Fashionable millinery in the 1820s
A little over twenty years ago Billy Smith summarized the information he'd found on women's work in early Philadelphia:
"The vast majority of adult women married, and only a few of those whose husbands could support the family worked outside the home. A great many women, however, who were married to men who did not earn enough to support them, sought employment in the public sphere."He lists the employment opportunities:
- hucksters (peddler or street seller)
- tavern keepers
- boarding house keepers
Billy Smith, Life in Early Philadelphia: Documents from the Revolutionary and Early National Periods, 1995
Ladies Dress Maker, 1806
Those top two were still my main options when I graduated from high school in the early 1960s.
Mrs. H.C. Pierce
Collection of Historic New England
And Smith's observation that any woman whose husband could support her did not work outside the home was the conventional wisdom I accepted before I started this blog and began reading more recent writing on women's lives. The conventional wisdom colors all our interpretations of women's work, which includes making quilts. For example:
On the reverse of the card milliner's trade card above,
someone has interpreted its date.
Facts: Hannah Cummings Pierce was married but her first husband died in 1838. She remarried in 1844 to Mr. Emerson. She was a milliner in Boston.
Therefore, the card advertised her occupation sometime between 1838 and 1844, dates based on three assumptions:
1) Hannah worked only when not married to a man who could support her.
2) When she was married her husband supported her.
3) Hannah changed her professional name when she married Edward Emerson.
Sounds good, sounds logical. Except that logic is not based on facts.
Assumption number 1: Women worked only when not married to a man who could support them.
Women sewing about 1860
In 1990 Suzanne Lebsock published The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860, in which she carefully looked at women's lives in Virginia's second-largest city. One of her conclusions:
"An analysis of the marital status [of working women] shows a substantial portion of married women...
Late 19th-century advertisement
...more than half of the milliners and [dressmakers were married] "
Making hats was a real skill, requiring an apprenticeship
"There is evidence that other married women engaged in trade because they liked the work, they enjoyed the benefits of two incomes, they were doing well, and they saw no reason to stop."
Millinery, creating women's bonnets and hats,
is consistently the highest-paid branch of the 19th-century sewing trades.
It's no wonder milliners were often depicted as prostitutes,
an error this English gentleman seems to be making.
Milliners with their independent incomes challenged the male sense of place in the social structure, the result of, "our culture's touchiness over reduced male authority within the family," as Lebsock puts it.
"First Class Millinery and Fancy Goods Store"
Read a preview of Suzanne Lebsock's The Free Women of Petersburg here:
More insight into women's actual lives in other books I've been reading:
Southern Single Blessedness: Unmarried Women in the Urban South, 1800-1865 by Christine Jacobson Carter, 2006.