On October 1, 1833, Baltimore seamstresses went on strike. While not a epoch-changing event in American labor history, it is a good moment to get into the everyday drudgery and struggles of urban antebellum white women workers, issues that are a lot more important in the lives of the working-class than brief revolutionary moments that capture the romantic attention of modern radicals. That’s particularly true to understand white women’s labor, a group of workers often left out of our popular discussions of labor history.
Life for urban workers was very tough in the Early Republic. That was especially true of women. When they could work for pay, they were heavily underpaid. Poverty was endemic and the sexual division of labor and the openly sexist society of Jacksonian America, particularly in the cities, often left women with very few options. Many women became prostitutes, out of necessity and/or out of the fact that even if they could get other work, sex work paid a lot better. Other women became seamstresses or domestic servants. Seamstress work was pitifully low paid. By sheer wages, one calculation suggests that domestic workers made twice in a year what seamstresses did through piecework and that’s before domestics’ food and board are taken into account, only adding to the disparity. There was some effort in Baltimore by the burgeoning middle and upper classes to recognize this problem. Efforts picked up both for philanthropy to the seamstresses in that city and to simply pay more money for their clothing. But this was very limited and simply could not impact that many workers. The city’s Humane Impartial Society, a woman-run reform organization, offered the seamstresses piece work at rates 50 percent higher than usual in 1830. They had openings for 1600 workers but only could find work for 160 of them. Ten percent of workers making a little more money came out of a noble effort, but fell far short of adequately dealing with the problem.
Baltimore clothing manufacturers could have set up factories, but as the apparel industry has always done, found cheaper ways to employ women for tiny amounts of money. They created piecework system that sent the cloth into women’s homes and forced them to labor there and get paid for each finished article of clothing. Much of this work was finishing work–adding ribbons and buttons to nearly finished items. Thousands of tiny factories thus developed across the city, one in each worker’s home. Of course, the workers paid for all the overhead, such as heating and lighting the house. There were no guarantees of future labor. This was extremely contingent labor. Most of these women were not living under a male head of household. Perhaps they were widows, perhaps single women whose parents had died. Perhaps they had been sexually violated and thrown out of their homes by their families. But since women’s labor was not seen as supporting others, they made far less money than men, despite the reality of life for thousands of them in Baltimore alone. These single women would face the brunt of economic declines and recessions. There is much evidence of them appealing to the Baltimore government of the early 19th century for greater rights or for the upper classes expressing some concern as to what would happen to them.
The Baltimore labor movement was growing by the late 1820s. Strikes grew and in 1833, Baltimore had its first labor newspaper. In July 1833, hatters went on strike to resist a wage cut and they won. Seventeen different unions organizing shipyard workers coordinated a strike that year and won a 10 hour day. It seemed as if workers were making progress. Newspapers in Baltimore and around the country began running stories on the needs for women to make decent wages and the term “living wage” was coined around this time.
Women striking was a riskier proposition. This was an extraordinarily misogynist society. Violence against women was shockingly common, with no recourse to law enforcement except maybe, at best, on the point of death. Reading histories of domestic and sexual violence in the first half of the 19th century is truly horrifying and requires a strong stomach and/or a drink. Moreover, as women starting adopting the argument for the family wage on their own, saying they should be able to support children or loved ones on their wages, they directly challenged the male breadwinner ideology held by both employers and workers.
Yet by the late summer of 1833, Baltimore seamstresses began organizing for a strike. Said the announcement of a September 20 meeting, “We feel it a duty due to ourselves, and to those are who are dependent upon us for support, to seek some remedy for the wretched and deplorable conditions under which we now labor.” They coordinated a price list to set rates for their piecework that would allow them to live. They attempted to find some kind of work for the poorest women and hoped that male unionists in the city would help make that happen.
When they struck on October 1, they announced they would only work for employers “willing to give an equivalent for their labour.” The strike was of course poorly organized. There was no union involved and these women were barely hanging on. The leaders of the city’s clothing manufacturers actually did want to offer a 25 percent raise. But while that was officially announced, a number of manufacturers had no intention of playing along, or at least not after the first opportunity to bust this movement. On October 23, the women declared victory after getting some improvements in their piece rates while publicly praising the 25 manufacturers who agreed to the new rates and shaming the 9 who did not. But the organized movement of the women disintegrated almost immediately. The movement had completely died by the end of 1833. An 1835 survey of Baltimore clothing piece rates showed no significant improvement from before the strike.
Some of active strikers in 1833 became involved in charity work to help seamstresses. Eleanor Whearett for instance participated in the Seamstresses’ Society, a group that opened a storefront in 1834 that marketed the goods of 100 female members. This was more of a charity operation than a real empowerment for the workers, something of the modern equivalent of a American store selling fair trade goods made from still impoverished people in Guatemala. It’s helpful to those involved but doesn’t really challenge power structures or make a significant dent in poverty. It did however pay the women above market rates, which was much better than many charities of the time that paid below market rates to shame the women into finding better work while saving them from starvation. And even this effort closed in December 1835. Baltimore seamstresses and women working to support themselves and their families would remain poor for a very long time.
This post borrowed from Seth Rockman’s, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore.
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