Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Little Match Girl Strikes Back , part 2

[Both Eberle & I were really gratified by the response to The Little Match Girl Strikes Nack, part 1—so without further fanfare, here’s part two.]

Nineteenth century Lon
don was very slow to address the problems of slums and their mortality rate, which was known to be extremely high— the problem of water supply, sewage and even corpse disposal were identified as largely responsible, but it was long before any concerted action was taken to correct conditions that appalled many observers. In fact, the problem was exacerbated when slums were demolished, creating even larger homeless populations. The London County Council was not formed until 1889, long after similar bodies had been established in smaller cities to address the growing problems of poverty and displacement.

Although many British subjects expressed outrage at the sufferings of the poor and of workers, they had mixed feelings about the underclasses themselves taking action against policies that placed profit over humanity. Successful literature had a tendency to justify the social structures that created a privileged class. For instance, the popular Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Match Girl describes a street child selling matches on New Year’s Eve who dies from exposure. On the night of her death, she sees visions of children who have homes, who are not abandoned or working. She tries to warm herself by lighting the matches she has failed to sell, and remembers her grandmother, the only person to treat her with kindness and respect. The inspiration for this Hans Christian Andersen story was apparently a popular woodcut by a Danish artist, Johan Thomas Lundbye—an illustration of a poor child selling matches that was printed in an 1843 calendar. Andersen received a copy of the illustration among several others from an editor with a suggestion that he base a story on one of them.

In the fairy tale, the Little Match Girl’s grandmother carries her soul to Heaven after she dies a peaceful and sentimentalized death. In real life, women workers at match factories went on strike to protest working conditions that were causing women to die singularly unsentimental deaths. The yellow phosphorous used in the Bryant & May match factory in London was known to cause a gruesome and fatal condition called phossy jaw, a type of bone cancer. Because of this fact, several countries had banned the use of yellow phosphorous and used red phosphorous instead, which was harmless; but the British government allowed owners of match factories to put workers in daily contact with this lethal substance, stating that banning it would interfere with the spirit of free trade.

In 1888, two years af
ter the riots Beatrix Potter described, Annie Besant wrote an article about conditions at the Bryant & May match factory, which employed women almost exclusively, called White Slavery in London. The company responded by trying to force the women working there to sign a statement saying they were happy with conditions at the factory. The women refused to do this and instead, 1400 of them went on strike.

Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because under-fed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks? Girls are used to carry boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant & May's draw down on your knee your fifteen year old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky clustering curls, rejoice in the dainty beauty of the thick, shiny tresses.
Annie Besant, The Link, June 1888

Annie portrayed the victimization of girls and women in her article, and this was part of the social reality—but the factory women who took their fates in their own hands by going on strike were far from passive. Neither Annie nor any one else from outside the factory acted as organizer, and the undocumented story of how the factory women achieved this united action is one of the most compelling chapters in the invisible history of women.

The Link, a newspaper founded by Annie, presented a very different perspective on working women than that of mainstream papers—
for example, The Times, which commented that the women at the Bryant & May factory would be perfectly content with their lot if only meddlers like Annie didn’t stir them up. But, partly because of Annie’s journalism as well as the remarkable courage of the factory women, the Bryant & May dispute was the first strike by unorganized workers to gain national publicity. As an aside, in 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match factory in East London using red phosphorus and paying its workers twice the rate offered at Bryant & May factory. The workers were soon producing six million boxes of matches a year. The Bryant & May factory did not stop using yellow phosphorus until 1901.

Annie was inspired to write her article after hearing Clementina Black give a spee
ch on the topic Female Labour, in which she described the twelve-hour days and the inhumane as well as dangerous working conditions at the Bryant & May match factory. Clementina, also a successful novelist, was acting secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and traveled the country making speeches and persuading women to join trade unions. In 1888 she attended the Trade Union Congress where she introduced a motion on equal pay for equal work. Clementina’s involvement with the Women’s Trade Union League began through her friendship with Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, who was living in London at the time.

Eleanor Marx, Clementina Black, and Annie Besant met often at the Reading Ro
om of the British Museum. Women writers from Christina Rosetti to George Eliot had frequented the Reading Room, but in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, that hallowed chamber became something of a hotbed of female friendship. The Reading Room at this time took on an identity as a vibrant meeting place for women friends, writers, and activists to the point where male readers objected—saying that the women were crowding the room and sitting in seats other than the ones designated for their special use. Amy Levy, Margaret Harkness, E. Nesbit, Olive Schreiner, Beatrice Webb, Alice Zimmern, Beatrice Harraden, and Charlotte Despard all laid siege to this male sanctuary and for a time transformed it.

Amy Levy, a poet and novelist whose work was praised by Oscar Wilde, wrote a
n essay in 1889 titled “Readers at the British Museum” in Atalanta, a magazine for young women. Amy describes the Reading Room as a shared space, accessible and egalitarian: “For some it is a workshop, for others a lounge; there are those who put it to the highest uses, while in many cases it serves as a shelter,—a refuge, in more senses than one, for the destitute.” In drawings that accompanied the essay, women are figured as prominent inhabitants of this space. Amy’s vision, and the work that women were actually doing in the Reading Room, is, again, in direct opposition with complaints in more mainstream journals about women taking over that space. “Ladies in Libraries” appeared in the Saturday Review in 1886, commenting that “woman makes the Reading Room a place where study is impossible....woman talks and whispers and giggles beneath the stately dome...she flirts, and eats strawberries behind folios…. When she does read, she is accused of reading novels and newspapers, which she might better procure somewhere else.”

To Clementina Black (excerpt)

More blest than was of old Diogenes,
I have not held my lantern up in vain.
Not mine, at least, this evil--to complain:
"There is none honest among all of these."
Amy Levy

In America, women were ac
tive in labor reform movements at this same time in history. Mary Morton Kehew joined the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston in 1886 and became its president in 1892. She fostered the establishment of new schools of dressmaking, housekeeping and salesmanship. Alongside Mary Kenney she founded the Union for Industrial Progress, organizing bookbinders, laundry and tobacco workers and women in the clothing trade between 1896 and 1901. She became the first president of the Women’s Trade Union League, which acted as community of support for women working within the labor movement including Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and Lillian Wald. Novelists were also addressing the condition of working women in their fiction. Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis, was published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861, and is considered by many critics to be the pioneering work of American realism in literature.

© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009

Pix from Top:
Gustave Doré: Over London By Rail
Johan Thomas Lundbye: Self-Portrait—I wasn’t able to find a copy of his match girl illustration
Bryant & May Match Factory: by Fin Fahey, & licensed under a Creative Commons License 2.5
Annie Besant
Eleanor Marx
British Museum Reading Room by Diliff (David Iliff), & licensed under a Creative Commons License 3.0
Amy Levy
19th Century print of the Wheeling, WV iron works

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  1. Great article. I wonder if this story reached Ida Tarbell, the journalist who took on Standard Oil - actions that led to the establishment of press agentry/corporate PR. Very interesting stuff. I really enjoyed this.

  2. absolutely captivating - great great article - and one that brings home so much to so many! while at times, it might have seemed very little that a single individual could do to oppose unfair practices,etc, of corporate america, i have always tried to do what i could regardless of whether or not it made a difference in the grand scheme of corporate america - the thing was, that my doing what i could made a difference to ME personally - whether it was boycotting certain gasoline producers/stations or just taking a stand with business otherwise - and today, my children follow in my footsteps, and their children - one of my favorite stories involves my grandson [now 25 years of age] telling some blockbuster video store manager, when the manager was wrong about my account and wouldn't allow matthew to use it notwithstanding my permission, a little thing, but nevertheless... - anyway, the manager told matthew to have me come into the store, to which my grandson responded, "oh, no sir, please - you REALLY DON'T WANT MY GRANDMOTHER TO COME IN HERE!" - he was about eight years old at the time - sorry to have digressed - loved this story - thanks so much for bringing it to the forefront again -

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this second installment. Annie Besant has always been a great hero of mine (I am sure she would not have wanted to be a heroine)although she did get into some strange things later in her life.In the late sixties, Isobel used to have a Readers' Ticket for the British Museum Reading Room and even then it was filled with some rather strange and eccentric people.

  4. Excellent article, John. She did not hold her lantern up in vain.

  5. Hi Jen & Jeanean & Alan & Willow:

    Sorry to be so long in responding, but this has been a very busy day--the weekend in general looks a bit hectic, & haven't had a chance to check in with other blogs.

    Jen: Thanks!

    Jenean: Loved the digression; that sort of action is important!

    Alan: Interesting about the reading room, & so glad you enjoyed it.

    Willow: Thanks!

  6. I stumbled across this by chance and must pay you the supreme compliment of observing that it was written with the on-the-spot perception of a True Brit!

    Re Annie Besant, I taught for 13 years at St Christopher School, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, which, with her Theosophist hat on, she started in 1915.

  7. Hi Dick: Thanks or stopping by. Interesting that some Annie Besant connections have come up in the comments. I briefly checked out your place, & it looks interesting--nice looking guitar in the profile pic.

  8. Eating strawberries behind the folios, what a wonderful phrase.

  9. Hi Susan:

    That is a great phrase, isn't it. Thanks for stopping by.


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