Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/An industrial chance for gentlewomen

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
An industrial chance for gentlewomen
by Harriet Martineau


An inquiry which was addressed to me the other day has set me thinking on a subject naturally interesting to a large class of young women, and their parents and brothers. The inquiry related to Cheesemaking, as an occupation for young women who wish to maintain themselves by industry, and who at the same time prefer a country life to confinement at any town-employment, and have no turn for the studies requisite to training for governess-ship.

My sympathies are always won at once by a frank acknowledgment on the part of any girl that she is not fit for the great work of educating, and that she had rather have the ease of mind of an honest and lowly occupation that she is equal to, than pretend to greater gentility at the expense of her own self-respect, and fair play to her pupils. It was therefore very interesting to me to hear that any girl was inquiring about the Cheesemaking business as a means of maintenance. It is true, the more I considered the notion, the less feasible it appeared; but some considerations arose which it may be worth while to dwell on for a few minutes.

The first question in such a case is,—what office would such a young person propose to occupy? The scheme itself is no trifle, but a very serious matter: and we must therefore suppose that the young person is not indulging in dreams of a sunshiny life among green fields and fragrant kine, and gay gardens, and a cool dairy, and oceans of cream, and fruitful orchards, and rural innocence as described by the poets. The first question that her first adviser will ask must put to flight all the romance of the notion: viz.,—does she propose to be mistress or maid, when she goes into cheesemaking?

The first is evidently out of the question for any woman who does not possess a considerable capital; and this puts the case out of the question for girls who seek an alternative to governessing. Even if the land—some two or three hundred acres at least, if the business is to be a safe one,—was supposed certain to pay the rent and labour by the produce, there must be a costly stock and plant to begin with. The cows alone would cost a thousand pounds: and, as live stock must always be a precarious property, from the liability to disease and death; and as a seventh, or a sixth part of the cows must be set aside permanently as dry, or ailing, or wanted for the calves, or to supply the establishment, there must be money over, to keep up the unprofitable part of the stock, and to replace such as either deteriorate or die.

Again,—there is the training to be paid for. Cheesemaking is not a thing which comes of itself. It is a mystery which one must pay to be allowed to learn; or it is an art, based on science, which one must pay to be instructed in, as in the other arts of life. Till very lately, the process of cheesemaking went on, for the most part, by tradition and the rule of thumb; and it was dignified and venerable accordingly. Old-established houses had their particular secrets; and such houses asked high terms for admitting novices to their confidence, and required to be well paid for raising up rivals to their own custom. That aspect of the manufacture is pretty well over now. The chemists know more than any old-fashioned, traditional cheesemaker could tell; and experiments are being made, and implements are being invented, and consultations are being held, in all directions; so that there will soon be no mystery hanging about the operation at all. But if the fee is not required to pay for the secret, it is to pay for the new knowledge, and the higher order of modern skill. When all is paid for, and learned, the situation of the establishment may be so good, and its character so high, that it may in time yield a fortune to its proprietor. If so, the fortune will have been earned by severe toil and long protracted anxiety. If the enterprise only just answers, it will have been an anxious way of earning a moderate subsistence: and the interest of the capital invested would have yielded a maintenance, however humble, without the risks. Nobody admires and relishes the spectacle of such an establishment, conducted by a clever woman, more than I do: and I really do not see how a woman could put her ability and energy to better use. What I mean is, that the vocation is one which will always be naturally filled by the descendants of great cheesemaking families, or by women who happen to unite ability and liking for the business with the command of two or three thousand pounds.

But this is not what was meant by the inquirers, I shall be told. Women who have the command of two or three thousand pounds, do not need to make such inquiries. Could not a young lady go into a dairy-farm, in some cheese country, and give her services in return for her training and board?

Certainly not. The way is to begin at the beginning, as in acquiring all other arts. Looking on will never do; and no idlers or mere spectators can be tolerated in a place of such urgent and punctual business. A girl enters as a milker, probably, or as a fetcher and carrier and cleaner. She brings in the milk, and carries out the whey; and if she does not scour floors and tubs and shelves and pans as formerly, it is because scouring is going out of fashion. The duty now is to prevent the occurrence of dirt, instead of washing it away, at the cost of perpetual damp.

By degrees, the dairygirl rises, if she deserves to rise, from one department of cheesemaking to another, till she may become, in course of years, if clever, well taught, and steady, head dairymaid. What does this comprehend?

She has, for a dozen or twenty years, toiled as few or no other women toil. All that time she has been going through the whole set of labours twice a day,—lifting great weights, wielding heavy implements, straining every muscle in her body with reaching over the wide tubs, screwing up the ponderous presses, and turning and weighing the mighty cheeses which the ordinary run of ladies could no more carry to the scale than they could carry the farmhouse into the next parish. She has seldom been able to keep awake till bedtime, all those years, or to get her mending done to her clothes,—being overpowered with fatigue so as to be unable to sew in the evenings. As she is ready for the post of head dairywoman she must have a good share of health and strength, for women of average strength cannot bear the toil for a long course of years. They would find hoeing turnips, or digging potatoes, light work in comparison. The doctors compliment the constitutions of dairywomen who escape a particular set of maladies which beset their class,—diseases arising from over-fatigue and insufficient rest. There is a standing population of about 64,000 of them in Great Britain; and, though they are now for the most part spared the work of milking, which is consigned to men, and will soon be trusted to machinery, they too seldom reach, in health and comfort, the time when they may be more or less independent of daily labour.

What do they earn by all this toil? I shall be asked. The class of dairywomen are paid, according to quality and circumstances, from 8l. to 12l. a-year wages—board and lodging of course. I see how aghast young ladies look, as they well may, at this account of the life and prospects of a woman on a cheese-farm: and I am glad to be able to point out how the case is improving at the present time. Since the duty was taken off foreign cheese, and our dairy-farming has been roused out of its lethargy and its old superstitions, more and more of the hardest toil has been lifted off the human, and laid on the inanimate instruments of the manufacture. The whey runs into the piggeries instead of being carried in pails; the milk is delivered through pipes into the tubs, to save the entrance of wet feet and dirty petticoats within the area of the sacred process of manufacture; the warming is done by pipes and double bottoms, instead of by carrying milk or water to and from the copper: the breaking the curd and getting rid of the whey is done by mechanical methods, instead of by human arms, straining human backs by leaning over the tubs; and, by new methods of pressing and drying, the process of forming and hardening and salting the cheese is shortened by more than one half. All this is excellent: but the class of dairywomen has much ground to gain before the vocation can be in any way tempting to young women who can earn a maintenance on easier terms.

But is there no station, I shall be asked, between that of the dairywoman who leads the cheesemaking, at ten or twelve pounds a-year, and the employer who has a capital of some thousands?

Yes,—there is one official, who has the authority of the mistress without the anxiety of the capital and the profits, and better pay than the maids, without such heavy toil. In great established cheese-dairies there is a salaried Superintendent. She has her two rooms, and her servant, and her diet, and her coals and candles, and 50l. a-year or more.—“O come!” say the young ladies, “that will do! That is the sort of thing,—if only the salary were a little higher.”—But the young ladies must not fancy they have found what they want till they have calculated the chances for any one of them of obtaining such a position.

Let them consider the qualifications that are requisite. Let them remember how thoroughly skilled in the art such a Superintendent must be,—how liberally, and even learnedly trained and disposed, in these days of scientific improvement of processes; and moreover, how familiar with the character and mind of the rural neighbourhood in which she bears office over a company of natives. It must be considered, too, how few of these Superintendents are wanted, and how certainly there will always be candidates from the neighbourhood for every vacant place,—candidates born and reared among cheese-farms and cheeses peculiar to the district, and its pride.

No;—the cheese-manufacture does not at present offer a new field of employment to young women,—especially young ladies,—who have to look round for some means of subsistence. It is a good vocation for women,—suitable to their position, character and powers: but the women who go into it must be,—like hosts of Frenchwomen,—capitalists, entering into business as men do,—with good credit at the Bank, a certain habit or grace of authority in eye, tongue and carriage, and a certain pride and complacency in the special industry, deep-seated in the mind and heart. It takes all this to be, to any adequate purpose, the head of any considerable cheesemaking establishment.

I am reminded by a friend that young women need not, on this account, imagine that independence is out of their reach in the rural districts of the country, except as governesses and maid-servants. A suggestion of my friend’s delights me:

“If cheese is out of the question, how about butter, eggs, and fowls?”

As soon as this is mentioned, we all see how reasonable it is. There is, almost all over the kingdom, a strong and unfailing demand for these commodities, as is shown by the prodigious importation of each and all of them. The enterprise may be carried a long way on a small capital, and admits of being taken up in almost any proportion. So little training is required, that it may be almost said that observation and good sense will do as well as any apprenticeship.

In the neighbourhood of any large town it answers to make butter,—butter which is regularly good in quality,—for sale in larger or smaller quantities. Good butter is eagerly bought everywhere by town and village populations; and what room there is in this country for an increase of the product is shown by the amount of importation. Last year we imported little short of a million cwts. If we dwell for a moment on the idea of a million cwts. of butter, we shall be surprised that our green pastures, and our large areas of green crops, should not have spared us the necessity of going to the continent for butter which we might have expected to get, fresh and sweet, at home. It so happens, however, that while we are raising perpetually less wheat and more cattle, the demand for dairy products grows in greater proportion; so that there is an opening for more industry in the dairy department than seems ready to flow into it. It appears to me that this is a direction in which young women may reasonably hope to find a creditable career.

In the markets of our chief towns it is a common thing to see a stall open every market-day for the sale of butter and other products from the dairy of the nobleman or other country-gentleman who may have an estate near: and nobody thinks this odd, or in any way objectionable,—any more than the sale of coal from the collieries of Lady Londonderry or Lord Durham. Something depends on the way in which the business is managed. I remember how a nobleman got quizzed, a good many years ago, about his particular vanity,—his butter; but the fun arose out of his failure. He told all his acquaintance what butter he was going to favour the market with, at twopence per pound dearer than the market price. People would be eager to pay the price for his butter, which would be something quite different from anything they had ever tasted before. He had a paragon of a dairy-woman: he had ordered stamps with his coronet on them: and his stall would be in a conspicuous place in the market.

On the first day, sure enough, every pound was sold immediately; but before the day was over several friends had told him that there must be some mistake, for the butter stamped with his coronet was not good. It was difficult to convince him of this: but in a little while he announced that the fault had been in the dairy-woman; that he had obtained another, from a remote county, at high wages, with a capital character. The twopence per pound would be all wanted for the expense of the new plan; but there could be no disappointment again. Here he was mistaken: the second supply of butter—folded in natty cloths, and duly coroneted, and sold by a condescending lady in an elegant morning dress—was more nauseous than the first. The same thing happened a third time, when, if I remember right, his lordship forbade his market-woman to bring back any butter. She was to get rid of it somehow; and it was sold for cart-grease. The belief of the neighbourhood was, that the fault lay in the pasture: and everybody was quite ready to buy and approve if the butter had been good, and sold at market-price.

Such failures are quite unnecessary; and there is nothing in the task of producing good butter which any young woman of sense, adroitness, and activity is not equal to. And what a thoroughly suitable occupation it is! If she can command the little capital requisite to stock a few acres of land, and set up a dairy, and has acquired the art of managing cows and making butter, she will find a good business ready to her hand in all the populous districts of the country. If she has not the means of setting up for herself, she may perhaps make a partnership with some of the twenty thousand Englishwomen who follow agricultural pursuits; or she may find a place in the household of some one of the half-million of farmers’ wives and daughters who attend to the dairy and poultry departments of the farm. By means of such a share she may obtain money enough to set up as the tenant of a few acres of land, and the owner of cows in proportion. She must have learned how to manage pasture-land, and how to grow roots; and she must be a good judge of cows, as well as a good maker of butter.

These conditions being fulfilled, it may be almost said to be impossible that she should fail of a comfortable independence. She will, if she deserves it, assuredly obtain her share of the national custom which now goes so needlessly to Holland and other foreign countries.

It is only quite lately that this common branch of production has been made as profitable as a little study and attention can make it. Even lately I have been surprised at the absurd diversities of practice which I have found within even a narrow range of pastoral country. Among a score of farms one may find half-a-dozen different and very positive judgments about the best sort of pans for milk—wood, lead, earthenware, or glass; and about how much temperature has to do with the yield of cream and of butter; and about the washing and the salting of the butter; and, in fact, about almost every part of the manufacture. I understand that between one method and another, in regard to milk-pans and the temperature of their contents, there is a difference of no less than one-third in the yield of cream, while a difference of one-fifth or one-sixth is very common. Now, here is where a woman of education is sure to have the advantage over ignorant or old-fashioned farmers’ wives and daughters, who have no notion that the arts of the dairy did not reach their limit a thousand years ago. An intelligent woman who loves the country, loves cows, loves household work, so as to enjoy giving her mind to doing her business in the best possible way, has a better chance of a good profit on her industry than the majority of her half-million competitors,—and a far better chance than almost any other ladies who have to look round them for a way of getting their bread.

It is not from the butter only, nor chiefly, that the profit should come, even reckoning with it the cream-cheeses which are so easy to make, and for which there is such a demand in town and country throughout the summer. Other products go naturally with those of the dairy; and some of them are at least as profitable.

There are the pigs which one finds in connection with every considerable dairy. These first occur in one’s mind’s picture of the establishment: but there is still a good deal of argument going on among farmers about the profitableness of a piggery. The doubt cannot but suggest suspicions of bad management as long as our imports show that we buy from abroad lard to the value of 900,000l.; and bacon and hams (besides salt pork) to the value of a million and a quarter, or 516,000 cwts. The truth seems to be that nothing produced on the land depends more on intelligence and care than the pig element of the farm. No animal is more certainly and irreparably injured by neglect, and none is so despised when injured, as the pig; and, as far as my observation goes, none is more sure to pay if well treated, in life and afterwards.

If our intelligent dairy-mistress keeps pigs in due proportion to her dairy, and knows the importance of their being of a good stock, and always clean and well-fed, she will find that the public has an instinct for these things, too. When she has attained perfection in her curing of hams and bacon, she will have as much custom as she can manage, for them as well as for the little delicate sucking pigs on her stall in the market, and the well-raised wholesome pork and sausages, and the bladders of lard which she may exhibit there. As to the hams and bacon, she will not have to send them to market, as they will be all bespoken before they are ready.

This is not all, yet. The marvel and mystery of our importation of eggs and poultry from the continent are as great as they were ten years ago. We are always saying, all over the country, that we cannot conceive why we do not raise fowls enough to supply our own needs,—seeing how cheaply they may be managed, and how little trouble they give. It used to be supposed that every cottager on any common, or in any lane, had fowls stepping and picking about his gable-end; and it has been considered an evidence of the dullness of the labouring class in the rural districts that they have not extended their poultry-rearing as the demand from the towns increased. We see fowls swarming in every farm-yard, and round the maltster’s and distiller’s granaries; and here and there we hear of an establishment for the rearing of poultry alone; but the wants of the population are very far indeed from being met. Even if we raised fowls enough to supply the tables of the gentry as at present, we should have to ask why other people should not eat poultry, as well as the gentry. If there was poultry enough raised, every cottager in the country, and every town-labourer, might as well have a fowl for his dinner as a rasher of bacon. The high price is altogether artificial, as any traveller in a variety of countries can tell. It is the scarcity which makes the high prices; and it is the desultory and unprogressive way in which the rearing of fowls is managed which makes the profits of that department so precarious as we are assured they are. The experience of foreigners justifies us in this conclusion.

What a fact it is that we have not only not eggs enough for the very limited use we make of them in our cookery, but are importing them to the value of more than half a million of pounds sterling a-year. In the last table of imports, the number for 1861 stands as 203,313,300. I do not forget that eggs are largely used for some of our manufactures; but that does not affect the question why they are not produced at home. Upwards of two hundred millions of eggs produced for us by foreigners, while Englishwomen are wanting employment at home! Surely this is a mistake which must soon be rectified!

The thing is, we have not studied the art of poultry-rearing as foreigners have, and as we ought to have done long ago. Even at this day, I am occasionally asked whether I believe in the possibility of regularly inducing hens to lay all the year round; and even whether it is possible to obtain a succession of eggs through the four seasons. Such points should not be left for foreigners to answer at this time of day. And how do they answer them?

They tell us (what we surely might have found out for ourselves) the reason why only a certain proportion of poultry will thrive of their own accord, in farmyards and round cottages. It is because poultry require animal food; and when they have consumed all the insects within their range, they will thrive no more unless we help them. The hens stop laying in winter because the insects disappear: but wherever they are supplied with animal food, they lay as well in winter as in summer. Some of my readers may have heard of the fortune made by a clever Frenchman who has made use of this fact to his own enormous profit. This M. de Sora, living a few miles from Paris, thought he would try what he could make of his hens by feeding them with horseflesh, which he could obtain of perfectly good quality very cheap. As Frenchmen themselves find horseflesh one of the best of meats, and stand up for it by entering into an association for the extension of “hippophagy,” there is nothing wonderful in the proposal to feed hens with a meat certainly not mere offensive to our prejudices than the insects on which our poultry feed. M. de Sora began with only 300 hens, and they actually averaged twenty-five dozens of eggs daily for the first year. He now has 100,000 hens, with a due proportion of cocks; and the preparations for feeding them and the management employ a hundred persons, of whom the greater number are women, engaged in the care of the fowls. The men are wanted for the slaying and disposing of the twenty-two horses per day required by the poultry. These horses cost less than nothing. Being old or damaged (not diseased), they are had cheap; and the sale of all parts of them, from the hide which goes to the tanner, to the marrow which makes lip-salve for fine ladies, together with their use as food, more than pays their price when alive. The meat is minced by machinery, salted and peppered to the taste of the fowls, and exceedingly enjoyed by them. They are let out in divisions into portions of an area of twenty acres, enclosed by the buildings appropriated to them, and by walls; and in the high insect season they are allowed to range further, under strict guardianship. After four years of this easy life,—spent in apartments which are kept warm in winter and cool in summer, and always clean,—they receive the summons of fate. The four-year-olds are drawn apart, and fed on crushed grain for three weeks, before being sent to Paris for the market. The work of the hens is done for them, beyond the mere laying. The eggs are hatched in chambers, heated and darkened to the degree ascertained to exist under the sitting hen. Every morning the newly hatched chicks are removed to the nursery, and fresh eggs are placed in the space they vacate.

The buying and selling which ensues upon this poultry rearing is very remarkable. The farmers are eager for the horses’ bones (as are the lamp-black and button-makers), and the gardeners for the manure of the fowls, which has a special value for florists. The head and hoofs make glue and Prussian blue. The poultry returns are, however, the most interesting to us. The sale of eggs is 40,000 dozen per week, bringing in 250,000 dollars per annum, at the rate of four francs, or 3s. 4d., per six dozen. In the three months of last autumn M. de Sora sold in Paris nearly 12,000 capons. His total expenses, including an allowance for dilapidations and repairs, amount to somewhat less than 16,000l., and his annual profits are about 36,500l.

We shall not expect our English gentlewomen to set up horse-slaying establishments, or poultry houses employing a hundred, or half a hundred attendants; but why should they not adopt the practices suggested by growing knowledge and skill? The doubt, to those who are aware of the pressure of the egg and fowl demand, will be, whether I am not treating the vocation of henwife unworthily by supposing it a subordinate department of the dairy occupation. I do indeed believe that there is a creditable and useful career awaiting a very considerable number of my country-women, whenever they may choose to betake themselves to supplying our towns and villages and factory districts with poultry and eggs.

I have said nothing of the particular branches of demand which relate to ducks and turkeys. I must also leave to the imagination and fair judgment of those whom it may concern the prospect from the culture of honey. There are places even in this country where women can make a living very easily as bee mistresses; and the care of bees would combine well with that of the dairy and poultry yard. The same may be said of the production of fruit and flowers to a certain extent; but it would not be prudent to undertake too many things; and the calling of the market gardener,—also very suitable to women,—seems to comprehend these latter productions more directly than the dairy and poultry and pig pursuits.

It would be really a great satisfaction to some of the best friends of active and self-reliant English women to see some of them entering upon departments of profitable industry so suitable for them, and at present so ill occupied. It cannot be pride that is in the way; for there is no sort of humiliation connected with a career so independent and useful and pleasant. I can only suppose that the opportunity is not appreciated, because the need is not understood. I am glad to have heard of one young lady who has thought of a rural career for herself, whether in a right or impracticable direction. I hope to hear of more before I die.

From the Mountain.