Excerpts from: Gift Book for Young Ladies, Alcott. 1853:
“The word employment, indeed, in a very general sense, included everything which intelligent creatures can do. But there is a more particular sense, in which we frequently use it, viz., to designate or distinguish those avocations, or duties, or exercises, in which we habitually engage, in order to obtain our reputation or our livelihood.
“God has kindly made it necessary for mankind to labor, in order that they may eat and drink. That which many regard as a curse, in thus converted into a blessing. It is a blessing, because it prevents idleness, and its long train of dangers. It is a blessing, because it conduces to health; and this, in a thousand ways.
You are one of those who labor for a support, and who consequently, if you labor right, receive the blessings which are annexed. By means of this labor, you have escaped a thousand temptations and a thousand dangers. You have escaped also many diseases to which you would otherwise have been subjected, as well as much suffering which would have fallen to your lot, had not the diseases with which you have already been afflicted been greatly mitigated in regard to their severity, by your habits of exercise in the house and in the garden.
“Some young women have been less fortunate. Their employments have been assigned to them by parents who did not understand their temperaments, or their tendencies to disease. Perhaps they ought to have been house-keepers; but they have been made milliners or seamstresses. Their temperaments and diseased constitutions require active exercise and free space; but they have been deprived of both.
“Others, predisposed to scrofula or consumption, to whom active exercise, in the open air, is more necessary, if possible, than to any other class, are plunged into the factory. There, in a vitiated, overheated atmosphere, they spend twelve, fourteen, or sixteen hours of each day, and hardly breathe a better atmosphere when they return to their boarding-houses, and retire to their sleeping-rooms.
“Here again, you have been peculiarly fortunate. Had you been consigned, at ten, twelve, or fourteen years of age, to a hot, murky, foul air of a tailor’s shop, or the factory, or what is but little better, the confined and often very impure air of a millinery, you would probably have been laid in your grave seven or eight years ago. Or had you survived, your life would have been of little value to yourself, or to those around you.
“And yet your constitution is as well fitted for sedentary employments as hundreds and thousands, who are trained to them. But observe, if you please, that not all who are trained to an employment pursue it as a means of earning a livelihood. Not a few fall into their business, at least if they do not cripple themselves so as to be unfitted for any other.
“That a few die, as a result of a wrong choice of occupation by the parent, (for it is on parents and masters that the blame must, after all, principally fall,) though a great evil, is an evil not half so great as another which I could name – and which, indeed, I must advert to briefly , in order to complete my plan.
“I refer to the deterioration of the race, to which we belong. Now it is alike a doctrine of scripture and reason, that none of us live or die to ourselves. Indeed, such is the structure of society, that we cannot do so, if we would.
“Suppose a young woman goes into a factory as well ordered as those of Lowell. Suppose that by virtue of a good constitution, she does not actually become sick. Suppose she is even able to remain six, or eight, or ten years.
“Will any one say that because she does not die at the factory, or does not come out of it crippled for life, therefore no great mischief is done? Has the question ever yet been settled, which is the greatest actual loss to society, one person killed outright, or ten, or twenty, or forty injured; some of them greatly injured, for the rest of their lives?
“And as a whole tendency of the whole thing is and must be downward – that is, to the deterioration of successive generations – has it ever been ascertained how much more one life is worth in the present generation, than one in the next, or third? To explain a little. Suppose a course to be taken in life with regard to employment, which, while it permits the individual to linger out half her days or more amid many ills, yet with entire certainty entails an offspring the possibility – aye, the necessity – of dying prematurely, and of being good for nothing, except by being a burden to try the patience, and faith, and love of others. Is it settled that such a course is right?
“As the cultivation of our mother earth, in a rational manner, is, after all, the most honorable and most useful employment for our sex, so the kindred occupation of taking care of the house, and feeding the bodies, minds, and hearts of its occupants, is the noblest employment – the blessed prerogative, may I not call it – of your own.