Tuesday, March 20, 2018

These Women Mean Business: 19th Century Women Entrepreneurs

When I initially created Inez Stannert, the protagonist of my Silver Rush series, I made her a part-owner of a saloon in Leadville, Colorado. I did so knowing that she had company in the 1880 census.

Three Leadville women laid claim to being saloon keepers back then… in a town of about 300 saloons! In fact, a quick look at the variety of professions is intriguing: outliers include two fortune tellers, one journalist, one stenographer, four physicians/surgeons, four miners, and two music teachers. There were also 39 managers or employees in the hotel business, 90 boarding or lodging house keepers, and 76 women who were tailors/dressmakers/milliners. I wish I could tease the numbers apart and find out how many “managed” or owned their own businesses versus those who were “employed,” but the census doesn’t make that distinction.

A Dying Note, the newest book in my series, finds Inez in 1881 San Francisco, managing a music store (which she does not own it… yet!). She is also providing loans and financing to other women, who are running their own businesses—laundries, millineries, and so on. I turned to a couple of resources to draw a bead on businesswomen and entrepreneurship in this time frame, to be sure I wasn’t too off-based in my assumptions as to what was and wasn’t possible for women. Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850–1920 by Edith Sparks was one such resource. (An interesting review of the book appears here on the Economic History Association website.)

Three men and a woman, California Gold Rush. Maybe she's selling biscuits from that basket?
Sparks notes that, during the 1850s Gold Rush era, starting a business, especially for white women, was simple: “Demand for their domestic skills and services, fueled by a dramatic gender imbalance, meant female proprietors were unusually safe risks in the eyes of most creditors, and women enjoyed generous terms for financing new enterprises as a result.”

However, once the Gold Rush ebbed, access to credit for women ebbed along with it. At this point, women began turning for loans to “informal lending networks comprised of female and male acquaintances.” (As Dani pointed out to me, this is similar to today’s ”microfinancing” efforts popularized by Grameen Bank.) One strategy women favored in this post-Gold Rush era was taking over or buying out an already established business… a strategy that Inez is hoping to employ!

 If you’re looking for real stories about real women entrepreneurs of Old San Francisco, you might want to check out The Making of ‘Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco by Lynn M. Hudson. An 1884 article in The Cleveland Gazette stated that Mary Ellen Pleasant had “an income from eight houses in San Francisco, a ranch near San Mateo, and $100,000 in government bonds.” (According to MeasuringWorth.com, that $100,000 in 1884 equates to at least several million dollars today!) You can find a short biography of Pleasant on BlackPast.org.

Mary Ellen Pleasant: One of the wealthiest women in the U.S. in the late 19th century.

So, it appears that women-led “start-ups” are not such a new concept after all! One needs only take a look at history (or maybe I should say “herstory”) for examples from the past.

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for ìeditor/writerî). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

13 comments :

  1. Informative as always.

    Thanks for introducing me to this site some weeks ago, by including it in your blog list.

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  2. Fascinating that you could get so much information about Leadville in the 1880s and then shift your character to San Francisco. Women of that era were true pioneers. Even after the Equal Rights Amendment, women had a hard time. It's better, but we still have a ways to go.

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  3. This is the kind of research that can lure me from site to site for hours. Excellent post, Ann.

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  4. Hello Liz! And welcome! :-) Lots of fun posts here each month... interesting women with interesting things to say!

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  5. Hi Polly!
    Ain't it the truth... we still have a long journey ahead. Shifting my protagonist from Leadville to San Francisco was, well, let's just say "an adventure." Adding to one's knowledge base is always a good thing, though, right? :-)

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  6. Glad you enjoyed it, Patricia! I love posting links for "further exploration," so I'm happy you found them useful. :-)

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  7. This is a very interesting post, Ann. Too bad that the demand for women in business and the opportunities to make the big bucks waned. A case of supply and demand, I suppose.

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    1. Hi Linda! I agree... From what I gathered, women were scarce during the early days of the Gold Rush, so that increased their options. However, “where there’s a will
      there’s a way,” and there were women in later decades who persisted and found ways (and financing) to start their own businesses. :-)

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  8. Great post, Ann, and, like Pat, I could get lost in all the links to more historical information. I am a research junkie.
    Loved "herstory." We need to make that a buzz word.

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  9. Love your research!So many times women were the back story. You are pushing them out there! Wonderful!

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    1. Hi Marcia! Glad you enjoyed it! :-) yes, research can be a rabbit hole. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop!

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  10. Hi Maryann, I’m a research junkie too... It’s hard to know when to stop researching and start writing sometimes. :-)
    I love the term “herstory.” Not sure who coined it, but it works!

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  11. I hated history in school. It was mostly memorizing battle dates. But as an adult, it is a passion. I can lose days reading stories like these. It is past time women from history had their time in the light and the textbooks. :)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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