Women, Finance, and Investment
Business Ownership | Property Ownership
Financial Management | Household Accounts
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British-American common law stipulated that married women could not own property in their own names. As a result, they were also not able to sue, or sign contracts. Despite these hindrances, many colonial women ran and managed their own businesses, either in the names of their husbands, or in their own names if they were widowed or single.
After the second half of the nineteenth century, women gained greater economic rights. Not only did new laws strengthen women’s control over their own estates, but they also enabled women to obtain credit, make contracts, and act as independent agents. As a consequence, this period saw women entering business in increasing numbers and in capacities that had recently been understood to be the domain of men. Though most women’s businesses were small-scale and short-lived, women like Rebecca Lukens, Lydia Pinkham, and C. J. Walker became as prominent in their industries as any of their male counterparts.
Despite restrictions on married women’s ability to own property outright, many women did. Baker Library holds extensive materials on women’s finances, both on the ownership of land and other real property, and on investment and bank accounts. That women were, additionally, not nearly as financially innocent as nineteenth-century common understanding would have it, is evident from the many lists of household expenses that have found their way into the collections at Baker Library.
Advertising materials, such as trade cards and trade catalogs, account books kept by female business owners, legal papers, and credit reports are among some of the types of materials that offer insight into the history of women’s business ownership in the United States.
Legal and financial papers document women as landowners and investors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, showing how women navigated property laws to control property.
Even when they owned their property outright, most nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women did not manage their own finances. These collections record the management of women’s finances, by themselves and by others.
When money was scarce, many women kept track of their household’s daily expenses. Baker Library holds a large number of household accounts.
Credit for Business Women
R.G. Dun & Company credit ledger
The R.G. Dun & Company Collection at Baker Library includes 2,580 volumes of handwritten credit reports on individuals and firms from the United States, the Western Territories, Canada, and the West Indies. Lewis Tappan established the first commercial credit reporting agency in the United States in 1841. It was taken over by Robert Graham Dun in 1859. The ledgers contain credit reports for thousands of business owners from 1841 to 1892, including many women. The collection has been used extensively, though not nearly exhaustively, by scholars interested in the history of American business women.
Recorded by state and county, the reports reflect periodic visits to and inquiries about the business owner in question. They list any information that might influence a person’s creditworthiness, including the duration of the business, net worth, and the character and reputation of the owners, their partners, and their successors. In the case of women, whose income and assets were legally their husbands’ until sometime during the second half of the century, reporters were careful to note marital status and husbands’ character.
This is a sample credit record of Mrs William J. Neff, who owned a corset shop in Boston, and who was considered savvy and hardworking. Until the late 1870s, she was doing fairly well. By 1880 the business was no longer flourishing. In 1882 she went out of business:
500 Jan 29/64 Same, pays well, but her husband is a serious drawback to her and some think it risky to sell on that a/c. She could do well alone. … Pays well. …
500 Oct 25/66 Has bot. a good many goods the past year, and paid well. Is pretty smart and supposed to be dg well. …
500 march 28/68 A very able woman: has succeeded in mkg money despite many drawbacks and has paid with average promptness. Estimated wor. all of 10 M …
500 June 1/70 A very smart woman with a drawback of a […] shift less husband. Has a good class of trade & always paid well … doing well + good for wants …
500 March 25/72 Lately bot a house on Didham St. for about $12,000. Est. worth about $10,000 to $15,000 and considered good. 5684
500 Sept 26/72 Is a smart driving woman and considered good for all she will do has sold her Didham house and lot out of town –5684.313 …
500 Jan 24/81 Her husband is unsteady and a drawback on her, don’t ask too much but one house + allow for a credit of $50.00 or so.