Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Working in the 19th Century
Employment in the 19th Century was only for the middle or lower class: upper classes had enough money to do whatever they wanted without having to work themselves. The classes, in fact, are defined based on the jobs and incomes of the families. Middle class consisted of such careers as industrial and factory managers, highly-skilled experts in new industrial techniques, and college-educated professional people such as engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Many middle class families lived nearly as comfortably as the upper classes. A "lower-middle class" did exist, composed of white-collar workers, clerks, teachers, and governesses -- these people were paid poorly but were motivated by typical middle-class values which (at least in their own minds) drew a distinction between them and the working class.
Lower classes worked at the jobs which, though always necessary and appreciated (or at least, bemoaned if lacking), paid poorly and were usually dangerous. Factory work, physical labor, and "dirty" jobs such as chimney sweep or knacker were considered lower class.
Another institution in the larger cities was the workhouse, which was the 19th Century version of welfare. Destitute people could be forced into the workhouse if they could not pay their bills. The workhouse gave inmates demeaning occupations, like picking oakum, old ropes, apart to make ship caulking or breaking stones to pave roads. The workhouse alternative was for the individual to take jobs as street sweepers who brushed away debris and manure for passersby, or quasi-legal jobs such as sewer tosher, hunting for lost valuables in the city drains.
Here is a great website taken from the 1891 London census, listing every occupation given: http://www.census1891.com/occupations-a.htm - you can browse the alphabetical list to see what occupations would have been available!
In the early part of the century, there were more rural farms, and people worked for themselves. As countries became more urbanized, however, factory jobs became more common. Factories in the 19th Century were dangerous places to work; there were none of the safety considerations in place today, and the long hours (usually 10-12 hour days, even for children) invited mistakes.
Women did not usually work until the latter part of the century, and even then, upper and middle class women did not have careers. Universities actually banned women from pursuing such careers as medical doctor, architect, or banker. A woman who had fallen on hard times might take a job as a nanny, governess, or paid companion. Some lower class jobs available to women would have included agricultural hands, miners, seamstresses, street vendors or shop clerks, piece workers (making manufactured goods at home).
Lower class women most typically went into domestic service as maids, cooks, or housekeepers. Unfortunately, the world's oldest profession was always an option to a woman, and many of the lower classes supplemented their incomes after hours by prostitution.
Compulsory education was not part of the 19th Century culture. Children as young as six years old labored in textile factories, in occupations such as flower girls, or as rag pickers. Hazardous professions like chimney sweeping and mining employed children to fit into the tight spaces of chimneys and caves.
It should be noted that women (and children) made only a fraction of the pay that men did.