The following essay, written by Mary Lamb, first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the April 1815 issue of The British Lady's Magazine. It concerns the difficulties of needlework, in those times considered a mandatory pastime for even high-class ladies. Lamb decries this social standard, for the sake of the women in question and out of consideration for those who, like herself, became seamstresses out of financial hardship. In this respect, the essay is of particular autobiographical interest: not only did she work as a dress-maker, the labour infamously drove her to a breaking point — in a fit of rage brought on when her apprentice
mishandled an important order, Lamb stabbed her mother through the heart with a carving knife. Having committed her crime largely due to the stresses of her own work as a
seamstress-for-hire, Lamb speaks from personal experience of the
drudgery of the occupation, arguing that poor seamstresses are
disenfranchised by wealthy ladies who, from social compulsion, do
themselves rather than hire out their needlework.
"On Needlework", then, is a pointed critique of the lady's traditional role in the domestic sphere; Lamb was one of many writers of the period turning their attention to the issue of the rights of women. In her essay, Lamb suggests that if the needlework of a house is not to be hired out, the savings gotten thereby ought at least to be calculated against the household's yearly income. Then the work can be properly appreciated as a source of monetary gain, as opposed to the mere performance of a domestic requirement. In the case of wealthy women who perform this labour, whether out of social obligation or for personal pleasure, Lamb finally asks that their savings might be donated to the poorer seamstresses who toil only out of need.
The digital source for this essay is this OCR scan of an 1883 volume of the Mary Lamb's works. I've formatted the text and corrected it, referring as needed to my anthologized copy. Biographical details are mostly courtesy of The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A and my notes from an undergraduate lecture covering this material. Interested readers looking for more information on Mary Lamb might enjoy the extracts from letters in this section of an online biography of Charles Lamb.
On Needlework, by Mary Lamb
In early life I passed eleven years in the exercise of my needle for a livelihood. Will you allow me to address your readers, among whom might perhaps be found some of the kind patronesses of my former humble labours, on a subject widely connected with female life — the state of needlework in this country.
To lighten the heavy burthen which many ladies impose upon themselves is one object which I have in view; but I confess my strongest motive is to excite attention towards the industrious sisterhood to which I once belonged.
From books I have been informed of the fact upon which The British Lady's Magazine chiefly founds its pretensions, namely, that women have of late been rapidly advancing in intellectual improvement. Much may have been gained in this way, indirectly, for that class of females for whom I wish to plead. Needlework and intellectual improvement are naturally in a state of warfare. But I am afraid the root of evil has not, as yet, been struck at. Workwomen of every description were never in so much distress for want of employment.
Among the present circle of my acquaintance I am proud to rank many that may truly be called respectable; nor do the female part of them in their mental attainments at all disprove the prevailing opinion of that intellectual progression which you have taken as the basis of your work; yet I affirm that I know not a single family where there is not some essential drawback to its comfort, which may be traced to needlework done at home, as the phrase is, for all needlework performed in a family by some of its own members, and for which no remuneration in money is received or expected.
In money alone, did I say? I would appeal to all the fair votaries of voluntary housewifery whether, in the matter of conscience, any one of them ever thought she had done as much needlework as she ought to have done. Even fancy work, the fairest of the tribe! How delightful the arrangement of her materials! The fixing upon her happiest pattern, how pleasing an anxiety! How cheerful the commencement of the labour she enjoys! But that lady must be a true lover of the art, and so industrious a pursuer of a predetermined purpose, that it were pity her energy should not have been directed to some wiser end, who can affirm she neither feels weariness during the execution of a fancy piece, nor takes more time than she had calculated for the performance.
Is it too bold an attempt to persuade your readers that it would prove an incalculable addition to general happiness and the domestic comfort of both sexes, if needlework were never practised but for a remuneration in money? As nearly, however, as this desirable thing can be effected, so much more nearly will woman be upon an equality with men as far as respects the mere enjoyment of life. As far as that goes, I believe it is every woman's opinion that the condition of men is far superior to her own.
"They can do what they like," we say. Do not these words generally mean they have time to seek out whatever amusements suit their tastes? We dare not tell them we have no time to do this; for if they should ask in what manner we dispose of our time we should blush to enter upon a detail of the minutiae which compose the sum of a woman's daily employment. Nay, many a lady, who allows not herself one-quarter of an hour's positive leisure during her waking hours, considers her own husband as the most industrious of men if he steadily pursue his occupation till the hour of dinner, and will be perpetually lamenting her own idleness.
Real business and real leisure make up the portions of men's time, — two sources of happiness which we certainly partake of in a very inferior degree. To the execution of employments in which the faculties of the body or mind are called into busy action there must be a consoling importance attached, which feminine duties (that generic term for all our business) cannot aspire to.
In the most meritorious discharges of those duties the highest praise we can aim at is to be accounted the helpmates of man; who, in return for all he does for us, expects, and justly expects, us to do all in our power to soften and sweeten life.
In how many ways is a good woman employed in thought or action through the day, that her good man may be enabled to feel his leisure hours real, substantial holiday, and perfect respite from the cares of business! Not the least part to be done to accomplish this end is to fit herself to become a conversational companion; that is to say he has to study and understand the subjects on which he loves to talk. This part of our duty, if strictly performed, will be found by far our hardest part. The disadvantages we labour under from an education differing from a manly one make the hours in which we sit and do nothing in men's company too often anything but a relaxation; although as to pleasure and instruction, time so passed may be esteemed more or less delightful.
To make a man's home so desirable a place as to preclude his having a wish to pass his leisure hours at any fire-side in preference to his own, I should humbly take to be the sum and substance of woman's domestic ambition. I would appeal to our British ladies, who are generally allowed to be the most jealous and successful of all women in the pursuit of this object; I would appeal to them who have been most successful in the performance of this laudable service, in behalf of father, son, husband or brother, whether an anxious desire to perform this duty well is not attended with enough of mental exertion, at least, to incline them to the opinion that women may be more properly ranked among the contributors to than the partakers of the undisturbed relaxation of men.
If a family be so well ordered that the master is never called in to its direction, and yet he perceives comfort and economy well attended to, the mistress of that family (especially if children form a part of it) has, I apprehend, as large a share of womanly employment as ought to satisfy her own sense of duty; even though the needle-book and thread-case were quite laid aside, and she cheerfully contributed her part to the slender gains of the corset-maker, the milliner, the dressmaker, the plain worker, the embroidress and all the numerous classifications of females supporting themselves by needlework, that great staple commodity which is alone appropriated to the self-supporting part of our sex.
Much has been said and written on the subject of men engrossing to themselves every occupation and calling. After many years of observation and reflection I am obliged to acquiesce in the notion that it cannot well be ordered otherwise.
If, at the birth of girls, it were possible to foresee in what cases it would be their fortune to pass a single life, we should soon find trades wrested from their present occupiers and transferred to the exclusive possession of our sex. The whole mechanical business of copying writings in the law department, for instance, might very soon be transferred with advantage to the poorer sort of women, who, with very little teaching, would soon beat their rivals of the other sex in facility and neatness. The parents of female children who were known to be destined from their birth to maintain themselves through the whole course of their lives, with like certainty as their sons are, would feel it a duty incumbent on themselves to strengthen the minds and even the bodily constitutions of their girls so circumstanced, by an education which, without affronting the preconceived habits of society, might enable them to follow some occupation now considered above the capacity, or too robust for the constitution, of our sex. Plenty of resources would then lie open for single women to obtain an independent livelihood, when every parent would be upon the alert to encroach upon some employment now engrossed by men, for such of their daughters as would then be exactly in the same predicament as their sons now are. Who, for instance, would lay by money to set up his sons in trade, give premiums, and in part maintain them through a long apprenticeship; or, which men of moderate incomes frequently do, strain every nerve in order to bring them up to a learned profession; if it were in a very high degree probable that, by the time they were twenty years of age, they would be taken from this trade or profession, and maintained during the remainder of their lives by the person whom they should marry? Yet this is precisely the situation in which every parent, whose income does not very much exceed the moderate, is placed with respect to his daughters.
Even where boys have gone through a laborious education, superinducing habits of steady attention accompanied with the entire conviction that the business which they learn is to be the source of their future distinction, may it not be affirmed that the persevering industry required to accomplish this desirable end causes many a hard struggle in the minds of young men, even of the most hopeful disposition? What, then, must be the disadvantages under which a very young woman is placed who is required to learn a trade, from which she can never expect to reap any profit, but at the expense of losing that place in society to the possession of which she may reasonably look forward, inasmuch as it is by far the most common lot, namely, the condition of a happy English wife?
As I desire to offer nothing to the consideration of your readers but what, at least as far as my own observation goes, I consider as truths confirmed by experience, I will only say that were I to follow the bent of my own speculative opinion, I should be inclined to persuade every female over whom I hope to have any influence to contribute all the assistance in her power to those of her own sex who may need it, in the employments they at present occupy, rather than to force them into situations now filled wholly by men. With the mere exception of the profits which they have a right to derive by their needle, I would take nothing from the industry of man which he already possesses.
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” is a maxim not true unless the penny be saved in the same time in which it might have been earned. I, who have known what it is to work for money earned, have since had much experience in working for money saved; and I consider, from the closest calculation I can make, that a penny saved in that way bears about a true proportion to a farthing earned. I am no advocate for women who do not depend on themselves for subsistence, proposing to themselves to earn money. My reasons for thinking it not advisable are too numerous to state — reasons deduced from authentic facts and strict observations on domestic life in its various shades of comfort. But if the females of a family nominally supported by the other sex find it necessary to add something to the common stock, why not endeavour to do something by which they may produce money in its true shape?
It would be an excellent plan, attended with very little trouble, to calculate every evening how much money has been saved by needlework done in the family, and compare the result with the daily portion of the yearly income. Nor would it be amiss to make a memorandum of the time passed in this way, adding also a guess as to what share it has taken up in the thoughts and conversation. This would be an easy mode of forming a true notion and getting at the exact worth of this species of home industry, and perhaps might place it in a different light from any in which it has hitherto been the fashion to consider it.
Needlework taken up as an amusement may not be altogether unamusing. We are all pretty good judges of what entertains ourselves, but it is not so easy to pronounce upon what may contribute to the entertainment of others. At all events, let us not confuse the motives of economy with those of simple pastime. If saving be no object, and long habits have rendered needlework so delightful an avocation that we cannot think of relinquishing it, there are the good ol' contrivances in which our grand-dames were wont to beguile and lose their time — knitting, knotting, netting, carpet-work, and the like ingenious pursuits — those so often praised but tedious works, which are so long in the operation that purchasing the labour has seldom been thought good economy. Yet by a certain fascination they have been found to chain down the great to a self-imposed slavery, from which they considerately or haughtily excused the needy. These may be esteemed lawful and lady-like amusements. But, if those works more usually denominated useful yield greater satisfaction, it might be a laudable scruple of conscience, and no bad test to herself of her own motive, if a lady who had no absolute need were to give the money so saved to poor needle-women belonging to those branches of employment from which she has borrowed these shares of pleasurable labour.