Women’s Occupations Just Before the Civil War

By arohmiller, posted on September 5th, 2014.
Filed under: News

Written by: Catherine Wilson, Executive Director, Greene County Historical Society

They weren’t all teachers or washerwomen or servants. There were farmers and tavern keepers and even a couple of carpenters. Some women worked outside the home during the 19th century, and I hope to tell part of their story.

This study of the 1860 census covered several areas in Ohio, urban and rural. The counties were, in alphabetical order: Adams, Allen, Belmont, Brown, Clark, Coshocton, Greene, Hocking, Lawrence, Lucas, Meigs, Morrow, Portage, and Seneca. The cities studied were Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. It did have certain limitations; some of the census microfilms were unreadable for a county I wanted to study. This is why there is an apparent concentration in southern Ohio. Of course, the variety of occupations was greatest in the cities, although rural areas had an interesting mix.

The Gest girls of Greene County.

The Gest girls of Greene County.

Women’s lives of the 1860s were mostly centered in the home, and this study reflects that fact. Most of the occupations were a variation of the “homely duties” every female was expected to know: seamstress, domestic, cook, washerwoman, and other related occupations. This did not surprise me in the least. The few non-traditional occupations were surprising: electrician, cabinet maker, ambrotypist, “droverer”, and more. There was at least one seamstress and at least one milliner in every county and city I studied, including each of Cincinnati’s 17 wards.

Not all these women were single ladies, either. For example, many of the farmers were listed as such alongside their husbands, but there were a significant number of farmers who were either unmarried or widows (no man of the “right age” in the household). The vast majority of women on the 1860 census had no occupation listed, but were employed in their homes nonetheless, with many of the same jobs such as seamstress or cook. Those who did have occupations listed were often responsible for a family as well.

The rougher side of life manifested itself in this study. Women were listed in the Ohio Penitentiary, located in Columbus ward one. There were 13 female inmates out of 936 total, and a 14th who was a housekeeper. The census listed their crimes and how long they had been there, as well as the ordinary listing of age, birthplace, and occupation: these women were “in” for murder, burglary, arson, grand larceny, stabbing, manslaughter, kidnapping, and counterfeiting. Their occupations were house keeper, dress maker, cook, “upholster” and seamstress, and two had no occupation listed. Four were born in Ohio, three in New York, two in Ireland, two in Germany, one in Canada, and one in Pennsylvania. Two were listed as black. All had been incarcerated for less than five years.

Some women listed their occupation in 1860 as a variant of the proverbial oldest profession. They were most often found in Cincinnati, with some exceptions: 9 “courtisans” in Clark Co., and 1 prostitute in Lawrence Co. There were 13 women listed as “fancy” in Lucas Co.; these may have been prostitutes as well, from the context. Most women in this occupation were under 30 and born in the US. There were two instances where an apparent mother and daughter pair were both involved in prostitution, and there may be more.

Some of the more intriguing occupations for each county and city may prove enjoyable. Cleveland had a daguerreotypist, Ruth Culver in ward 2, and a straw milliner. Catlin Millington of Cleveland ward 8 was a sailor, born in Ireland, age 30, with 4 children under age 10. Columbus had 12 lunatic asylum attendants, and Belmont Co. had 3 women who tied tobacco for a living. Adams Co. had a woman selling liquor, and Clark Co. had a gatekeeper. Brown Co. listed one who “takes life easy” and Casandrew Craig, age 17, who worked for the county. Lawrence Co. had a grass widow and an ore digger, Lucas Co. had a soap maker, Morrow Co. had a “droverer”, and Portage Co. had a teacher of ancient languages. Seneca Co. had a Church of God preacher, Olive Haffer, and Julia Rumsey was an MD there, with $2000 real estate and $300 personal estate. Meigs Co. had 7 women who were supported by their friends. Cincinnati occupations that caught my attention were steamboat maid, perfumer, phrenologist, teacher of sewing machines, regalia maker, fortune teller, star candle maker, printing press feeder, sugar kiss folder, sexton, intelligence office, clairvoyant physician, shoe lace maker, and the aforementioned electrician.

Margaret (Andrew) Quinn of Greene County.  This picture of her was taken when she was a teacher.

Margaret (Andrew) Quinn of Greene County. This picture of her was taken when she was a teacher.

Xenia women had many opportunities to interact with different types of people, including immigrants, the poor, Irish railroad workers, African-Americans, transient soldiers, and wartime refugees, for example. There were also new opportunities in education; Antioch College in nearby Yellow Springs not only admitted women, it employed them, and Xenia Female College was a sort of teachers’ college. In the 1860 census, I found 246 Greene County women employed outside the home. Two of these in particular caught my attention. Antioch College matron M. C. Paine was aged 50, born in Vermont; Methodist preacher Elizabeth H. Field lived in Bellbrook, was aged 63, and also born in Vermont. Upon further investigation, with a total of 13,008 women in the county, I found that the top occupations were as follows: domestic, teacher, seamstress, milliner, servant, farmer, and dress maker. Of all domestics in Xenia City, fifty were white, thirteen black, and eight mulatto. Twenty-seven were born in Ireland, twenty-four in Ohio, sixteen were native-born in other than Ohio, and two were foreign born (besides Ireland). Two women left their place of birth blank. Yellow Springs had thirty-seven employed women, Jamestown seven, Cedarville eight, Bellbrook five, and Osborn one.

Leave a reply using Facebook