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Women's History from Baker's Archives

From the Archives: Women's History in Baker Library's Business Manuscripts Collection

by Laura Cochrane

Business History Review 74 (Autumn 2000): 465-476: All photographs courtesy of Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

"[O]ur ladies know nothing of the sober certainties which relate to money and they cannot be taught," wrote Frederic Tudor in 1820, in a sweeping indictment of women's financial abilities that was common for the period.  1   Despite such stereotypes, many women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries participated in commerce, both as merchants and as manufacturers. Because they mainly oversaw small and short-lived concerns, however, their enterprises did not fit into traditional understandings of successful business, either in their own time or later, when the field of business history developed in the twentieth century. As a consequence, when Harvard Business School's Baker Library began amassing business manuscripts, curators generally concentrated on collecting the records of large firms and well-known industrialists. Their big-business bias not only affected what was collected, but also how manuscripts were processed. Search aids and cataloging records did not distinguish materials made by or about women because gender was not a compelling issue for early twentieth-century historians.

Click for larger image Figure 1. Mary Barber's 1824-1829 account book tracks her purchase of supplies for her tavern. (Thomas S. Taylor Collection, volume 21.)

By the end of the century, women's history and gender studies had come to the forefront of scholarly debates in all fields of study, including business history. When historians began to use Baker Library to study women's role in business, they quickly recognized the R. G. Dun & Company credit reports and the records of the New England textile mills as valuable resources for the study of female entrepreneurship and women in the workforce.  2  However, because the catalogs and collection guides did not highlight other women-related materials, many useful collections remained unexamined. Increasing use of the manuscripts by historians of women's lives during the 1990s prompted Baker Library to initiate a one-year survey project in May 1999 in order to identify materials that would be useful to the study of the historical role of women in business and the economy. The project concentrated on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century records of American businesses and found that, of the approximately 1,400 manuscript collections, 206 contained relevant materials. As anticipated, many of these papers documented female workers, business owners, and investors. However, the substantial number of women's letters and diaries that were interspersed among the business records came as a surprise. These personal writings reveal the depth of the historical collections and underscore the variety of ways that the business manuscripts can be used to study the social history of the United States.

The following essay describes the types of materials identified during the survey. It begins with a discussion of the manuscripts that document women as entrepreneurs, such as account books, credit reports, and advertising materials. The second part examines the records of textile mills and other factories, including payrolls, employee registers, and photographs of women at work. The final section describes women's letters and diaries. This essay attempts to present a general impression of the content and scope of the collections as they relate to women's history. A more extensive report of the survey's findings will be available in a Web-based guide and eventually in a printed publication.

The Accounts of Female Entrepreneurs

Baker Library owns eleven collections containing the accounts of female-owned business from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
They document women who owned taverns (Figure 1), general stores, millinery shops, schools, farms, cider mills, and sawmills. These records illuminate the manner in which women ran their businesses and the extent of their financial successes. However, they also provide insight into the diverse avenues from which women arrived at their trades, indicating those who inherited their businesses, as well as those who established their enterprise using their own capital and initiative.

Click for larger image Figure 2. The account book of Charles C. Chandler, Maron Chandler's signature appears on the right-hand page beneath the settlement of the account. (Charles C. Chandler Collection, volume 1.)

Marion Chandler's husband left her the family business when he died in 1787. After his death, she took over the use of his account book (Figure 2) as well as the management of their store in Woodstock, Vermont. In that volume, her new role is revealed by the change in handwriting on many of the pages and her signature on the accounts. The seamless manner in which she stepped into her husband's place suggests that Chandler had already been involved in the store's management during her marriage. However, not until after her husband's death did her involvement become visible in the historical record. In addition to recording her finances, Chandler also used her account book to record the important events of her life, such as her subsequent marriages. Chandler's account book is an excellent example of the richness of these account books, which reveal more than the financial and business lives that they purportedly document.  3

Another example of an accounting record that bridges the gap between private life and business is that of Matilda Oliver. The volumes that she kept began as a list of personal expenses for such things as her rent, board, clothing, books, stationery, and charitable donations. Eventually, the volume transformed into a record of her entrepreneurial endeavors. Unlike Chandler, Oliver did not enter upon an already established business. She was a teacher in Boston in the 1830s and 1840s who supplemented her salary by sewing and knitting for friends and neighbors. In time, she gave up her teaching position and began working solely as a seamstress. Her careful accounts reveal systematic record keeping, in which she documented expenditures for yarn and supplies and kept track of her receipts. Although her business was small, it brought in enough income to support her for more than forty years.  4

Credit Reports

While account books offer detailed information about the workings of individual businesses, a broader picture of the involvement of women in business is provided by the R. G. Dun & Company Collection. The Baker Library holds 2,580 volumes of R. G. Dun credit ledgers created between 1841 and 1892. During that time, the company employed more than 2,000 correspondents who periodically reported on the reputation and prospects of local businessmen and women. The reports are at times surprisingly personal, indicating the subjects' gender, ethnicity, marital status, and family background.

The following entry for Mrs. A. Machon, who owned a picture frame shop in Fall River, Massachusetts, reveals the type of information that is occasionally included in a Dun record. The text describes the circumstances leading up to Machon's ownership of the business and reveals the final outcome of the venture.

[July 20, 1886] Widow of A. Machon, who died 2 or 3 years ago, since which time she has continued to run the business in her name. Her nephew J. A. Machon being manager. They do a snug little bus[iness]. Keep expenses down and never owe much. She is probably worth about 2000. Her nephew expects to assume ownership before long. Consid[ered] good for a small amount ....
[August 1, 1888] Cleaned out under foreclosure some time ago & has never reopened.   5

Another entry describes a new business started by Adalina Sanquinet, a milliner who also worked in Fall River:

[July 9, 1886] A French woman aged about 30 yrs & single. Been in the employ of several local dealers & has had ample experience. Started in for herself about three weeks ago. Her means are small but she comes from a saving family, the members of which have helped to the capital and have a personal interest in the success of the venture. Just what success she will make of it remains to be seen . . . .   6

The ledgers contain credit reports like these for hundreds of nineteenth-century women's businesses throughout the United States. Although the entries are often brief, together they offer an understanding of the scope of women's business ownership in nineteenth-century America.


Click for larger image Figure 3. Trade card advertising "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound," c. 1883. (Trade Card Collection)

In addition to manuscript materials, Baker Library also collects printed advertisements. At this time, it possesses approximately 1,600 nineteenth-century business cards, 8,000 trade cards, and 2,000 trade catalogs. Among these materials are advertisements for forty-six women-owned businesses. Despite nineteenth-century notions about women's domestic roles, some women, like Lydia Pinkham, actually discovered trades for which their gender aided them in business. Pinkham, for instance, marketed her "Vegetable Compound" as a curative for a variety of "female complaints." According to the text on the back of one of her trade cards (Figure 3), the compound cured a multitude of ailments, from insomnia to cancer of the uterus.

Women who oversaw small concerns also used trade cards and business cards to advertise their products and services. Like Pinkham, many of these businesswomen used their gender to appeal to their customer base. Although women ran almost every conceivable business during the nineteenth century, many oversaw millinery shops, dressmaking establishments, or produced other products that were purchased mainly by women. Businesses like "Mme. Clark's Hygeian Corset," "Maria Craffey's Fashionable Millinery Rooms," and "Miss C.H. Lippincott's Flower Seeds" all marketed their goods to a female clientele. In fact, Carrie Lippincott, who built up a large mail-order business in the 1890s, was the self-proclaimed "pioneer seedswoman of America" and boasted about her admittance into a book entitled "Women of America," which celebrated the accomplishments of contemporary women.

Preindustrial Account Books

Click for larger image Figure 4. Page from the account book of Nathaniel Chamberlin, dated 1771 and 1772. Here he credits his wife for making cloth and quilting a coat. He also noted that his daughters Lydia and Mary helped by spinning yarn. (Nathaniel Chamberlin Collection, volume 1)

Most women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not have the opportunity to oversee their own establishments. In the eighteenth century, women's labor mainly entailed household production, especially the manufacture of textiles and food. Baker Library has thirty-five account books dating from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century that contain evidence of women's production. One of these account books belonged to Nathaniel Chamberlin, a blacksmith in Pembroke, Massachusetts (Figure 4). It begins in 1743, the same year that he married his first wife, Sarah. Before her death in 1765, the couple had eight children: four boys and four girls. In 1767, Chamberlin married his second wife, Deliverance Snell, and with her had one more daughter. Most of Chamberlin's accounts list debts due to him for his work as a blacksmith, but they also record work done by his wives and children. Both Sarah and Deliverance sewed jackets, spun yarn, wove cloth, warped handkerchiefs, and quilted coats. In the 1760s, his daughters, Sarah, Ruth, Mary, and Lydia, also began to appear in the book, mainly for spinning and washing.   7  His sons appear in the accounts as well, but the work that they performed always took place in the field, where they either plowed or cleared away rocks. As such, Chamberlin's account book suggests that traditional, gender-based divisions of labor dictated women's tasks in his family.

Payrolls, Time Books, and Registers

Click for larger image Figure 5. Page from the 1830 register of the Hamilton mill. (Hamilton Manufacturing Company Collection, volume 481)

By the 1820s, factories became the centers of production for textiles and other goods. New machinery enabled minimally trained workers to produce goods more efficiently and at a lower cost than skilled laborers had previously been able to do. Women made up a large segment of the new factory labor force, especially for the textile industry. Baker Library's collections include the labor records of forty-one factories that used female labor forces during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of these collections contain payrolls, time books, and accident reports, which document rates of pay, work schedules, and working conditions. Additionally, some companies recorded personal data about each of their employees. The registers kept at the Hamilton Manufacturing Company between 1827 and 1876, for instance, include the employees' start dates and end dates, the names of their hometowns, their assignments within the mill, and the reason they quit or were let go (Figure 5).

Throughout the life of the Hamilton Mill, women consistently made up the majority of the employees. In the early years of the company, most came from New England towns, but as time went on, the mill increasingly employed immigrants from Canada, England, Ireland, and Europe. With so many women entering and leaving their employ, the mill kept track of the reasons employees left the company. This enabled them to determine who, in the future, should be rehired and who should be turned away. The notes in the register provide glimpses of the women's personalities as well as something about their lives outside the mill. Some ended their employment in order to marry, some to attend school, others to care for sick family members, or because they were ill themselves. A number left on bad terms, often because they lied, stole, or drank too much, but in other instances they were sent away due to their poor workmanship or their complaints about wage levels. In one instance, the Hamilton Mill terminated five women on the same day in 1826, listing the reason as "mutiny."   8


Click for larger image Figure 6. Photograph by Lewis Hine of a cotton warper at the Shelton Looms taken in 1933. (Industrial Photograph Collection.)

Besides manuscript materials that document the life of mill employees, Baker Library also has a collection of two thousand photographs illustrating industry in action. These images of factory interiors were created between 1910 and 1940 and portray men and women working on assembly lines and as machine operatives. The types of companies represented include textile mills, clothing manufacturers, pharmacies, canneries, confectioneries, and bakeries. In all cases, the images were commissioned by the companies themselves to use for publicity, corporate reports, and advertisements. Because their purpose was to enhance the public image of the company, the images often present an antiseptic view of life on the factory floor.

Within this collection is a series of photographs created by Lewis Hine for the Shelton Looms in 1933. Hine was a reformer who used photography to document terrible working conditions for female and child laborers in United States factories. Despite these personal concerns, the images that he made at the request of the Shelton Looms are most notable for their aesthetic qualities. Hine's image of a cotton warper (Figure 6) glorifies the work of the operative and the factory machinery by its sensitive use of light and its pleasing composition. Images like this one were clearly made to please mill owners, rather than to argue the need for better working conditions. Despite this, the photographs remain useful for the evidence they provide about companies who used female workers and about the types of tasks that women performed.

Women's Letters and Travel Diaries

Many of the business records collected by Baker Library were those of large family firms. Although in collecting their papers Baker Library hoped to preserve the history of business, many of the collections that came into the repository also included personal materials. By attempting to document the lives and activities of important American businessmen, the library inadvertently preserved the writings of their wives and other female relatives. Thus, women are represented in many of the collections, even when they were not actively involved in the family business. Furthermore, as they are the relations and acquaintances of wealthy businessmen, the women are often themselves significant figures in society. Women whose writings appear in the collections include Elizabeth Agassiz, Clara Barton, Maud Booth, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Baker Library's manuscript collections contain personal letters and diaries written by 325 different women. Most of the women's letters do not relate to business matters, but rather discuss various aspects of the writers' lives, including family relationships, friendships, personal tragedies, travel, education, and religion.

Some of Baker Library's most colorful writings by women are descriptions of travel. All four of the women's diaries that are housed at Baker Library are accounts of journeys in the United States and abroad. Adra Ashley, the wife of a New Bedford ship captain, used waste books as diaries. These books were originally collected by Baker Library for their accounts; however, the diary that had been incidental to the volume as a business record turned out to be a fascinating account of a woman's voyage on a whaling ship from Massachusetts to Hawaii between 1856 and 1860. Baker also owns the diary of Mary Ann Appleton, who traveled by canal boat between Boston and Virginia in the 1830s, and the diary of Catharine Gardner, who toured France, Egypt, and Italy with her husband and son in 1849.

As the field of history has changed during the last decades, Baker Library's Historical Collections are being used in new ways. Research in the collections has broadened from an emphasis on the growth of commerce and industry to include diverse issues of social history. To facilitate this type of research, an in-house database has been created that indexes all the women who appear in the collections and allows for searches by name, place, time period, and occupation. A Web-based guide and print publication will also direct researchers to useful sources. These tools will hopefully aid researchers in their investigations into women's history at Harvard Business School.

Laura Cochrane was the survey archivist for the Women in Business Project at Baker Library, Harvard Business School. She is currently assistant librarian of special collections at the University of Delaware.

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