Everyday life of early industrial workers uncovered


Skeleton of a 19th-century woman who worked as a seamstress in Basel. © Karakostis et al. 2022

Much less is known about the everyday working life of women in earlier times than of men, because there are often hardly any records about it. The hand bones of workers who died in Basel in the 19th century are now providing new insights. Together with biographical data, typical traces of stress reveal what jobs these women carried out during their lifetime, and thus provide new insights into the living conditions of Basel's lower class in the 19th century.

In times past, the tasks and activities of men and women differed significantly, reflecting the social structure and roles of both sexes. But while historical records reveal a lot about the professional life of men, for example in the early days of industrialization, much less is known about the female counterpart. "The documentation of female employment in historical sources is mostly limited and vague," explain Alexandros Karakostis from the University of Tübingen and Gerhard Hotz from the Natural History Museum in Basel. "This reflects how Western societies and government regulations still perceived women's work up until the mid-20th century."

Muscle attachment points reveal stress

As a result, scholars are dependent on additional, indirect methods through which they can learn more about the concrete activities of women in earlier times. One of them is the precise analysis of muscle attachment points on the bones of the deceased. Because repeated stress characterizes these attachment points in a characteristic way, it is possible to read from them which movements and activities the person carried out during his or her lifetime. As early as 2017, Karakostis and his colleagues used 3D analysis to reconstruct the everyday work of 45 men from the lower class who were buried around 1850 in the Basel hospital cemetery.

Comparisons with historical records confirmed that these workers were exposed to very specific physical stress depending on their occupation. "For example, in construction workers, we found certain skeletal features that reflected heavy work and a firm grip," reports Karakostis. "In contrast, hand bones from men who did more fine motor work had more features that develop from frequent precision gripping movements of the thumb and forefinger."

Analysis Results
The skeletal analysis reflects the division of manual labor between women and men in the early industrial underclass. However, one can also distinguish between construction workers and men with precision engineering jobs, as well as maids from women with specific occupations. © Karakostis et al. 2022

Hand bones reveal women's activities

For their current study, the scientists have now also examined the bones of 38 women from Basel's lower class for typical signs of stress. In addition to the 3D analyzes of the hand bones, 70 volunteers helped compile related medical records and documented life histories of the women examined. "The vast majority of working women in Basel at that time were employed as maids or factory workers," explain Karakostis and Hotz. In addition, these women had to take care of their own household and children. Therefore, according to the hypothesis of the researchers, the working women of the lower class carried out significantly more diverse jobs than their men. Nevertheless, some particularly specific professions such as seamstress, seamstress or similar work associated with often repetitive hand movements should also be readable from the hand bones.

The analyzes did indeed show clear differences both between the sexes and within the workers. The hand bones of the women employed as maids showed significantly greater variability than those of men with comparably varied jobs. According to the scientists, this is also related to the fact that men themselves went through an apprenticeship or other training on the construction site and were trained for specific tasks, for example as carpenters, stonemasons or similar. Women, on the other hand, were mostly unskilled and were used for changing jobs. They also changed jobs more often than men, as Karakostis and Hotz explain.

However, a small subset of the women studied deviated from this pattern: their hand bones indicate that they were engaged in a more specialized activity characterized by repetitive, repetitive movements. "The results offer insightful insights into the daily life of working-class women and men in early industrial Basel and show how promising our methods are for studying the lives of earlier people in general," emphasizes Karakostis. The study also confirms the gendered division of labor during industrialization, one of the most defining periods of modern societies.

Source: Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; Article: American Journal of Biological Anthropology, doi: 10.1002/ajpa.24636

Recent Articles

Related Stories

Stay on op - Ge the daily news in your inbox