When I started research on Albany’s mid-nineteenth-century milliners thirty years ago, I expected to identify a few exceptional women willing to brave the male marketplace in search of commercial success. What I discovered instead were thousands of small businesswomen engaged in a wide range of fields – not just milliners and dressmakers, but grocers, shop owners, boardinghouse keepers, laundresses, saloonkeepers, and small manufacturers. Even more surprising than the number of female proprietors and the variety of their trades was the fact the vast majority of these women were well known and even notable members of their own communities. Where previous historians of working women had insisted that respectable women could not or would not engage in business activities, I found an almost overwhelming mass of evidence using such obvious sources as city directories, the census, and credit records. Eventually, I was able to name more businesswomen in Albany’s credit reports than were recorded for the entire state of North Carolina in the same period (1840-1885).
This talk will summarize my research on Albany, then expand the discussion to other mid-nineteenth-century U.S. cities, and finally place this material in a global context, based on the first international study of businesswomen in the “long” nineteenth century.
Susan Ingalls Lewis is Professor Emerita in History at the State University of New York College at New Paltz where she continues to teach courses in women’s history and New York State history. She received her B.A. from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her monograph, Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885 (Ohio State University Press, 2009) was awarded the Hagley Prize for the best book in business history.