Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Long Struggle of the Shopgirls

 


‘Nine-tenths of the fallen women in London were once shop assistants,’ Lord Brabazon said in 1883. Denise, the heroine of Zola’s famous novel Au Bonheurs des Dames, certainly had a struggle to keep her morals intact, and not seek extra ‘employment’. Even when they were probably innocent of soliciting, shopgirls were looked down on as at least ‘cheap’.  In Zola’s novel, some of the bourgeois women think that the shopgirls are ‘all up for sale, the wretches, like their merchandise’.

Industrialization and imports from the colonies, such as India, saw the rapid growth in the amount and variety of goods coming from all over the world, including fine materials, exotic fruits and fancy china. Department stores and specialist shops sprung up throughout the country. Women began to enjoy shopping for leisure, and they preferred to be served by young women rather than men. Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women to promote women shop assistants. ‘She asked pointedly, “Why should bearded men be employed to sell ribbon, lace, gloves, neck-kerchiefs, and the dozen other trifles to be found in a silk mercer's or haberdasher’s shop”?[i]

Many girls started to want independence, and a better career than being a servant. Being a shopgirl was increasingly regarded as ‘respectable,’ and they received better wages than servants. Shopkeepers preferred to employ girls and young women, because their wages were much lower than those of male shop assistants. The wages were usually two-thirds or even half the amount that their male counterparts received. It was also a cleaner and less physically demanding occupation than factory work.

Unfortunately, many girls who got jobs working in shops didn’t know what they were in for. Low wages were not their only problem. They often had to work incredibly long hours from early in the morning until late at night. Sometimes they worked until midnight on Saturday if they got Sunday off. Understandably, they were usually too tired to go to church on Sundays. The battle for a half-day on Saturday was a surprisingly long one. They also had to pay fines if they breached any of the numerous rules. Whiteleys had over 100 rules.

The shopgirls often had to live-in. This usually meant living in crowded dormitories with nasty food, which they often had to buy. Many received meagre breakfasts while they watched the shop managers and superior staff eating bacon and eggs. Margaret Blomfield, the first woman Cabinet minister in the UK, worked as a shopgirl when she was sixteen in a large draper’s shop in Brighton. She was incredibly unhappy, sleeping in a bare crowded dormitory, which was ‘incredibly hot in summer’ and ‘miserably cold in winter’. It was so difficult to get a bath that to get a hot bath once a week the girls had to run ‘at full speed for about half a mile’ to the public baths. Then they only had a quarter of an hour to undress, bathe and dress before the assistant ordered them out because the baths were about to close.[ii]

She was also incredibly scared when men knocked at the ground-floor windows, and tried to pull them down during Race Week. They had a struggle to slam and bolt the windows.

Margaret decided to join the Union, and spent time secretly observing conditions. She wrote about them as Grace Dare. Vaughan Nash used her reports in The Daily Chronicle, and they attracted the attention of Sir John Lubbock, who used them to improve living-in conditions in The Shop Assistant’s Act.

Conditions Improve

Even though the Coal Mine Act was passed in 1842, the first committee on shop conditions only reported toa Parliament forty years later. There were three committees, but nothing was done, because opposition remained strong for three main reasons. Many thought that the State shouldn’t interfere with working hours. Shopkeepers felt obliged to be at the mercy of the customer, and the need for profits was difficult and competitive. Also, shop assistants mostly didn’t want to join a union, because they felt that it was beneath them.[iii]

A few acts of Parliament improved conditions, but it wasn’t until the Shop Assistants Act of 1911 that a statutory half-day and a mandatory weekly holiday were introduced. The next two acts of 1912 and 1913 shortened the maximum weekly working hours, and made washing facilities mandatory in every shop.

 

 



[i] ‘Association for Promoting the Employment of Women’, English Woman’s Journal, vol.4, September 1859, p.57, quoted in Horn, Pamela and Annabel Hobley, Shopgirls, The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, Hutchinson, London, p.45

 

[ii] Horn, Pamela and Annabel Hobley, Shopgirls, The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, Hutchinson, London, p.90

[iii] Whitaker, Wilfred B. Victorian and Edwardian Shopworkers. The Struggle to Obtain Better Conditions and a Half-Holiday. David & Charles Newton Abbot, 1973, p.180

 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Spanish Flu in Australia

This terrible pandemic occurred well after the Edwardian era, but I thought that I'd include the link to my article anyway: Spanish Flu in Australia.

Monday, April 29, 2019

New Post Soon!

I am sorry that I have neglected this blog for so long. I hope to write a new post soon!

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Taglioni of the North.

Imperious and formidable, Katti Lanner was a famous ballerina, choreographer and dancing mistress who taught many English ballerinas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Her career lasted until almost until she died at seventy-eight! Prima ballerina Phyllis Beddells recalled 77-year old Katti Lanner yelling at the corps de ballet if there was the slightest defect in their work or if they were out of line. Lanner didn't realise that she could be heard by the audience in the front.

Born in 1845 in Vienna, Lanner was the daughter of the great dancing teacher Josef Lanner. She began dancing at eight and trained at the Vienna Court Opera where she had lessons by Pietro Campilli and Isadore Carey. When she was 16, the young ballerina obtained her first starring role in the pas de deux in the ballet, Angelica. The great ballerinas Fanny Elssler and Fanny Cerritto were impressed with her dancing and Lanner was soon given more starring roles, for example, as Myrtha the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle in 1852. Famous Danish choreographer Bournonville chose her to play the leading role in the ballet Der Toreador.

After her beloved mother's and brother's deaths, Lanner decided to leave Vienna and went on to have a glittering career in Germany, where she was complimented by the King of Bavaria, New York and Lisbon, where the king gave her diamonds. She was nicknamed the 'Taglioni of the North' because of her similarity to the splendid Marie. She formed her own ballet company, taught ballet in Hamburg and produced ballets but she is known mainly for her ballets in England today.

Chosen to be the dancing mistress at the National School of Dancing in England when she was almost 50, Lanner settled in London with her husband Johann Geraldini and their three daughters, Sofia, Katharine and Albertina. Unfortunately, the marriage was not happy and he returned to Vienna. Apparently, Lanner preferred the Neapolitan dancer Giuseppe Venuto de Francesco and their relationship caused some scandal.

In the late 1880's, Lanner began teaching ballerinas and producing spectacular ballets at the Empire  Theatre in Leicester Square, such as Rose d'Amour about a fairy escaping a malignant elf who is rescued by Cupid. This included a Hungarian wedding dance and a Chinese dance of tea-flowers. At the end of the ballet, all the flowers were massed into a huge bouquet. The great C. Wilhelm's costume designs also featured in this ballet and several others.

Watching Cleopatra in 1889 must have been a delight! Maria Cavallazi starred and French composer Herve wrote the music for this amazing production. According to Ivor Guest, the spectacle was 'magnificent indeed, with the stage filled with a colourful throng of Roman soldiery, Nubian's, Egyptians and Greek slaves'. The Girl I Left Behind Me in 1893 about a young soldier who joined a Highland regiment in Burma also stunned audiences with its beautiful scenes. A critic in the Sketch called it 'a carnival of colour, of movement, of gaiety'.

One fun ballet that Lanner produced was Katrina in 1894. This featured ballerinas 'dressed up to represent cats in their nightly flings on the tiles' according to Pick-Me-Up magazine. The ballet starred Miss Ada Vincent as Princess Frou-Frou, a fairy cat, and Miss Lizzie Vincent as Tom Grey, a cat bridegroom.  You can view pictures of scenes from the ballet here and see why some of the critics were especially impressed by the cat costumes. Lanner loved cats herself - she had five of them!

Lanner died peacefully in 1908 on a Sunday morning at 9:00. She didn't know that her faithful dog predeceased her by a few hours. Many of her colleagues and her pupils attended her funeral and she is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Good Place To Meet Potential Husbands?

William R. Martin, the founder of men's clothing store Rogers, Peet & co, was concerned. He watched the hordes of young working women settling in New York and worried about their dismal lodgings and boarding houses. Where could these shopgirls and clerks find nice, suitable young men to marry?

He decided to build a residence on Hudson and West 12th streets which would provide them with respectable lodgings so that they could entertain 'desirable, young men' in the parlour, and he called it The Trowmart Inn after his son Trowbridge, who had tragically met an early death. Women who stayed at the inn had to meet certain conditions. They had to be under 35 and earn less than $15.00 per week. A bed in one of the 228 dorm-like rooms cost as little as 50 cents while a more private room could be obtained for $4.50 per week, including breakfast and dinner. The young women also had an ironing room on each floor and laundry was also provided. There were six parlours where the girls could entertain men and there was no curfew, but men were not allowed upstairs.  The young women also had a library and a full-time nurse was in attendance.  Dances were held three times a week.

Even though The Trowbridge Inn sounds as though it was nicely decorated with muslin curtains and solid antique oak furniture, there were many complaints about the small rooms.  One 21-year old office clerk told Munsey's Magazine that the Trowbridge and similar residences had narrow rooms with bad lighting and 'mincy wardrobes.'





Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lemon Wax and Cameraderie in New York. Part One

(Katharine House, NYC, Wikimapia) 

Enza and Laura, two young ambitious seamstresses in The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani are delighted to find rooms at the relatively luxurious Milbank House in New York. This residence for single working women, Trigiani writes, was 'in the middle of a wide, tree-lined block of opulent homes, anchored by a lavish Episcoap church on the corner of Fifth Avenue and the charming Patchin Place houses across Sixth Avenue on the other, this block had character and whimsy, a rare combination in New York City at the turn of the progressive century.' This double brownstone with its formal library, parlour and 'deep garden' was a much nicer alternative to the many cheap and nasty lodgings which were the common lot of struggling girls away from home. I read that one shopgirl complained that there were 'six of us in the garret!' Milbank House was reasonably priced and breakfast and dinner were even included in the rent. . Enza loves her beautiful room bathed in sunlight at Milbank House with its fresh scent of lemon wax.

But 'more important than all these lovely features of gracious living,' according to Trigiani, ' was the camaraderie of the young residents, who aspired to better lives on the wings of their talent and creativity. Finally, Laura and Enza were with like-minded peers, who understood their feelings and drive'.

Milbank House, opened in 1919, was one of several houses run by the Ladies' Christian Union which decided to start building comfortable residences for single working women as far back as 1860  Seamstresses, shopgirls and factory workers were flocking to the city in search of better lives and they were often reduced to extremely poor living conditions and in serious danger of being compromised. Another house owned by the Ladies' Christian Union was Katharine House. This also had a library, a parlour and sewing machines for the residents.  There was even a relief fund to help the sick go to hospital and those who had trouble paying for meals.

Katharine House only closed in 2000.  According to a New York Times article in 1997, many of the women living there were extremely pleased to find it.  One ballerina had paid $600.00 a month for a 'rotten deal,' so she was amazed by the 'baby grand piano in the second-floor lounge, a terrace for summer socializing and maid service.' They didn't mind the rather Victorian rules - for example, men weren't allowed in the bedrooms and had to leave the beau parlours at 11;00 p.m.

You can read more about Katharine House here. (At first, it sounded rather good, but after reading Jeremiah's article and the comments, I am not so sure!)