It is a common misconception women of the 19th century did not run businesses. Au contraire! They indeed owned and operated businesses and not just for the trite reason that they “had to.” While it is true, a noticeable percent worked along side of a husband or father, a surprising percentage did not. Nor did they work to compensate for a pauper spouse or a dead husband. While there was certainly some “shame” in women working in some communities, it was not unheard of. In fact, do I dare say? It was rather common. To embolden you, dear readers, these female run operations equally succeeded and failed at similar rate as male run businesses! So why the tight lips in the history books???
Multiple reasons; none of them good to our contemporary ears. Most female enterprises were a pubic spin off of the sphere of domesticity. A huge percentage were milliners or in the clothing trade (lace makers, seamstresses, etc). Many worked in dry goods or created products for women. However, there are some steel mill owners, plumping company owners, and a host of other unfeminine businesses. However, unlike many men they tended to slooooooooowly build their business over time; changing a little at a time.
Which brings me to my next point, the image of masculinity in the business world. Trade and enterprise were a man’s world. It was ruthless and merciless. It required stepping on the little people to make it to the top and until recently, it took brute strength to build a craft. Women, on the other hand, were delicate feeble beings who are usually lumped to the brain power and physicality of children, slaves, and animals. Business was just unsuitable. To this end, the fairer sex were beacons of modesty, humility and virtue. The sheer notion a woman would want to make money for the simple pride and independence was a slap in the face of all that was holy and right with society. The nerve! That insolent wench!
In turn this brings me to the third reasoning: independence. A woman was basically a slave of her time, so history would have us believe. If she had money, she would not need a dowry or get married, or have children. The work would keep her away from the children. Family and society would suffer as a result (sound familiar?). If women succeeded . . . then where would men be? What use is the Male Power, if they are degraded to second class citizenship?
Lastly, most academic books were written by men. They did not want to disgrace their own gender; besides at the time no woman single-handedly achieved the wealth of Rockefeller, Carnegie or Vanderbilt. If women were diving into gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, it is because they married into money or were born into it. This much is true, but the single fact should not discredit the literal millions of women who went into business in some capacity, for whatever reason and succeed!
In short, female entrepreneurs challenged every aspect of womanhood from intelligence to physical prowess. Shrewd business acumen might make her money, but it would not win her any friends. In order for a woman to prosper in the 19th century, she had do be pretty, charming, graceful, sweet, thoughtful, and nurturing; an angel in the “wider home.” At least, those are the women that get mentioned by 19th century male historian in a footnote or afterthought. The crass bullish, unattractive women were never mentioned.
I pulled these women from various place on the internet. * Denotes name of the linked site.
1860 Amelia Dannenberg*Jewish Museum of the American West
In the 1860s Amelia Dannenberg was importing and manufacturing “embroideries and infants’ furnishing goods.”
Her husband, Joseph Dannenberg merchandised the products of his wife’s factory and materials she imported.
In the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the great national Jewish weekly of the 19th century, it was noted, in 1869, that Mrs. Amelia Dannenberg had won a diploma at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Fair for some of the baby clothing she had manufactured, recognizing the “very highest quality” of the products she turned out.
By the 1870s, Amelia Dannenberg was engaged in manufacturing and importing “ladies suits and cloaks” as well as children’s clothing.
1875 Lydia Pinkham*Entrepreneur Magazine
The Ann Landers of the 1800s
Some would call her the Ann Landers or Dr. Ruth of the 1800s. In 1875, Lydia Estes Pinkham of Lynn, Massachusetts, converted her herbal home remedies into a big business by skillfully marketing her products toward women and educating them about health issues. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became one of the best-known patent medicines of the 19th century. Pinkham was deemed a crusader for women’s health in an age when women’s needs weren’t being met by the medical community. Cooper Laboratories bought the company in 1968, though pills and a liquid stamped with Pinkham’s name are still available at some drugstores.
1889 Mary Jane Innes*BusinessDay
Mary Jane Innes’ story is all the more remarkable because she was a woman.
The Hamilton mother-of-10 twice rescued the family business from financial ruin and built up a successful brewing and soft drinks company, but received little recognition during her lifetime because of her gender.
Although she was running Waikato Brewery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the company’s advertising simply said “M J Innes, Proprietor” – no “Mrs” or “Proprietress” – because it was not a good look to have a woman in charge.
1905 Madam C.J. Walker*Entrepreneur Magazine
Carving the Path for Women Entrepreneurs
Considered one of the 20th century’s most successful women entrepreneurs, Madam C.J. Walker built her empire out of nothing. Her parents were former slaves, and she was orphaned at the age of 7. In 1905, she created Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. Walker had a personal connection to the product since she suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She eventually expanded her business to Central America and the Caribbean. By 1917, Walker held one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in Philadelphia, the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention. Walker’s hard work and perseverance carved a path for women entrepreneurs, the African-American hair-care and cosmetics industry, and the African-American community as a whole.