19th and early 20th century (2024)

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  • Women and work in the 19th century
  • Women's wages

Women and work in the 19th century

Most working class women in Victorian England had no choice but to work in order to help support their families. They worked either in factories, or in domestic service for richer households or in family businesses. Many women also carried out home-based work such as finishing garments and shoes for factories, laundry, or preparation of snacks to sell in the market or streets. This was in addition to their unpaid work at home which included cooking, cleaning, child care and often keeping small animals and growing vegetables and fruit to help feed their families.

However, women’s work has not always been accurately recorded within sources that historians rely on, due to much of women's work being irregular, home-based or within a family-run business. Women's work was often not included within statistics on waged work in official records, altering our perspective on the work women undertook. Often women’s wages were thought of as secondary earnings and less important than men’s wages even though they were crucial to the family’s survival. This is why the census returns from the early years of the 19th century often show a blank space under the occupation column against women’s names – even though we now have evidence from a variety of sources from the 1850s onwards that women engaged in a wide variety of waged work in the UK.

Examine

19th and early 20th century (1)

These women worked at the surface of the coal mines, cleaning coal, loading tubs, etc. They wore short trousers, clogs and aprons as these clothes were safer near machinary.

Credit:

Working Class Movement Library; TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University

Women’s occupations during the second half of the 19th and early 20th century included work in textiles and clothing factories and workshops as well as in coal and tin mines, working in commerce, and on farms. According to the 1911 census, domestic service was the largest employer of women and girls, with 28% of all employed women (1.35 million women) in England and Wales engaged in domestic service. Many women were employed in small industries like shirt making, nail making, chain making and shoe stitching. These were known as 'sweated industries' because the working hours were long and pay was very low . Factories organised work along the lines of gender – with men performing the supervisory roles and work which was categorized as ‘skilled’.

Discuss

Women's wages

Throughout most of this period women were paid less than their male counterpart working alongside them, which created great financial difficulties for working women. From the 1850s onwards, trade unions began to be established, first among better paid workers and they then expanded to represent a wider range of workers. However, women remained for the most part excluded from trade unions, and unequal pay was the norm. In many cases, women attempted to demand better rights and some were supported by social reformers.

19th and early 20th century (2)

This strike by Dewsbury woolen weavers in 1875 arose because of their employers attempts to cut their wages by 10%. The success of the strike led the strikers to form one of the early trade unions.

Credit:

TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University

Compare

In 1888 Clementina Black, one of the only 2 women delegates at the Women's Trades Union Council, proposed the first TUC equal pay resolution. This demand was made not on the basis of women’s right to equal pay, but on the basis that their lower pay disadvantaged men in the labour market. The resolution stated that where women were “employed merely because they were cheaper, all work gradually fell into their hands, … and that this resulted in lower (wages) to the general injury of men and women alike.” But it took many decades for this demand to be supported by the wider union movement.
The majority of upper and most middle class women did not undertake paid work except for ‘respectable’ activities like being a governess or a music teacher or even a nurse. Most women of this class were expected just to get married and look after their children and home. Professional jobs like lawyers, vets, civil servants remained closed to women through much of the 19th century .

Annotate

Objectives

After undertaking the activities within this section students will be able to:

  1. Explain how statistics have skewed our understanding about the work women undertook in the 19th century.
  2. Explain how women’s occupations during the second half of the 19th and early 20th century varied and were many.
  3. Understand that the work a woman did was determined by her social and economic class.
Gallery
  • View the full image19th and early 20th century (3)

    Leaflet condemning women's employment as polishers in the bycycle industry, calling for equal wages for women, around Coventry, 1908

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    A guide to occupations available to women was published by the Women's Institute in 1898. Women were barred from many occupations during this time.

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    An account of a week's budget for a factory girl, by Women's Trade Union League which aims to raise awareness about the low standards of living of women workers.

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    A washer woman/ laundry worker, date unknown, between 1880-1914

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    Domestic staff at a household, 1905. At the beginning of the 20th century, the largest group of women workers were employed in domestic services.

  • View the full image19th and early 20th century (8)

    A photograph of Box makers working from home for long hours for very low pay. This photograph is from 'Sweated industries, being a handbook of the daily news exhibition', by Richard Mudie-Smith, 1906.

  • View the full image19th and early 20th century (9)

    A washer woman/ laundry worker, date unknown, between 1880-1914

Case studies

  • Byrant and May match factory strike (1888)

19th and early 20th century (17)

Match workers at Byrant and May factory, London, 1888

Credit:

TUC Collections, London Metropolitan University

One of the most famous strikes by women workers during the nineteenth century took place during the exceptionally cold July of 1888 at Byrant and May match factory in the East End of London. The strike began when 200 workers left work in protest when the factory owners sacked three workers who had spoken to a social reformer, Annie Besant, about their working conditions.

Besant published an article in her halfpenny weekly paper "The Link" on 23 June 1888, entitled "White Slavery in London". This article about the conditions at the Byrant and May factory highlighted fourteen-hour work days, poor pay of between 4-8 shillings a week, excessive fines and the severe health complications from working with white phosphorus.

According to Besant:

The hour for commencing work is 6.30 in summer and 8 in winter; work concludes at 6 p.m. Half-an-hour is allowed for breakfast and an hour for dinner. This long day of work is performed by young girls, who have to stand the whole of the time. A typical case is that of a girl of 16, a piece-worker; she earns 4s. a week. Out of the earnings, 2s. is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where "you get coffee, and bread and butter, and jam, and marmalade, and lots of it. The splendid salary of 4s. is subject to deductions in the shape of fines; if the feet are dirty, or the ground under the bench is left untidy, a fine of 3d. is inflicted; for putting "burnts" - matches that have caught fire during the work.

The strike register shows that many of the workers had Irish names and lived in close proximity to each other. The workers organized themselves in the face of intimidation from the factory owners and took their campaign to parliament. They got some support from the London Trades Council and after three weeks on strike, Byrant and May met all their demands. Subsequently, the Union of Women Match Workers was formed by the workers.

For more, see: 19th and early 20th century (18) Bryant and May matchworkers

19th and early 20th century (2024)

FAQs

What are the 19th and 20th centuries? ›

The 19th century was the year 1801 to 1900. The 20th century was the year 1901 to 2000.

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I would suggest "centuries." Centuries is the plural form of century, and you are referring to two separate periods of 100 years.

Which of the following statements about late 19th and early 20th century immigrants is not true? ›

Expert-Verified Answer. The statement that is not true about late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigrants is: most were skilled urban workers.

What is the late 19th century early 20th century? ›

This term refers to the time period spanning roughly from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. It encompasses significant historical events such as industrialization, urbanization, and shifts in political ideologies.

What is the meaning of 19th and 20th century? ›

The 19th century began with the year 1801 and continued through 1900. The 20th century began with the year 1901 and continued through 2000. We are now in the 21st century.

What is the 20th century most known for? ›

The 20th century changed the world in unprecedented ways. The World Wars sparked tension between countries and led to the creation of atomic bombs, the Cold War led to the Space Race and the creation of space-based rockets, and the World Wide Web was created.

What years are the early 20th century? ›

Early 20th century America generally refers to the time period in the United States from 1900 to the mid-1930s. During this period, several events occurred, including the US's entry into World War I, the economic boom of the 1920s, the 1929 stock market crash, and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Why isn't the 1900s called the 19th century? ›

Similarly when we say "20th Century," we are referring to the 1900s. All this because, according to the calendar we use, the 1st Century included the years 1-100 (there was no year zero), and the 2nd Century, the years 101-200. Similarly, when we say 2nd Century B.C.E.

What century are we in now? ›

Currently, We are living in the 21st century. And the 21st century is from 2001 to 2100. We are living in 2021.

Where did immigrants come from in the 19th and 20th century? ›

The search for work brought to the United States Italians, Finns, Poles, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, Canadians, and eastern and southern Europeans. Russian Jews, in defiance of Czarist prohibitions against emigration, fled religious persecution and violent pogroms.

What is the difference between old and new immigrants in the 19th and 20th century? ›

Old immigrants primarily came to the United States in the years 1820-1890 and were from Northwestern Europe. As of 1890, there was a surge in what became known as new immigrants. New immigrants were primarily from Southeastern Europe and Asia and made up a large part of the American immigrant population from 1890-1920.

How were immigrants treated in the late 19th century? ›

Often stereotyped and discriminated against, many immigrants suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were "different." While large-scale immigration created many social tensions, it also produced a new vitality in the cities and states in which the immigrants settled.

What century are we in 2024? ›

Therefore, the 21st century began on 1 January 2001 and will continue through 31 December 2100.

What is the early 20th century called? ›

Overview The early 20th century was an era of business expansion and progressive reform in the United States. Automobiles in the Progressive and New Eras The automobile transformed the lives of people living in the United States.

What happened in the early 19th century? ›

In the United States, the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous growth and change. The new nation experienced a shift from a farming economy to an industrial one, major westward expansion, displacement of native peoples, rapid advances in technology and transportation, and a civil war.

Why is it called the 20th century and not the 19th? ›

Similarly when we say "20th Century," we are referring to the 1900s. All this because, according to the calendar we use, the 1st Century included the years 1-100 (there was no year zero), and the 2nd Century, the years 101-200. Similarly, when we say 2nd Century B.C.E.

What years are considered the 20th century? ›

By extrapolation, the 20th century comprises the years AD 1901-2000. Therefore, the 21st century began on 1 January 2001 and will continue through 31 December 2100. Similarly, the 1st millennium comprised the years AD 1-1000. The 2nd millennium comprised the years AD 1001-2000.

What is considered the 19th century? ›

The 1800s are called the 19th century because it is the 19th century after the first year of the Gregorian Calendar, 1 CE. 1-100 is the 1st Century, and so on; 1801 to 1900 is the 19th Century.

What are the 17th and 18th centuries called? ›

17th and 18th centuries in Europe is known as the Age of Enlightenment. During this period people freed themselves from superstitions and prejudices.

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