Desperate to find a steady source of income, Nathalie Gumpertz joined the force of nearly 35,000 dressmakers who worked in New York during the 1870's.
Many dressmakers were like Nathalie: women who, for whatever reason--death, divorce, abandonment or simply never getting married--didn't have the support of a male wage-earner. For these, and other women in the nineteenth century, finding any job, let alone one that paid a "livable" wage, could be a struggle.
Dressmakers, though, commanded some of the highest fees earned by female workers: Nathalie earned roughly $7.50 a week, which was enough for her to make rent and send her children to school.
The relative ease of setting-up a dressmaking shop, especially one based out of the home, was also quite appealing. Though sewing machines, which ranged in price from $19.50 for Demorests's New Family Sewing Machine to $75 for a Wheeler and Wilson, were hardly affordable, the advent of credit enabled less affluent women to purchase machines on installment plans. Some women also cut costs by purchasing second-hand sewing machines. The other essentials of the trade--paper patterns and drafting systems--were far cheaper to purchase.
The increased availability of sewing machines and rise of mass produced garments in the mid-1880's seemingly threatened home-based dressmakers. The trade nonetheless managed to survive through the end of the nineteenth century, in part because the ornate styles favored in women's fashion couldn't be churned out in factories. And while some customers began doing basic work on their dresses, they still turned to professionals to handle the knottier parts of the job.