The Story of a Seamstress Who Laid Down her Needle and Became a Strawberry Girl

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Claude Bauer

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This article from 1865 was written by an 18-year old seamstress who lived just outside Philadelphia. It includes a chart showing a comparison of the prices of specific uniform parts and other items made for soldiers between 1861-1864. It speaks as much to the future of women's rights in the workplace as it does the deplorable actions of the contractors. It was recently republished in the Civilian Corner of the "The Old Guard" the monthly newsletter for my reenacting unit, the 3rd US Regulars, Co. K. It also touches on a variety of other topics, such as women discovered in the ranks serving as men, child labor, unethical government contracting, and prostitution. Mostly though, it chronicles the exploitation of working women during and after the war and the hardships and deprivations they faced. Though it's not defined, I assume "Strawberry Girl" means prostitute.

"The Story of a Seamstress Who Laid Down her Needle and Became a Strawberry Girl"
By Elizabeth Morris (The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 15, Issue 92, Atlantic Monthly Co, Boston, June 1865 pp 673-680)​

I CANNOT tell why the price of everything we eat or drink or wear has so much increased during the last year or two. I have heard many reasons given, and have read of so many more, all differing, as to lead me to suspect that no one really knows. Yet there is a general, broad admission that it must in some way be owing to the war, for every one knows that such enhancement did not previously exist. But among the strange, the unaccountable, the utterly heartless facts of this eventful crisis is the reduction of the wages of the sewing-woman, while the cost of every-thing necessary to keep her alive is threefold greater than before. The salaries of clerks have been raised, the wages of the working-man increased, in some cases doubled, the labor of men in every department of business is better paid, yet that of the sewing-woman is reduced in price.

prices 18601-65.JPG

The heartlessness of the fact is equaled only by its strangeness. Every article of clothing which the sewing- woman makes commands a higher price than formerly, yet she receives much less for her work than when it sold for a lower one. And while thus meagerly paid, there has been a demand for the labor of her hands so urgent that the like was never seen among us. A customer, in the person of the Government, came into the market and created a demand for clothing, that swept every factory clear of its accumulated stock, and bound the proprietors in contracts for more, which required them to run night and day. All this unexampled product was to be made up into tents, accoutrements, and army - clothing, and principally by Women. One would suppose, that, with so unusual a call for female labor, there would be an increase of female wages. It was so in the case of those who fabricated cannon, muskets, powder, and all other articles which a government consumes in time of war, and which men produce: they demanded higher wages for their work, and obtained them: the increase showing itself to the buyer in the enhanced price of the article.

This enhancement became contagious : it spread to everything, — doubling and trebling the price of whatever the community required, except the single item of the sewing-Woman’s labor. Had the price of this remained even stationary, it would have excited surprise; but that her wages should be cut down at a time when everybody’s else went up excited astonishment among such as became aware of it, while the reduction coming contemporaneously with an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life overwhelmed this deserving class with indescribable misery. Multitudes of them gave up the commonest articles of food, — coffee, tea, butter, and sugar, — and others dispensed even with many of the actual necessaries. How could they eat butter at sixty cents a pound, When earning only fifteen cents a day?

Finally the reduction of sewing-women’s wages became so shamefully great as to raise a wailing cry from these poor victims of cupidity, which attracted public attention. It was shown that as the price of food rose, their wages went down. In 1861 the sewing-woman received seventeen and a half cents for making a shirt, sugar being then thirteen cents a pound; but in 1864, When sugar was up to thirty cents, the price for making a shirt had been ground down to eight cents! It was nearly the same with all other articles of her work, as the following list of cruel reductions in the prices paid at our arsenal and by contractors will show.

Here was a state of things wholly without parallel in our previous social history. On such wages women could not exist; they were the strongest and surest temptation to the abandonment of a virtuous course of life. Labor was here evidently cheated of. Its just reward. The Government gave out the work by contract at the prices indicated in the first two columns, and the contractors put it out among the sewing-women at the inhuman rates set down in the third column. In this wrong the Government participated; for it reduced its prices to the sewing - women, while it was constantly increasing those it paid to every other class of work - people. Even the freedmen on the sea-islands or in the contraband camps made better wages, — while the liberated negro washer - woman, who had never been paid wages during a life of sixty years, was suddenly elevated to a position about the camps which enabled her to earn more, every day, than thousands of intelligent and exemplary needle- women in Philadelphia.

An extraordinary feature of the case was, that, while there was probably four times as much sewing to be done, there were at least ten times as many women to do it as before. The condition of things showed that this must be the fact, because, though the work to be given out was enormous in amount, yet there was a crowd and pressure to obtain it which was even greatest. I saw this myself on more than one occasion.

While congratulating ourselves that our women have not yet been degraded to working at coal-mining, dressed in men's attire, or at gathering up manure in the streets of a great city, we maybe sure, that, if; in this elegancy, they were saved from actual starvation, it was not through any generous, spontaneous outpouring of that sympathy whose fountain is in the bottom of men’s pockets. They pined, and worked, and saved themselves At last they met together in public, Common sufferers under a common calamity, interchanged their experiences, and mingled their tears. If the personal history of the pupils in my sewing- school was diversified, in this assembly the domestic experience of each individual was in mournful harmony with that of all. The great majority were wives of soldiers who had gone forth to uphold the flag of our country. Hundreds of them were clad in mourning, — their husbands had died in battle, — their remittances of pay had ceased, — their dependence had been suddenly cut off, — and they were thus thrown back upon the needle, which they had laid down on getting married. Oh, how many hollow cheeks and attenuated figures were to be seen in that sad meeting of working- women! There was the dull eye, the pinched - up face, which betokened absolute deprivation of necessary food, — yet withal, the careful adjustment of a faded shawl or dress, the honest pride, even in the depth of misery, to be at least decent, after the effort to preserve the old gentility had been found vain.

It was the extraordinary number of the wives and daughters of the killed and wounded in battle, who, suddenly added to the standing army of sewing- women, had glutted the labor- market of the city, and whose impatient necessity for employment had enabled heartless contractors to cut down the making of a shirt to eight cents. I remember, when the first rumor of the first battle reached our city, how the news- resorts were thronged by these women to know whether they had been made widows or not,— how the crowd pressed up to and surged around the placards containing the lists of killed and wounded, — how those away off from these centres of early intelligence waited feverishly for the morning paper to tell them whether they were to be miserable or happy. I remember, too, how, as the bloody contest went on, this impatient anxiety died out, — use seemed to have made their condition a sort of second nature, — they kept at home, hopeful, but resigned. Alas! how many, in the end, needed all the resignation that God mercifully extends to the stricken deer of the great human family!

They came together on the occasion referred to to compare grievances, and devise whatever poor remedy might be found to be in the power of a body of friendless needle-women. The straits to which many of these deserving widows had been reduced were awful. The rich men of my native city may hang their heads in shame over the recital of sufferings at their very door. No generous movement had been made by any of them in mitigation.

One widow, taking out shirts at the arsenal, earned two dollars and forty cents in two weeks, but was denied permission to take them in when done, though urgently needing her pay, being told that she would be making too much money. Another made vests with ten button-holes and three pockets for fifteen cents, furnishing her own cotton at twenty cents a spool. A third, whose husband was then in the army, found the price of infantry-pantaloons reduced from forty-two to twenty-seven cents, — reduced by the Government itself—but she made eight pair a week, took care of five children, and was always on the verge of starvation. She declared, that, if it were not for her children, she would gladly lie down and die! A fourth worked for contractors on overalls at five cents a pair! Having the aid of a sewing - machine, she made six pair daily, but was the object of insult and abuse from her employer.

The widow of a brave man who gave up his life at Fredericksburg worked for the Government, and made eight pair of pantaloons a week, receiving two dollars and sixteen cents for the uninterrupted labor of six days of eighteen hours each. Another made thirteen pair of drawers for a dollar, and by working early and late could sometimes earn two dollars in the week. The wife of another soldier, still fighting to uphold the flag, worked on great-coats for the contractors at thirty cents each, and earned eighty cents a week, keeping herself and three children on that! A wounded hero came home to die, and did so, after lingering six months dependent on his wife. With six children, she could earn only two dollars and a quarter a week, though working incessantly. She did contrive to feed them, but they went barefoot all winter.

An aged woman worked on tents, making in each tent forty- six buttonholes, sewing on forty-six buttons, then buttoning them together, then making twenty eyelet - holes, all for sixteen cents. After working a whole day without tasting food, she took in her work just five minutes after the hour for receiving and paying for the week’s labor. She was told there was no more work for her. Then she asked them to pay her for what she had just delivered, but was refused. She told them she was without a cent, and that, if forced to wait till another pay - day, she must starve. The reply was, “Starve and be d—d! That is none of my business. We have our rules, and shall not break them for any —.

A soldier’s wife had bought coal by the bucketful all winter, at the rate of sixteen dollars a ton, and worked on flannel shirts at a dollar and thirty cents a dozen. She was never able to eat a full meal, and many times went to bed hungry. A tailor gave to another sewing-woman a lot of pantaloons to make up. The cloth being rotten, the stitches of one pair tore out, but by exercising great care she succeeded in getting the others made up. When she took them in, he accused her of having ruined them, and refused to pay her anything. She threatened suit, whereupon he told her to “sue and be d—d,” and finally offered a shilling a pair, which her necessities forced her to accept. Another needle- woman worked on hat - leathers at two and a half cents a dozen. She found her own silk and cotton, and put upwards of five thousand stitches into the dozen leathers. How could such a slave exist? Her four children and herself breakfasted on bread and molasses, with malt coffee sweetened with molasses. They dined on potatoes, and made a quarter peck serve for three meals!

So much for the mercy of the Government and the conduct of the trade. Now for the doings of those who claimed to belong to the religious class. One public praying man paid less than any other contractor, and frequently allowed his hands to go unpaid for two or three weeks together. Another would give only a dollar for making thirteen shirts and drawers, of which a woman could finish but three in a day. One of those in his employ, becoming weary of such low pay, applied for work at another tailor’s. There she found the inspector cursing an aged woman. When solicited for work, he told the applicant to “clear out and be d—d; he didn’t want to see anything in bonnet or hoops again that day.”

What but fallen women must some of the subjects of such atrocious treatment become? It was ascertained from a letter sent by one of this class, that she had given way under the pressure of starvation. She said, — “I was once an innocent girl, the daughter of a clergyman. Left an orphan at an early age, I tried hard to make a living, but, unable to endure the hard labor and live upon the poor pay I received, I fell into sin. Tell your public that thousands like me have been driven by want to crime. Tell them, that, though it is well to save human souls from pollution, it is better that they shall be kept pure, and know no shame.”

Another confessed as much; but how many more were driven to the same alternative, who remained mute under their shame, no one can tell. Yet the men who thus drove virtuous appeared in the newspapers as liberal contributors to every public charity that was started,—to sanitary fairs, to women’s aid societies, to the sick and wounded soldiers, to everything that would be likely to bring their names into print. They figured as respectable and spirited citizens. Of all men they were supremely loyal. Loyal to what? Not to the cause of poor, famishing women, but to their own interest. Some of them were church-members, famous as class-leaders and exhorters, powerful in prayer, especially when made in public, counterparts of the Pharisees of old. Their wives and daughters wore silk dresses, hundred-dollar shawls, and had boxes at the opera.

What would have been said of this unheard-of robbery by the men who won victories at Gettysburg and Atlanta, had they known that it was committed on the wives and mothers whom they had left behind? These women gave up husbands and sons to fight the battles of the nation, never dreaming that those who remained at home to make fortunes would seek to do so by starving them. They considered the first sacrifice great enough; but here was another. Who but they can describe how terrible it was?

On this subject employers have generally remained silent, offering few rebuttals to these charges of cruelty, extortion, and robbery. The sewing-women and their friends have remonstrated, but the oppressors have rarely condescended to reply. Even those of the same sex, who have large establishments and employ numbers of women, have seldom done so. This silence has been significant of inability, an admission of the facts alleged.

Philanthropy has not been idle, however, while these impositions on sewing- women have been practiced. Numerous plans for preventing them, and for otherwise improving the condition of the sex, have been proposed, some of which have been put into successful cooperation, — the object sought for being to diversify employment by opening other occupations than that of the needle. It is a settled truism, that the measure of civilization in a nation is the condition of its women. While heathen and savage, they are drudges; when enlightened by education and molded by Christianity, they rise to the highest plane of humanity. When a Neapolitan woman gave birth to a girl, it was, until very recently, the custom of the poorer classes to display a black flag from an upper window of the house, to avoid the unpleasant necessity of informing inquirers of the sex of the infant. Even at the birth of a child in the higher ranks, the midwife and physician who are in attendance never announce to the anxious mother the sex of the newly born, if a girl, until pressed to disclose it, because a female child is never welcome.

It is much the fashion of the times to say that the sphere of woman is exclusively within the domestic circle. It is highly probable that the great majority desire no wider range; but even in the obscure quietude of that circle they are subject to a thousand chances. We see what kind of husbands many women obtain, — and that even the most deserving are at times overtaken by sickness or poverty, and then are left with no certain means of living. Poets and novelists may limit their destiny to that of being beautiful and charming, but the wise and considerate have long since seen that some comprehensive improvement in their condition is needed.

Their resources must be enlarged and made available. It will increase their self-respect, and make them spurn dependence on the charity of friends. I am inclined to think that all true women are working - women, — at least they would be such, if they could obtain the proper employment. American girls cannot all become house-servants, and few of them are willing to be such. Their aspirations are evidently higher. They have sought the factory, the bindery, the printing-office, —thus graduating, by force of their own inherent aptitude for better things, to a higher and more intellectual occupation, leaving the Irish and Germans in undisputed possession of the kitchen.

A volume has been printed, giving a list of employments suitable for women, but meager in practical suggestions how to secure them. It was thought that the war would bring about a brisk demand for female labor, as great armies cannot be collected without causing a corresponding drain from many occupations into which women would thus find admission. But the melancholy facts already recited show how fallacious the idea is, that war can be in any way a blessing to the sex. If some have been employed in consequence, multitudes who had been previously supported by their husbands have been compelled to beg for work. The war has everywhere brought poverty and. grief to the humbler classes of American women.

It is true that in the West, where the foreign population is large, the German women go into the fields, and plough, and sow, and reap, and harvest, with all the skill and activity of the men. It is equally true of other sections of our country, in which no harvests would be gathered, but for female help. But these are exceptional cases; and these women can live without working on shirts at five to eight cents apiece.

While the distress was greatest in our city, some one advertised for two men, to be employed in a millinery establishment, who were acquainted with trimmings, and before the day had passed, sixty applicants had presented themselves for the situation: the men had not become scarcer. Another shop, which advertised for three girls, at a dollar and a half a week, “intelligent, genteel girls,” as the advertisement read, was so overrun before night with applications for even that pitiful compensation, that the proprietor lost his temper under the annoyance, and drove many away with insult and abuse. If the war gives employment to women in the fields, it affords an insufficient amount of it in the cities.

There are more female beggars in our streets, with infants in their arms, than ever before. The saloons and beer- shops, stripped of their male bartenders, have adopted female substitutes, driven by necessity to take up with an employment that always demoralizes a woman. The surgical records of the army show, that, among the wounded brought into the hospitals, many women have thus been discovered as soldiers. Others have been detected and sent home. Many of these heroines declared that they entered the army because they could find no other employment. The incognito they had preserved was strongly confirmatory of their truthfulness. These are some of the minor effects of the war upon our sex. Many have been sadly demoralizing, while probably very few have been in any way beneficial.

It is one of the curiosities of the study how to improve the condition of women, that the most eccentric plans have originated with their own sex. The deportation of girls from England to Australia and other colonies, where the majority of settlers are single men, is patronized and presided over by ladies. It has been so extensive as to confer the utmost benefit on distant settlements, equalizing the disparity of the sexes, promoting a higher civilization by a proper inffemale society, and providing homes for thousands of virtuous, but friendless and dependent girls, who had found the utmost difficulty in obtaining even a precarious living. The exodus of American girls from New England to California, as teachers first and wives afterwards, which some years ago took place, originated with an American lady, who personally superintended the enterprise. All through the West there are families whose mothers are of the same enterprising class, while the South is not without its representatives. There is a tribe of writers whose study it is to ridicule and sneer at these humane and truly noble efforts to make dependent women comfortable; but happily their sarcasm has been unavailing.

I knew a young girl who was without a single relation in the world, so far as she was aware. She had been picked up from a curb-stone in the street, at the foot of a lamp-post, when perhaps only a week old, — her mother having abandoned her to the charity of the first passer. She was found by the watchman on his midnight beat, who, having no children, adopted her as his own. One may feel surprised that foundlings are so fr6quently adopted into respectable families, especially when infants of only a few weeks old. But there are solitary couples whose hearts instinctively yearn for the possession of children. Providence having denied them offspring, they fill the void in their affections by taking to their bosoms the helpless, friendless, and abandoned waifs of others. Foundlings are preferred, because there is no chance of their reclamation ; the mother never troubles herself to demand possession of her child; she may remember it, but it is only to rejoice at having cast it off. The new parents are not annoyed by outside interference. The foundling grows in their affections ; they love it as they would their own offspring; it cannot be torn away from them. When only ten years of age, the protectors of the child referred to both died, and she was turned loose to shift for herself. For three years she underwent all the hardships incident to changing one bad mistress for another, being poorly clothed, half fed, her education discontinued, even the privilege of the Sunday school denied her, a total stranger to kindness or sympathy.

An agent of a children’s-aid society one day saw her washing the pavement in front of her mistress’s house, and being struck by her shabby dress and evidently uncared-for condition, accosted her and ascertained the principal facts of her little history. She was of just the class whom it was the mission of the society to save from the destitution and danger of a totally friendless position, by sending them to good homes in the West. Thither she went, liberated from an uncompensated bondage to the scrubbing-brush and washtub, and was ushered into a new and joyous existence by the agency of one of the noblest charities that Christian benevolence ever put it into the human heart to extend to orphan children. The foundling of the lamp-post, thus having an opening made for her, improved it and prospered. Out of the atmosphere of city life, she grew up virtuous and respected. Her true origin had been charitably concealed; she was known as an orphan; it would have done no good to have it said that she was a foundling. She married well, and became the mother of a family.

Hundreds of street-tramping orphan girls, with surroundings more unfriendly to female purity than those of this foundling, have been taken from the lowest haunts of a shocking city-life by the same noble charity, and introduced into peaceful country homes, where they have grown up to be respectable members of society. In this emigration effort women have been conspicuous actors. In England they have been equally prominent in promoting the emigration of nearly half a million of unmarried females to the various colonies. They publish books, and pamphlets, and magazines, and newspapers, in advocacy of the movement. Educated and intellectual ladies leave wealthy homes and accompany their emigrants on voyages of thousands of miles, to see that they are comfortably cared for.

It would seem that in the ordering of Divine Providence there will always be a multitude of women who do not marry. It is shown by the census of every country in which the population is numbered periodically, that there is an excess of females. In England there are thirty women in every hundred who never marry, and there are three millions who earn their own living. It is there contended that all effort is improper which is directed toward making celibacy easy for women, and that marriage, their only true vocation, should be promoted at any cost, even at that of distributing through the colonies England’s half million of unmarried ones. Some declare that it is impossible to make the labor of single women remunerative, or their lives free and happy. But if the occupations of women were raised and diversified as much as they might be, such impossibility would of itself be impossible. If it is to be granted that a woman possesses only inferior powers, let her be taught to use such powers as she has.

I doubt not that He who created woman has some mission, some purpose, for those who, in His divine ordering, remain single. There is a church which has taken note of this great fact, and devotes its single women to cloisters or to hospitals, sometimes to useful objects, sometimes to improper ones, — but seeing that they are a numerous class, it has specifically appropriated them. I presume the lesson of a single life, the necessity of living alone, must be a difficult one to learn. The heart, the young heart always, is perpetually seeking for something to love. Amid the duties of the household, around the domestic fireside, this loving spirit has room for growth, expansion, and intensity. The soft tendrils which it is ever throwing out find gentle objects to which they may cling with indissoluble attachment.

Solitude is fatal to the household affections. The single woman lives in a comparative solitude, — a solitude of the heart. Yet it cannot be denied that even such herinitesses find compensations in their retirement. If one resolve to remain single, — and it must require strength of mind to come to this determination, — it is remarkable how Nature fits such a woman for a position for which she could not have been created. She takes her stand with a power of endurance not exceeded by that of the other sex, and becomes more independent and at ease than they. Let man's condition be what it may, whether rich or poor, he will find his home cheerless and uncomfortable without the presence of a woman. His desolateness at an hotel or boarding-house is proverbial. He is unceasingly conscious that he has no home. But the single woman can create one for herself.

Go into the cells of any prison for women, and those who never visited such abodes will be astonished at the neatness, the order, the embellishments, which many of them display. The home feeling that seems to be natural to most of us develops itself here with affecting energy. No man could surround his penitential cell with graces so profuse and pleasing as do some of these unfortunate women. Thus, go where a woman may, a native instinct teaches and qualifies her to make a home for herself. If single, taste and housewifery are combined within even the narrow limits of one or two rooms. Her singleness need not chill the heart,— for there are other things to love than men. The power to make tender friendships was born with her, and is part of her nature; nor does it leave her now. She has, moreover, the proud satisfaction of knowing that she has never lived to tempt others to an act of sin and shame. But are the men who live equally solitary lives as guiltless as she?

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Yankee Brooke

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Holy geez that's long. I can't imagine working in one of those sweat shops for so little, yet being paid even less as time goes on. Oh wait, sure I can, I work at Kmart! :bounce: (I'm very much kidding)

I guess my naive brain picturing at first, her becoming a strawberry picker may be too innocent. I suppose "Strawberry Girl" as a euphemism for a prostitute makes some sense. Also she never actually mentioned strawberries or a farm.
 
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Claude Bauer

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Holy geez that's long. I can't imagine working in one of those sweat shops for so little, yet being paid even less as time goes on. Oh wait, sure I can, I work at Kmart! :bounce: (I'm very much kidding)

I guess my naive brain picturing at first, her becoming a strawberry picker may be too innocent. I suppose "Strawberry Girl" as a euphemism for a prostitute makes some sense. Also she never actually mentioned strawberries or a farm.
Yeah, you really got your money's worth in a magazine in those days! And that was just one article. It's ironic that she probably couldn't afford to buy the issue with her story in it.

Also, while I'm sure there were plenty of dutiful women sitting by the fireplace knitting socks and making other items for the men at war, there was also this callous side to it--ruthless exploitation of women, even war widows, by unscrupulous contractors without regard to their welfare or that of their children.

It's not clear to me if she is talking about herself becoming a "Strawberry Girl" as the title implies or describing someone else's unfortunate situation. I think it's the latter. I did find a definition of the term as slang for a prostitute, although I've never heard it before.
 
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Yankee Brooke

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People have always been undervalued in some way for almost everything we do, especially by business, sadly. I suspect that will never change much.
 
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