Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.


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Singing "The Song of the Shirt" - 1840s England

In the land of Jane Eyre and royal weddings, times were tough for poor women.

In 1840s England, before sewing machines had been perfected and come onto the market, many poor urban women, young and old, stitched garments by hand, attempting to earn a living as seamstresses. They were very poorly paid, and the long hours of work they put in to earn enough to eat could ruin their eyes and, more generally, their physical health, not to speak of their mental health.

A certain Thomas Hood (1799-1845) immortalized these seamstresses’ plight in a poem, “The Song of the Shirt,” that was published in the popular English publication, Punch, in 1843. It was a sensational success and reappeared in America, in French translation – and perhaps in many other translations. In the age of the global sweatshop, and despite the mechanization of sewing, its message remains relevant.

Clio recommends reading the entire poem, below.....


With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread:
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt;
And still, with a voice of dolorous pitch,
She sang the “Song of the Shirt”!

Work! work! work!
And while the cock is crowing aloof!
And work – work – work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

Work – work – work!
Till the brain begins to swim;
Work – work – work!
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in my dreams!

Oh men, with sisters dear!
Oh men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A shroud as well as a shirt!

But why do I talk of death,
That phantom of grisly bone?
I hardly fear his terrible shape,
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep:
Oh God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Work – work – work!
My labor never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread, and rags;
A shattered roof, and this naked floor,
A table, a broken chair,
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Work – work – work!
From weary chime to chime;
Work – work – work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band, --
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand!

Work – work – work,
In the dull December light;
And work – work – work,
When the weather is warm and bright;
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling,
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet,
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want,
And the walk that costs a meal!

Oh, but for one short hour!
A respite, however brief! –
No blessed leisure for love or hope,
But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!

With fingers weary and work,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rangs,
Plying her needle and thread:
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt;
And still, with a voice of dolorous pitch –
Would that its tone could reach the rich! –
She sang this “Song of the Shirt”


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