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Ottilie Baader, Seamstress and Home-Worker (1870s)

In nearly every sector of the German economy, the number of female employees grew during the late nineteenth century. In the textile and clothing industries, much of the work was done outside factory walls, and most of these home-workers were women. Unlike in previous eras, home-work was situated not only in rural areas but also in large cities. In this document, Ottilie Baader (1847-1925) recounts her work as a seamstress. This description is drawn from the early chapters of her autobiography, published in 1921. Baader was the daughter of sugar refinery workers, and her account was intended to inspire other working-class women. Whereas most of the autobiography focuses on Baader’s prominent role in the Social Democratic women’s movement (where she advocated the granting of women’s suffrage), this excerpt describes the numbing effect of the countless hours she spent at a sewing machine in the 1870s. Baader also explains how difficult it was to organize women working in such factories in those years.

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It was not until the 1860s that the sewing machine industry in Germany reached a point where machines were in general use. This caused a radical transformation above all in the gainful employment of women, especially in the manufacture of white goods and shirts. The production of collars and shirt cuffs developed into a distinct industry; previously, these items had been an integral part of men’s shirts. In Berlin, there were four or five companies engaged in large-scale production at the time.

As I mentioned previously, by then I had tried my hand at a range of jobs. But now I learned to sew on a machine and worked in one of the factories on Spandauerstrasse. There, about 50 women worked on sewing machines and an equal number prepared pieces of fabric for the seamstresses. Two workers from each group, one seamstress and one preparer, always had to join forces and work as a team, and their wage was calculated jointly as well.

The working hours were 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., without any real break. At noon, you ate the sandwich you had brought along or hurried to the inn next door to spend a few groschen on something warm. Seven, at most ten thalers a week were the wages earned by a preparer and a machine seamstress together. Since machine sewing was more strenuous than preparing, custom dictated that the machine seamstress received 17½ groschen and the preparer 12½ groschen of every thaler. Before they divided their money, however, they had to deduct the cost of wasted thread and broken sewing needles, which on average amounted to 2½ groschen per thaler.

The Franco-Prussian War gave us the first impetus to take the initiative in changing these conditions. Immediately after the war broke out, sales in the white goods and shirt industry came to a standstill. Female workers were dismissed and found themselves destitute because they hadn’t been able to put aside any of their previous earnings. Our company was willing to take the “risk” of continuing to employ us full-time in the face of reduced sales, provided that we worked for “half” the wages. We had no conception of organizing along union lines – and we were in a desperate situation, since most of the female workers had to support themselves; they lived, as it were, hand to mouth. So we agreed to try it for a week.

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