Milliner and diarist
The Diary of a Milliner, written by Belle Otis in 1867, provides a fascinating insight into the attitudes and experiences of a woman working in the millinery trade in the 19th century. Belle was a widow, who suddenly found herself in need of work in order to make a living:“I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something… But to do something which earns a living will mark me masculine and vulgar. I can live with my relatives, and retain my standing in society… I am told that it is not genteel and fashionable for young ladies to work.”
The struggle faced by Belle was not an unusual one. There was significant prejudice felt against women who entered into work, in spite of how widespread it had become for them to do so. Belle goes on in her writing to consider the importance of women’s rights, and to argue against the “masculine monopoly on business”.
Belle states that womenn of the 19th century were not brought up to go into work, but that the training of women in skilled trades, such as millinery or dressmaking, as well as business in general, would enable them to survive. As she passionately declares: “business will be independence”.