By Sarah Duff
All over the world, women’s work changed profoundly as a result of the industrial revolution. Middle- class women were confined increasingly to the home, while poorer women left their households for domestic service or factory work. South Africa was no different in this regard. As businesses and factories were established in Cape Town from the 1880s onwards, young women from around the world and the colony’s interior flocked to the city, in search of work.
Most of them became domestic servants. According to the 1891 census, 62,584 domestic servants were employed in the Cape Colony. Just over ninety per cent of these servants were female, and more than 84 per cent of the total domestic workforce was made up by African and coloured women. But there was a perception in the Cape that young women preferred factory work to domestic service – two servants’ agents said to the 1894 Labour Commission that they had lost many servants to ‘match and cigarette making…everlasting flowing sorting, rough feather sorting’ and to ‘jam and matchstick-making’. But only a handful of women were employed in industries in 1891: out of a total of 15,934 industrial workers, 2,851 were women – considerably fewer than the 57,531 in service. So why the perception that girls were leaving domestic service for factory work in droves?
At first glance, it’s difficult to understand the attractiveness of factory employment. While the basic rate for a young, female servant was around 25s. a month, newly-employed factory girls could only expect to be paid half as much, which, as W. Dieterle, the manager of J.H. Sturck’s, a local cigar manufacturer, admitted, was hardly enough to live on. He commented that they
‘live three times worse than when in service. … I told a girl this morning that she goes in a Sunday dress when she is certainly not earning one. It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live.’
Despite this low pay, around twelve girls applied for every position advertised by Sturk’s.
A closer look at the conditions in which servants worked explains why they preferred factory employment. The Rev. Henry Osborne explained that the ‘domestic servant’s hours are too long. … They have to get up at perhaps 5.30 in the morning and keep up to ten or eleven at night, where they are the general servants in a family.’ Most had one only one afternoon off a month. In contrast, girls working in Sturk’s matchstick factory began work at seven o’clock, took an hour at midday for dinner, and finished at five o’clock in the afternoon. Domestic servants lacked privacy and had little control over their free time. Not only did the shop or factory girl have the opportunity ‘to make her own dresses’, but her evenings and Sundays were free and she didn’t run the risk of being sacked if she had to miss work due to illness. The domestic servant had no time either for dressmaking or reading, and had to ask her employer’s permission to ‘visit a sick friend or to go shopping… She may get leave to go to a funeral, but if she asks again the mistress will say that she wants to go out too often and will refuse.’
Domestic workers’ living conditions were also notoriously bad. Osborne said: ‘I know two white girls who were in the Somerset Hospital with typhoid fever. They were housed in a ruinous outhouse, with a dam or pool of water under the floor. Asked whether they were going to return to the same place, they said yes; they were under two or three years’ contract. Asked whether they expected to sleep in the same place again; they replied that they hoped not.’
Part of the objection to women working in factories was also on the grounds that they behaved ‘immorally’ when they moved away from domestic service. As servants, they were part of a household and, at least in theory, under the control of middle-class masters and mistresses, but factory workers could do as they pleased. They could make friends with their fellow workers, had free time, and enjoyed much more personal liberty then those in domestic service. The idea of working women bothered the Victorian middle classes, who preferred for women’s work to remain domesticated – women who went into factories profoundly undermined expectations of how women ‘should’ work.