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Desperate Measures - 19th Century Working Women

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The Victorian Seamstress/Dressmaker

The Seamstress - A Song of the Shirt
By: Anna Elizabeth Blundon - dated 1854

Overworked and Underpaid 

Lower-middle-class girls in the middle of the century generally gravitated towards dressmaking.  Apprenticeship ususally started at the age of fourteen and worked for two years prior to being considered experts in their trade.


These young women paid for their apprenticeship and received no wage, although their board and food was covered under the cost of the apprenticeship.


The hourse of work were long and it wasn't unusual for girls to go blind from their years of overwork.  They often worked 20 hour days during "the season" and off season was not much better as special orders could come in and last minute changes were inevitable. 

 Hours of work for apprentices – They started bright and early and could regularly work until two or three the next morning. For breaks, during busy times, they expected ten minutes respite for breakfast, fifteen or twenty for dinner, fifteen for tea.   Supper could be postponed until the work was finished.

Song of the shirt


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,

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch

She saing the song “The Song of the Shirt.

One page on Seamstresses - From Victorian Web

More on Seamstresses

“No slavery is worse than that of the dressmaker’s life in London

In 1843 a report was released describing the conditions offered to young women apprenticed to dressmakers:


“The evidence of all parties establishes the fact that there is no class of persons in this country, living by their labour, whose happiness, health, and lives, are so unscrupulously sacrificed as those of the young dress-makers. They are, in a peculiar degree, unprotected and helpless; and I should fail in my duty if I did not distinctly state that, as a body, their employers have hitherto taken no steps to remedy the evils and misery which result from the existing system. . . . It may without exaggeration be stated that, in proportion to the numbers employed, there are no occupations, with one or two questionable exceptions such as needlegrinding,in which so much disease is produced as in dress-making, or which present so fearful a catalogue of distressing and frequently fatal maladies.

This weg page was created as a class assignment for English 3622 - "Women's Writing" at The University of New Brunswick in Saint John.  Below is a link to the course blog.  Check it out to see what we've been up to.

Course Blog for English 3622 - Winter 2005