Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Women’s Work: Making a living in the 19th Century

by | August 7, 2014 | 11 comments

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

Throughout much of the 19th century, the majority of women stayed at home, but there were significant exceptions.

The reason most women stayed home was first and foremost that the U.S. was still very much a rural nation with almost 70% of the population in 1870 living on farms or in a small town with less than 2500 citizens. Without easy access to mass produced goods that were coming out of industrialized America such as canned food, ready-made clothes, and factory produced furniture, someone had to do the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and crafting required to survive. And then there was a living to be made to pay taxes, buy agricultural equipment, and maintain the dwelling and land. The only way to do that was to divide up the chores between a husband and wife. Since making a living often required difficult physical labor and women were often pregnant and/or caring for children, the “lighter chores” fell to women. But anyone who has ever done laundry with a washboard, canned their own vegetables, sown their own clothes, and cleaned a rug by hand knows this work was not easy by any means.

Still, 13% of women age 10 years or older were employed in a paid occupation outside the home, according to the 1870 census, many in the fields that you would expect, some in areas you would never suspect. The 1870 census was the first census to capture women in occupations. It lists, for example, 84,047 women as teachers versus 42,775 men. Even more popular was the occupation of dressmaking where 90,480 women did so out of a total of 92,084. Seamstress, grouped with tailor, was another occupation that attracted lots of women, 97,207 of them, accounting for 60% of that category. By far the most popular occupation for women was being a domestic servant with 867, 354 declaring this their occupation or 47% of all women who were in paid occupations! Milliners were also largely women with 97,207 identified with that jpb. In 1870, 10,170 women were nurses which was  93% of all nurses. 55,609 were laundresses which was 91% of all laundresses.

Clearly women found it easier to gain paid work in domestic type chores they would have done in their homes. However, as the industrial age was starting to take hold, many women went into manufacturing. For instance, there were 64,308 cotton mill operators out of a total of 111,606 according to the census.

But there were some trailblazers that might prove good fodder for a story or two.

Out of 62,383 people who declared themselves physicians, 525 were female. Elizabeth Blackwell, pictured, was one of the first women to graduate from a medical college in the United States, doing so in 1849. By 1890,  female physicians were 5% of the total physicians practicing.  All of the 1186 midwives listed, however, were women. As an aside, by 1980, only 17 percent of the physicians were female—progress takes awhile, I guess. Only five women were lawyers in the United States at that time but oh what women they must have been. 33% of all actors were women though the category was small at just 2,053 total. Two women declared themselves hunters and trappers out of 940 total. Only 35 women were journalists out of 5280 and, based on upon how often this occupation appears in the stories I’ve read,  every one of them must have had a romance written about them. There were 11 female livery stable keepers out of 8504. Almost 7% of the 17,362 hucksters (door-to-door salespersons) were listed as women.

What women were not, according to the 1870 census, were butchers, bridge builders, blacksmiths’s, bookbinders, carpenters, chemists, chimneysweeps, dentists, engineers and firemen, Indian scouts, land surveyors, lamplighters, officers in any company with the exception of the 9 women listed as officers in trading and transport companies, mulepackers, store porters, plantation overseers, sailors, stock drovers, translators, and veterinary surgeons.

Still, that leaves a lot of occupations to explore. If you care to comb through the census data, you can find it here https://www.censusrecords.com/content/1870_Census as well as census data for other years. The data collected changed over the years as the technology for counting and the nation as a whole changed, but perusing it can give you a good snapshot of the country at that time. The data is also broken down by state in many cases as well as tables that compare the United States occupations with those of other countries. So whether your interest is in the United States or other countries, there might be something here for you.

What occupations have you used for your heroine? What are some of the more unusual occupations of women you have found in historical fiction or real life?

Anne Carrole writes about men who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. Check out www.annecarrole.com for more information. You can friend, follow, find, or like Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , and at the western historical facebook fan site, Love Western Romances.


  1. E. Ayers

    Super article. 1870 really was the cusp for many women and jobs. Back up 30 years and the differences are significant. People didn’t think women could teach.

    • Anne Carole

      It is hard to imagine the position of women just 150 or so years ago. Unfortunately, in some countries in the 21st century it isn’t much better than back then. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Beppie Harrison

    Goodness. I knew about there were thousands of domestic servants–for people of means to live in reasonable comfort the servants were a plain necessity. And I’d read about Elizabeth Blackwell and other pioneer female doctors (in England as well), but the breadth of occupations surprises me. So, I guess does the number of occupations in which women were NOT found. Great blog!

    • Anne Carole

      Thanks, Beppie, for stopping by. Happy you found it as interesting as I did. 🙂

  3. Linda Andrews

    Great article. While researching World War 1, I came across a reference article from the 19th century that outright stated the women in occupations that were extensions of their domestic duties could be paid less then men. I would love to see the statistics on their pay:-D
    In my stories I have fairly traditional roles for my heroines. Society often reacted harshly to those women who challenged it. Which would make an excellent book.

    • Anne Carole

      Thanks for your comments, Linda. I haven’t found much on pay, come to think of it. That would be interesting but I’m sure women did not make very much. Teachers, I know, made between $3-$5 a week in the mid-19th century compared, for instances, to ranch hands who made $25-30/month.

  4. Nancy

    A woman hunter/trapper. Now that’s a story! There were a lot more women doctors at that time than I thought. Thanks for the info and the resource, Anne!

    • Anne Carole

      Waving hello, Nancy. Thanks for commenting. I was surprised by some of the statistics too. It’s interesting to scroll down and see exactly what states had women practicing medicine, too.

  5. Renee Field

    Oh I loved this post. We women have come a long way but it’s still a struggle. I recently discovered my great-great aunt was a trapper in Canada – how amazing. She also wore pants!

    • Anne Carole

      Renee, it sounds like you have a story line there, based on your great-great aunt. She must have been quite a woman! Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  6. Talia Pente

    I write fantasy romance, but my worldbuilding pulls heavily from 1900-1910 NY/NJ area when the great influx of immigrants from Europe were struggling in this country. I’ve woven that scenario into a story as opposed to specific people. Considering that both of my grandparents came through Ellis Island and my husband is first generation American (his mother came over on the Andrea Doria), I find that history is a great backdrop for stories.



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