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Women and Work in Early America

Before the Domestic Sphere

By

Women Spinning Linen Yarn

Women Spinning Linen Yarn, About 1783

Hulton Archives / Getty Images

From the late colonial period through the American Revolution, women's work usually centered on the home, but romanticizing this role as the Domestic Sphere came in the early 19th century.

In early America, the work of a wife was often alongside her husband, running a household, farm or plantation. Cooking for the household took a major part of a woman's time. Making garments -- spinning yarn, weaving cloth, sewing and mending clothes -- also took much time. After the Revolution and into the early 19th century, higher expectations for educating the children fell, often, to the mother. Widows and the wives of men off to war or traveling on business often ran large farms and plantations pretty much as the sole managers.

Other women worked as servants or slaves. Unmarried women, or divorced women without property, might work in another household, helping out with household chores of the wife or substituting for the wife if there was not one in the family. (Widows and widowers tended to remarry very quickly, though.)

Many women, especially but not only widows, owned businesses. Women worked as apothecaries, barbers, blacksmiths, sextons, printers, tavern keepers and midwives.

In the 1840s and 1850s, as the Industrial Revolution and factory labor took hold in the United States, more women went to work outside the home. By 1840, ten percent of women held jobs outside the household; ten years later, this had risen to fifteen percent.

Factory owners hired women and children when they could, because they could pay lower wages to women and children than to men. For some tasks, like sewing, women were preferred because they had training and experience, and the jobs were "women's work." The sewing machine was not introduced into the factory system until the 1830s; before that, sewing was done by hand.

Text © Jone Johnson Lewis .

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