The splendour and misery of urban life

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Work: "My poor husband, you complain of your ten hours of work. I've been working fourteen hours, and my day is not yet over."
Joseph Swain (1820-1909)
1871, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
15.6 x 20.5 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Genre (188) , Print (10661)
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Keys to History

This illustration casts a glance at the daily lot of a number of urban families with modest incomes during the second half of the 19th century.

The print's caption tells us that the man shown works 10 hours a day. He may very well have worked in a factory because, in Canada toward the late 1880s, the average work day of factory workers was indeed 10 hours.

In the late 19th century, a mature male was expected to support his family. Domestic tasks like preparing meals, shopping and bookkeeping were the exclusive responsibility of women. The amount and type of housework varied along with the day, the season and the times. Pregnancy, the number of children or old people to take care of, unemployment and illness all helped to determine women's work loads. Also, if a man's salary was not high enough, his wife might be required to take a paying job.

  • What

    This woman is busy mopping the floor after just having done the laundry. These tasks, along with the job of washing dishes, were among the housewife's major household duties. The three mentioned here, which all required water, were particularly difficult in houses that had no running water.

  • Where

    In the late 19th century, the workplace of many working class housewives was not always very sanitary. Indeed many of their houses, which did not have adequate bathroom or bathing facilities, were breeding grounds for disease.

  • When

    During the second half of the 19th century, it was fairly common to find men like this one working very long hours. At the time, however, working class organizations fought to obtain better working conditions and shorter work days.

  • Who

    Married women had to depend on their husbands' salaries. The men, for their part, also depended on their wives' ability to save money and make the family income go as far as possible.