View Full Version : What careers did women hold?

05-07-2007, 08:33 PM
Ladies and Gents:

I have come to ask for help. I am to give a presentation at a Mother & Daughter Banquet. The topic is "The lives of Women during the American Civil War", although this is not my area of expertise and my fiance` is unavaliable to speak, I have decided to take on the challenge. I am in need of information regarding what careers women held during the 1860's, beyond the normal: housewives, nurses, spies, teachers, and soldiers. I have searched the internet and the very few books I have regarding civilians but I have come up empty handed.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance!

05-07-2007, 08:42 PM
I know domestic service was a big employer of women. Its my usual role in reenacting....anything from a basic hired girl to a ladies maid and everything in between. You should be able to find quite a few books on that. One that sticks out in my mind is called "life below stairs" and then "Not in front of the Servants". Both of those cover mostly England. Another one that covers the US only is called "serving women".

Also, I don't know if it ever happened in this county but in the England and Wales there were women who worked in the coal mines. They wore pants, its awesome. The book that info can be found in is called "Victorian Working women". Its full of pictures of women a photographer took in their working clothes.

Good Luck.

Sarah Jane Meister
05-07-2007, 08:49 PM
Some women were dressmakers and milliners. When doing research for my brothers fatigue blouse a few years ago I read that at the beginning of the war women were hired to put together the fatiuge blouses that were issued to the troops. That is why you see so many different styles of sewing (and quality of sewing) on different extant examples of these coats. I do not remember reading about how much they were paid, or for how long this was done, but it might help as a starting point for more research in this area.


05-07-2007, 08:55 PM
Well, first, I'd say not to ignore the contribution of "housewives." Running a household in the 19th century was a full-time job, with responsibilities that we rarely think of today--managing servants, daily marketing in the city or keeping of animals in the country, contracting for or directly supervising the cutting of wood, hauling of water, laundry, and perhaps running a small business on the side like a dairy, getting meals on the table for 10-15 people counting children and farm hands or guests, keeping clothes made or mended for the family and even for the slaves, all while spending about a third of the time pregnant (if you had a child every two years).

But for a discussion of the more unusual occupations, you can't beat Virginia Penny's Employments of Women, 1863, online at http://name.umdl.umich.edu/AEB1163.0001.001 .

Hank Trent

05-07-2007, 10:26 PM
Don't overlook factory work--the Industrial Revolution brought in many working opportunities for young women, in textile mills and many other factories.

While a very few women did participate as spies or soldiers, I don't think I'd emphasize that as a "common career." :) It's terribly rare, which makes the few instances notable, but the everyday lives and contributions of women in far more diverse walks of life are more notable, in my mind, just for the sheer variety and commonality.

For instance, women mid-century might earn a living using their hands in traditional female roles within their own homes, or another's homes (service position), as paid nurses for invalids or the infirm (female nursing in men's wards was *very* new, though--which is why Florence Nightingale made such a stir in the mid-50s in the Crimean), as teachers, writers, factory workers, shop assistants, shop owners, professors, seamstresses, lady tailors, telegraphers, botanists, astronomers, lady editors, restaurant owners, boarding house and hotel owners and workers, laundresses (for the masses, not just for military purposes), homesteaders... really, women were doing an awfully lot mid-century!

05-08-2007, 04:22 AM
On a colorful note, Kady C. Brownell, the "Daughter of the Regiment" from Rhode Island was a textile worker in Rhode Island in 1860.

Georgia Parson
05-08-2007, 05:48 AM
What about Jenny Lind, the opera singer, who made contract with P.T. Barnum in 1850 for $1000 per night, plus expenses, to sing on an American tour?
The arts certainly held a place for some able and industrious women.

05-08-2007, 06:31 AM
Andre... let me know if you need any help!

05-08-2007, 08:16 AM

You have Pauline Cushman, Adah Isaacs Menken, Laura Keene and Lotta Crabtree on stage to name a few.

Georgia Parson
05-08-2007, 01:48 PM
...and many others too numerous to name. My wife suggests that this list could go on into other arts; needle, painted or drawn medium, musicians, actors and singers as you have mentioned. I'm certain that the home cooking arts: canning, breads and baked goods, were employed to make an honest wage. What about 'professional girls'? Not a subject for a Mother-Daughter Banquet but there were industrious and soiled doves in our period.

bill watson
05-08-2007, 02:42 PM
Others with more knowledge can chime in, but on some southern plantations, the woman of the house was charged with responsibility for overseeing production of clothing for the slaves and also supervising/attending to their health. Mileage may vary from location to location, but this was not only a task, it was a big one.

05-08-2007, 03:02 PM
Thank you to everyone who has helped. I should have sufficient info for the presentation.

05-08-2007, 03:34 PM
Tintist (hand painting images)
Clerk (Southern ladies worked for the Treasury signing notes)
Hair Stylist
Dealer (as in Black Jack)
Theatre Manager
Shoe factory Work
Mill Worker
Bar Tender


05-09-2007, 06:17 PM
How about Sarah Josepha Hale who was editor of Godey's Magazine for many years while raising a brood of children alone. She is an ancester of my wife, Faith.

Mark Hintzen

05-11-2007, 03:25 PM
The book Women in the Civil War by Mary Elizabeth Massey contains an overwhelming (IMO) amount of information.

Miss Elodie
05-18-2007, 09:45 AM
I know that the original poster has the information they want, but another book by that addresses the suprisingly large number of women in civil service both during and after the war. There were women who earned pretty good wages and even supervised men!

Ladies and gentlemen of the civil service : middle-class workers in Victorian America
by Cindy Sondik Aron
Publisher: New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
ISBN: 0195048741 9780195048742

See if it is at a library near you here:

Happy reading!

Jennifer P.