The First Women's Trade Union


March 1997
Vol. 106 No. 12

The First Women's Trade Union

The following account of a lecture on "Medieval Embroidery" by Mary ("May") Morris is taken from the DAILY PEOPLE of Dec. 24, 1909. The DAILY PEOPLE, which was published in New York City, was the official newspaper of the SLP at the time.

May Morris (1862-1938) was the second and youngest daughter of Jane and William Morris, the English artist and Socialist. According to William Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy, the young May Morris grew to become her father's principal studio assistant, and later "became in her own right, the leading embroiderer of her period and founded the Women's Guild of Arts." Active in the Socialist Movement, she was, in MacCarthy's words, "a part of [William] Morris' socialist history, working for the cause and almost always at his side." In addition, May Morris was an occasional contributor to COMMONWEAL, the official publication of the Socialist League, and in later life she edited the COLLECTED WORKS OF WILLIAM MORRIS and a separate collection of his writings, WILLIAM MORRIS, ARTIST, WRITER, SOCIALIST.

The DAILY PEOPLE's report on May Morris' lecture appeared under the same heading given here. Unfortunately, however, the precise date on which Morris delivered her lecture is not mentioned.

-- Editor

An interesting account of the first woman's trade union league known to history was given recently by Miss May Morris, daughter of William Morris, in a lecture on "Medieval Embroidery," under the auspices of Teachers' College, in the auditorium of the Horace Mann School.

The first woman's trade union league of which historic record remains is that of the embroiderers of Paris, whose written rules and regulations date back to the 13th century. The guild of embroiderers in London was even more famous than that of Paris, but no contemporary documents describing it remain.

To be strictly accurate, the Paris league included a few men, whose names are included in the list subscribed to the ordinances agreed to before the provost of Paris. Mostly, however, the guild was made up of "Alys, the wife of Simon, the parchment maker," "Erningarde, the wife of Henri, the enameler," "Blanche, the gay," "Eloise, the little," and so on through the long roll of embroidery mistresses.

The makers of ladies' pouches (the hanging pockets one sees in all the medieval prints) had a guild requirement which demanded a six years' apprenticeship. One mistress could have but one apprentice, which insured the high standard of the work. Several of the pouches are known to have taken two years to make, so fine was the work of this guild. Furthermore, the mistress must promise to use a high quality of gold in her gold embroidery, and must not adulterate her silk with linen or fiber of poor quality. If she was caught in any such artifice the faithless guild member was to be whipped.

The 10-hour day was not mentioned in the 13th century, but neither mistress nor apprentice was to work on "fair days," the city holidays or on church festival days. As the Catholic Church at that period observed many saint days and celebrations, these early trades unionists did not fare very badly for leisure moments.

At the beginning of the 14th century the embroiderers and makers of women's hats and headdresses met before the provost of Paris to renew their rules and regulations. These were stiff, indeed, for not only was a high standard of gold and quality of silk commanded, but stitches, too, came under the stern eye of the law. Stitches too large would condemn a piece of work as "false," and apparently disqualify the maker from continuing as a guild member.

"For not only can the work be falsified by mixing the silk, but by stitches, too, can it depart from truth," the regulation reads.

At the lecture there were shown on a screen fine examples of the embroidery produced at this period. Among others were the famous "Coat of the Popes," dating from 1280, which J. Pierpont Morgan bought, but afterward returned to its native cathedral.

"The old medieval embroideries, gorgeous in their coloring and remarkable in their execution, represent," said Miss Morris, "the serious aspect of needlework in its highest and most intellectual period." They were considered treasures worthy of a king, and the kings inventoried their embroidered sleeves, bags, canes and so on in their wills with their valued possessions. Contrary to common thought, however, the really beautiful work was not done by the chatelaine of the castle in her spare moments, but by long, thorough training in the workshops.