THE GRAND HISTORICAL narrative about the rise of mass markets and factories appears in week ten of my current lecture series. That will be November, when the baby turns eleven months.
The lecture is titled the ‘Rise of the Market Economy’ and illuminates that change through the story of shoe manufacturing in New England. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, my notes explain, a village shoemaker made rough custommade shoes in his kitchen or shed. Then changes in transportation – the extension of roads, the building of canals, the laying of railway tracks – made a mass market possible for the first time. Merchants got involved, and contractors commissioned homeworkers to sew precut uppers, which were then ‘bottomed’ with thick sole leather and pegs in an artisan’s shop. These shoes could be sold further afield than those of the village shoemaker: unlined work shoes, called brogans, were made for enslaved men and women in the South or West Indies, for example. Finally, shoemaking was mechanized in factories, their top floors dominated by cutting and stitching and their basements crammed with heavy steam powered machinery. Factory chimneys stretched higher than New England church spires. An old world of households in self sufficient communities gave way to a new world of riverstrung factories; barter and local markets gave way to wages and to man ufactured goods.
What if I view New England shoe manufacturing from the his tory of working at the lifepoint of mothering, from my novel vantage? I reopen historian Mary Blewett’s 1988 Men, Women, and Work, the standard account of the production of shoes on the east ern seaboard. At the beginning, shoemaking was a male artisanal craft, and other householders gained their shoes through local barter – for butter, cheeses, beeswax, tallow or cider, say, or for the promise of labour such as combing flax or wool, husking corn or harvesting onions. The bartering and labouring often entailed female work within the household, the kind of work routinely done by those mothering infants.
Next, ‘homework’ for the mass market was undertaken, in particular by women with children. Robert Gilman, a traveller through Lynn in 1797, remarked that the New England small town ‘supplies even the Southern States with women[’s] shoes for exportation. The women work also.’ By the early nineteenth century, New Englanders had coined the term ‘shoebinding’ for the specifically female labour of making holes in the leather upper with an awl, sewing up the back, front or side seams, putting in the lining, binding the top edges and sometimes adding hand worked eyelets or designs. Shoebinding took two hands plus a new tool called the shoe clamp. The homeworker in her kitchen did not straddle a bench, like the old village shoemaker, but held the clamped shoe between her knees to free both hands for an awl and a needle. In 1836, Sophronia Guilford was given a new pair of shoe clamps by her soontobehusband Charles Fisher. For homeworkers also undertaking childcare, the work could be slow. Sophronia’s contemporary Hannah McIntire, who had two small children on hand, took eleven months to finish binding four lots of shoes, or about 240 pairs.
Then in the middle of the nineteenth century, full-scale industrialization spurred a separation of male workplace from female home. Respectable female work was reconstrued not as wage earning but as domesticity and mothering. The steampowered shoe factory made homework far less available, and largely excluded those who were mothering from manufacturing. Shoes could now be completed within a single building, mostly finished by unmarried and childless young women who left their homes to work for tenhour days stitching shoes by machine. Some of them organized the first national union for women in the United States, the Daughters of St Crispin. The factories churned out new styles of shoe: a highbuttoned shoe for women, for example, made of imported serge cloth which was less costly than leather, or later novelties such as a croquet shoe of black glove kid with a rosette and buckler, or a buttoned walking shoe with pink kid trim. A New England woman at the point of mothering like Mary Young, a cordwainer’s wife who had one small child in 1860, was left tak ing in factory workers as boarders or accepting the decreasing and then disappearing wages of homework.
Thus the story of New England shoe manufacturing until the 1880s. Exactly what happened to those new mothers of infants in the last part of the story is hard to discern. They do not appear in Mary Blewett’s account of fights and strikes over factory condi tions, nor as a particular object of concern for visiting reformers. The small numbers of wives who did work in the shoe factories – during the economic depression of the 1870s, for example – tended not to board with children, suggesting that any children they had were older and being cared for elsewhere.
THE TIMES I FORGET my child are most strongly marked by the moments that follow, in which I suddenly think of him again. Now he is napping, hopefully, his arms flung over his head and his face turned towards the swirling blue, red and green paisley pat terns of a cotton blanket. Now he is staggering through the fallen leaves in the park, confronting the hillside, his father stooping over to grasp each hand and the pair appearing as a mess of limbs and triangles.
Holding a job in the separate workplace, for a person at the life point of mothering? Providing, strategizing, allocating and improvising in scenes of dislocation rather than collocation? Dislocated scenes require considerable forward or formal planning, and the navigating of particular workplace cultures. Being in the workforce has come labelled as economic necessity or as a way to earn pin money or – only very recently – as a career or vocation. I am here, so I describe it to myself, so that I can still be here in two years, in five years.
Formalized childcare came in the workplace’s wake: day nurseries, crèches, play schools, after care. Such institutions were initially for the ‘benefit of working women compelled to leave their homes and go out’ to work, as one concerned philanthropist and founder put it. Among the earliest was an infant day nursery established in Kensal New Town, London, in 1873, and known locally as ‘the Screech’. Factory reformers were appalled by the sight of malnourished babies, fretted over high infant mortality, and saw such institutions as the solution. Later, local municipalities and private companies got in on the act.
An 1880s study of London mothers working in commercial power laundries found that half left their infants in the care of relatives, a third used neighbours as babysitters and about 14 per cent used a day nursery, these being few in number. Middle-class reformers, and working mothers, did not invariably see the relative merits of neighbours and nurseries in the same way. Child minding neighbours knew they needed to preserve a good reputation. ‘Getting a bad name’ as a childminder was terrible in a workingclass neighbourhood. ‘Maybe somebody would look after two or three,’ recollected a working mother of the early twentieth century: ‘It had to be a reliable person. You often came to the point where it would be, “Oh, not her” kind of thing, and this was bush telegraph in the mill, you know. The deafand dumb language was fantastic.’
1946, Hollywood, Los Angeles. Juanita Loveless had worked in an aircraft factory in the early and patriotic years of the Second World War. She was a single mother, the father being one of those flighty types who bragged about avoiding work in the war effort, and skipped town. After her baby was born, Juanita waitressed in one restaurant and then another, a Greek steak and chop house: ‘I used to take her in a basket and put her in an office while I worked.’ That was hard, so for a while she lived ‘in homes where they took care of the baby while I worked... It was very, very common for two or three mothers and babies to share a home.’ Or, as she explained to an interviewer in the 1980s, ‘some widowed lady had a home and would rent rooms to mothers with children, and then they’d hire a colored maid. There were so many babies then that it was like a business or a profession. People got together, rented a house and rented a housekeeper. I did that for a few years. That’s how we made it.’ She joined the Waiter and Waitresses Union.
As Juanita looked back on 1946 from the 1980s, she also observed Los Angeles in her current decade. She missed stronger unions and was not so sure that her Spock generation had made the right choices for their babies. She supported ‘women’s lib’, with qualifi cations, and remarked that you ‘almost have to have a twofamily income to survive – if you’re going to buy a house, have furniture and clothes, and bring up children’.
1956, Brixton, London. Thelma L – the researcher does not reveal her full name – was a middle-class Methodist immigrant from Jamaica, one of a wave of Caribbean migrants encouraged to come to Britain as workers. Thelma found a job as a power-machinist for a central London garment firm and made extra money dressmaking at home on the side. Her baby Gloria was cared for during the day – ‘given out’ in another migrant’s parlance – at the local London County Council day nursery. As many other Caribbean migrants found, the English weather was trying. Some found English people ignorant and insensitive. ‘You don’t know where you are with them,’ another Brixton immigrant remarked, ‘unlike the States where there is a colour bar and that’s that.’ Most hoped for a better chance at education and economic improvement, but arranging childcare was a novel challenge. Jamaican habits of othermothering contrasted to life in London: the extended ‘family unit’ of the Caribbean versus ‘no grandmother or aunties, [being] completely alone’, as one Brixton inhabitant put it.
1960s North Lancashire in a decade of rising living standards. For the previous generation of workingclass families, grandmothers had typically helped out as paid childminders, releasing mothers for paid work and gaining a little extra cash for themselves. Now there was a rising social expectation that babies were a mother’s sole responsibility. Peter Craig’s, a mail-order firm in Preston, arranged a special short evening shift for mothers of small children. Other mothers found occasional cleaning work in a pub. Mrs Burrell worked as a part-time secretary in a school. She took her first infant to the school in a pram ‘and it worked very well. If she was a bit grizzly they used to let me come home with her. My hours were very flexible. I could work it just the way I wanted, so I used to do most of my work when she was having her sleep.’ The improvising continued as the baby grew: ‘then she got to the crawling stage and to the toddling stage, and the headmaster then he made a big play-pen in the middle of his office; so we put her in that.’
Mrs Burrell’s story shoots forward into her baby’s ‘running about stage’, into what I count out as my next summer. ‘One day she ran out and rang the bell before it was time for end of lessons. So I thought, right, this is the time she should be going to play-school. So I used to take her to play-school and then go back and do my hours while she was there.’ The paradox, for part-time working women like Mrs Burrell, was that the relative prosperity of that decade had lowered cultural acceptance of this kind of managing to make ends meet.
THE CONVENTIONAL STORY of recent economic change suggests a world loosened from earlier times. The globalization of big companies has propelled deindustrialization. Increasing levels of female employment, including for mothers with babies, have become a distinctive feature of contemporary economies. A recent US assessment calculates that more than half of women who have children under one are in the workforce. (Such assessments do not count trans men caregivers or stayathome fathers. Nor do such statistics offer any information about othermothering or delegated mothering.) The increasing female participation in the formal waged economy has come alongside an overall improvement in living standards, yet also a rise in inequality.
To this story of recent decades might be added the enduring presence of past ways, as well as a fuller definition of ‘working’. For any one person reckoning with work at the point of mothering, the long reach of the past comes from the individual circumstances they inherit from family background and race or class, and the privileges or disadvantages (mainly, for women, disadvantages) that have accrued to gender and other identities, as well as deeprooted and recurring dilemmas of the dislocation or collocation of working and mothering. Maybe economists might figure out how to count mothering as work as well as love? Maybe the many labours of mothering can be made visible and valuable, here under late capitalism?
I overhear bits and pieces of conversation about working that recall, and rework details from seventeenth-century Nazeing or late-nineteenth-century tenement New York. On her two-person farm, Arwen adjusts the patterns of an agricultural household economy, the roles divvied out now less by expectations about what men or women usually do than by preference and by skill. The schoolteacher who returned to work at the same time as me wonders about jacking in her job and maybe her nursery place to start a business at home. No overheads and I can sell everything online, she surmises, a novel kind of ‘homework’.
Nine months old, ten months, eleven. I phone again about nursery waiting lists, looking for the match of a place to how old the baby will be and which month K’s leave will end. The work place crèche – the term debuted in the 1970s, alongside feminist activism – is full. Within ten minutes’ drive there are family day cares, in which a woman takes children into her own home; not for-profit day cares run by churches or temples; and commercial nurseries. Their acronyms had circulated in the community centre from which I have now disappeared: BDLC, PDO, CCC. More on my mind, though, are the immediate logistics: the yellow Post-it note on my office door that announces the occupant is busy for ten minutes, as the breast pump grinds within. Whether or not our still-refluxy baby will relent to take a bottle. How long to continue K’s habit of bringing the baby to me to nurse between classes. Where to find the evening energy to prepare for the next class and to start applying for research funding again.
My steps on the seventh-floor corridor each workplace morning are quiet and even. I get absorbed. Three hours later, the baby pads in on soft scuffed leather, his giggle turning impatient. The latch on to me is so quick it is almost ferocious.
This is an extract from Mother by Sarah Knott, which is available now.