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1862 December 24: War and Women’s Rights

December 30, 2012

The following article appeared in the December 24, 1862, issue of The Prescott Journal.


There is great complaint in all the large cities in relation to the “starvation prices” paid for work done by females, and especially for sewing on army clothing.  It would seem that contractors who are making fortunes by selling shoddy clothing to the Government, and thus cheating the poor soldiers, ought to be satisfied to pay the soldier’s wives a reasonable compensation for making the clothing.  There are causes for the surplus female labor which is now crowding for employment.  In the first place there are the wives and daughters of thousands of soldiers who are now for the first time in their lives thrown upon their own resources mostly for their support, and seek for employment in sewing, to eke out the means of living.  In the next place the stoppage of the cotton mills has deprived a very large number of females of their accustomed labor, and compelled them to seek employment in sewing.—And in the third place the introduction of sewing machines has brought the power of labor saving machinery into direct competition with this branch of labor, at a time when from the causes first mentioned there are unusual difficulties in the way of an ordinary and natural adjustment of the supply of labor in this department of industry to the demand for it.  Time will remedy the difficulty ;  but in the meantime there must be great suffering among those poor women who are dependent upon their own labor alone, and can find no other employment but sewing.  Few, except the parties immediately interested, have probably been aware of the extremely low prices which sewing women are paid.  [paragraph break added]

Anna E. Dickinson, from the Library of Congress (see footnote 1)

Anna E. Dickinson, from the Library of Congress (see footnote 1)

Miss Anna Dickinson¹ of Philadelphia, has made a strong and eloquent appeal to the public sympathy in their behalf, and made some astounding statements in relation to the wages for which they are compelled by necessity to work.  She says a man can go from one branch of business to another or carve out a new way for himself, and if he succeeds the world is ready to applaud ;  but there is hardly any place where the unmarried woman can go.  Every position which she can fill there are hundreds of applicants for.  In New York City forty thousand girls work fifteen hours a day to earn from twelve to thirty cents.  She said she knew girls in her own city who are making army shirts and drawers for two cents apiece, and pants and coats at from seven to twenty cents each.  They are paid thirty seven and one-half cents for making sack coats which would take two days of ten hours each to make.  In some places girls have to work their eighteen hours a day, eating as they worked, and almost going without sleeping.

Another reason why the prices are kept down is that the wealthy will not pay a living price for the article.

We are glad to see that the newspapers are giving utterance to the just complaints of the sufferers from this system of “starvation prices.”  It is an evil for which a remedy must be found, and a publication of the facts that the public attention may be aroused to it, will undoubtedly lead to its correction.

1.  Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932) was an orator, lecturer, teacher, and advocate for abolition and women’s suffrage. In 1862, she had given a series of lectures, sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, that helped foment the abolitionist movement in that state. During the 1863 elections, she will speak in support of the several Republican candidates and for the Radical Republicans’ anti-slavery platform. In 1864, she will receive a standing ovation for a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The photograph of Dickinson, taken sometime between 1855 and 1865, is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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