Read CHAPTER XIV. of Prisoners of Poverty Abroad , free online book, by Helen Campbell, on


It is but a narrow streak of silver main that separates the two countries, whose story has been that of constant mutual distrust, varied by intervals of armed truce, in which each nation elected to believe that it understood the other. Not only the nation as a whole, however, but the worker in each, is far from any such possibility; and the methods of one are likely to remain, for a long time to come, a source of bewilderment to the other. That conditions on both sides of the Channel are in many points at their worst, and that the labor problem is still unsolved for both England and the Continent, remains a truth, though it is at once evident to the student of this problem that France has solved one or two phases of the equation over which England is still quite helpless.

There is a famous chapter in the history of Ireland, entitled “Snakes in Ireland,” the contents of which are as follows:-

“There are no snakes in Ireland.”

On the same principle it becomes at once necessary in writing on the slums of Paris, to arrange the summary of the situation: “There are no slums in Paris.”

In the English sense there certainly are none; and for the difference in visible conditions, several causes are responsible. The searcher for such regions discovers before the first day ends that there are none practically; and though now and then, as all byways are visited, one finds remnants of old Paris, and a court or narrow lane in which crime might lurk or poverty hide itself, as a whole there is hardly a spot where sunshine cannot come, and the hideous squalor of London is absolutely unknown. One quarter alone is to be excepted in this statement, and with that we are to deal farther on. The seamstress in a London garret or the shop-worker in the narrow rooms of the East End lives in a gloom for which there is neither outward nor inward alleviation. Soot is king of the great city, and his prime ministers, Smoke and Fog, work together to darken every haunt of man, and to shut out every glimpse of sun or moon. The flying flakes are in the air. Every breath draws them in; every moment leaves its deposit on wall and floor and person. The neatest and most determined fighter of dirt must still be bond slave to its power; and eating and drinking and breathing soot all day and every day, there comes at last an acquiescence in the consequences, and only an instinctive battle with the outward effects.

For the average worker, at the needle at least, wages are too low to admit of much soap; hot water is equally a luxury, and time if taken means just so much less of the scanty pay; and thus it happens that London poverty takes on a hopelessly grimy character, and that the visitor in the house of the workers learns to wear a uniform which shows as little as possible of the results of rising up and sitting down in the soot, which, if less evident in the home of the millionnaire, works its will no less surely.

Fresh from such experience, and with the memory of home and work room, manufactory or great shop, all alike sombre and depressing, the cleanliness of Paris, enforced by countless municipal regulations, is at first a constant surprise. The French workwoman, even of the lowest order, shares in the national characteristic which demands a fair exterior whatever may be the interior condition, and she shares also in the thrift which is equally a national possession, and the exercise of which has freed France from the largest portion of her enormous debt. The English workwoman of the lowest order, the trouser-stitcher or bag-maker, is not only worn and haggard to the eye, but wears a uniform of ancient bonnet and shawl, both of which represent the extremity of dejection. She clings to this bonnet as the type and suggestion of respectability and to the shawl no less; but the first has reached a point wherein it is not only grotesque but pitiful, the remnants of flowers and ribbons and any shadowy hint of ornamentation having long ago yielded to weather and age and other agents of destruction. The shawl or cloak is no less abject and forlorn, both being the badge of a condition from which emergence has become practically impossible. These lank figures carry no charm of womanhood,-nothing that can draw from sweater or general employer more than a sneer at the quality of the labor of those waiting always in numbers far beyond any real demand, until for both the adjective comes to be “superfluous,” and employer and employed alike wonder why the earth holds them, and what good there is in an existence made up simply of want and struggle.

Precisely the opposite condition holds for the French worker, who, in the midst of problems as grave, faces them with the light-heartedness of her nation. She has learned to the minutest fraction what can be extracted from every centime, and though she too must shiver with cold, and go half-fed and half-clothed, every to-morrow holds the promise of something better, and to-day is thus made more bearable. She shares too the conviction, which has come to be part of the general faith concerning Paris, which seems always an embodied assurance, that sadness and want are impossible. Even her beggars, a good proportion of them laboriously made up for the parts they are to fill, find repression of cheerfulness their most difficult task, and smile confidingly on the sceptical observer of their methods, as if to make him a partner in the encouraging and satisfactory nature of things in general. The little seamstress who descends from her attic for the bread with its possible salad or bit of cheese which will form her day’s ration, smiles also as she pauses to feel the thrill of life in the thronging boulevards and beautiful avenues, the long sweeps of which have wiped out for Paris as a whole everything that could by any chance be called slum.

Even in the narrowest street this stir of eager life penetrates, and every Parisian shares it and counts it as a necessity of daily existence. If shoes are too great a luxury, the workwoman clatters along in sabots, congratulating herself that they are cheap and that they never wear out. Custom, long-established and imperative, orders that she shall wear no head-covering, and thus she escapes the revelation bound up in the London worker’s bonnet. Inherited instinct and training from birth have taught her hands the utmost skill with the needle. She makes her own dress, and wears it with an air which may in time transfer itself to something choicer; and this quality is in no whit affected by the the cheapness of the material. It may be only a print or some woollen stuff of the poorest order; but it and every detail of her dress represent something to which the English woman has not attained, and which temperament and every fact of life will hinder her attaining.

As I write, the charcoal-woman has climbed the long flights to the fifth floor, bending under the burden of an enormous sack of charbon a terre, but smiling as she puts it down. She is mistress of a little shop just round the corner, and she keeps the accounts of the wood and coal bought by her patrons by a system best known to herself, her earnings hardly going beyond three francs a day. Even she, black with the coal-dust which she wastes no time in scrubbing off save on Sundays when she too makes one of the throng in the boulevards, faces the hard labor with light-hearted confidence, and plans to save a sou here and there for the dot of the baby who shares in the distribution of coal-dust, and will presently trot by her side as assistant.

In the laundry just beyond, the women are singing or chattering, the voices rising in that sudden fury of words which comes upon this people, and makes the foreigner certain that bloodshed is near, but which ebbs instantly and peacefully, to rise again on due occasion. Long hours, exhausting labor, small wages, make no difference. The best worker counts from three to four francs daily as prosperity, and the rate has even fallen below this; yet they make no complaint, quite content with the sense of companionship, and with the satisfaction of making each article as perfect a specimen of skill as can be produced.

Here lies a difference deeper than that of temperament,-the fact that the French worker finds pleasure in the work itself, and counts its satisfactory appearance as a portion of the reward. Slop work, with its demand for speedy turning out of as many specimens of the poorest order per day as the hours will allow, is repugnant to every instinct of the French workwoman; and thus it happens that even slop work on this side of the Channel holds some hint of ornamentation and the desire to lift it out of the depth to which it has fallen. But it is gaining ground, fierce competition producing this effect everywhere; and the always lessening ratio of wages which attends its production, must in time bring about the same disastrous results here as elsewhere, unless the tide is arrested, and some form of co-operative production takes its place. With the French worker in the higher forms of needle industry we shall deal in the next chapter, finding what differences are to be met here also between French and English methods.