(see  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)

Sweated labour in the shirt trade was one of the first areas in which it caught public attention; in the early 1840s the celebrated court case Moses V the Widow Bidell concerned shirtmaking and so, of course, did Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt.’  This talk traces the trade’s development through the 19th century.

Notes from a talk by Sarah Levitt.

1843: The Song of the Shirt – best known poem of the 19th Century – became a national catch phrase and a song.

1844 A play opened with the ‘Song’ as a prologue.  It drew the public’s attention to the plight of needlewomen.

(Slide) Redgraves ‘Seamstress’ 1846.  (see: One of several picture on the same theme – also Watts and Millais

Seamstresses feature in novels of the 19th century.  Romantic feeling about these girls due to ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’   Distressed gentlewomen, or poor middle class, officers and clergymen’s daughters.

Distressed gentlewomen’s association set out to help.  The alternative to sweated labour was often prostitution.

Clothes making was one of the major industries of Britain between 1826 and 1914.

The standard of living gradually rose all round – any amelioration of conditions must be set against the gradual rise all round.

Clothing trade seasonal and utilised vast hordes of unemployed – i.e. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants.

Middleman and outworkers system.

18th Century slop shops sold cotton and linen ready made shirts etc.  These people became the outfitters of the 19th century and their workers became the sweated labourers as they poached into the tailorer’s trade.

1840s – Tailors strike.

1843 – Poem by Hood.

1844 – Children and Young persons’ act.

1842 – 5,000 women employed in shirt making 4/6 per dozen, at 2 per day

1849 –  Henry Mayhew gives more info: ‘The worst work to be had.’  6d per shirt if good, 2d for bad ones.  Wages going down, outworkers.

Early 19th Century shirts like smocks – no curves, in pieces.  Low shoulder line, gathered sleeve, gusset under arm.  Re-enforced front.  Tunic shirts.

Plain sewing was part of every girl’s education.  Many miniature garments survive.  Best shorts have tucked fronts and little gussets at top of side slits – very finely stitched.

1840s/50s new design in shirts.  Raglan sleeves and better shaped.  Shirt fronts were worn under waistcoats and jackets with false cuffs – no body to the shirt.  A vast variety of shirts, shirt fronts, collars and cuffs – 97 types of shirt, 18 versions of flannel shirts, at least 12 different fronts.  Collars and cuffs could be reversible.  Paper, celluloid and rubber collar and cuffs available.

Flannel shirts very popular.  Striped cotton shorts known as regatta shirts made for 10d per dozen.

Collar and cuff making were a separate trade.

1915 1/5, 4/9, 2/6 per dozen machine made shirts.

London a centre for shirt making, but also Manchester, Glasgow, Taunton, Leeds etc.

By the end of the 19th century Ireland was an important centre for shirt making in factories.  Firms came from Glasgow, London, and Manchester to set up factories.

1855 – sewing machines installed for shirt making.

By 1858 200 machines using 200 yards of cotton per day.

Sewing machines expanded the sweating system.  Finishing was done by outworkers at home.

It was not possible to unionise outworkers.  Could not band together to help themselves.

Sweated industries exhibition 1906.

1909 Trade Boards Act tried to protect these workers.

Army, post office and government departments acted as exploiters, setting minimum wages (only just abolished).

Sarah Levitt was Assistant Curator at the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Previously Assistant Keeper at Platt Hall, Miss Levitt has an MA in The History of Dress from the Courtauld Institute of Art.  Her interest in shirt making stems from research for her book published the month of the conference, Victorians Unbuttoned: Registered Designs for Clothes, their Makers and Wearers.

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