Sewing Shirts for Soldiers: Women’s Work in the 1860’s and World War I

Derek Watson’s book Munby: Man of Two Worlds continues to be fascinating reading. Munby’s diaries record hundreds of conversations with Victorian working women.

The ghost ini the Looking Glass, cartoon by John Tenniel, Punch magazine, 1863. From Victorian Working Women

“The Ghost in the Looking Glass,” cartoon by John Tenniel, Punch magazine, 1863. From Victorian Working Women. A lady glances into the mirror and sees the starving milliner who made her ball gown.

In 1860, a “sewing machine hand” told Munby that she earned 16 shillings a week, “working from 8 to 8 with an hour for dinner” — “she keeps the machine going with her feet,” he noted.  (Munby, p. 84)

A milliner he met, who had a steady job making “shirts, collars, gloves, anything!” said she also worked as a charwoman (house cleaner) on Saturdays, because she could not “make my living by needlework.” She earned 9 or 10 shillings a week. (Munby, p. 46) [“Milliners” made clothing, not just hats.]

Another needlewoman worked at home, making men’s waistcoats for 12 1/2 shillings per week, from which she paid rent of 4 shillings per week.  (Munby, p. 82)

Arthur Munby took a lasting, charitable interest in a gravely disfigured woman named Harriet Langdon. Because her face was so difficult for people to look at — it resembled a “Death’s head”– she couldn’t find work. (The disease lupus vulgaris, or lupus tuberculosis, had completely destroyed her nose and one lip, and from the age of eight she “had lived as a leper.”) Munby befriended her, took her for medical treatment which halted the progress of the disease, and tried to find some employment by which she could support herself. Perhaps his only successful attempt to get her work was as a home seamstress for Mary Stanley’s “Repository for Work,” in York Street, London.

Mary Stanley and the Repository for Work

Man's shirt, machine stitched, Victorian era.

Man’s shirt with pleated front, machine stitched, Victorian era.

This passage from Munby’s diaries is dated Friday, 10th April, 1863:

“About noon I went to call by appointment on Miss Stanley, at her ‘Repository for Work’ in York Street Westminster. It is a mean house like the others near it. The door opened straight into a small narrow shop, in which there was barely room to stand:  for the floor was piled high with heaps of cotton shirts. Behind a counter, also full of shirts in progress, sat Miss Stanley, stitching away at a wristband, and two women who were doing the like.

Thirty Thousand Shirts for Soldiers, 1863

“She is that Honorable Miss Stanley, who was with Miss Nightingale in the Crimea:  and here she now sits, day by day, looking after the making, by poor needlewomen at their own homes, of some thirty thousand soldiers’ shirts per annum. A quiet self-devoted woman of forty or so: slight and worn, with traces of past beauty in her calm and ladylike and unpretending face. A woman worthy of deep respect, and of a certain desiderium too, when one looked at her busy hands — thin, uncaredfor, dignified by no wedding ring.

“She very kindly promised to give immediate work to Harriet Langdon, upon my undertaking for the safety of the materials: and added, that as Langdon was so disfigured, she might come for the work privately, & not with the crowd.” (Munby: Man of Two Worlds, p. 155.)

Man's shirt, machine made, Victorian era.

Man’s shirt, machine made, Victorian era. The initial is embroidered by hand.

The next day, Munby walked to Harriet’s house to tell her the good news — but it was qualified by the financial reality:

“And so, after a year’s effort, I am able to gladden this poor creature with the hope of earning — five shillings a week!”

There were jobs in London that paid even less; since Harriet was living with her sister, earning enough for her own food was an improvement in her whole family’s condition.

In May of 1864, Munby campaigned to have Harriet accepted as a pensioner of the Royal Hospital for Incurables, and was successful, “and so my two years’ effort on her behalf is ended, and this poor penniless object, this hideous unpresentable woman, is made for the rest of her life happy. Happy? Yes, for she is to have twenty pounds a year. . . .” [about 8 shillings per week.]

Munby continued to visit her, even after she moved out of London, bringing her masks, and false noses from France, although she never found one that satisfied her. He noticed, too, that almost everything she wore was a hand-me-down from his mother or sister, which Harriet remade to fit herself. Sadly, as Munby was the only man who took an interest in her, she developed a strong, probably romantic, attachment to him: “She would so gladly hear from or see me oftener: she disdains pity, yet says, ‘You neglect me — you don’t feel for my wretched lonely condition!’ and the tears run down.” It was a painful “scene” for both of them. [Munby: Man of Two Worlds, p. 237.]

A Living Wage in 1860’s London

It’s always difficult to calculate wages from other times, but Mrs. Beeton estimated that a household needed a minimum income of 150 pounds a year (in 1861) to afford even one servant/maid-of-all-work, who could expect to earn 9 to 14 pounds per year, in addition to her room and board. There were twenty shillings in a pound, so 13 pounds would be about 5 shillings per week, plus “board” (the master’s leftovers for meals,) and “room” (sleeping space on a cot in the kitchen or a bed an unheated attic.)

Munby, himself, in a civil service post, earned a salary of 120 pounds per year in 1860, and needed financial help from his father to live as a gentleman in London. His rent was 50 pounds per year. Munby couldn’t afford to quit his job and marry his servant/sweetheart, Hannah Cullwick. He would have lost both his job and his father’s support if he married a woman who was not “a lady.”  After a courtship of almost twenty years, they married, but the marriage was kept secret from his family until he died.

Another fascinating book with passages from the diaries of both Munby and Hannah Cullwick is Love and Dirt, by Diane Atkinson. Read a review by clicking here.

Sewing Shirts for Soldiers, First World War

Knitting for Soldiers, Delineator, Aug. 1917. p. 41

Knitting for the Navy, Delineator, Aug. 1917. p. 41. “Any one who wants to help the Navy win the war can join in this work.”

"Remember, if you begin to knit, your six best girlfriends will follow your lead." Delineator, Aug. 1917, p. 41

“Remember, if you begin to knit, your six best girl friends will follow your lead.” Delineator, Aug. 1917, p. 41

A Hospital shirt and robe for volunteers to sew, Red Cross article in Delineator, Dec. 1917. p. 51

A hospital shirt and a convalescent robe for volunteers to sew, Red Cross article in Delineator, Dec. 1917. p. 51. This article ran simultaneously in several women’s magazines.

Since the story of Harriet Langdon is so depressing, this tongue-twisting song about “Sewing Shirts for Soldiers” in World War I may cheer us up:

“Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers
Such skill at sewing shirts
Our shy young sister Susie shows!

Some soldiers send epistles,
Say they’d sooner sleep in thistles
Than the saucy, soft, short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews.”

You can hear Al Jolson sing it (click here) or watch a video (with poor sound quality) showing vintage film footage of women volunteers sewing for the war effort, and convalescent soldiers sewing as part of their therapy. (Click here.) Perhaps for the sake of alliteration, the song includes a mention of Singer sewing machines.

I first heard the music hall song “Sister Susie” with many other WW I songs in Joan Littlewood’s innovative theatrical production, Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963)  A recording of the stage production exists; sadly, the movie version directed by Richard Attenborough doesn’t have the impact of Littlewood’s low-budget staged version.

POST SCRIPT, Nov. 3, 2015:  Thomas Hood wrote a poem about Victorian seamstresses sewing shirts by hand. If you’ve never read “The Song of the Shirt,” find it by clicking here. It begins:

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 sang the “Song of the Shirt.”



Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Early Victorian fashions, Late Victorian fashions

6 responses to “Sewing Shirts for Soldiers: Women’s Work in the 1860’s and World War I

  1. This theme of not getting by on an honest day of work continues into the present!

    • It’s also shocking that almost all the women Munby interviews — from coal miners to clerks — mention casually that men are paid more for doing exactly the same work, even in an office where men and women copy legal manuscripts all day long. The woman copyist was paid a pound a week, and only worked 8 hours at a time. But, “Her view was that the firm liked the “ladyclerks” best: for they do the work as well as the ‘gentlemen,’ and are paid less.” The italics are Munby’s. Munby, Man of Two Words, p. 156, April 10, 1863.

  2. That robe blanket looks quite stylish! Thanks for this interesting information on work and money–endlessly fascinating topics.

  3. Pingback: The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation | witness2fashion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase | witness2fashion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.