Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Ch. 1 Annotation – The Victorian Seamstress

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Women had few options for employment:

• Become a governess, which required a proper upbringing and education
• Go into service, as a maid, cook, or housekeeper, of course this would take away a great deal of independence
• Millinery and dressmaking, considered a most genteel profession (in the 1840s there were an estimated 15,000 workers) Seamstresses worked in an apprenticed system (one would pay to learn the trade)

The demand for clothing grew in the 1830s and 40s. But unlike today where that would result in competitive pay, women had no labor unions and there were no laws so employers enforced long hours and comparatively, not enough compensation. In the Children’s Employment Commission report of 1834 one seamstress shares shift times:

  • Winter – 8:00 am – 11:00 pm
  • Summer – 6:30am – Midnight
  • During the fashionable season sometimes 20 hours or more

These long hours indoors and often in one position caused many health issues such as digestion and lung problems and a pain in the side– very common among seamstresses and mentioned by Gaskell through her character Jenny:

The tightness at her side was worse than usual. She almost thought she ought to mention it in her letters home; but then she remembered the premium her father had struggled hard to pay, and the large family, younger than herself, that had to be cared for, and she determined to bear on, and trust that, when the warm weather came, both the pain and the cough would go away.

After the report came out seamstresses became the cause in the public’s eye often appearing in literature.

  • Charles Kingsley’s Alton Lock and Cheap Clothes and Nasty
  • Thomas Carlyle’s The N. Question
  • Charles Dickens’ The Chimes

The stories follow a similar pattern: a young innocent girl leaves the countryside to work in a gritty and big city. She is either seduced or plagued by an evil employer and declines into death. While this pattern is similar to the storyline of Ruth Gaskell’s focus is not the life of a seamstress but whether a young woman can redeem herself if she has ‘fallen’ and if she can still be considered moral and pure in heart as well as exploring how Victorian society contributes to the ‘fall’ and then judges them.

For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.

– Sir and Saint Thomas Moore, Utopia

Discussion Questions

  • Have you read any Victorian novels that focused on seamstresses?
  • Which of the three employment options would you choose?


“Slaves of the Needle:” The Seamstress in the 1840s.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2011. <http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/ugoretz1.html&gt;.

1854, Anna Elizabeth Blundon – dated. “The Victorian Seamstress/Dressmaker.” Desperate Measures – 19th Century Working Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2011. <http://michellepetley1.tripod.com/id3.html&gt;.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kim says:

    Wow. I never realized how long seamstresses had to work… and over such detailed items!

    I think Gaskell is good for taking away a lot of my romantic ideals of Victorian womanhood… 🙂

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