Umbrellas and parasols were a mainstay of a Victorian lady’s wardrobe – in a time when it was unfashionable for a woman to have a sun tan, the parasol was an essential part of a lady’s outfit, and when raining, umbrellas were, as now, considered necessary, however, umbrellas in the modern sense were more a man’s accessory. The term ‘umbrella’ applies in most sources primarily as a parasol – these were made from a variety of fabrics – silk, cotton, alpaca, cashmere and velvet, and examples of the parasols used show evidence of beautiful craftsmanship, lavish trimmings, delicate lace work and a myriad of colours to match the dress for the day. They feature heavily in art – it is common for portraits of women, both photographic and in various artistic mediums, to show parasols in use.
Although by the 1880s Samuel Fox had developed a light weight steel structure similar to those in use today – the majority of the women working with umbrellas for the London workshops were still using wooden frames as can be seen in the portrait above. Whale bone was also used until the latter half of the century for umbrella stays – in ‘Workmen and museums: being selections from a series of letters contributed to the “Liverpool Mercury” during the latter part of 1885 and the beginning of 1886’ (R. M. Bristol Selected Pamphlets 1886) Letter IV suggests that ‘it was commonly supposed that the whale was created for the benefit of umbrella makers, corset makers and ladies in general, but I think that was a mistake. A whale was not made for a lady’s stays anymore than a hummingbird was made for a lady’s bonnet.’
Whilst the parasols and umbrellas themselves were exquisite works of art, the reality behind their production is one of increasing hardship, terrible pay, and long hours. Charles Booth (Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London) explains how umbrellas and parasols were made either in City warehouses or by women in their own homes. He suggests that the worst kind of umbrella were being made by the Jewesses in the East End – he argues that the fact that they take this work home shows that they are of a low social status as the ‘better classes’ do not have to work for money. These women made the umbrellas mainly for shipping orders –
‘The silk, alpaca, cotton, whatever it may be, is folded into eight thicknesses and cut by men into the eight triangles required for an umbrella. These covers and the frames are then put together in dozens and given out to the home workers; the parts of the cover have to be machined and the cover put on the frame by the finisher.’
The best and most fashionable new umbrellas were made in the warehouses with the lower grades generally being distributed between the homeworkers. These city firms would not take learners – there was no need to, there were so many women working in the East End in their homes and teaching their daughters the necessary skills that the warehouses could employ effectively fully trained women without the expense and trouble of training their workers.
This rather idealised portrait shows little girls practising making umbrellas – the reality however would be that they would like be in rags and not in pretty dresses!
Booth describes how women worked for anything from 9d a dozen up to 1s 6d a dozen for the poorer quality products, however, the higher class women reported being paid 2s 6d a dozen for the cheapest kind of parasols, and as much as 8s or 9s a dozen for finishing sundshades ‘which included covering, lining, and edging with lace. She could earn 2s a day, more if she worked long hours. There were slack seasons when she only had half work.‘ Those lucky enough to find work in the warehouses could earn more – one, Booth reports, could earn £2 a week, but she was twice as quick in doing the most difficult work that others who were carrying out the ordinary construction. Girls working in silk were being paid 3s 6d a dozen, and one reported having once made 18s in a single week – the norm in the warehouses being 10s – 12s a week. Alongside the large warehouses small family firms would by the sticks and frames, with the entire family being involved in the manufacture of any orders they received.
These warehouse women were the elite, far from the norm experienced by the army of home workers. ‘In An affectionate pleading for England’s oppressed female workers … Author(s): Wm Shaw‘ (Source: Bristol Selected Pamphlets, 1850 Contributed by: University of Bristol Library) Shaw describes how a meeting of ‘slop workers’ including a significant number of umbrella makers was held to ascertain the poverty in which they lived. They were asked how many had underclothes – out of over 1000 women only 4 held up their hands, when asked if they had a full dress not a single woman was able to state she had a complete outfit, over half stating that they borrowed clothes in order to be able to attend the meeting.
For all homeworkers attending the factory to collect the goods to be ‘made up’ was part of daily life – this in itself was particularly problematic involving the expense of travel, the fact that they had to be at the gates at a certain time to stand any chance of getting any work, but being left, often in the driving rain for anything from an hour to half a day before the foreman would appear – if at all – many were left without any work for days on end – still having the expense of travel and time in a desperate attempt to get enough money to pay the rent. Of those gathered in the meeting hundreds stated that they had been left sick following the waits, and over a quarter had had to leave their lodgings as the income could not cover their rent.
In her survey of women’s work, Clementina Black’s survey (Married Women’s Work) covered a number of women working in umbrella making. One stated that she machined covers and had not made more than 6s a week for many months – the pay having dropped considerably – formerly she was able to make £1 a week. A second illustrated the problems facing these women – she was paid a penny per umbrella and stated that she could do a dozen in two hours – however, she frequently was only given 5 or 6 dozen a week – then one day she would be give 3 dozen to complete that day, and then no more work was issued to her for several days on end. Like many homeworkers, many of the umbrella workers had to provide their own thread and needles. Another women made up parasols for the West End and the middle-class trade (the latter paying better, she argued) but although she was paid a higher rate, she had the expense of having to use cottons of different, expensive colours – for one she had to buy cotton to match but had had no need for this expensive 2 1/2d cotton for the last six years. She too suggested that the rates for umbrella makers had dropped significantly. Of the others interviewed some made silk rings to be attached to the umbrellas for the convenience of carrying them, another made elastic bands – she could only make 8d a day. Every one of the women interviewed by Black were working to keep the family going – none of them having a husband earning enough to allow them to give up the long hours that were spent working for a minimal income.
Certainly in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, parasols were stunning, beautiful, detailed and a necessary part of any lady’s wardrobe – but the women behind these works of art that we still admire today lived very different lives – for them a parasol would be something that they could only dream of despite their skill and artistry being behind these beautiful articles.
Not only women were involved in the umbrella trade – in the next blog I’ll be looking at the men who repaired and sold umbrellas – some in a legitimate fashion, some decidedly seedy.