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Women’s Work in the 18th and 19th Centuries: A Surprising Variety
Dressed to Kiss is an anthology centered on a dressmaker’s shop in Regency London. All of the main female characters work for a living. Katherine serves as a companion to a debutante. Felicity, Delyth and Selina all are active in the shop itself.
It is common to think that a woman during the late 18th and early 19th centuries had few options for employment. Well-born women could become governesses, or companions like Katherine, but other than that their choices were few. The historical record shows that this generalization is not entirely accurate, however. In fact, the exceptions to the rule were not even rare.
In Dressed to Kiss, Delyth and Selica are gentry born. Their fathers are gentlemen who own property but do not physically farm it themselves. Both heroines have left home to strike out on their own, Delyth due to her own ambitions, and Selina due to scandal.
Is it likely they might seek employment at a dressmaker’s shop? Most ladies were taught sewing and other needle skills, and some excelled at them. If they did not use these skills for commercial purposes, that was due to not needing to, or because such employment indicated a “step down” from the class of their births. However, if a well-born woman had to find a means to support herself, that was one skill she might be able to sell.
There were other positions available for such ladies. In the Times from October 1, 1833, several “classified” ads allude to them. Some advertisements reveal that ladies could become teachers in girls’ schools, or even run one themselves. The ads indicate some of these were in town, and others in the country. Some were elaborate and expensive, and others very small.
Or a woman might be employed as a “day governess”— a position that did not involve living with the family but coming in by day. There is one advertisement where a lady is essentially running a boarding school/foster care center in her home, taking in a few young children: “A LADY, residing in a healthy situation, near Cambridge, who has had three little girls committed to her care, is desirous of meeting with three more, who, in addition to the mental advantages to be derived from herself and an accomplished governess, will be treated with every maternal care and solicitude.”
What about women from the lower social classes? Going into service offered one avenue of employment, or being apprenticed like the girls at Madame Follette’s in Dressed to Kiss. But there were many others. A county directory for Hampshire from 1784 lists the proprietors of the various businesses in the county, town by town. These directories served as references for visitors and residents for shops and services, as well as general information about the towns. While reading this one I was surprised to learn that while male names dominated the lists of businesses by far, a wide variety of them were operated by women.
In the town of Lymington, three women operated inns, and one of them also ran the Excise Office. Another woman was a butcher, and yet another a milliner and draper. Two more were proprietors of shops. Another, Ann Beeston, was a stationer, bookseller and salt merchant.
Things were even more interesting in the town of Andover where Elizabeth Baldwin was a whitesmith, which means she worked tin. But then, Mrs. Baker of Alton was a tanner! Women were very active in unexpected occupations in the town of Alresford, where Elizabeth Goodwin was a cooper (she made objects like barrels), and Elizabeth Veck was a woolen draper. (Mrs.) Jane Astlett had a very distinctive job. She was a carrier. She had a wagon that made two round trips a week to London, on which one could arrange to transport items for a fee. Did she drive it herself? No man is mentioned either in the list of businesses, nor in the description of her service under transportation.
A directory of Yorkshire from 1822 shows similar listings. In Doncastle, Sarah Lyon was a furniture dealer, Amelia Elliott was listed as an ironmonger, and three of the eight glass and china shops were owned by women, to give a few examples out of many.
Did Elizabeth Baldwin actually work tin herself or did she hire men to do so? We don’t know. These women owned and ran these businesses, however, even if they functioned as managers and had employees do the physical work.
In the Hampshire directory, feminine names show up three ways: simply first and last name, or as Mrs. So and so, or as Widow so and so. It is impossible to know if these designations were used consistently, but they are provocative. Was Elizabeth Goodwin actually a widow who carried on her husband’s cooper business after his death, or was she unmarried the way her name implies?
Like the characters in Dressed to Kiss, women have always found ways to support themselves when necessary, or when their natural inclinations led them in that direction. The generalizations about history exist for a reason, but writers often find that the really inspiring information can be found in the exceptions.
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