Like other momentous times in history, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has brought new words, as well as new meanings from old words, into our everyday language. We are going in and out of iso (isolation), shuttering our premises (closing premises due to lockdown) and social distancing (staying 1.5 metres apart) in an effort to stop the spread of the new disease COVID-19.
Industrialisation in Victorian England also generated new words from ‘shoddy’ to ‘sweater’ to ‘sandwich men.’ Variations of these words are still used today, sometimes with new connotations.
Sweated labour and piece work
In the 19th century, the system of clothing production began to be broken down into parts which could be easily learnt by the cheap semi-skilled labour of women, children and immigrants. This piece work could be done at home or in an attic or cellar under a supervisor called a ‘sweater’ or ‘garret master’. The sweater, who was the middle man providing the labour for the manufacturers, could pay low rates for each piece of work done and make a profit for themselves by the difference between the contracted prices and the wages they paid.
This means of production known as ‘sweating’ increased rapidly and became a dominant labour system in the poverty-stricken slums of the East End of London. Sounding familiar? The modern-day definition of a sweat shop in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.’
Shoddy and the age-old process of recycling
These sweated labourers of Victorian England may well have been using shoddy. In the early 19th century in West Yorkshire, you would have seen factories declaring themselves as ‘shoddy manufacturers’. But they weren’t promoting substandard goods, rather a type of recycled woollen yarn and cloth. Shoddy was produced by tearing old and discarded woollen rags into shreds, weaving them into strands, then making them into cloth. The technique was subsequently applied to the grinding up of cotton rags.
Although shoddy was well made, it was cheaper than cloth newly made from the fleeces of sheep and wasn’t what a gentleman would have wanted his new suit to be made from. In the British press in the late 19th century allusions were made to shoddy being passed off as newly woven wool. By the late 19th century, the word began to take on the negative connotations we associate with it today, and it became established as a term of disparagement.
A wonderful example of early recycling, the shoddy trade still exists today, although the cloth is more likely to be sold as ‘mungo’, the name of a similar product.
The sandwich men who tramped the streets
A familiar sight in the East End of London in the 19th century was men carrying advertising signs. Consisting of two placards fastened together at the top with straps supported on the shoulders of the carrier, the famous English author Charles Dickens described these men as ‘a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board’.
Sandwich boards disappeared in the early 20th century replaced by billboards, until the Great Depression of the 1930s when they made a comeback as an inexpensive way of advertising.
Although in the 21st century the use of sandwich boards has declined, a version of these boards, the A-board, is still used by local businesses to generate publicity or to promote special sales or events. Then, as now, sandwich boards are also used to convey important political messages calling for social change, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The English language is continually changing, shaped by history, usage and misuse. Next time you have to socially distance in iso, take some time to discover more about how history has shaped us and our language.
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This blog was inspired by Michael Mosley’s insightful historical reality TV series The Victorian Slum (aired October 2020 on SBS and available on SBS On Demand). This fascinating insight into the lives and language of 19th century London will have a lasting impact on you.
Oxford English Dictionary