MP-1992.18.1 | Two sisters holding shuttles, QC, about 1890

Two sisters holding shuttles, QC, about 1890
About 1890, 19th century
Silver salts on metal (iron) - Wet collodion process
8.3 x 5.4 cm
Gift of Mme Rita Beaudet
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  female (19035) , Photograph (77678) , portrait (53878)
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Keys to History

In 1867 live-in domestic service was the most common type of paid work available to a young woman. Positions included benefits such as room and board and sometimes second-hand clothing passed down from the employer. But the hours were long, servants had almost no privacy, and their uniforms were a constant reminder of their inferior status. Not surprisingly, when factory jobs became available, women left domestic service in droves.

Greater independence must have been the draw, since the cost of food, rent and a suitable wardrobe made factory work less financially rewarding. Manufacturers consistently paid women less than men. For example, in 1885 the average annual wage for men in Ontario was $394.34; for women it was $133.09.

Employers defended wage discrimination by arguing that men worked to support a family, while "girls" worked only for pin money. When laws prohibiting these practices were implemented, employers responded by creating a gender-segregated workplace. After limiting women to certain tasks, they said that the work they performed was worth less.

  • What

    These young women are holding shuttles, which are used to weave cloth. A shuttle carries the woof thread back and forth between the warp threads.

  • Where

    The carpet and backdrop tell us that this portrait was taken in a photographer's studio, not in the subject's workplace.

  • When

    This picture was taken in 1890, just before they were about to leave Montreal for work in the textile mills in Massachusetts.

  • Who

    These two women are sisters. Perhaps they had this tintype made for their parents to remember them by while they were away.