The Manser Sisters: Sewing for a Living

Letter from Mary Manser to Catharine Stow, March 4, 1885

In this letter, Mary Manser writes to a friend about the working conditions of her two daughters. Georgetta and Ella Manser were "sewing girls" in Cincinnati in the 1880s, which entailed assisting dressmakers, tailors, and other clients.

The Manser Sisters: Sewing for a Living

Dressmakers and tailors employed large numbers of young women to sew garments for their upper-class clientele. These seamstresses had no design input, but rather assisted with basic sewing tasks and were relied upon to maximize efficiency and output. “Sewing girls” often worked from sunup to sundown and in poor conditions. The number of women working in the sewing trade in the 19th century is difficult to determine, but estimates are large: Cincinnati’s newspaper reported 4,000 needlewomen in the city in 1853, and in 1874 there were around 5,000 sewing girls in Louisville.

Georgetta and Ella Manser were two young women who relied on their sewing skills for a living. The sisters lived with their widowed mother Mary in rented accommodations in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid-1880s. The Mansers had once lived more comfortably, but the death of patriarch William in 1874 left the single women of the family in strained financial circumstances. Georgetta and Ella found work as seamstresses; they were fortunate to be able to sew at home but had to work long hours. Employers typically paid seamstresses minimal wages, barely reaching a subsistence level.

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The Manser Sisters: Sewing for a Living