Sewing The Family’s Shroud: Women and Work in the Victorian Era

Featured Image: “Victorian Mother and Child.” Artist unknown. Source:

As early as eight years old, Victorian working class children were sent to work in dangerous mines, mills, and factories. Their work would often leave them deformed, or bring them to an early death. Alongside these young children, young women worked. They were both unmarried and married, both childless and mothers. Like working class children, they found themselves laboring under unsatisfactory and even perilous conditions, for eighteen hours or more:

A Coroner’s jury ascribed the death of a young woman in 1863 to ‘working long hours in a crowded work room’ (Jordan 40).

As the pre-made clothing market boomed in the Victorian age, these dangers only became more frequent. Young seamstresses often suffered from ruined vision and distortions of the spine, “caused by crouching over the materials they sewed” (Jordan 41).  Ralph Barnes Grindrod, a “reformer of labor and drink” observed that these girls were more or less slaves to these abysmal conditions- yet they really had no alternative. If there was no work, they would not have been able to afford food and other necessities for themselves or their families.

Before the invention of the sewing machine, however, the condition of their work was even far worse:

We asked a woman who is making tweet trousers, how much she can earn in a day and are told one shilling. But what does a day mean to this poor soul? Seventeen hours! From five in the morning until ten at night – no pause for meals. She eats her crust and drinks a little tea as she works, making in very truth, with her needle and thread, not her living only, but her shroud. -an account from the Reverend Andrew Mearns (Jordan 41).

Young, unmarried women and young widows often worked themselves to death for they had little to no financial support. If they shunned traditional work, or, more often, if they found that it did not pay enough, one of their only alternatives was to turn to prostitution.

For the poor and the working classes, having everyone in the family work as soon as they could was important so that the family had enough to eat. One of the reasons that poor families were notorious for having a plentitude of children was so that they had more hands to send to work. Their incentive was also strengthened due to the fact that infant and child mortality was a probability rather than a possibility, and having enough children was a precautionary measure to ensure that at least some of the children would survive into adulthood. This was something that the richer classes did not have to fear as much, though of course they were not spared from the tragedy of infant death.

Even working class women who had just recovered from child birth were expected to rejoin the work force as soon as possible. Yet, how could a new mother return to work, whether it be in a factory or whether she took mending home to earn wages, if she had a new baby or a colicky infant, especially if she needed to breastfeed?

Well, there were opiates at her disposal, among other “soothing syrups”:

Many mothers, on account of needing to work, were in the habit of feeding opiates to their babies, such as Godfrey’s Cordial (a well-respected medicine of long standing based on pure opium) as well as doses of straight laudanum (a potent mixture of alcohol and morphine), so that their infants would sleep while they were at work during the day (Goodman 242).

This is not so unlike the conundrum many women of child-bearing age find themselves in today- how will a new mother manage to both care for her child and also have a career? Though we have maternity leave today, it is a privilege, not a right, and it’s also relatively short. Victorian women did not even have this option, and so they sought out other ways to do two things simultaneously.  Though today we know that opiates are certainly not healthy options for babies – as they lead to appetite suppression and overdose – they were generally thought to be safe during the Victorian Era, and were even prescribed by doctors, who marketed them as “tonics” that would help an infant’s wellbeing. Even wealthy babies were prescribed such remedies, as the nursemaids employed to care for them often came from lower classes, “who shared the general belief in the efficacy of patent soothing syrups” (Goodman 245).

Victorian mothers were not only administering these syrups to their young children in the hopes that they could return to work unburdened – but in the hopes that they were doing their children a service, especially if one of them had fallen ill. They truly believed that these syrups could be effective in combating a potentially fatal disease. Infant death rates were so high during this era that a social convention developed that led people to respond to a new birth by inquiring if ‘the little one ha[d] come to stay?’ for too often, the little one had not (Jordan 55). Unfortunately, some of these remedies only sought to help this process along.

Not surprisingly, the Victorian mothers who occupied a status between the very rich and the extremely poor were the ones least likely to administer these tonics to their children. They did not have enough money to hire a nursemaid to watch over their child – a nursemaid who would likely administer these tonics, and yet, they had enough money to put off returning to work right away, and so there “was less need to keep the baby in a drugged stupor” (249).


Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-dusk Guide to Victorian Life. New York:        Liveright Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton, 2014. Print.

Jordan, Thomas E. Victorian Childhood: Themes and Variations. Albany: State U of New York, 1987. Print.


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