G is for Gloveress

‘Gloving is only a cloak for something worse; to be a gloveress is enough to stamp them with no enviable fame.’[1]

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Calf leather, hand sewn with silk thread gloves. 1860-1890 c. Victoria and Albert Collection, London

In 1852, the anonymous, ‘Humanitas’ wrote to Reynold’s Newspaper in an attempt to bring to the attention of the public the terrible state in which many gloveresses found themselves. To be a gloveress a woman would need to train for many years in order to attain the skill required to make both the delicate, fitted gloves required by the middle and upper classes, and the rougher, but still complicated work gloves.  Records show that, in many ways, a gloveress was born, not trained.

 The females of Worcester are reared from their infancy to assist in procuring their own livelihood by glove-making. Through many a long day they sit, toiling at their unhealthy occupation, which, followed from week to week, month to month, and year to year, till arriving at womanhood, they are unfitted for anything else, they have no alternative but to follow the gloving, which they have been bought up to.[2]

Gloveresses were not uncommon in being trained from childhood for their profession. Many dressmakers and tailoresses discuss how they learnt their trade by watching their mothers work, eventually being trusted to sew on buttons or maybe turn a hem, and finally assisting in raising the family income by working alongside their mothers. Prior to the education acts insisting upon attendance in school, many working-class girls worked alongside their mothers, learning their trades, in the vast majority of traditionally female occupations. For girls entering the glove making trade, however, the potential for making a living wage was far lower than for their; the wages were diabolical – even by the late nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth century they could expect to only achieve between 4/- to a maximum, in very unusual circumstances, of 15/-.

Like most occupations for women the work itself was varied, some being involved in machining gloves, others in felling, lining and finishing.  Sometimes gloves would be lined with fur, other times with silk. Some gloves needed one, two, or even four buttons, others had tabs to cover the buttons. Some asked for gloves stitched with silk, others only plain, and others the two or three folds and rows of stitching on the back on the hand. Each required a different skill, and each paid a different piece rate, but all were low paid, hard, and time consuming.[3]

Humanitas explains how, in 1852, a gloveress would work all week an average sixteen hours a day, and for this would receive around 4s. From this she would have to pay 1s 2d for silk, leaving her with only 2s 10d out of which she would have to pay her rent, buy her coal and her candles, and anything else whch she needed.[4]  He rages at the employers who, he argues, will give away £10 or £20 in a grand statement to build a church, who live in luxury, who provide to the market the best gloves in all of England, but are prepared to pay their workers such low wages that they have no chance of surviving on the gloving wage alone – in Worcester, in the 1850s, gloving was synonymous with prostitution.

How is it that there is so much prostitution in Worcester?… If they [the gloveresses] are to make anything like a respectable appearance, they must cut their day’s work short, and go out by owl-light to prostitute themselves to make up for the robbery that they are sustained by their unprincipled, fiend-like employers.[5]

Humanitas was able to show through his interviews with young ladies involved in glove making, that it was near on impossible to survive on a glover’s wage. The tragedy for these women was that they knew nothing else. In so many parts of the country there were dominant occupations to which girls were born and raised, with little chance of improving their chances in life – such was the case with the glove making industry.

Some gloveresses, in other parts of the country, were able to find slightly better paid work, but they were the exception rather than the norm. As a ‘top up’ wage, a supplement to a husband’s salary, then gloving would, although very unhealthy and tiring, provide a useful few extra pence to bolster the family’s income, but if a woman found herself without a man to support her, then gloving, it seems at least as Humanitas argues, could not sustain a household, and the woman, like so many others at this time, would have to turn to other means to support herself and supplement her income.

 


[1] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1852; Issue 79.

[2] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1852; Issue 79.

[3] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), pp 25-26.

[4] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1852; Issue 79.

[5] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1852; Issue 79.

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