A Grover and Baker
, double chain stitch, USA, circa 1861.
Image: Kate Brereton
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: Did sewing machines and typewriters really make "women's work" easier?
Answer: Sewing machines and typewriters were two of the first mass-produced technologies to appear in the workplace and the home. Both technologies would reshape women's work.
The first commercially-successful sewing machine was built by I M Singer & Co in the USA in 1851. Sewing machines soon began arriving in Melbourne, often as a prized possession of arriving immigrants. By the 1870s, manufacturers were importing large numbers of machines into Australia and many introduced hire purchase to encourage buyers.
Although sewing machines were promoted as easing stress and labour, in the workplace they often had the opposite effect. Women workers laboured in "sweatshops" or at home on their own machines. The demand for cheap ready-made garments increased and as consumers pushed clothing prices down, women were paid steadily less for the same amount of work.
The first typewriter was developed by Sholes in 1874, but the first successful model was released by Remington in 1878. Typewriters allowed anyone to print text without the services of a professional printer and opened the door to office work for women. Previously, clerical work had been an exclusively male domain. Now employers rushed to employ female typists who, it was claimed, were more accurate and painstaking than their male counterparts.
Young women were equally keen to enter the office. Compared to domestic service or factory work, office work was regarded as middle-class, less physical and more intellectual.
Businesses liked employing women because they could pay them less, typically only half of what men were earning. From 1912 the Federated Clerks' Union began a campaign for equal pay. However, in 1914 the Industrial Court ruled to maintain lower wages for women.
Women were not awarded 'equal pay for work of equal value' until 1969. Federal legislation to ban discrimination on the basis of sex was introduced in 1984.
To find out more about early sewing machines and typewriters, visit the new Spinning a Yarn display in The Melbourne Story exhibition at the Melbourne Museum.