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Encouragement of Home Industries

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


My subject may perhaps seem a little out of place here in the midst of an Exposition in which the highest triumphs of mechanical skill and invention are shown in such perfection, but a moment’s reflection will show this was not so. For in the first place this Exposition has endeavored throughout to give honor to whom honor was due, and therefore has traced back in every department to its earliest source the beginnings of those arts and industries which have gradually been evolved by the hard toil and concentrated thought of many humble workers, until they are now the wonder and admiration of the civilized world.

We can here watch the gradual stages of transformation from the rude canoe, hollowed with flint implements, to the gigantic liners which now annihilate the ocean distance between the continents; we are shown the quaint devices of the cave men of antiquity leading on, step by step, to the noble works of art which are the pride of the nation who produced the artists; we see the first rough attempts to make wearing material leading on to the fine linens and woolens and silks and brocades of modern times. All the triumphs that civilization can boast of must be traced back to the ingenious contrivances of our forefathers and especially of our foremothers under very adverse circumstances, and with very few resources.

And here in this Woman’s Building I may be pardoned for again drawing attention to the facts which Mrs. Potter Palmer has so eloquently pointed out — that it is women who, for the most part, invented the means of carrying on domestic industries, that men only took them up and developed them on a larger scale when they saw there was a profit to be made out of them.

But there is another special interest attaching to home industries as connected with this Exposition, and that is, that you find amongst its choicest treasures are exhibits by human hands alone. Look at the paintings, the fine embroideries, the lace work, the carvings in this very building. Look at the homespun skirt I am wearing, made in the wilds of Donegal where it was presented to me a few weeks ago;  this homespun cloak from Sutherlandshire, this fine crochet work from Clones, this point-lace handkerchief from Youghall. Is it possible for such work as this to be produced by machinery, however delicate? No; let us be thankful that the work of trained human fingers is still superior in many directions to the iron monsters devised by human brains, and that there are manufactures which can not be turned out by the dozen, and where every value consists in their not being so turned out. But then the question arises, Is it desirable to encourage or continue the existence of these home industries, which are produced at the expense of so much more labor than the machine goods, and which in comparison cannot be paid so well for the time and toil and outlay given, or should they be regarded even as these beautifully illuminated manuscripts of bygone days, things to be admired and treasured, but the production of which now would mean willful waste of life.

Now as far as the starting or maintenance of such home industries in a comparatively young country like this simply from a commercial point of view would be a doubtful proceeding, as far as I can understand, and I speak under correction. It is very different in the old countries on the other side, and especially in agricultural districts where there is so much difficulty in getting the people to remain on the land. A few extra shillings there makes all the difference between want and comfort, and you can very easily mark the difference between districts where such industries exist and those in which they are not to be found. My experience is gathered from Scotland and Ireland, but I imagine the same result is found in other countries. The special field where home industries are of peculiar use as a source of maintenance, is in the country there where women and children can employ their leisure time in carrying it on and where men can do so also through the winter. Then when a bad season comes the people have something else to fall back on besides the precarious and often scanty crops. It was in times of famine that most of the lace-making industries had their origin, benevolent ladies setting themselves to teach the people some work whereby to gain a little money, and the quick Celtic fingers learning the art rapidly and successfully. And it was in a time of distress that a clergyman’s wife, Mrs. Webster, taught the women of Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire, how to make the only hand-made lace which is still produced in Scotland. Other ladies have perceived in the home-made stuffs and knitting made from their own wool possibilities for a wider market, and have instructed the people so to dye it and weave it as to make it attractive to the fashionable public. I knew a lady in Invernesshire, who for many, many years has made her own house a sort of center and depot for knitting and home-made stuffs. She instructed herself also in how to make home-made dyes from vegetables and mosses, like Mrs. Ernest Hart has done so successfully, and revived this knowledge among the people and sold their goods for them.

A large knitting industry in the Northwest of Ireland, though poorly paid, supports in large measure hundreds and hundreds of families who have but little other resource than harvest work, which the men go to seek in Scotland. The people walk miles to get this work. This home-spun industry is also one that supports a whole district. It is an increasing industry, and we hope that our Irish Industries Association has been able to find a way of improving it with a large shirt and underclothing industry of the North of Ireland, the Shetland knitting of the Shetland Isles.

I have only mentioned these examples to show you why I and others are such enthusiastic supporters of home industries in our own country if only from a commercial point of view. If you could see these poor people clamoring for work, if you could see the earnestness with which they put themselves to it when they do get it, you could have a notion of the comfort and brightness that the sale of their goods in that Irish Village yonder has brought to many and many an Irish home, you would not wonder at our enthusiasm.

But there is another side to these industries besides the commercial one, and this is one which applies to all countries alike, and even if there were no money to be made out of them, I would be a strong upholder of them because of their educational and moral training. I know you recognize this to the full in America by having manual and technical instruction introduced into your educational establishments; but nowhere do I think is the principle sufficiently recognized that our hands need training as much as our heads and that training in some home-industry prepares the boy or girl for skilled paying work hereafter, and not only does it train the hand but the eye and the sense of beauty, too. The young people who are taught to draw, carve and model and do carpentry will also surely wish to beautify their own homes and thus become more attached to home life, and more likely to make good husbands and good wives, good fathers and good mothers and good citizens. Then again think of the happiness it brings into a life if there is some useful hobby to pursue, no listless hanging about if the weather is wet, no “I’ve nothing to do mother,” and in consequence a habit is formed of healthy pleasurable occupation which will prove a valuable safeguard against the attractions of the bar in after life, in times of sickness, of sorrow and of old age too, the knowledge of some handicraft which will divert the thoughts from self is a possession not to be despised. So for all reasons the cultivation of home arts and industries among persons of all classes is greatly to be encouraged both for what they prevent as well as for what they promote and for their influence on both national and individual character.

But in order that they may obtain their full scope, whether in commercial, educational, artistic or moral grounds, they need some organizing.

The tendency of the present day is to organize, perhaps to over organize, but in this case it is certainly necessary to make some arrangement whereby the country workers can be put on a level with town workers, and whereby those scattered in rural districts can obtain good designs and can be put in touch with a good market. A considerable movement to endeavor to effect this has been noticeable in the British Isles during the last years, and several associations has been the result. There has been the Royal School of Art Needlework, under Her Royal Highness, Princess Christian, which has had for its object to train workers and to spread beautiful designs and work and the taste for them, and the result of that school and of the sister school in Ireland may be seen in the British show case in this building.

Then there is the Recreative Evening Schools Association, which has for its object to enable boys and girls who have left school to continue their education, and they, recognizing the fact that simple plodding book-work is very unattractive to young people who have been working all day, have introduced into their system the instruction of various crafts and hand-work, as well as other kinds of recreative instruction. The Home Arts and Industries Association touches, however, the country districts of which I have spoken more directly than the other two I have mentioned. They have in the last few years started over five hundred classes in England, Scotland and Ireland, where wood-carving, metal work, embossed leather, basket-work, and such like have been taught. This association has done much good, its aims have been chiefly from the artistic and moral standpoint, rather than from the commercial, though it holds most successful exhibitions and sales annually.

The Scottish and the Irish Industries Associations with which I am chiefly associated, lay great stress on the commercial side, as well as on the educational. Roughly speaking, we may say that both associations have two main aims, one being to open up a market for the goods produced by the peasant workers of Scotland and Ireland, the other being to educate them to keep on producing better and better work and such work as will meet the demands of the public.

In both associations we pride ourselves on not being charitable societies; we are educational and commercial, and we are striving, only striving, to help the people to help themselves through honest work, and in both associations we unite persons of all politics and creeds.

It is to objects such as I have mentioned that every penny of the surplus from the Irish Village will be devoted. I have had more than one opportunity of speaking in Chicago of the object of the Irish village, and of the association which erected it, before now. I only wish, therefore, to take this opportunity of thanking you, ladies, and through you the public of Chicago, for the kind interest that you have taken in our work as there exemplified.

I can assure you that the kindness shown, both by the people of Chicago and by the press, has been very warmly appreciated by the people of Ireland, and on their behalf, of our association and for myself, I tender you my most grateful thanks. I am proud, indeed, of the success of the village, and I am free to speak of that success, as it is mainly due to first, the preliminary organization of the late Mr. Peter White, and then to the wonderful executive ability, tact and untiring zeal shown by Mrs. Peter White. I am proud, too, in a special way of the village, for it can be truly said to represent the people of Ireland, in as much as it has the personal support of every class, creed and politics in Ireland, from the leaders downward. This is, indeed, a proud boast to make, but it is a true one, and it has been a very marked feature of our association throughout and one which it will be our constant aim to preserve. If corroboration of my word on this point is required, it can be had from the Lord Mayor of Dublin on the one side, and the Hon. Horace Plunket, M.P., on the other, who are both in Chicago at this time, and who are both on our committees.

But there is another thing in connection with the village of which I am most thankfully proud. I am proud that the people of Ireland have been so well represented as they have been by the village staff. The enthusiasm, the true patriotism, the loyal unselfishness and brightness which they have thrown into their work, is past all praise, and their country may well be proud of them.

The forty Irish girls whom we brought out with us, go back the pure, true, sunny maidens that came out with us, and I know that my friends on the Board of Lady Managers will rejoice that I am able to state this without fear of challenge, but in a spirit of deep thankfulness. And so once more I thank you, and may I also thank you for favors to come–we shall not be content if we are only able to open up an American market to our poor workers this year — that would have been but opening the door of hope to shut it again in their faces. No, we hope to establish a permanent depot for Irish goods under Mrs. Peter White’s management, and I would like to solicit your interest — and your custom, for that. We do not ask you to buy for charity; we only ask you to buy what you deem to be good and beautiful of its kind; but in buying that, and thus benefiting yourselves, I will guarantee that you will bring sunshine and hope into many a heart and home beyond the seas.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 743-746.