too well known to need to be dwelt on here.
    In many parts of the country, women still work in the fields during bright harvest weather ; it is pleasant enough to see them so employed, and perhaps they like it. Shops, as is well known, are much served by females. We own to a great prejudice in their favour as regards the handling of ribbons and tapes. The number of domestic servants is quite enormous, including those employed at eating-houses and inns. Washerwomen and their helpers, moreover, abound everywhere ; and a few adventurous females are found bold enough to dare the terrors of the deep, as stewardesses and attendants in passenger vessels. The preponderance of women and girls employed in lace, silk, cotton, and other factories, is well known ; and as it is a subject constantly before the public, we would pass it over, only adding that there is no necessity for their being either unhealthy or immoral.
    Enough has been said to show that women have no excuse for idleness, and that it is not their usual characteristic. No doubt, in many instances, hard necessity has driven them into occupations irksome and uncongenial ; but it is pleasant to see how they take advantage of every opening, and prove equal to almost every emergency. Almost invariably, too, they are found ready to help their husbands, or their sons and brothers, to attain what in these days too often involves a hard struggle — the necessaries of life, and that in any honourable way that may be most convenient.
    The topics thus cursorily glanced at—for neither time nor space are at our command for half that might be told on the subject—may, perchance, help some woman-worker in determining wherein her talent and true calling lies ; and it may suggest ideas to others, who may strike out some new sphere of usefulness and industrial activity, or raise some desponding mind to renewed efforts of industry and self-dependence.

Leisure Hour, 1854

see also Cassells Household Guide on 'Occupations Accessible to Women' - click here