Once Upon a Time: Wiarton Women on Strike

In Bruce County’s pioneer days women were restricted to traditional jobs, like homemaking and teaching (but only if unmarried).

By the 1880s work options were opening up. New roles became acceptable, such as nurse, librarian and dressmaker. For example, a photograph from 1888 shows Mary (Norman) MacArthur’s dressmaking class in Kincardine. She kept a notebook (now in the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre) containing poems, autographs and measurements for dresses she was making.

However, while women could find work outside the home they might not necessarily be paid, at least in real money. In 1891 in Wiarton the “tailoresses”, as they called themselves, went on strike. Their demand was simple: to be paid in actual cash, as Shirley McClure explained in her article in the 2001 Yearbook of the Bruce County Historical Society.

Now it wasn’t unusual, especially in the more remote settlements, for people to use the barter system, or “payment in kind”. When there was little money circulating, people would take their eggs and butter to the general store and trade it for merchandise.

But in Wiarton, merchants took the barter system one step further. Some employees had to take their wages “in kind”, that is, in orders for goods from local stores.

Things came to a head in July 1891, when ‘tailoresses’ went on strike against their employers—the merchants and master tailors—who wouldn’t pay in cash.

No shrinking violets, the women published a fiery notice in the July 3rd Wiarton Echo.

“To the Merchants and Tailors of Wiarton: The injustice (and may we say slavery) that we have had to bear from the merchants and master tailors of this town has led us to consider and determine a better state of affairs. We have been accustomed to take, in exchange for our labor, ill-bred orders on the stores and houses for whom the master tailors work, whether they be to our advantage or not. To be paid in cash is something almost unknown. To be dealt with and paid thus we consider as rank injustice, as others profit at our expense. We therefore determine at all costs to leave our several occupations until such time as the merchants and tailors together agree to pay us cash in full. We see no reason why Wiarton should be behind her neighbouring towns in this respect. What we seek is our sacred and individual rights; what we condemn is slavery and injustice.”

The editor of the Echo agreed, noting that the tailoresses were not striking for higher wages, but were asking only that they be paid “like other mechanics in money for their work and not in trade. This to our mind is a reasonable demand which should be acceded to. The “order” system might be excusable in a backwoods hamlet, where there was little or no money for anyone; but Wiarton has now outgrown this, and the system should be abolished.”

The tailoresses’ position, they said at a meeting on July 4, was that the “order system” of payment “had bondaged them too long”. They decided to form a union, “The Tailoresses’ Union of Wiarton” and resolved that no union member would work for any tailor who would not promise “half cash”, or work for any stores who would not do the same.

A week passed and the striking tailoresses managed to convince three storekeepers to agree to their demands. The problem was that the tailors were not united, some being willing to continue to take the “orders”. While some storekeepers agreed to pay all or part cash, others were holding out for the old system.

By August it seemed that not much ground had been gained. The Echo did report that the tailoresses held a picnic at Oxenden with about 100 friends and supporters present. Many were said to be “prominent citizens” who sympathized with their plight and supported them in their demand for their rights.

Shirley McClure could not confirm how the dispute was finally resolved.


by Robin Hilborn, Bruce County Historical Society