Thursday, January 14, 2016

Working Women of the West

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Women in the West during the 1800’s had greater freedom and more opportunities as proprietors than their counter-parts in the East. Labor shortages and the more lenient attitude toward women’s roles opened doors for women in commerce unavailable in the more Victorian-minded East.

Common businesses were for women were  laundries, baking, house cleaning, boarding houses, hotels, restaurants, seamstress, even post mistress. The men may have come West for freedom, but they still wanted clean clothes, fresh pies and a place to sleep.

Luzena Wilson, without her husband’s knowledge, built a table herself and set up an outdoor restaurant. When her husband returned that evening he found twenty miners sitting at her table, paying a dollar each for the food she cooked. Her business was so successful, she was able to build a hotel and lend money to others.

Mary Jane Caples decided to sell pies to the miners in the area. Using dried fruit, she sold the pies “for one dollar and a quarter a piece, and mince pies for one dollar and fifty cents. I sometimes made and sold a hundred in a day, and not even a stove to bake them in, but had two small dutch ovens.”

Another woman boasted, “I have made about $18,000 worth of pies—about one third of this has been clear profit. One year I dragged my own wood off the mountain and chopped it, and I have never had so much as a child to take a step for me in this country. $11,000 I baked in one little iron skillet, a considerable portion by a campfire, without the shelter of a tree from the broiling sun.”

Several women owned boarding houses, one made $189 a week within three weeks of opening her place.

But these occupations weren’t the only way for a woman to make her way in the west. The Historic Hwy 49 site offers a list of woman and their successful enterprises:

Catherine Sinclair managed a theater. A French woman barbered. Julia Shannon took photographs. Sophia Eastman was a nurse. Mrs. Pelton taught school. Mrs. Phelps sold milk. Mary Ann Dunleavy operated a 10-pin bowling alley. Enos Christman witnessed the performance of a lady bullfighter. Franklin Buck met a Spanish (“genuine Castillian”) woman mulepacker. Charlotte Parkhurst drove a stage for Wells Fargo. Mrs. Raye acted in the theatre. Mrs. Rowe performed in a circus, riding a trick pony named Adonis. Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree were famous dancers. Lotta amassed a fortune of over four million dollars during her lifetime.

Other women took up more historically masculine jobs such as gold mining and muleskinners (someone who drove cargo using mules). And physician: hundreds of women practiced medicine in the West, where they were more accepted, too.

The possibilities for a woman were nearly as limitless as the wide open spaces of the Old West.

What occupation do you think you'd take up if you were living in the 1800's Old West?


Anna Kathryn Lanier
copyright© 2011 Anna Kathryn Lanier

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Romance Author, A GIFT BEYOND ALL MEASURE
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 
  
This article first appeared on “Seduced by History” blog, June 18, 2012

8 comments:

  1. Well, I wouldn't take up cooking, that's for sure. I can barely get a meal together for our evening dinner. But I have often read that more fortunes were made by feeding and housing the miners than the miners made from finding gold. The world runs on its stomach. I think your post proved it. Thanks..it was enlightening.

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    1. Yes, it seems serving a good 'home-cooked' meal was really popular.

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  2. Such a wonderful blog, Anna. It certainly gave me some job opportunities for future women in my westerns. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to make pies in a Dutch oven--now that took talent.
    I'm certain I could have earned a living as a nurse. After working my entire career as an RN in critical care and emergency nursing, I think I could be of some use--and I know herbal and alternative medicine, too. But if I thought I could earn money at it, I would like the job of taking photographs. Failing both of these, I would tell fortunes.
    I wish you continued success in all you do, Anna.

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    1. Sarah, I think you could have been a doctor back in the day, with everything you know. Photography would be good too.

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  3. I'd probably have been a baker, Anna Kathryn, but I shudder to think of baking under those conditions without air-conditioning. I don't think I would have made a good pioneer. LOL Interesting post, though, and one that is helpful for western authors!

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    1. Bakers were very popular among the single men of gold fields, so an excellent choice. However, I agree, the conditions were brutal.

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  4. The heroine in my Stealing Her Heart supported herself and her father by baking biscuits in Dutch ovens set in the coals of her campfire. I based her on a woman who made enough money feeding the gold miners to buy a restaurant/hotel. I'd do that because I'd see the men smile when they came to buy their cathead biscuits every morning. They referred to her as the angel and her biscuits were the size of cat heads.

    Great post Anna

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    1. That may have been Luzena Wilson. On the first day her family arrived at a camp, she set to cook supper and a miner offered a $1 for a biscuit. She knew then what she had to do. She made a fortune for her family, all of which burned up when a fire swept through the town and the family was left with $50 from selling the lot their hotel had been on. It's said she $250,000 cash in her room at one time. All because a miner offered her a $1 for a biscuit.

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