THE SEWING MACHINE
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS
Sir, the interest with which the Queen and Prince Albert attend to any new invention of importance in the arts of life is well known. The last which has been exhibited to them is probably of as deep significance as any that her Majesty has been made acquainted with since her accession to the throne. The sewing machine may seem to the thoughtless a homely affair enough; but for two years past it has been regarded with strong interest by those who have known anything of its operation in America, where it has for some time been in extensive operation. In that young and prosperous country female labour is placed under somewhat the same disadvantages in the market that it is here and while the poor needlewomen of London were brought before public observation to elicit the compassion of the world there were sempstresses in garrets in Boston, Massachusetts, who were earning from 6d. to 1s. a day at shirt making. Then the sewing machine came out, " back-stitching cloth at the rate of a yard per minute," as a recent traveller tells us. At first the poverty of the sempstresses was ascribed to the machine; then it was proved to have existed from time immemorial; then it was expected to be aggravated by the machine and finally the discovery was made that there are many employments remaining to be opened to women, much better for themselves and for society than driving the needle. In the United States, the direction of mechanical invention now tends to the saving of female labour and one of the latest inventions brought into use is an apparatus for washing by steam, by which the toils of thousands of women in an unwholesome occupation will be altogether saved. The same changes are taking place in other countries, where Englishmen and Americans are ,scandalised, in their yearly trips, by seeing woman charged with the heaviest drudgery of' the farm. Even in Germany, labour-saving machinery is 1making its way and the glove makers of Grenoble have united their wits successfully to produce a machine which is said to supersede human fingers and requires only direction by skilled labour. These things are happening at a time when public attention is turned full upon the subject of health. Long before Hood gave us his "Song of the Shirt," there were many in England, besides the medical profession, who knew that the effects of much sewing upon the health of the women of England were well worthy of the attention of all who hoped that the strength of the middle and lower classes of Englishmen should not degenerate. It would be a great mistake to suppose that the incidents detailed in Hood's ballad are necessary to the unwholesomeness of the employment. The close garret, the night hours, the feeble light, the rack of mind, would be fatal with any occupation; but there it something over and above all this in the employment of driving the needle which makes it pernicious, even to the lady at ease in her drawing-room, by broad daylight, with a good dinner preparing and not a care on her mind. It is no trifling incident of the times if this source of ill-health is done away with by the invention of machines for doing that which was always so obviously mechanical that the only wonder is that we have had to wait so long. The event has, however, long been obviously in preparation. It is many years since the improvements in stocking-weaving led to the employment of the hosiery fabric for other garments than stockings and thenceforward we were familiarised with the possibility of shaping garments by machinery. Then followed the Mackintosh manufacture, by which were were taught how joins and "hems" may be dispensed with. All this was so much preparation for the new sewing apparatus, by which the most mechanical and the most fatiguing part of the whole business, the setting the stitches, is effected in the most perfect manner. Everybody remembers Carlyle's startling statement, that no such thing as a good sempstress was to be had, among all the crowds of poor needlewoman who were stitching their lives away and the elderly ladies of England are constantly heard complaining that no such plain sawing is now to be seen as they were taught in their child hood and that the art seems to be finally concentred in Germany. And now, while we are shipping off our poor needlewomen to Australia, Germany is shipping off to the United States hundreds ot thousands of wives and sisters, wielders of the needle, who will not be wanted to sew in America because of the sewing machine, while their absences will cause the introduction of the sewing machine into Germany, in order to get the nation's clothes made. It seems clear that the day has arrived for sewing to be transferred from the human to the inanimate machine. It is through no accident that these practical inventions arise under a remarkable concurrence of circumstances. For a long time now all indications have pointed to an inevitable change in the condition and employments of women, almost everywhere in the civilised world. The long wars of half a century ago caused such a preponderance of the female sex in France that women took part, without dispute and for the public convenience, in many occupations which are rarely entered upon by women in England. As trades-people and shop accountants and in various other ways, there is little distinction in Paris between women and men. In the New England States, in America, the same disproportion is caused by the departure of multitudes of the young men for the West, as soon as they grow tall enough to march off in pursuit of their fortunes. The young women there follow the English example more than the French-work in silence at such ill-paid occupation as they can find and present such a proportion of unmarried women as can be seen nowhere else out of England. The protected manufactures of New England are a great resource for them and when we wonder how, in a country like the United States, it can possibly answer to set up cotton and other manufactures, it is because we are unaware of the great amount of disposable labour in that particular part of the country from the multitude of young women left at home when their brothers wander off to the West. Knowing something of poverty, these women have felt and expressed deep pity for their English sisters, as the woes of the needlewomen have been of late years laid open. Now, the hour for a prodigious change has arrived. The value of labour of every kind is daily rising with the expanding prosperity of the country and with the flow of emigration. Just when women are wanted to be colonial servants and wives and servants and wives nearer home than the colonies, we see them likely to be released from sewing, for one thing. The next generation will all be married, or as nearly so as any past generation of Englishwomen and those who are not will have a higher and wider choice of employments than the unportioned women of the first half of this century. The promise of this may be seen in other incidents than the invention of sewing and washing machines. We may see it in the opening of Schools of Design to female pupils, though it is done in but a grudging manner at present. We may see it in the opening of an industrial school for girls here and there, though the number is miserably small. We may see it in the increasing employment of female hands in wood engraving, book- binding, printing and other arts, which are less underpaid than women's employments have usually been. We may see it, above all, in the institution of ladies' colleges, such as the two in London, where an education as complete as is usually offered to young men is afforded. By these an opportunity is afforded for ascertaining what women can learn and become able to do and such an opportunity, occurring just when the most sordid, mechanical and unwholesome of feminine employments is superseded by machinery, is a fact full of significance. One question that arises, in connexion with this sewing machine, is about its probable effect on Ireland. After the famine and fever, the support of the Irish population devolved mainly upon the women. Probably nothing like it was ever seen in the world before the quantity of work done by women and the amount of subsistence afforded by it. But the work is chiefly of a fancy kind, not likely to be immediately superseded by machinery and meantime, the number of labourers is lessening and the amount of wages therefore rising so fast that there is every reason to hope that men will soon become the bread-winners again and the women be released from the necessity of pursuing the unwholesome toil of the needle for fifteen hours a day, as hundreds of thousands of them are doing now, with a touching thankfulness that the work is there for them to do. During the present rise in the social value of the human being, women are likely to be among the first to benefit and among women, we hope the Irish will not be the last, after they have shown what they could do in providing for popular subsistence, in the season of their country's deepest need.
London Daily News - Wednesday 31 August 1853
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