When the century opened, household manufacturing was the rule in America. The spinning wheel and hand loom were everywhere found. Most articles used in the homes were of home manufacture. Woman was the producer, but not in the present sense of a wage-earner.

Mr. Hamilton, in his report on manufacturers made to Congress in 1791, speaks of the “vast scenes of household manufacturing which contributes more largely to the supply of the community than could be imagined without having made it an object of particular inquiry. Great quantities of course cloths, coatings, serges, flannels, linsey-woolseys, hosiery of wool, cotton and thread, coarse fustians, jeans and muslins, checked and striped cotton and linen goods, bedticks, coverlets and counterpanes, tow linens, coarse shirtings, sheetings, toweling and table linen, and various mixtures of wool and cotton and of cotton and flax, are made in the household way, and, in many instances, to an extent not only sufficient for a supply of the families in which they are made, but even for sale and export. It is computed in a number of districts that two thirds, three fourths, and even four fifths of all clothing of the inhabitants are made by themselves.”

And so at the close of the last century and the opening of this, woman in the home was a producer of definite industrial values, though not for wages. With the growth of the country and the introduction of machinery, there came a change. People demanded a finer grade of goods than could be produced by hand, and at prices which were impossible for the hand product. When machinery was introduced, operatives must be had. The demand was greater than the supply, for a large portion of the men and boys were engaged in agriculture.

Women and children had already been largely employed in the factory towns of England with evil results, which had brought factory work into disrepute in that country and in America.

Women in large numbers had been brought from the rural districts and many children were taken from the almshouses. The surroundings were neither sanitary nor moral, and the conditions became rapidly worse. Their wages were low, and the poorly fed and disheartened not infrequently took refuge in vice.

As it was difficult to obtain operatives in America, wages rose to a point where the supply was increased and the class of women and girls undertaking the work soon made it perfectly respectable. No one was esteemed less highly for working in a factory.

By the end of the first quarter of the century, factories were well established in New England and women in large numbers were the operatives. Manufacturing had been largely transferred from home to the factory. This marks a change industrially for women. It is the first step as a wage-earner, and there is a corresponding step in self-reliance and general independence.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman as a Wage-Earner in the 19th Century - Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau

In the course of a few years the high wages of women attracted families from Ireland and Canada, with the result that the wages were soon decreased and the general tone of factory life was lowered. American girls began to feel out of place and the most ambitious of them were soon looking about for other employments. But the openings were few. Harriet Martineau, in 1840, found in this country only seven employments open to women — teaching, needlework, keeping boarders, typesetting, household service, and factory work.

Fortunately the general condition of American families was so much improved that there was less need of the daughters seeking employment, for the sake of the wages. But the taste for independence, the pleasure of earning her own money, gave the American girl a determination to continue.

Along with this there came an educational awaking. Woman had demonstrated her ability as a wage-earner, but she was not content to simply work with her hands.

There was a growing thirst for knowledge, a demand for higher education. The securing of this privilege extended over several decades. Mount Holyoke Seminary was opened by the heroic efforts of Mary Lyon. Oberlin College threw open its doors to men and women alike. Vassar College was established in 1865, Harvard Annex in 1879. (The educational progress of woman in this century is treated elsewhere.)

Higher education was for woman a stepping-stone to the professions, in every one of which she is now serving with efficiency and success equal to that of man.

We have mentioned the fact that Harriet Martineau found but seven employments in 1840. In preparing the census of 1890 all the industries were assigned to one of three hundred and sixty-nine general groups. It was found, upon examination, that in only nine of these there were no women or children employed. That is, in fifty years, the occupations for women in which they were actually engaged had increased from seven to three hundred and sixty.

The question of wages is a grave one. Has woman become man’s competitor in the labor market, thus increasing the supply and lowering the price? Does the head of the household find himself earning less money because his own wife and daughters have become his competitors? In this case, how much better off is the family by all becoming wage-earners, when in doing so the father’s wages are seriously cut down? And what shall we say for the man whose children are small and the wife must care for them, thus being deprived of adding to the family income by her work? These are stern conditions found in factory towns.

Again the question, what is the social and moral influence, upon the home, of the whole family spending the day home, of the whole family spending the day in the factory? Where is the home life? Where is domestic influence? Many students of social economic problems are seriously asking, whether, on the whole, the condition of the home and the general welfare of the nation is improved by woman becoming a wage-earner. They ask, indeed, whether, taking a considerable reach of time, woman herself is benefited by this change?

The trades union view is, that man’s wages should be high enough to maintain a family without their wives or children being compelled to work, and that those women, unmarried, widowed, or orphaned, who desire to work, should be paid the same as men for the same work.

The coming of the sewing machine may seem to first have lightened woman’s labor. It did for a time; but increased facility of production soon lowered prices and the competitive system soon forced wages by piece work down to the starvation point. Miss Isabel Dutton of the College Settlement Association, in June, 1895, found girls and women sewing knee pants, twelve seams each, besides the pocket stitching, for from eighteen to twenty-two cents per dozen. Finishers, usually girls, received from four to seven cents for sewing on one hundred and twenty buttons and making thirty-six buttonholes. It was found that in Chicago at the season when there was a great pressure of work, the girls of the shop, fifteen, sixteen, and twenty years of age, were kept at work thirty-three hours at a time without sleep and only a brief stop for luncheon, by means of black coffee. And it is no unusual thing for them to work fifteen and sixteen hours per day, that is from five o’clock in the morning to nine and ten o’clock at night. At this high pressure, which is suicidal or homicidal, they earn from $4.00 to $8.00 per week.

We are convinced that the most speedy way to bring about reform of these abuses, is by giving woman the ballot, so that legislation may be secured which shall make these conditions no longer possible. We do not call for women as legislators necessarily, but give them the right of franchise, and law makers will soon feel the sentiment of their new constituency and obey it.

We are in the midst of an industrial evolution which is almost a revolution. It is necessary to take broad and general views of the whole situation. The question of employment of wives and daughters along with the head of the household in factory towns is only a part of the problem. The number of women working for wages is, of course, rapidly increasing. Whom are they crowding out? To a very large and gratifying extent, they are taking the places of children who were formerly employed in the manufacturing establishments. Laws as to child labor have been enacted in many of the states. The greed of the employers, and even of the parents, has thus received a check. Children have been kept where they belong, at home, school, and play. The law has stepped in and dictated that these future citizens shall not be robbed of their childhood. The places vacated by children have been generally filled by women.

Again women are displacing men — “crowding them out” — if you please. But we must not conclude that every woman obtaining employment is displacing a man. She may be displacing a child, and this should be a cause of rejoicing. Further, she may be displacing a man, but she is not necessarily throwing him out of employment. He may have found better employment. A few instances of men becoming idle because women can do the work more cheaply are so widely proclaimed by malcontents that they are given an exaggerated significance.

Every great change involves more or less suffering; it is inevitable. No suffering, no change, is the law of growth. Men, instead of complaining and seeking to retain the old conditions, should meet the new conditions with heroic intelligence. Woman has come to stay in the business world, and the male portion of our population may as well face the fact. Especially should our growth youth seek to find themselves for those occupations which are not usually sought by women. This is both chivalrous and sensible — it is also for self-interest.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.Quote by History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman as a Wage-Earner in the 19th Century - Harriet Martineau