Woman's Exchanges as Training Schools and Markets for Work (1894)
By P.G. Hubert, Jr.
Exerpted from The Woman's Book Volume I, Charles Scriber's Sons: New York. 1894. pp. 29-36
According to the most recent estimates, about three thousand women find employment in New York City alone in doing needle-work or embroidery of a character which may come under the class of art work. The Woman's Exchanges which have sprung up all over the country within the last thirty years have helped greatly to educate public taste in this matter of fine needle-work, and have also given invaluable instruction to a whole army of earnest workers.
The Ladies' Depository Association, organized in Philadelphia in 1833, was the first society organized with the end in view of disposing of the handiwork of women of taste who could make pretty and useful things, but who, for one reason or another, failed to make money out of their art. The system upon which this original Woman's Exchange began work was very similar to that followed by the seventy-five Exchanges in operation in 1894. All sorts of work which a woman of refinement is likely to know how to do, or to be able to learn, such as delicate needle-work, fine baby-clothes, embroideries, sofa-cushions, paintings on silk for screens, panels, fans, etc.; decorated china, menus, calendars, embroidered portières and curtains, rag-dolls and all kinds of preserves, cakes, and delicacies for the sick—these were the things which were placed upon sale in the Depositories of that day. And they still remain the staple articles to be found in the Exchanges.
In 1878 the New York Exchange for Woman's Work was organized, its object and business being to aid women who are reduced in circumstances to help themselves in any proper manner, and especially by maintaining in New York City a permanent place for the sale of their work. It was at this time that the Exchange idea really took root and became a power for good in the community, and from the impulse given by the society in New York there have sprung up in sixteen years throughout the United States seventy-five Exchanges using its By-Laws, Rules, etc.
Some friends of the best of our Exchanges believe that the more completely the idea of charity is eliminated from the system the better it will be for the Exchange and its workers. Upon the other hand, it is said that not more than two such Exchanges have ever paid expenses, and so far as the large cities are concerned, that in New Orleans is the only Woman's Exchange which has made a profit upon its operations. In their case a fund was given to them. The good done by such Exchanges cannot be measured by the actual sales of the Exchange; in many instances the women who have succeeded well in disposing of their products through the Exchange have eventually found that they could do even better in regular business, and there are many instances in which a thriving business owed its origins to humble beginnings at some Woman's Exchanges.
The Exchange is a benevolent society, and while it cannot as a society be self-supporting, through its educating instances many of its beneficiaries become self-supporting. If the Exchange accepted nothing but the highest grade of work in all its departments, and ran its business as a shop and charging the usual high commissions, etc., it might be able to pay. But the idea of the Exchange is to help just those women to whom the ordinary shop is closed, either because their work is not sufficiently good, or because they do not know how to adapt it to the tastes of the buying public.
The ideal Exchange trains women unaccustomed to work to compete with skilled laborers and those already trained. It accepts whatever work they may do if there is a chance of sale; criticizes the work and indicates the vocation for which the applicant is best adapted. If the work is disposed of, present needs are provided for, also the means of continuing work, and if the criticisms and suggestions already given are heeded the new work offered for sale will be an improvement on that first brought. A large part of the time of a clerk at the Woman's Exchange in New York is taken up in writing letters of advice to persons whose work either cannot be accepted and put on exhibition by the Exchange, or when a suggestion as to color, finish, etc., will make it better. For instance, a girl sends in a lot of embroidered pen-wipers which show exquisite workmanship, but so crude a choice of colors as to render them eyesores; the Exchange sends them back with a letter advising as to color, and perhaps enclosing a sample of work that has proved successful. And so with the whole list of articles sold by the Exchange. The work is thus largely an educational one, and if the Exchange must be made self-supporting, this feature—perhaps its most valuable feature—must be dropped. The average shop-keeper has no time to give advice to beginners.
One important change for the better that has marked the influence of the Woman's Exchanges, where they have been properly conducted, has been the gradual diminution of false pride concerning work by women. To some extent the Exchange still appeals to women who wish to make money by stealth, so to speak, and as a rule the names of persons who send articles for sale are known only to the officers of the Exchange. So many thousands of refined women have learned to look upon the Exchange as a friend in adversity that this feeling of false pride is to some extent dying out. A woman may confess that she sends her embroideries and fine needle-work to the Exchange, although she might hesitate to have it known that her handiwork went to a regular shop. The Exchange is thus the opening wedge into a useful business life.
Many Exchanges were organized solely with the view of helping people in distress, and one or two stipulated in their circulars that the material they offered for sale came exclusively from women who had been in better circumstances. This stamped the Exchange's work as one of charity, and by so doing lessened its value. The moment it was considered a sign of poverty to make articles for the Exchange there was disinclination on the part of many women to try the Exchange at all. The daughter of a well-to-do family was found fault with by certain friends because she sent some of her handiwork to the New York Society of Decorative Art, and put her own name in the corner of a little water-color picture she exposed for sale. Her explanation was that she did it precisely because it was known that she did not need money. Other young women, who she knew were in sad straits for money, would follow her example, but would not take the lead.
The extent to which Woman's Exchanges have helped people in need may be seen from the following figures: In twelve years the New York Exchange for Woman's Work has paid out $417,435; in eight years the Cincinatti Exchange has paid $175,130; the New Orleans Exchange, in ten years, $173,223; the Boston Exchange, in six years, $148,588; the St. Louis Exchange, in eight years, $55,000; the San Francisco Exchange, in five years, $50,000; the Providence Exchange, in six years, $19,250. A moderate estimate of the amount of money paid to women by the different Exchanges of the country during the last ten years, is one million dollars; and what this represents in comfort and happiness, only those who have had something to do with such instituations have any adequate idea.
In 1893 the New York Exchange for Woman's Work sold $48,966, of which sum $26,316 was for fancy-work, embroideries, and needle-work; $12,199 was for cake; $2,116 for preserves; and $8,334 came from orders for sewing or fancy articles, cakes, preserves, etc. The number of consignors among whom this $48,966 was distributed was about two thousand, so that, upon the average, each woman received nearly $25. This seems a small sum, but, on the other hand, it must be remembered that in many a home a little surplus, even of $20 or $30, at the command of the woman of the family, means comfort, where penury would prevail without it. This sum of twenty dollars may represent the half-penny of Mr. Micawber's famous illustration; that if one's income be eleven pence half-penny, and the expenditure a shilling, the result is abject misery; while, if the income is a shilling, and the expenditure eleven pence half-penny, the result is absolute bliss. Twenty dollars in some country-homes where money is scarce though food may be plenty, may pay off the taxes of the year. It may make the difference of stout shoes for a delicate child; it may furnish school-books to children whose whole after-life may be dwarfed by their need; it might give magazines and weekly papers to people starving for some glimpse of the world beyond their village.
So many thousands of intelligent women would like to know how they may make a few dollars for pressing needs, that some account of the methods and aims of the two institutions in New York, which accept and sell woman's home-work upon commision, may be of interest here. With the older and better known of these institutions, the Exchange for Woman's Work, the fundamental purpose was to help only persons in distress, women and girls in actual need, and this principle is still paramount.
A serious obstacle in carrying out this purpose, has been the dishonesty of women who took advantage of the Exchange to earn money which they really did not need. The Exchange is not designed to furnish women with pin-money, and all consignors are required to state that they need the money for the support of themselves or those dependent upon them. As the Exchange takes consignments from all parts of the country—the largest proportion of its consignors living out of the city, and some of them so far off as California—it is often difficult to find out the true condition of many of the women who sell a good deal of work through the Exchange. When cases of violation of the rules are proven, the name is crossed off the books. One woman who kept her carriage, sent work to the Exchange until the truth was discovered. This principle of the Woman's Exchange has been the subject of much criticism, as unbusiness-like, and apt to stamp all its consignors as objects of charity. They are not objects of charity, say the managers, inasmuch as they pay a fee of ten per cent. upon all sales. Moreover, after several experiments in the direction of allowing any woman to enter articles for sale, it was decided to follow the original plan, and try to make sure that only women who needed the money for their support should profit by its aid. If no restrictions were insisted upon, the well-to-do woman, often with better taste and better means, would crowd out the work of her poorer sister.
The Woman's Exchange, so far as its means allow, tries to help every poor woman, no matter how little she knows or can do. During the hard times of 1893-1894, when hundreds of women brought up in luxury were thrown upon their own resources through the failure of father or husband, numberless instances have been present to the officers of the Exchange in which women who needed and asked for work, knew nothing that could be turned to account. To meet such cases a Suggestion Committee was organized and an Information Bureau. Any woman can come before the Suggestion Committee and tell her story; the members listen, put questions, and make suggestions. As an instance of what the Suggestion Committee can do, a young girl came before this body and confessed she could do nothing, not even sew; she added, in a hopeless tone, that the only thing she knew about was taking care of dogs; she lived in the country, a few miles from New York, and dogs were her pets.
"You can take care of dogs, and know all about them?" said a member of the committee. "Well, perhaps we can send you some dogs." And now this young woman makes quite a little income by the care of pet dogs and birds that patrons of the Exchange leave in her hands when they go to Europe or out of town.
The managers try to make New Yorkers feel that when they need the services of a woman, they may find what they want by applying at the Exchange. Thus a number of women are always registered there as ready to do something for which they are peculiarly fitted. One young girl will read to invalids at fifty cents an hour; another will do shopping, and some do marketing for large families; another will take care of children, or dust valuable bric-à-brac, etc.
A good business has also sprung up in violets, which several of the women connected with the Exchange raise at their country homes and send into the city every day.
Most women know how to cook, or think they do, and so the restaurant and kitchen of the Exchange, where luncheon is served from twelve until three o'clock every day, have become important parts of the institution. Through suggestions given by an accomplished cook scores of women have learned how to make bread, cake, and fancy dishes that will sell in competition with bakers' products. In one village of five hundred inhabitants a young girl, who came to the Exchange knowing nothing, now makes and sells forty loaves of bread daily, besides cake. Another woman, under similar circumstances, sells one hundred loaves a day.
One woman earned five hundred dollars in one year from the sale of jellies and pickles, and still another does equally well with mince-meat. A woman who had to get credit for a barrel of flour, succeeded in selling ten dollars' worth of bread and rolls every day.
It has been said that the consignors of the Woman's Exchange received, in 1893, an average of nearly twenty-five dollars apiece; but of course many women who devote most or all of their time to the work, make more important sums. Thus, four hundred and eighteen dollars were paid to one consignor for decorated china; one woman received for screens and decorated frames, one thousand one hundred and five dollars; children's wrappers brought five hundred and forty-eight dollars to one consignor; chicken jelly, pies, and such dainties to the amount of one thousand two hundred and forty-seven dollars was bought from another. These figures do not, however, represent profit, as the cost of the material has to be deducted.
When the managers of the Exchange find one of their former consignors established in a prosperous business of her own, they are proud of the achievement, and they have a right to be. Some consignors have become manufacturers on a small scale, one woman, who devised and patented a species of perfumed pin-ball made in imitation of an apple, having established a sale for it all over the country.
With the single exception of the Woman's Exchange of New Orleans, it does not appear that such Exchanges have been made self-supporting. Enough has been said of the work in New York to show why this can never be the case there. The education and helping of women to do work for which they may be fit, costs money and brings in nothing to the Exchange. The expenses of the New York Woman's Exchange, during 1893 were, in round numbers, twenty thousand dollars, of which only seventy-five hundred dollars came from the commissions upon sales and the profits of the lunch-room; the remaining twelve thousnad five hundred dollars were derived from sources which a business house would not recognize as legitimate—such as donations, subscriptions, readings, concerts, etc.
Some critics of the Woman's Exchange system, as typified in that of New York, the most prosperous of all such institutions, believe that if the idea of charity could be eliminated; if the word "gentlewoman" could be dropped from the reports; if the bylaw restricting the consignors to self-supporting women could be done away with, together with the idea that the Exchange is to help women only when misfortune comes, the results would be beneficial. They would do away with donations and charity balls as means of raising money, and they would take all articles offered for sale, no matter what the maker's circumstances, provided the articles were sufficiently good. In other words, they would place the Exchange upon a purely business basis, in the belief that it would thus cease to be "a palliative for the ills of the few," and become "a curative for the sufferings of the many."
On the other hand, those who believe in the Exchange idea hold that as the Exchanges have a benevolent and educational, as well as a commercial, end in view, they are warranted in accepting such subsidies as the public may contribute. Why should their beneficiaries be considered objects of charity any more than those who obtain their proficiency through any of our endowed institutions, colleges, etc.? It is true that those who come to the Exchange for training and assistance are handicapped by the necessity of supporting themselves, and are compelled to gain late in life the special training which in early youth seemed unnecessary. That the institution limits its assistance to a special class is as legitimate as it is for others to limit their field of usefulness to helping the blind, or the deaf mutes. From the political economist's view, it is as necessary to help the needy gentlewoman as it is any other member of society, and the problem of how to do it is one of the most difficult. It is not strange, therefore, if the methods adopted to accomplish this result are often the subject of debate. There is little in the way of precedent, because, while many understand and sympathize with the needs of the poor gentlewoman, there are few who have had the courage to initiate any scheme for her help. Many of the criticisms now made of the Exchange system would be heard no more had it its own building or an endowment fund, such as similar institutions have.
The Society of Decorative Art of New York was organized in 1879, virtually upon this latter basis. Its object is to provide a place for the exhibition and sale of art work, the diffusion of a knowledge of such work among women, and their training in artistic industries. Its managers try to induce art workers to master thoroughly the details of some kind of decoration of commercial value; to suggest to those who have worked without success some practical direction for their labor; to enter into business relations with manufacturers and importers, and obtain orders from dealers in decorated pottery and porcelain, cabinet-work, draperies, embroideries, and other articles of household art. The Society receives and sells potteries, china, tiles, plaques, embroideries, hangings and curtains, decorated table and other house linen, articles for infants' wardrobes, painted panels, fans, decorated menus, invitations, etc. A charge of ten per cent. is made by the Society upon all sales.
Thus it will be seen that in practice the Society differs but little from the Woman's Exchange. It undertakes to do less, but there are no restrictions regarding the circumstances of the consignor. As with the Exchange, consignors are known by number and not by name.
The Society maintains a large workroom in which orders for sewing and embroidery are executed, the receipts from this source in 1893 being about twenty-five thousand dollars, and most of the money going to women much in need of it. One order made up was for a layette costing two thousand five hundred dollars. In one year, seven thousand and forty-one articles were sent in by consignors, of which number one thousand nine hundred and twenty-four were declined as not up to the standard of the Society. The sum of sixteen thousand five hundred and twenty-eight dollars was paid to consignors. The largest amount paid to one person was five hundred and twenty-one dollars for baby-wrappers; the next largest was four hundred and forty-two dollars for frames and doilies made by a woman seventy years old.
The Society maintains a Committee on Aid to Workers, through which many women utterly destitute receive designs and materials. The advantage of having a specialty has been widely recognized. One young woman has devoted herself for several years to making fancy pen-wipers. Another organized a regular business in linen sachets, employing assistants, and sending out her work put up in satin-lined boxes. With the help of the receipts she was able to pay the expenses of a medical student through the entire course.
With regard to decorative work, needle-work, and embroidery done for the regular shops as a means of getting a livelihood, such work is wretchedly paid and not to be relied upon as permanent. Most of the large houses making a specialty of such material employ their own force of girls, who work under the eye of forewomen, thus insuring a uniform necessary when work is sold in large quantitites. When pieces of embroidery are bought from outsiders the price is often at starvation-rates. One woman who receives twenty dollars at the Woman's Exchange for a certain kind of embroidery cushion cannot get more than eight dollars for the same thing in the regular shops. The wages paid by the shops to work-women range from two dollars a week to girls learning the business, to eight dollars a week for experts. Only the forewomen ever receive more than that, and the hours are from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.
It is a common thing for the New York Woman's Exchange to send detailed information as to methods and results to persons in other cities who may desire to establish similar exchanges, and last winter one of the officers of the Exchange was sent to a Southern city to organize the business of a new exchange. The following rules of the New York Exchange will give further insight into the methods pursued, and may be of interest to those who think of trying this notable help to working-women:
1. We receive work through a subscriber to the funds of the Society to an amount of not less than five dollars for the current year.
2. Each subscriber of five dollars may enter the work of three (3) persons for one year.
3. Our commission is ten per cent. on the price received.
4. All work is received subject to the approval of the Managers.
5. Wax and feather flowers, hair, leather, spatter and splinter, and cardboard work, are too perishable and unsalable to be accepted.
6. Articles will not be registered until express and mail charges have been paid on them. Articles are registered between the hours of 11 A.M. and 4 P.M. Packages left at other hours must be marked by the consignor, with name, address, and price.
7. Consignors must call or send for their articles at the expiration of one year from the date of their entry. If not sent for within a month after that time, the Society will not hold itself responsible for them. No articles can be withdrawn between December 15th and 27th. Articles cannot be re-entered. Articles sent for by a consignor must be described.
8. The Society does not hold itself responsible for losses, having taken all reasonable precautions against fire and theft.
9. All letters containing information about articles sent to the Exchange should be addressed to the Society, and under the rules which are applied to other consignors.
10. Articles which ladies are obliged to part with are received only upon the recommendation of an officer of the Society, and under the rules which are applied to other consignors.
11. In the cake and preserve department there is a standard, and none can enter cake or preserves without first sending samples of their work. Pickles, preserves, and jellies are sampled every year.
12. No preserves are received before October 1st or after April 1st.
13. No worsted goods are received after June 1st, until October 1st.
14. Prices put upon articles cannot be changed during the year.
15. Consignors desiring articles returned by mail must take all risk, and must give three days' notice for withdrawal of any article.
16. Work is not received from gentlewomen whose circumstances do not make it necessary for them to dispose of their handiwork.
17, Cash payments are made on Saturdays to consignors in the Cake and Preserve Department, and on Wednesdays to all other consignors.
18. Consignors must put their own prices upon the articles they send.
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