The great and the good
Fancy needlework has always been a great outlet for upper class ladies and the eighteenth century was no exception.
It was very fashionable for the ladies of Marie Antoinette's court to employ stilettos and punches for "parfilage", also known as "drizzling" or "ravelling".
This craze crossed the chanel and rather than making an item of needlework English upper class ladies spent their time unpicking gold and silver lace from their gowns and cloaks, unravelling old shoulder-knots, brandebourgs, and epaulets.
Discarded brocade dresses trimmed with gold and silver lace were pulled from attic trunks to be stripped of their value.
Prince Leopold took it up and apparently spent most of his leisure hours in drizzling. He used a tortoiseshell drizzling box that had belonged to his wife. Inside this neat little box were spools upon which the silver and gold threads were wound prior to being taken to a jeweller who purchased them. With such Princely approval drizzling was much in vogue, never mind the destruction of beautiful fabrics and tapestries
You could purchase "pantins" specially made-up of gold or silver lace so that you might have the pleasure of unravelling them, thread by thread. Gold lace was made from real gold in this period; Dutch metal had hardly been invented.
Drizzling was also done by genteel ladies who who needed money. Madame de Genlis, in her " Memoirs," wrote how a diligent lady might unravel enough old gold and silver lace to sell for as much as 80 livres in one year.
The unfortunate and the bad
If you have ancestors who were in a workhouse or a prison during the 18th and 19th centuries, then they may well have been employed at junk and oakum picking.
Junk was the name given to old ropes and cables once used on ships. These were cut up and then finely picked into fibres to create oakum. Oakum was then mixed with tar or crease and used as caulking to fill in the gaps between the wooden planks of ships to make them watertight.
Picking oakum was used as a punishment in prison, and in workhouses as a way of able-bodied inmates earning their board and lodging.
Prisoners serving hard labour would cut the rope into two foot lengths and then strike it with a heavy mallet to remove the very hard tar in which it was coated. Once this was done, it was passed to prisoners who were serving a lesser sentence: men, women and children. They then had to uncoil, unravel, unpick, and shred the rope into fibres. The work was monotonous, unpleasant and created sores on blackened fingers. The rope was held in place by a iron hook held between their knees as they worked. Sometimes they would use an iron nail or spike, or a piece of tin or knife to work on the fibres, but fingers were found to be the best.
In 1824 at one prison there was a complaint by the authorities that picking oakum was too easy. Punishment by the treadmill should be preferred to oakum picking. It was argued that 'the former had a physical and moral effect, while the latter sedentary work which gave opportunities for ideal and immoral conversation'; and in 1823 at the Halstead County Bridewell, it was reported that "the prisoners have hitherto been employed in untwisting and picking oakum, but a tread mill is now erecting."
Some prisons stopped oakum picking entirely, swapping it for the treadmill or solitary cells, while others still enforeced it, particularly for women.
After the Poor Act of 1834, workhouses began to employ their inmates at oakum picking to pay for their food and lodging. Often very elderly people with their arthritic fingers or children were forced to work at the oakum.
In 1862, girls under 16 at Tothill Fields Bridewell had to pick 1 pound (0.45 kg) a day, and boys under 16 had to pick 1 1⁄2 pounds (0.68 kg). Over the age of 16, girls and boys had to pick 1 1⁄2 and 2 pounds (0.68 and 0.91 kg) per day respectively.
Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist mentions the extraction of oakum by orphaned children in the workhouse. The oakum extracted was for use on navy ships, and the instructor said that they were serving the country.
At Coldbath Fields Prison, the men's counterpart to Tothill Fields, prisoners had to pick 2 lb (0.91 kg) per day unless sentenced to hard labour, in which case they had to pick between 3 and 6 lb (1.4 and 2.7 kg) of oakum per day.
In some dockside areas entire families of oakum pickers that were very poor or desperate, bought the old rope from marine store dealers at 1½d. per pound and sold it back at 2d. per pound. A very sorry income for the work involved.
Oakum picking made your fingers bleed and pickers developed thick black scars on their hands from this work. They also suffered tendonitis, bursitis, nerve damage, and all those other conditions that result from repetitive stress motions.
The introduction of iron ships meant the demand for oakum declined, and this, with more enlightened attitudes to punishment and looking after the poor, meant the practice of oakum picking was dropped from the workhouse and prison régimes.
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