Dundee Society in the 19th Century


A lecture presented by Elizabeth C. Sanderson in June 1996

Cloth rather than clothing has been the main focus for historians of women's history in the 18th century. Spinning, therefore, has received more attention than the actual construction of garments. Yet, making cloth up into garments provided a significant means of subsistence for many women of this period. My own research into women's employment in 18th century Edinburgh, stemmed from an interest in the history of costume. Although there is no lack of excellent books on costume history (mainly English), these books do not reveal anything about the makers of the clothes or anything about their working conditions. The picture that emerged from the work I did on Edinburgh was a world of working women. I am now trying to get a picture of what was happening in other burghs in Scotland, including Dundee and Perth.

Making clothes was certainly viewed by women themselves, whether single, married or widowed, as an important means of subsistence, and the records show that they were adept at grasping the chance. This did not go unobserved by their male counterparts in the guildry and incorporations, and merchants and tailors in particular strove to limit their activities. The records show, however, that women were a continual threat, particularly to the Tailors' Incorporations, for most of the 18th century.
Town council minutes, records of the Guildry and craft incorporations, if they survive, all throw light on women's activities. Dundee is fortunate in having the Dundee Tailors' Incorporation records. It would have been extremely valu¬able if we had Tailors' records for all other burghs, which would give a better picture of, for instance, how quickly the trade of mantuamaking, to which the tailors objected, spread across Scot¬land.

I have used a variety of legal records in this study and these have proved a good source for women's history. Women raised actions in court for debts due to them. The burgh court was usually the first place to go with a complaint if the pursuers were small traders, and if the burgh court processes (case papers) survive they can give a very vivid picture of burgh life and a great deal of information about women's activities may be gleaned from them. Perth is fortunate in this respect. Unfortunately, these processes have not survived for Dundee. The decreets of the burgh court can indicate that women were active, but the importance of the processes is that there is a possibility of finding the bills concerned in the case and therefore information about what women were making and selling. Also, if depositions of witnesses survive, these can produce very significant circumstantial detail. Other information has been gleaned from the records of Higher Courts, such as the Commissary Courts and the Court of Session, held in the Scottish Record Office. There are also the newspapers of the latter part of the century. One bonus for the historian of women's history in Scotland is the fact that women's own surnames are re¬tained in the legal records, making it possible to follow up a woman over a period of time and helping to identify their social background and merchant or craft connections.
The importance of small shops as a means of subsistence for women has not really been taken seriously. This is partly because many people do not realise that these shop-keepers were not only selling but making the clothing concerned. Clothing such as caps, ruffles, pockets, shifts, aprons and cloaks were all made up in the shops by the shopkeeper with the help of an apprentice or journeywoman, and sometimes by a seamstress at busy periods. From bills it can be seen that a fair amount of clothing could be produced in these shops. All the accessories, such as caps, sold from these shops were bespoke. Ready-made clothes were slow to appear in Scotland.

By the 1730s small shops run by women can be found all over the country, and complaints were being made by guildries of individual burghs about the numbers of women who were setting up and trading without freedom. The burgh of Dundee was no exception. In 1722 it was noted in the Dundee Guildry Book that several widows and young women had set up shops without freedom, and that it was decided that they should pay 4 merks to the Guildry for their booth upsets, and those who could not pay so much should pay 2 merks. However, the Guildry could not have expected the sharp in¬crease in shopkeeping which took place after this Acts was passed, and in 1728 another note in the Guildry Book stated that women were so encroaching on the guildry's trade that all former Acts in their favour were to be rescinded.

This not only shows that women shop-keepers were on the increase, but also, since it was the 2 merks shopkeepers that were being objected to, that poor women were seeking this form of employment to survive. But the indications are that small shops were spreading throughout Scotland in the early 18th century.
Schools are another area where garments were made up and sold. From the early 18th century, and even earlier, women were appointed as schoolmistresses in many Scottish burghs, while other women set up as private schoolteachers. At first glance private schools may look like finishing schools for the well-off, as no doubt many were, but a closer look shows that the women who ran them were also making money in much the same way as the shopkeepers. Betty Bell, for example, a Dundee schoolteacher in the 1750s, not only taught the pupils sewing but also informed the public that if ladies wanted their cambrics washed and made this could be done on demand. Graveclothes, she assured them, could be made for country orders, and for those in town "as they fancy". Another schoolmistress, Mrs Riach in Perth, advertised that she made all sorts of cloaks, hats and caps, and furnished dead-flannels and child-bed clothes.
There is no doubt that the girls were helping to do some of the work, since neither Betty Bell nor Mrs Riach could have met these demands on her own. Graveclothes would be fairly simple; the girls could practise their white-seam, as plain sewing was called. In fact, schoolmistresses appointed by town councils would be asked specifically to teach sewing skills that would be "useful", as they saw it, in enabling girls to find work, for example as seamstresses. When Hannah Robertson, a schoolteacher who had been appointed by Perth town Council, wrote to ask about her salary she said that what she taught would qualify the pupils for service or otherwise earn their bread. Some of the schoolmistresses taught mantuamaking, as dressmaking was then called.
The rise of the mantuamaker can be fairly well dated in Scotland as in England. In the 17th century and earlier, women's outer clothing had been made by tailors. But at the end of that century a new fashion came in. This was the mantua, a very simple style in which the fabric was, to put it simply, draped rather than shaped. The fashion began in France where a law was passed in 1675 allowing women to make women's clothes independently of the tailors. Randle Holme noted that by 1688 the mantua had come into fashion in England. The earliest reference I have found to the mantua in Scotland is in Edinburgh town council minutes in 1692 when a Jean Montgomerie asked the town council for a licence, stating that she had been "at home and abroad" learning what she called the "new dresses". These were undoubtedly the new mantuas. In Dundee and Perth, too, from the early 18th century mantuamakers were both active and coming into conflict with the Tailors' Incorporations.

In 1725 a Perth mantuamaker Martha Ross was challenged by the Perth Tailors' Incorporation and told to desist. In Dundee in 1728 Mary Geddy had been stopped by the Tailors. But the women in Dundee persisted. After much harassment over the years several Perth mantuamakers took the tailors to court and in the end won their case. This appeal turned out to be most important for the mantuamakers' cause because the Court of Session ruled that mantua¬making was not tailoring. This set a precedent that the tailors could not challenge. In 1763 when Isabella Baird refused to continue paying to the Tailors' Incorporation in Stirling, the latter took legal advice. But counsel informed them that because of the ruling of the court - that mantuamaking was not tailoring - they could not extract a fee. From then on mantuamakers could not be forced to pay to their local Incorporation, although conflict between women and the Tailors' Incorporations continued into the 19th century.
Tailors had weakened their own case against the mantuamakers over the years, for they used women's labour when it suited them, for of course a woman's labour was cheaper than a journeyman's. But making use of this labour was fatal to the tailors for, having seen a chance, women grasped it; having learned skills they were not likely to unlearn them when the tailors no longer required them.
There are, of course, two issues here regarding women and the tailor trade; women making women's clothes, and women making men's clothes. By the end of the 18th century the mantua making issue was closed, but not it would appear the issue of women's involvement in making men's clothes. The first issue had been mainly about payment to the incorporations, but the second was more fully about women's involvement in the tailoring trade.
This latter issue was but part of the panic on the part of the Tailors' Incorporations as they saw the gradual demise of their privileges in a changing world. A reference in the Dundee tailors' records to cutters coming from London to take measurements for men's clothes to be made up in the large London capitalist workshops is significant. It would be interesting to find evidence of the extent of women's involvement in tailoring itself in early 19th century Dundee and Perth. The fact that the Dundee journeyman tailors were complaining about the use of women's labour suggests that they were involved. In the 18th century clothing construction for a significant number of women was an independent exercise; in other words many women ran their own small shops or ran their mantua-making businesses at home. In the nineteenth century, however, most women in the clothing trades making up garments were probably working for others.
• The results of that research have been published in Women and Work in Eighteenth Century Edinburgh (Macmillan, 1996)


Iain D. McIntosh, 2022