This cartoon from Punch magazine examines the working and living conditions of needlewomen in England, contrasting their lives with those of needlewomen working on the Continent. It is a comment on the needlewoman’s personal choices as well as the impact of social and political conditions on their lives.
‘At Home’, in England, the artist depicts a thin, ragged-clothed needlewoman. She is a contradiction – worn to the bone by working yet penniless, unable to feed herself. Pictured alone at night next to a gin house, it is implied that she is tempted by alcohol or has been consuming it; the cartoon intends us to see this as the consequence, rather than the cause, of her destitution. A policeman stops her on her way, suggesting that it was common for needlewomen to be in trouble with the law – whether real or suspected. At this time, it was deemed unrespectable for a woman to walk the streets alone, largely for fear of being mistaken for a prostitute. In the background stands a neglected child signifying the possibility of the needlewoman’s moral abandonment, or simply highlighting the poverty she is forced to live in due to poor wages.
The depiction of conditions ‘Abroad’ differs fundamentally. Here, the needlewoman is pictured within the domestic home enjoying a happy, stable life as wife and mother. There is plenty to eat – note the foodstuffs hanging from the ceiling and in the hands of the healthily plump figures – that implies that she receives a fair wage for her labour.