Sunday, 11 September 2011
6 January, 1900 - 'Breadwinning at Home: Doll-Making' by Margaret Bateson
Dolls are creepy. But someone has to make them. For a pittance.
"It is very pretty work," said a worn-out little woman, gazing around her with manifest pride. Her gaze was directed towards some bundles of dolls' bodies and arms, a box of sawdust, and a heap of wood shavings. Otherwise, indeed, there was little enough upon which the eye could rest. The window looked out upon a dull off-street in Shoreditch. No carpet covered the bare boards of the room, and there was scarcely any furniture except the bed. Here the doll-maker, a widow, lived quite alone, with nothing to read, nothing to look at, and nothing else to do save to go on persistently stuffing dolls.
It had not always been thus with her. AT one time she had been a charwoman; but that business did not pay. The "ladies" - that is to say, the East end house mistresses - had often been badly off themselves, and then they did their own charing. But seventeen years had passed since that period - seventeen years in which she had remained faithful to the doll trade, if one can term fidelity a helpless adherence to the only business by which one can live at all.
How this unfortunate but amiable little woman did live still remains a mystery to me. Her earnings, she told me, varied between 5s. and 8s. a week. Her rent (which did not vary) was 4s. a week. From August till Christmas trade was at its highest; but after Christmas, when all the children were provided with dolls and all the parents and uncles and aunts have spent their money, there would be almost nothing to do for three months.
My friend, as I gathered gradually from what she told me, worked for some small domestic firm, consisting of a man and his daughters, who in their turn had a pretty hard struggle for existence. The doll trade, in truth, does not flourish nowadays as well as it once did. British doll makers have never pretended to make those exquisite wax creatures that are brought for the nurseries of the wealthy. THese have always come from France. On the other hand, our workers are outsold in the cheap market by the Germans, who offer for less money a prettier article. That it is prettier British doll-makers, of course, indignantly deny. My poor friend spoke with conviction of the inferiority of German dolls, although as one looked at her own human images which littered the floor it did not seem possible that there were many grades of descent from her models. One of the provoking incidents of German competition she mentioned was the fact that the German make their dolls so that the legs will bend at the place where the knees are supposed to be. Consequently, she was obliged to make the dolls' legs pliable and for the extra labour she unhappily received no extra payment. But granted that this suppleness of the lower limbs was an advantage, there was no denying - so she said - that the German heads would fall off at the slightest knock, and that the composition feet were disposed to get chipped.
The bodies of my friend's dolls were made of rag with black calico feet, and arms and hands of flesh-coloured leather. This leather, by the way, she could only purchase in small quantities, and therefore expensively. She could not make the bodies herself, but had to take the r4ag to a machinist to be stitched up, and then fetch the dolls away again. What with errands of this kind and with continually going to and fro to fetch work from her employers, much time was consumed, and her small store of strength (for she was not young) was reduced.
Her chief business was stuffing the dolls. She explained to me that stuffing called for skill. The bodies would be filled with sawdust up to the hips and with shavings above, so that the larger part of the body should be light. The waist part should be stuffed very firmly, so as to give a centre of gravity to balance the weight of the head; but the bust and shoulders must be loosely filled.
For small rag dolls' bodies, she received 3 1/4 L. a dozen. Formerly the price was a farthing more. Arms were paid for at 1d. per dozen. For large dolls she received 10 1/2 d. a dozen; this class of work paid her better. She began work at 5 a.m. and went to bed at half past 11, but could only turn out from six to eight dozen bodies a day. She could make a dozen arms in an hour. Out of her earnings she had to buy her own stuffing. The saw dust cost 5s. 6d. per cwt, and a half sack woulde last between a week and a fortnight. Calico cost 6d. per lb., and leather 3d. per lb.
Occasionally, but not often, she also did the covering of the faces. She showed me presently how this was effected. Taking up a ready made wax face, she pressed it into a heated mould,previously lined with white muslin, whidh adhered to the warm wax and came away with it. Upon this surface her employer would paint the features and complexion. For effecting this little operation, which required some deftness, the doll-maker was pakid 6d. per gross. She found this kind of work more remunerative than any, because she had neither to supply faces nor muslin. It was a drawback, she went on to say, that she was constantly obliged to change from one branch of work to another. And then she had always to be thinking about money. There was never a penny to spare.
Lately she had got all into a tangle. She had been obliged to refuse work, because it was more than one pair of hands could manage, and yet she could not employ an assistant because, as usual, she had no ready money. I asked my friend whether, in the pressure of her work, she found time to do her own cooking. She replied that what little cooking she could afford to do she did, but it was very little. Nothing about the small fireplace betrayed any signs of cooking; her meals were manifestly mainly of the tea and bread-and-butter order. She was, moreover, an abstainer. She spoke with great pleasure of two occasions on which she had been taken for a day into the country by some Church organisation. One of thse had been into Epping Forest, where she had almost lost herself. Poor little woman, so helppless and so amiable! I left her to her "pretty work" feeling, I am convinced, much more sorry for her than she felt for herself.
Having seen the doll made, let us turn to the dressing processes. Many dolls of the "alien immigrant" variety arrive in this country in a state of nudity; consequently doll-dressing is a larger industry than doll-making. It is an industry practiced in London, Glasgow and other large towns. The Scottish workers achieve a measure of success by dressing the dolls as "Hieland laddies" and Newhaven fishwives, and their handiwork may, for aught I know, be attractive. But I should be letting patriotism get the better of me if I asserted that the cheaply attired doll of South Britain was a fair match for the equally cheap doll that arrives in costume from Germany, France and Switzerland. Both the English and the foreign cheap dressed doll wear materials of little value, and neither has had much stitching lavished upon her wardrobe; but while the foreign doll usually looks as though her dress carried out some particular idea on the part of the designer, the English doll looks dowdy - elle manque de chic, as the Frenchwoman said of the Venus of Melos. This dowdy appearance is scarcely surprising, seeing that many of the women who dress doll live in that poverty stricken half of London where from New Year's Day till Christmas they scarcely ever behold any scrap of beauty or elegance.
It can scarcely be doubted that some improvement would be effected in the qualit5y of the dressing if workrooms were established under the direction of women with ideas and taste. One wholesale London firm, that is in great part managed by ladies who have had both an excellent education and long business training, has made the experiment of opening such a workroom. Here girls are chiefly employed rather than the older women who are tied to their homes. These girls, as I learned from the wage book, earn from ten to fourteen shillings a week, and I was told that during the few years the workroom had been in existence, the quality of the dolls' dresses has distinctly risen.
With a rare exception such as this, the employment is still an instance of "breadwinning at home". According to the description given me by one of the ladies to whom I have referred, the dressing of the average cheap doll reduced the complications of the toilet to their elements. A double square of calico, stitched all round and twice up the middle, is cut up and turned inside out to hide the raw edges, forms a bifurcated undergarment. With a chemise the doll of the people dispenses, but she has a petticoat edged with deep lace, because petticoats show. Her dress is frequently made of flannelette, pinked out at the neck and shoulders, and turned up at the hem with a band of sateen of some contrasting colour. A string is run through to draw the dress in at the waist. With a scrap of white muslin and wire a hat of picturesque shape is concocted and, behold, dolly is dressed.
But of course fashions are always changing, and each set of dolls must be costumed a little differently. The doll which I have been describing is the kind of young lady the customer buys for sixpence. She is sold by the wholesale to the retail dealers at 4s. 6d. per dozen. Very good dolls - dolls whose garments take off and bear inspection - are sold at 12s. a dozen. For these the customer is charged 1s. 6d. or 2s. each, according to the season of the year and the locality of the shop. The wholesale dealer rarely gets 2s. apiece for a doll unless it is a particularly large one; for size in dolls is regarded as indicative of worth.
The earnings of home doll dressers vary greatly according to industry and skill. The work is paid for at fom 1 1/2 d. to 8d. a dozen for the commonest species of London dolls. In Scotland I believe prices are considerably higher; and I have seen 1s. 6d. to 18s, a dozen quoted; but the work in these cases must be of considerable merit and elaboration. It is difficult to strike an average even for London doll dressers, because from day to day and from week to week the takings vary remarkably. An indifferent worker earned in one week 4s. 10d., dressing on one day two dozen, on another three and a half dozen, and on a third five dozen. The next week she took 11s. 8d., dressing from four to six dozen each day. She was helped by a crippled son. A good worker who "lived alone" earned 15s. 9 1/2d. in one week; the advantage of working uninterruptedly counted probably in the case of the latter for more than the occasional help given to the other who had a large family to look after. The doll dressmaker, I should add, is provided with materials by the wholesale firms who give out work; but she needs to possess a sewing machine, which is an expensive piece of stock-in-trade.
One of the doll dressers whom I visited, I found inhabiting two extremely squalid rooms in a tumble down dwelling immediately over a public house, where a group of women were gossiping in a state of partial intoxication. The staircase was rickety in the extreme, and a part of the dirty cracked ceiling, I was informed by the woman, had fallen the other day upon her husband - who was a delicate man and not able to do much - and upon one of her sons. The landlord refused to put the place into repair; but as they paid 5s. a week for these rooms, whereas for about the same amount of spacfe they would be charged 7s. 6d. in "the dwellings" she thought it necessary to bide where they were, although the accommodation in the dwellings was better in many essential particulars.
She had six children, of whom one, a pale-faced but intelligent-looking lad, was at home when I entered. Her boys, she said proudly, could do anything with their fingers, and could make dolls' frocks, blouses, and sleeves beautifully. One of these nimble-fingered boys had lately found work at a staymaker's, where he was employed tipping the bones with metal.
At the moment of my call the doll dresser was puzzling over a new model which she ought to copy. It was a cotton sun bonnet, goffered in a very pretty way, and edgedf with white imitation lace. HOw was this goffering to be done? That was the question which puzzled her. But she had come practically to the conclusion that it required a special appliance to be added to the machine, and she was convinced that the work would not repay the half-crown that the goffering instrument would cost.
At present - it was the beginning of the doll dressers' season - the making of samples was the worker's chief occupation. Any idea in ladies' apparel which she thought new or pretty she would imitate. For these samples no extra payment was received; but as they brought her more work she did not object. Like my other friend the doll maker, the doll dresser thought her work attractive. She scarcely ever made two dozen alike, and manifestly enjoyed the variety. Some costumes wanted a great deal of beading, others running, others tucking or trimming with lace. She evidently reckoned herself something of an artist in her way, though she did live in a slum in Shoreditch. The stuffing business she disliked, for it filled the place with "wood wool" (fine shavings); still, she did this also occasionally, when the dressing orders were slack.
Every morning she told me she rose at five to get one of the boys off to his work A little later came the preparation of her husband's breakfast. Yes, it was a busy life to be both a doll dresser and the mother of a family, all of whom must earn their bread. But she liked her work, and she esteemed her employers, who she seemed to feel were helping her to fight the terrible German giant.