9.23.2011

The Cheerless Life of the Umbrella Maker, circa 1853

The 25-year-old umbrella maker depicted in this illustration, one of scores of girls making such a profession on Nassau and William Streets in the 1850s, did not have an easy life. She had run away from her poor family of Jersey, all of them "charcoal burners." Arriving in New York, she had a hard time finding work and was abused by some of her employers. She said, "There are more rascals in New York than I thought crawled on the whole airth, when I was a young girl out in the charcoal region."



She finally found a woman who gave her room and board and taught her how to cover umbrellas. But the woman had an ulterior motive for hiring the young girl. The woman wanted to lure her to the prostitution trades. When she made this demand explicit, our umbrella girl punched her employer and knocked her down. Another man soon hired her, also giving her room and board, but he, too, harbored similar motives. She explained that after she got her wages and a loan, she called him a "rascal" and punched him out, too. She said she should have stayed in Jersey and married a charcoal burner, for they were an honest bunch. Her wages as an umbrella maker were low, and the work was hard.

"Of a surety it is a cheerless life, which numbers of poor girls live in this great, heartless city." - Life in New York,: in doors and out of doors by the late William Burns. (NY: Bunce & Brothers, Publishers, 134 Nassau Street). 1853

The story of the umbrella girl is only one of several portraits of young girls in the New York laboring class of the 1850s depicted in Life in New York,: in doors and out of doors by William Burns. The book, available as a Google ebook, includes portraits and interviews with a young artificial flower maker who has no memory of her background, a vest maker who lost her parents to sudden poverty, a milliner born of a family that lost their fortune, and a dress maker who had lost her husband to consumption. Additional portraits include a suspender maker, a gimp-weaver (lace maker), a school marm, an actress, a ballet girl, a book folder, a straw braider, a print colorer, a chair painter, a press feeder, a bar maid, and a wool picker.



Many stories of the working girls involve a sudden reversal of fortune, a tumble from a secure and comfortable life to desperate poverty beyond the girls' control. Most are pitiful stories to read, yet these accounts of the lives of women workers in the New York of the 1850s paint a vivid picture of the old city like no other.

Image of woman with umbrella above from Friday, September 23, 2011, a day of rain.

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