Match-Box Making At Home

Clementina Black (1853 – 1922) was a Victorian writer, feminist and devoted trade unionist, who worked tirelessly for women’s rights at work and for women’s suffrage.

One of the causes she championed throughout the mid-1890’s was the plight of the women home-workers of the East End of London, who often took in outwork from the various factories in the district, and who were paid the bare minimum for the work that they undertook.

One of the common trades that these women undertook was match-box making and, on Friday 5th January 1894, The Mothers’ Companion published the following article, written by Clementia Black, which highlighted the awful conditions under which some of these home-working women were forced to labour whilst, at the same time, illustrating the number of hours they were forced to work in order to earn what, in fact, amounted to little more than a pittance.

Her article also compared the conditions and the wages of these women, with the conditions and the wages of the girls who actually worked in the East End factories, whilst offering a few suggestions as to what might be done to tackle the shameful issue of the match-box making homeworkers of Victorian East London:-


“The trade of making match-boxes at home is, I trust, a dying one; but as, alas! there are still hundreds of women and children engaged in this occupation, I should like to tell the readers of the MOTHERS’ COMPANION a little about the hardships connected with the work.

A couple of years or so back there was quite a nest of matchbox makers in the “Old Nichol Street” district, close to Shoreditch Church, London. This little patch of slums had the character of being as poor, as vicious, and as unsanitary as any in the metropolis.


The district is melancholy enough, but not so frightfully depressing as a group of little sordid, modern East-end streets, in which may be found another colony of box-makers.

In these streets live numbers of home workers, all in the deepest poverty.

Reports attribute a very bad character indeed to the inhabitants of this square quarter of a mile; but personally I met with nothing to confirm it in the two visits of several hours which I made, and I have known highly respectable working women who have lived for years in this area, and who were very unwilling to move.


All the women admitted me readily to their rooms – for the most part painfully squalid abodes – showed me their work, and answered my questions fully, civilly, and almost eagerly, and not one of them begged.

Thousands of match-boxes pass in, unmade, every week, to little streets in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, and pass out again, completed.

The women fetch out from the factory, or the middle-woman’s, strips of notched wood, packets of coloured paper and sandpaper, and printed wrappers; they carry back large, but light bundles of boxes, tied up in packets of two dozen.

Inside their rooms the boxes, made and unmade, and half made, cover the floor, and fill up the lack of furniture.


I have seen a room containing only an old bedstead in the very last stage of dirt and dilapidation, a table, and two deal boxes for seats. The floor and the window-sill were rosy with magenta match-boxes, while everything else, including the boards of the floor, the woodwork of the room and the coverings of the bed, was of the dark grey of ingrained dust and dirt.

But the woman who lived here was quite cheerful; it was a sunny day, and her boxes could be dried without need of a fire.

She worked while she talked, as such women always do, and indeed must do, for with them it is a grim truth that “time is money.”

A match-box maker sitting at a table at work.
A Match-Box Maker At Work. From The Mothers’ Companion, Friday, 5th January, 1894. Copyright, The British Library Board.


At first sight, it is a pretty enough spectacle to see a match-box made; one motion of the hand bends into shape the notched frame of the case, another surrounds it with the ready-pasted strip of printed wrapper, which by long practice is fitted instantly without a wrinkle, then the sandpaper or the phosphorus paper, pasted ready beforehand, is applied and pressed on so that it sticks fast.

A pretty high average of neatness and finish is demanded by most employers, and readers who will pass their matchboxes in review will seldom find a wrinkle or a loose corner of paper.

The finished case is thrown upon the floor; the long narrow strip which is to form the frame of the drawer is laid upon the bright strip of ready-pasted paper, then bent together and joined by an overlapping bit of the paper; the edges of paper below are bent flat, the ready-cut bottom is dropped in and pressed down, and before the fingers are withdrawn they fold down the upper edges of the paper inside the top.

Now the drawer, too, is finished and cast on the floor to dry.

A match-box maker surveying a pile of boxes that she has made.
A Good Day’s Work. From The Mothers’ Companion, Friday 5th January, 1894. Copyright, The British Library Board.


All this, besides the preliminary pasting of wrapper, coloured paper, and sandpaper, had to be done 144 times for 2 1/4 pence – and even this is not all, for every draw and case has to be fitted together and the packets tied up with hemp.

Nor is the work done then, for paste has to be made before it can be used, and boxes, when they are ready, have to be carried to the factory.

Let any reader, however deft, however nimble-fingered, consider how many hundred times in a day he or she could manage to perform all these minute operations.

But practice gives speed, especially when stimulated by the risk of starvation.

The real rate of pay for any work must be determined not by the price per piece as it seems to the outsider, but by the number of pieces that can be turned out by a skilled hand in an hour or in a day; and this is a point difficult to arrive at, because most home workers work irregular hours and, more or less, intermittently.


A married woman with children will tell you that she works from six o’clock till midnight, but when you come to examine more closely you find that, out of that, time some is employed in clothing and feeding the children.

On the other hand, it is more than likely that the children help in the work.

It is not possible to measure the pay of such a woman.

Another difficulty is that many women have no clear idea how many gross they make in a day, or how much money they take in a week.

It is evident that, only in the case of a single woman working at the trade as a trade, not as a supplement, can the true figures be arrived at.


I had been told that some girls were for a little time on show at the People’s Palace, making match-boxes in the presence of the public, and that they made at the rate of twelve gross a day.

Allowing 2d. per day for necessary deductions, for fire, paste, and hemp, this gives twelve shillings and sixpence a week – a poor pittance enough, but considerably above the wage earned by hundreds of girls in East-end factories at jam-making, sweet-making, tailoring, rope-making, and such-like industries.

While sitting watching the quick fingers of one young unmarried woman I visited, I began to calculate.

Eight gross at 2 1/4 pence is 6d. per day – minus about two and a half pennies for paste, hemp and firing gives one shilling three and a half pence per day.


How many hours work?

Five o’clock to nine o’clock – sixteen hours, from which an hour perhaps might be deducted for meals; another half-hour would be taken up in going to the factory, but that must be reckoned as part of her working day. 1s. 31/2d. for fifteen hours.

And this for an exceptionally quick hand, able to get as much work as she could do, and never kept waiting!

It is clear enough that if this was about the best pay earned (and I think that those who best know the women working in this trade would confirm my opinion that it was) the ordinary rank and file of match-box makers cannot, at a rate of 2 1/4d. per gross, be earning above 3/4d an hour.

A mother and her daughter taking the matchboxes to the factory.
Taking The Match-Boxes To The Factory. From The Mothers’ Companion, Friday, 5th January, 1894. Copyright, The British Library Board.


A worker who makes match-boxes by hand inside the factory has not to provide the fire for drying, the hemp for tying, or the paste.

Nor has she in any instance, I believe, to do the “boxing up,” that is, to slide the drawer into its case.

She would work probably fifty-six hours a week, and is paid 2 1/2d. instead of 2 1/4d. per gross.

A girl as quick as she whom I have quoted above, would probably under these circumstances make a gross per hour, and would then – supposing she were never kept waiting for work – earn 11s. 7d. per week.

Of course, very few workers do, as a matter of fact, work so quickly, and I have never, myself, known an instance of a factory worker of this kind whose weekly wage averaged eleven shillings.


This state of things has long existed in the poorer parts of London, and in the interest of the workers generally it is much to be desired that the industry should be transferred – as it must sooner or later be – to the factory “hand,” who even now, in spite of the competition from without, earns as much or more per gross as the home worker, while she does less work to each gross and is free from the deductions necessitated by home work.


The home worker is driven by poverty not only to work, in her own expressive phrase, “all the hours that God sends her,” but also, as far as she can, to keep her children working with her.

Home work involves child-work, and without child-work it could not be so ill-paid as it is.

It offers a direct incentive to parents to keep their children from school; it wastes time, labour, and money; time and labour in carrying to and fro, in “boxing-up” – for every box must be re-opened to put in the matches – and in tying up the parcels; time and money in the purchase of hemp and the provision of innumerable separate fires and boilings of paste.


Finally, it does not provide a wage at which a woman can house, clothe, and feed herself healthily – to say nothing of comfort.

Such a form of work cannot survive, and the sooner it dies the better.


The directors of the Salvation Army, with their usual keen eye to the business possibilities, as well as the religious possibilities of their undertakings, perceived the sympathetic attitude of the public mind on this subject, and established a match-making factory with the avowed object of paying better prices to the boxmakers.

Fourpence a gross is the price paid for large boxes, and 3d. for a smaller size, the matches being sold at the same price as those for which 2 1/2d. or 2 1/4d. are given.

Of course, these prices are better than a uniform rate of 2 1/2d., but I cannot help thinking that there is still room for some shrewd philanthropist to “go one better,” without losing money.


Let us hope that better times await the poor match-box maker.

Much may be done among themselves to improve their condition as to wages, yet much more might be done by an earnest, philanthropic public desirous of practically carrying out towards them the urgent commands of Christ, the great Philanthropist, to help and care for the poor and neglected wherever found.”