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Scrooge and the Reality of the Victorian Home

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

Scrooge and the Reality of the Victorian Home

Why, for young women especially, factory work was preferable to domestic labor in Dickensian times.

An image of a family gathered around a table for a meal.

We owe many popular Christmas traditions to Victorian England, from carols and decorated trees to gift-giving. These cheerful traditions stand in stark contrast with our recognition of the nightmarish working conditions at the time. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example, the miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge exemplifies the alleged spirit of the Victorian age: heartlessness, he maintains, is good for business.

Underneath the veneer of destitution and exploitation of the era, however, things were changing for the better. The unlikely and seldom acknowledged benefactor of the poor in 19th century Britain was the factory.

When asked to picture a scene of horrifying working conditions during the Victorian era, most people conjure up the image of a 19th century factory. Yet the life of a housemaid was, at that time, far bleaker than that of most “factory girls.” That is one of many surprising insights that can be found in Judith Flanders’ fascinating bookInside the Victorian Home: factories helped improve working conditions, especially for women.

In 1851, one in three women between the ages of 15 and 24 in London worked as a domestic servant. Their work was often excruciating, and it is no wonder that many of them rushed at the opportunity to join factories and leave domestic service.

First, consider how health conditions differed for factory and domestic workers. An average housemaid “had less fresh air than a factory worker,” according to Flanders. The kitchens and sculleries of well-to-do Victorian homes, where the servants spent much of their time, were particularly unhygienic. Rats were tolerated, as servants focused their efforts on the more numerous threat: bugs. The typical “kitchen floor at night palpitate[d] with a living carpet” of cockroaches, and the typical kitchen ceiling was crawling with beetles. When the author Beatrix Potter visited her grandparents’ home in the summer of 1886, her servants “had to sit on the kitchen table [while working], as the floor heaved with cockroaches.”

As if the health hazards weren’t bad enough, consider the exhausting working hours. A typical housemaid “did at least twelve hours of heavy physical labor every day, which was two hours more than a factory worker (four hours more on Saturdays).” Also, unlike most factory workers, house servants rarely had Sundays off. A typical servant’s workday began at six o’clock in the morning at the latest, no later than five-thirty in the summer, and didn’t end until ten at night — at the earliest. Working from five in the morning until midnight was not unheard of. Servants faced an almost impossible-to-complete list of daily tasks that left practically no time to eat, rest, or clean their own quarters, let alone engage in leisure activities.

A “maid-of-all-work” or “general servant” might begin the day by drawing the home’s curtains and opening the shutters, cleaning the household’s grate, fire irons and fender, and then lighting the hearth fire. She might then dust the furniture and strew used tea leaves over the carpets to collect dust, then sweep them up again. She might sweep the hall, front steps and entrance, shaking out the rugs, and scrubbing and washing the floor — which was a laborious process before the invention of modern cleaning products. She would empty the fireplaces of cinders, ending up covered in soot. And that was just the early morning work! A moment’s idleness was not tolerated. While cruel factory foremen may loom large in the public imagination, physical punishment of servants was common.

But contra Scrooge, cruelty was often bad business — and certainly bad for employee retention. As factory work became more widespread, it improved working conditions for house servants too, as employers competed for women’s labor. Employers were “forced to slowly improve servants’ working conditions” or risk losing all their servants to the factories. In 1872, one Victorian complained “that it was now necessary… to allow their maids to go to bed at ten o’clock every night, and to give them an afternoon out every other Sunday, or no servant would stay.”

Today as well, in industrializing countries, the same story of improving working conditions is repeating. Social economist Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics has found that for women in Bangladesh, “factory work [has] offered higher returns, better working conditions and greater dignity than they had obtained from personalized, isolated and menial forms of labor previously available to them” such as domestic service.

A Christmas Carol ends with a newly reformed Scrooge raising an employee’s salary as an act of kindness. Historically, the higher salaries and improved conditions of Victorian workers were largely driven by industrialization. Those who imagine that poor working conditions originated with the Industrial Revolution should consider the difficulties faced by many house servants. While 19th century factory work was harsh compared to the post-industrial prosperity enjoyed by many today, factories ultimately helped to improve working conditions for Victorian women — and continue to do so for many women today.

This first appeared in the American Spectator.

Blog Post | Gender Equality

Lesson Plan: Astell and Wollstonecraft

In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

You can find a PDF of this lesson plan here.

Lesson Overview

Featured article: Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft by Alexander C.R. Hammond

In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

Warm-Up

What do you know about Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft?
Before reading, watch this overview of Mary Astell’s life until 5:23 in the video. Then watch this three minute video about Mary Wollstonecraft.

In partners, small groups, or as a whole class, have students answer these questions:

  • What are three interesting facts you learned about Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft?
  • What is one question you have about each woman?

Questions for reading, writing, and discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  • Alexander C.R. Hammond writes that, “In the 17th and 18th centuries, Western European women were often poorly educated and had very little protection under the law.” What were some of the ways that Astell and Wollstonecraft suffered under this system? Cite at least two specific examples of the hardships these women faced, one for Astell and one for Wollstonecraft.
  • In the 1600s, women were not treated as equal partners in marriage. In her book Some Reflections upon Marriage, which two specific reforms did Astell propose to the institution of marriage?
  • Both Astell and Wollstonecraft advocated for better education for women. What were their proposals? What were the philosophical reasons for their positions?
Which education reforms did they seek?What philosophical arguments did they use to
support their positions?
Astell

Wollstonecraft

  • What was a key difference between Astell and Wollstonecraft concerning political reform?
  • Perform a thought experiment:
    • Imagine that Astell and Wollstonecraft were born in the year 2000. Many of the reforms Astell and Wollstonecraft worked. Such changes to education, marriage, and voting laws had been achieved by then. If they were alive today, what further changes to women’s lives do you think they would work for?

For each category below, write at least one reform that you think Astell and Wollstonecraft would seek to change in the 21st century

Current IssueWhat reforms do you think Astell and Wollstonecraft would propose to improve women’s lives today?
Gender pay gap

Lack of workplace accommodations for childbearing and childcare

Sexual harassment at school and work

Domestic violence

Extension Activity/Homework

Be a Contrarian.

Most people in the United States today see nothing radical about the proposals Astell and Wollstonecraft made during the 17th and 18th centuries. These two writers sought equal rights and opportunities for women in education, marriage, and political representation.

Imagine that you are a contemporary of Wollstonecraft living around the time of the French Revolution. You do not support her positions. Think critically and argue against her ideas. What philosophical, historical, biological, and/or religious reasons would you use to refute her calls for equality?

Write a Eulogy for Mary Astell or Mary Wollstonecraft

In addition to being first-rate intellectuals and writers, Astell and Wollstonecraft were both strong, independent women who persevered despite discrimination and personal setbacks.

After reading the article, write a eulogy, a short piece normally read at a memorial service or funeral, for either Mary Astell or Mary Wollstonecraft. Choose the person whose life resonates most with you. Your eulogy should honor and remember her life and accomplishments.

  • What were the challenges she faced and how did she meet them? • What did she achieve, both personally and professionally?
  • How does she inspire you to reach your goals?
  • What is her legacy?

Who Inspires You? Write a Letter to them.

The article says, “Astell and Wollstonecraft’s writings were unsuccessful in bringing about immediate reforms when they were published. The works of the two thinkers, however, provided the intellectual foundation for the suffragette and feminist movements, which started in the late 19th century and continue around the world to this day. Although they were considered radicals during their time, without their ideas it is unlikely that women’s rights would be as extensive today as they are.”

Who is a person who inspires you? It could be someone in your school or community, someone you follow on social media, or an activist, writer, or political leader. What does this person stand for? How does this person make their voice heard? Why does this person inspire you?

Write the person a letter sharing why you appreciate their activism and how they’ve inspired you.

Blog Post | Culture & Tolerance

1857 Had OnlyFans Too…

Some Women Were Jailed for Making So Much Money.

This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

In the early days of photography enterprising women were selling sexy pics to men – just as they do today via Onlyfans today.

164 years ago an article titled ‘Abuse of Photography’ reported on a Paris police bust and arrest of two men and eight women for trading in ‘obscene photographs.’

The prosecutor stated the women were making so much money that fines were feckless and “would certainly be paid by their admirers” – so he sentenced the “more or less pretty” women to jail time. The story would appear in papers around the world.

Blog Post | Workforce Hours

The Long Thread of Lessening Labor

We have more time to do as we wish and fewer needs that force us to do as we must.

Summary: This article challenges the common perception that human progress has made us work harder and deprived us of leisure. It shows how both market and domestic labor have declined over time, thanks to technological innovations and economic changes. It traces the history of labor alleviation from the Viking era to the present day, and celebrates the benefits of having more time and freedom to pursue our interests.


People often complain that we are all working too hard and that human progress is pointless if we have to labor and strain to achieve our current lifestyles. They say we would be better off curtailing our desires and returning to some Edenic life with more time for ourselves. The problem is that Edenic life never existed. In fact, over the past millennium, humanity has been working less and less. And a thousand years is probably long enough to make the claim that working less is a trend, not a blip.

To understand working hours, it is important to recognize two points. First, households (some societies define households as containing only parents and children, while others extend the definition to cousins and nephews and so on) are the central economic units that should be discussed. Second, labor comes in two flavors: domestic work and market work. Domestic work includes food preparation, childcare, cleaning, or any other labor within the household. Market work generates money or goods to trade for any goods and services that the household does not produce. The “labor burden” on the household is the combined number of hours spent doing those two types of work.

Market and domestic labor can substitute one another. Children can go to kindergarten, and food can be bought as take-out. Likewise, clothes can be purchased from a factory, or they can be stitched at home. People tend to use the option that gets them the desired good or service with the least amount of work. As I will show below, the net effect of changes in those two forms of labor determines the total household labor supply. Or, to put it less formally, it determines how long people have to work to gain what they want. Once those two kinds of labor are added up, a declining trend in the total number of hours worked becomes apparent. Consider this report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston:

Specifically, we document that leisure for men increased by 6-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in market work hours) and for women by 4-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in home production work hours). 

And that was just for the period between 1965 and 2003. A closer look at the 20th century suggests that market working hours fell for men and rose for women. The rise in female market working hours was precipitated by technological innovation and a concomitant decline in the number of domestic working hours. Domestic working hours fell greatly for women and, less dramatically, for men. The net effect of the four processes was that leisure hours rose, and total working hours fell, for both men and women.

In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the next century would usher in an age of prosperity. He also forecasted that people would work less and spend more time at leisure. Keynes turned out to be right. But many modern readers, who come across Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour workweek, wonder why they are still putting in 40 at the office. The answer is that the work we killed was the domestic labor done largely by women. 

One author estimates that it took 60 hours a week of physical labor to keep a 1930 household working. Today, it takes perhaps 15 hours. Those numbers are not exact, but when you consider the washing machine, the gas oven, the vacuum cleaner, prepared food, and steam irons, the amount of household work eliminated is immense. One of Hans Rosling’s TED talks recounts how the washing machine brought him books. According to the Swedish physician, once the washing machine liberated his mother from laundry, she had more time to read to him. The South Korean economist Ha Joon Chang claims that the washing machine – by which he really means all domestic labor-saving technologies – changed the world more than the internet.

But labor alleviation did not begin in the 20th century. In her new book (The Fabric Of Civilisation came out in November 2020), the American writer Virginia Postrel estimates that it took 365 full days of work to spin enough thread to make a Viking sail. Days and days of work to create enough thread to weave a bandana and weeks to make a pair of jeans. The Vikings used the drop spindle to make thread – a basic technology that humans used for millennia. The spinning wheel, which partly mechanized the process, arrived in Europe sometime in the 11th or the 12th century A.D. 

Then came the Industrial Revolution, first with the Spinning Jenny, which was followed by Crompton’s Mule and endless other derivatives. These machines progressively automated what was a horrendously time-consuming and nearly exclusively female domestic task for centuries. The economic historian Brad Delong has remarked that when women of any class are depicted in older literature, there is always reference to their spinning. By the time of Jane Austen’s novels in the late 18th and early 19th century A.D., spinning is never mentioned – it was all done in the factories by then.

We all have more leisure now than our forebears did. We have more time to do as we wish and fewer needs that force us to do as we must. But this wonderful outcome of human progress is obscured by the fact that, in large part, it is the household labor that has been automated away. Sure, the Roomba might not be a great leap forward, but it is just the latest iteration of a process that began a thousand years ago. And there is no sign of it ending.

Blog Post | Personal Income

What the Data Say About Equal Pay Day

We should take a clear-eyed view of the data and recognize the remarkable gains women have made in the workplace.

This week saw the passing of “Equal Pay Day,” which marks the culmination of the roughly three extra months that an average female employee had to work in 2019 to match the amount of money made by an average male worker in 2018. Many people see the pay gap as unjust, but is it really a result of rampant sexism in the workplace as the critics allege?

A survey unveiled on Tuesday by CNBC and Survey Monkey suggests that, actually, both men and women are equally pleased with their employment situations and the earnings gap can largely be explained by women being more likely on average to choose part-time work.

“Men have a Workplace Happiness Index score of 72 and women a score of 70, close enough to lack a statistically meaningful difference,” according to the newly released data. That fits with earlier polling that was conducted by Cato’s Dr. Emily Ekins, which found that in the United States, the vast majority of women “believe their own employers treat men and women equally.” Fully 86 percent of women polled believed that their employer pays women equally.

There is still a pay gap between men and women who work full-time, but that may be partly due to men and women opting to work in different fields. Dangerous jobs in fields like mining and fishing, for example, tend to attract men. Those jobs also tend to be relatively well-remunerated. (As HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry points out, the gender gap in workplace deaths far exceeds the gap in pay).

Even so, among full-time workers, the “pay gap” is rapidly narrowing. Data from the OECD shows that the gender wage gap in median earnings of full-time employees is declining in practically all countries for which there are data. In the United States, highlighted in blue in the graph below, the wage gap has fallen dramatically since the 1970s. In 1975, the U.S. gender wage gap was 38 percent. By 2015, it had shrunk to 18 percent.

That 18 percentage point difference does not take into account important characteristics like “age, education, years of experience, job title, employer, and location,” according to my Cato colleague Vanessa Calder. A recent study, which controlled for those characteristics, concluded that the U.S. gender pay gap is only around five percent, meaning that Equal Pay Day should actually be in January.

Of course, if any of that small remaining five percent gap is the result of sexist discrimination—rather than additional mitigating factors that the study failed to control for—then that is unacceptable. We should denounce all forms of inequitable treatment, wherever it persists. We should also take a clear-eyed view of the data and recognize the remarkable gains women have made in the workplace—and how labor market participation has transformed women’s lives for the better.