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Author and journalist

The cottage internet

Got my new handkerchiefs in the mail today. They came from the Flying Needle Gallery with a business card and a bow, so I suspect they’re not made and shipped by a large factory in a faraway country. Today a significant part of the online business I do is with the kind of company that used to be called the cottage industry. Before the Industrial Revolution in England, lots of women did piecework at home for a centralized business. ‘Piecework’ meant getting paid by the article, and for these women it could mean very long hours, eyestrain and sometimes blindness. The term ‘cottage industry’ for their work was a complete and cozy misnomer.

Today’s cottage industry runs on the Internet with better conditions. It starts with someone self-indulgent like me typing “handkerchief” into Google. When I click on what comes up it’s often a beautifully designed website with examples, sizes, costs, instructions for measurement, delivery options and, bless ’em, Paypal, so you can trust your order is valid. Contrast that with walking into a box store and being told they don’t have your size, charge $75 for delivery and you won’t see it for two weeks. The sellers on the Internet with which I do business are often artisans, who may not make much, but they’re sisters doing it for themselves.

Obviously both businesses have their place in the consumer marketplace, but here’s the extra bonus from the cottage keepers. You get little notes. You get business cards with ribbons. When I ordered something from England that wasn’t available, there was a flurry of apologetic, witty little emails worthy of 84, Charing Cross Road. (Oh, look it up.) It’s like gazing from my lighted window down a dark street and seeing someone in her lighted window looking back at me. Who knew the Internet could be so old-fashioned? It’s like — it’s like choosing to use a hankie.

 

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