By Anna Bellavitis
The old industry of glass beads – the ‘conterie’ – primarily developed starting with the modern age, as the colored beads were used as trading tokens in the African markets. The beads were manufactured by cutting light perforated glass rods into very small tubes, or by heating with an oil lamp and casting solid glass of various shapes and colors around a metal wire. When the soft glass cooled the metal wire was extracted, creating the hole for threading. Even today on the African coasts one can find antique Venetian “a lume” beads, and the tradition has been preserved of manufacturing objects of a great variety of types out of beads which now are mostly made of plastic; in South Africa you can find a full size statue of Nelson Mandela made from iron wire and beads.
Ramus. “Ouvrières en perles à Venise”, incisione da un dipinto di Cecil Ch. van Haanen, in Jules Gourdault, A travers Venise, Librairie de l’art, Paris et London, 1883
On Murano and in Venice in the 1800s, women worked at manufacturing “a lume”, as well as sorting, and most of all in the threading of the beads in long lines, which were used in making necklaces and ornaments of all kinds. According to the Rilievo degli abitanti di Venezia of 1869, 2,095 women were employed in the threading of glass beads: apart from on Murano, the threading of beads was concentrated in the poorest areas of Venice, the sestieri of Castello and Cannaregio and the Giudecca, areas of high population density and decaying housing. The only significant concentration of female workers was at the Manifattura Tabacchi (tobacco factory), with 1,232 employees.
Small business and home-based work were, for 19th century morality, preferable to the concentration of young women in a factory, but, in these “extreme offshoots of the economic organism”, Giuseppe Toniolo found “uncertain, hostile relations between those who provide and those who receive work”, where the defense of work and salary happened through “fraud surrounding raw materials, breaking of contracts, moving from one client to another”.
In short, nothing to do with some form of collective unionizing, at least in appearance, because actually, contrary to what we might have expected, when in the summer of 1872 Venice, like many other Italian industrial centers, was the scene of a series of workers’ strikes and demonstrations, even the home-based bead threaders, the impiraresse, joined the protests!
On August 14, 125 workers of “perle a lume” sent a petition to the Mayor of Venice, requesting a raise in compensation. However, wrote the Questore, when it came to these workers who were not part “of any factory”, “being paid for their work not at a fixed price but in accordance with the fineness and the quantity of the same, it will be quite difficult to achieve this improvement”. A week later two petitions were again sent by the impiraresse to the Mayors of Murano and Venice, in which they denounced the reduction of their “miserable salary” caused by the competition between the factories, for which “working a full and long summer day, and sometimes some hours in the evening and the night, one is recompensed with 30 or 35 cents at most”.
On September 2, according to the Carabinieri’s report, “at 7:30 AM, on Via Garibaldi in this city, in the sestiere of Castello, about 50 women gathered from among those who work at threading beads, and went down that street and the adjacent calli, arriving at the conterie factory, situated in Via Garibaldi, […] and loudly demanded that the workers employed at the factory abandon their work, and this is what was immediately done. They then passed through the calle called Secco Marina, in the sestiere of Castello, where the majority of the maestre who teach the threading of beads live, calling for all the students to be released, and the strikers threw stones at the windows of some of the maestre who opposed them”.
The protest did not have any effect, but it did cause quite an uproar. A year later the Prefect responded to the request coming from Rome for clarification that these ‘girlies’ were accustomed to working in their homes, in groups of ten or twelve, chatting amongst themselves and continually complaining about their condition. In truth, the Prefect confirmed the exasperation of “these poor women” who “see their own earnings trimmed for the greed of the maestre or the owners”. The Prefect’s statement clarifies that this relationship was not didactic in nature, between ‘maestre’ – teachers – and ‘scolare’ – students – but was rather one of employment, between ‘mistre’, who supplied the raw materials, set the prices and maintained the relationship with the bead factories, and the women who worked at home, or in small workshops.
The establishment of new industrial complexes, such as the Baschiera match factory (1878), the Contonficio (1882), and the Mulino Stucky (1883) at the end of the 1800s would absorb some quantity of female manual labor, but the occupational structure would not be significantly modified. The population census of 1901 shows, under the heading “Artisans who perform work for themselves or others”, 1571 women in the Provincia di Venezia, of whom 845 were in the City, and, under the heading of “Workers”, 3055 women in the Provincia, of whom 1571 were in the City. In 1911 there were in Venice, in the category of “Conterie, perle a lume, infilzaperle, fiori in perle”, 58 businesses with fewer than 10 employees, of which 44 were managed by women. Family ties had a significant role in these workshops, and even more so in home-based work, where family members turn out to be 17 male and 391 female, while outsiders were 3 male and 87 female.
The development of the socialist movement and the birth of the leagues affected this sector as well, despite the difficulty, which the Socialist leaders complained about, of “instilling in their minds the great advantages of the workers’ organization”. The Venetian context was in fact characterized by fragmentation of labor and by predominance of the service sector: the annual report of the Chamber of Employment of 1913 refers to the great difficulty encountered in a city in which only 15,000 out of 170,000 inhabitants were employed in industry and, of these, the majority, or really the workers of the Manifattura Tabacchi and the Arsenale workers, worked in State factories. Of the 5,000 members of the Chamber of Employment 1,400 were state employees and 1,200 were artisans or small business owners, such as the gondolieri.
The League founded by the impiraresse in 1904 was short lived, but made a lot of noise: about 2,000 impiraresse participated in the strike, which would last three weeks, and was part of a series of demonstrations that culminated in the general strike of September. The sequence of agitations gave the socialists a glimpse of the red thread of the “impressive and vibrant female solidarity”, above all for the role played by the workers of the Manifattura Tabacchi. The focal point of the protest was the sestiere of Castello, where the parish priest ended up founding an alternative league in order to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the mistre. The memo presented to the Muranese factories, in fact, called for the League, and not the mistre, to be responsible for relations with the companies and that they prepare “central storage sites for each sestiere and the island for the distribution of work, administered by the League without interference from the mistre”.
The push to strike came mainly from the impiraresse of Castello, who now had not worked for a week, because since the agitation and meetings had begun, the mistre, in agreement with parish priest, refused to give work to members of the League. The lack of a response from the industries pushed the women to give up their meetings and take to the street. Like in 1872, the impiraresse seem to elude the control of the trade organizations, and carry out violent attacks on the homes of the mistre. The partial involvement of workers from the conterie factory complicates relations with the industries, which are more willing to support the protests of the impiraresse, putting all the responsibility on the mistre for tolerating the birth of workers’ organizations within an industry that until then had remained on the margins of trade union struggles. The episode was not repeated, and the protest remained limited to the home-based workers, who would obtain a substantial increase of 30%.
The fact that the home-based workers should have an active and almost workers’ vanguard role is certainly surprising, and in the following decades conflict within the glass-making sector, and in particular of ‘conterie’ would become more pronounced, particularly between the two wars, in opposition to the planned – and then realized – reductions in salaries and personnel.
This article appears courtesy of Associazione Progetto Rialto, a non-profit organization that is working through cultural and academic activities to contribute to the preservation of the Rialto Market. For more information and information about membership, please visit www.progettorialto.org (site is in Italian).