June 11, 2011

Victorian call centres

Victorians had qualities which mark them out even to this day: thrift, hard work, a practical nature, a mentality of self-help.  Such qualities, I believe, are borne out of the nature of their society; there was no social security network, for example, to go to when they fell on hard times.  If there was no family to help, then people in distress would have to rely on their own resources.

Widows were especially vulnerable.  Losing a husband meant they had to become the breadwinner overnight.  For women of the lower classes, going out to work was not so remarkable and it was relatively easy to earn money.  The major forms of employment were domestic service or factory work.  For the middle class woman, however, paid employment was simply not an option.  The most she could hope for was a position as governess or companion to old ladies.  Both meant living in and a drop in social status.  And the money earned would have been peanuts.

One highly practical solution for such widows was the practice of giving them a sewing machine as a present.  This was not charity and allowed the widow to become self-sufficient.  Working from home, the widow maintains respectability, and performs a task considered appropriate for women.  She could receive orders for new garments or domestic textiles, or take in alterations.

But why bother with a sewing machine?  Close needlework ruins your eyesight (remember, they only had gas or oil lamps then) and you get a hump back bending over your work.  Some projects would take days or weeks to finish.  A much better alternative to the donated sewing machine is – wait for it – a telephone. 

A writer identifying herself (I think we can safely assume the writer is female) as “Self Help” sent in a suggestion to an 1884 periodical,[1] saying that the gift of a telephone connection to the central exchange is an inordinately better income generator than a sewing machine.  Here are some of the ways the widow can exploit her telephone (and simultaneously exploit her friends):
  1. Send out flyers to her lady friends that she can now order goods on their behalf from local traders, who are also connected by telephone.  They might order the following: flowers, fish, theatre tickets, coal, wine.  The writer believes that traders would be willing to pay the widow 10% commission for all orders she puts their way.
  2. She could allow merchants and their employees to use her telephone for business purposes.  They pay a few pennies to the widow and telephone the office to say they would be an hour late. 

Given a choice, I would opt for the telephone.  It’s much easier than labouring over a sewing machine that’s not even electric.  Turning your front parlour into a one-woman call centre has a lot going for it – intense networking with friends and local business people; no commuting every day; being at home to look after children.

This idea surfaced during the telephone's first decade in Britain.  It shows amazing entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking on how to put a new technology to good use.

I still maintain that the technological practices and gadgets that we consider ultra modern and super digital are not in the slightest bit new or original – they are merely faster/bigger/cheaper versions of what the Victorians did before us.

[1] Work and leisure: a magazine devoted to the interests of women.  London: F. Kirby, 1884.


Anonymous said...

Love this, classic example of Victorian ingenuity!

Anonymous said...

Love this, classic example of Victorian ingenuity!

Elizabeth said...

Yes, isn't it? I think we could do with more 'Victorian ingenuity' in these straitened times that we live in.

Thanks for commenting!

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.