The Working Woman

I went to Waitrose today. It was empty. Last week it was very busy at this time. It was half term you see, everyone was out and about. Now they have all gone back to school and the women, back to work.

Today we shall take a look at that group of dummy boards which work for a living; those that depict The Working Woman.

They come in all shapes and sizes ( as do women themselves ). We have seen one already on this blog- the candle girl. In

“A Taste for the Tiny”.

So we’ll take her as our example. She is obviously a servant girl. Her dress tells us that. She wears an unadorned apron- by that I mean no lace or embroidery, which is probably made of canvas. She has a fichu at her bosom ( a scarf tucked into her bodice at the top ) and the colours of her dress are quite drab. Note the similarity to the French girl below.. the colours are the same – and, apart from her very nice pointy red shoes, they are wearing the same sort of clothes.

Girl with Lit Candle. English c. 1750 Private Collection in the U.K. 5ft

The figure in the previous post is an identical figure in a collection in the U.S. The face, whoever she was; the stance and the clothes are the same in each of the 5 figures I have seen of this type. They were obviously made by the same person.

This happens quite a lot in the study of the dummy board….that a figure is repeated over and over, sometimes with very slight variations and we can begin to see a ‘hand’ in the making of them though we rarely have any idea to whom the hand belongs. It is unusual to find a reliably signed figure but we can make an educated guess that certain figures belong to particular makers.

Just to give you a little background- women of the past, of the lower classes ( like our candle girl ), worked the whole of their lives. There was no universal education, no maternity benefit, no daycare, no choice in the matter. If you had a child, ( and there was no reliable way to avoid motherhood, should you not be that way inclined ) – you took it to work with you or you left it with a relative, obviously not before it was weaned.. When the child was old enough, and it probably hadn’t achieved an age we would deem grown up enough, in our own time, it too went to work. That is if it survived the perils of infancy. On in eight children in the 18th century, did not reach their teens!

There were few ‘approved’ jobs for girls in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most went into service. It was also very easy for them to be taken advantage of ( in many ways- not just that way ). THE catastrophe every girl feared most, was to be dismissed for a very small misdemeanour or for simply nothing at all, without a reference.

Without that, you could not get another job. It was a short step to penury and starvation, the gutter and to prostitution. They had it tough.

If you were lucky, you managed your life quite well. You worked for decent people who cared about you. If you were exceptionally fortunate, you had master who thought so much of you that he would commission a painting of you. There are quite a few well known paintings of servants, the most famous might be the one Hogarth painted of his staff.

The Servants of William Hogarth.

Maybe some wealthy people thought that it would be a good idea to have dummy boards painted of their servants. They could be left around the house, to make it look – maybe – as if you had more servants than you really possessed! 18th century one upmanship!

Servant Girl With a spit. French c. 1750 By kind permission and copyright of the SA Oliver Trust, Chertsey Museum

It has been written,( but I must say that there is no actual evidence for this, ) that servant figures were made to be left in empty houses to make it seem as if there was someone looking after the building.

Our candle girl is a lifesized and very effective figure that was made to actually hold a real candle. ( What a fire hazard!)

Imagine peering in at the window and seeing this figure in the twilight of an unlit 18th c. house. You would definitely think she was the real thing. And if you were a burglar… you might think twice about committing the crime – and pass on.

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