Many of our female ancestors combined their family responsibilities with working from home. These ‘home industries’ were usually undertaken on a piece-work basis, with the raw materials being delivered weekly and the finished products being collected and paid for the following week. This was often an activity that the rest of the family could also participate in, with the younger children undertaking the simpler aspects of the task.
Some women took in laundry or did sewing at home, others took on more specialised home working tasks. Home working of this nature was more common in areas where men’s wages were low, where there was a marked surplus of women or where there was a lack of other suitable work for females, such as domestic service. An area with few middle and upper class households inevitably meant fewer openings for domestic servants. Home work was less widespread in mining and fishing communities, as the women who lived there could be employed as bal-maidens, or surface workers, or in gutting and salting fish.
Most family historians will have women on their family tree who would have done some home working and as different types of work predominated in various counties of England, it is helpful to know which particular form of home work would have been more likely in the relevant part of the country. Glove making was widespread but those living in Devon, Somerset, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire were most likely to be sewing gloves made from cotton, silk or leather. Lace makers might make pillow lace or bobbin lace and they were found in Devon, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. Also associated with clothing were those who plaited straw for the hat-trade and this predominated in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. In Dorset, women made buttons, a trade that had begun in Shaftesbury in the late seventeenth century. Initially, they were made from horn, covered with material, and were known as ‘high tops’. Later they used twisted wire, which was dipped in solder. Children might be employed as winders and dippers. Those who threaded the rings, that formed the basis of the buttons, were known as stringers. ‘Buttony’ was a big employer in East Dorset in particular. In many areas, work associated with the textile or shoe making industries was done at home by both men and women. Stockingers predominated in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and shoemakers in Northamptonshire.
Away from the clothing trade, box making was a common, particularly in and around London and Birmingham. There are also instances of women doing piece work that might be more usually the preserve of men, such as nail making and chain making in the Midlands. Some more obscure home working roles were found, particularly in London and the surrounding area. These included sack making, artificial flower making, covering tennis balls and cigar making
Many of these industries were injurious to the health of the workers. They might require the women to strain their eyes with fine work in poor light or to stoop over a table for extended periods of time. These form of work did, at least, give opportunities for women with family responsibilities to boost the family income.
Keep an eye out in the Ladies First column of Going In-Depth, where some of these home working industries will be covered in more detail.