My last post looked at a New Deal program that employed needy women in Sewing Rooms. However, this was not a new idea; in fact, since the Civil War era, communities had created jobs programs for poor and unskilled women.
One of the oldest charities to do so was the Ladies Employment Society, founded by the wife of a Syracuse minister, in 1872. As cities began to grow in late 19th century America, middle-class women were appalled by the poor living conditions of many families, as well as problem such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, and disease. Poor women, in particular, were at a disadvantage: factory work was still deemed “unsuitable” for respectable women, but their husbands often were unable or unwilling to provide enough for the family to live decently. Poor women also had no child-care or much education that would enable them to find decent employment
So, in 1872, a Mrs. Huntington and the wives of other church leaders set up the Ladies Employment Society to help these “needy” women. First, they created an Investigating Committee to interview poor women to determine if they were “worthy” of help (that, of course, was somewhat subjective, although one of the criteria was that women employed by the LES could not have a husband who was working); then, the “Cutting Committee” cut out donated material and delivered it to these poor women in their homes, who then, depending upon their skill level, made simple garments or other items. These women were paid anything from 50 to 75 cents a week, depending on what they produced. While the LES only operated from December to April, many of its employees sewed all year round. Most of their work was done by hand; home sewing machines were relatively expensive, but one of the advantages of the program was that poor women could still attend to their children and other household needs.
Their products, underclothing, bed linens, and simple garments, were then sold, at cost, to the poor, or sold at a room in City Hall, at mark-up, to the public. For example, men’s shirts were retailed at 30 to 60 cents, and a child’s dress was sold out of City Hall for 25 to 50 cents.
Prominent women quickly joined to support the LES, paying $2 a year for a “subscription”. By 1875, the LES was employing over 150 women in various sewing projects, and a local newspaper commented “This institution is doing a very amount of good in its quiet way.” In fact, the Syracuse charity received enough publicity that women in other cities, such as Troy, New York, set up their own Ladies Employment Societies.
The LES also served as a job-placement agency, placing suitable women in jobs as housecleaners or seamstresses. The LES members ran sewing schools for young girls, trying to teach them skills that would make them employable; many of these young seamstresses were taught to use sewing machines, which became more affordable by the early 20th century.
The LES never made much money from these activities, though, and depended heavily on monetary contributions from church groups and wealthy benefactors as well as material contributions (fabric, needles, thread) from local dry-goods dealers. The LES also held fund-raisers, such as a “Promenade Concert” held in a local department store, and a “Kettledrum Ball.”
The LES continued its work well into the 20th century, only ceasing its operations when the Great Depression hit, and the demands on the organization proved too immense.
Yet, the concept of helping needy women by paying them to use their sewing skills was adapted by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s in the WPA Sewing Room project. Today, when sewing and other needle arts are often dismissed as “women’s hobbies”, it is important to remember that the ability to use a needle and thread often meant being able to provide food and shelter, as well as clothing, for the entire family.