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“What Shall I Do?”: Paid Employment for Mormon Girls, 1927 — part 5: Domestic Art and Science

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 03, 2011

“What Shall I Do?”: Paid Employment for Mormon Girls, 1927

Agnes Lovendahl Stewart

The introduction to this series is posted here.

V. Domestic Art and Science

A very important field indeed – and one with many benefits to the person who is expert in either sewing or cooking, because it carries over so beautifully to make for economy and family health and happiness after marriage.

Those who have had special training in either domestic art or domestic science will find waiting for them positions in these departments in the elementary, junior, or senior high schools. But they must of course also have the educational qualifications required of teachers which we have discussed in our article on “The Teacher.”

There are other opportunities even more remunerative before the expert in either line. Various companies selling electric, gas, or coal ranges conduct cooking schools periodically, and the experts who give the instruction here are very well paid. The government, through its agricultural colleges in various states, employs field workers to go from town to town assisting the women to improve their home conditions, and teaching them better ways of cooking and sewing, giving them instruction in nutritious, balanced diet and the other scientific things mothers have to know nowadays.

The companies which make paper patterns, such as McCalls, Butterick, Pictorial review, etc., employ sewing experts to travel from city to city visiting the various stores in which their patterns are carried, to give instructions free to the customers of the store regarding the use of the patterns. Such experts need to know a great deal about fabrics, as well as about the use of the patterns they represent.

Dress designing! Doesn’t that give you a thrill? I think most girls would like to do that. And there is where the trouble lies – so many girls would love to design pretty things that there are far more ambitious in this line than there are jobs to be filled. In many magazines you will find correspondence schools of dress designing advertising their wares. A great many of them merely take your money without advancing you at all in this profession.

To be a dress designer requires creative imagination and artistic ability, as well as cleverness with the needle. Where one has this combination of talents one may make a splendid success in the designing of apparel or millinery. There is, however, almost no opportunity for this line of work in the West at present, because we have no factories or workshops making clothing for women in large quantities. The industry has a start in a small way in California, but the bulk of the ready-made dresses sold in the West are imported from eastern cities.

What of the profession of dress-making? Or tailoring? Neither is as profitable now as a few years ago. Formerly material was purchased for its wearing qualities. Mother purchased a heavy satin stiff enough to stand alone, or a close-wove pure wool cloth guaranteed to wear like iron. She made it herself, or had it made by a dressmaker. After two or three years, she took it apart and turned it, and made it up again. After another year or so she made it over for the oldest daughter, and from her it passed right down the family of girls.

But this is such a restless, hurried age! Something pretty to last the summer is what we ask for, or a party frock for only a few wearings. We don’t mind if the stuff doesn’t wear, just so it looks good when it is new, and has stylish lines. The dressmaker cannot hope to compete in price with the big manufacturers who make thousands of dresses of each style at a very rapid rate on electric machines.

Of course there is still some opportunity for the dressmaker, for there will always be some who will want their dresses made by hand to their personal taste. And there will be the hard to fit, who need special work done for them. But you will find, I think, that most women and girls either make their clothes themselves, or else buy them ready made at the shops.

A dressmaker who is clever and who has a following can make from $5 to $15 a day depending on the quality of her work and the prices her patrons are willing to pay. Usually she charges by the dress, the price depending on the amount of work it will require.

The millinery manager of one of our big department stores told me that in years gone by, he used to order three or four model hats from the East, and a lot of shapes and trimmings. Then the milliners in his department made up several hundreds of hats in each model. When a lady walked out, she was likely to meet her bonnet at every corner on the head of some other woman, but they did not seem to mind.

Now almost all of the hats are imported from the big eastern factories all ready to wear. Because they make them in large quantities they can make them cheaper and better than could the stores in their own departments here. One or perhaps two milliners are employed in each store to make alterations or to care for special orders. The wholesale millinery concerns employ milliners and apprentices learning the trade, but the work here is seasonal, the greatest rush being from July 1st until fall, with comparatively little demand at other times.

In the smaller cities one may often work up a good business in her own home in millinery and dressmaking. Reasonable prices, promptness of filling orders, neatness, an up-to-date knowledge of styles, and cleverness with the needle would be important factors in her success in such a business. It would take but very little capital to start, and one could work up a trade gradually as her work became more and more favorably known.

The department stores usually employ several girls to make alterations in dresses which the store sells. This work is not difficult, meaning usually the turning of hems, and slight changes to make the garment fit better.

The woman in her home may sometimes work up a catering business if she makes lovely cakes and dainty desserts which folks like to serve at parties. Some are very successful with small restaurants or tea shops. But there are a great many business problems connected with such enterprises, which must be most carefully considered.

Many girls who do exquisite embroidery work would like to sell it. Women’s exchanges offer an opportunity for this. The women’s exchange asks you for 50c usually as an entrance fee. Then you may place your work for sale, the exchange to receive 20% of the selling price for handling it. The profit for you in this work will usually be very small, as you can never get the prices you should for the exquisite stitches which take so much time.

But the beauty of following either domestic art or domestic science as a profession lies in the wonderful way this profession serves you after marriage. You may never have any use for typewriting or shorthand after marriage, but you will always have use for sewing and cooking. They are arts which make for happiness and contentment!



3 Comments »

  1. I loved the tone of this installment. The author is pragmatic yet encouraging. Her perspective of the changes brought about by mass-produced goods was also very interesting to read.

    Comment by kew — February 3, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  2. “Pragmatic yet encouraging” — that’s a pretty good evaluation of the entire series, isn’t it?

    When I started typing this I expected it to be about “hired girls” in domestic service since household help was still very prevalent in even moderate homes in the ’20s. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many suggestions for educational, commercial and industrial work that was still considered domestic because they called on skills that were still primarily part of the household realm.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  3. “Dress designing! Doesn’t that give you a thrill?”

    It does give me a thrill; in fact I sew so that I will be prepared in a few years to be able to sew my daughter’s dance dresses. I don’t really care for the designs of special occasion dresses coming “from the eastern cities”.

    Comment by mahana — February 3, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

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