An Unusual Job for a Woman: A Look at Three Job Opportunities in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Posted by on Oct 26, 2015 in 19th Century U.S., 20th Century US, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 2 comments

Throughout most of history, employment opportunities for women were limited. But by the nineteenth century, advances in education and technology were creating new professions for “ladies”—some of which have since disappeared, some of which are today common, and at least one that remains a highly specialized field.


“Telegraph Ladies”

By Steve Bartholomew

telegraph operators circa 1908The nineteenth century offered few job opportunities for an educated, single woman. She could become a servant, governess, or school mar’m. However, there was another job that historians tend to forget about: that of telegraph operator.

The first woman telegraph operator was one Sarah G. Bagley, hired by Western Union in 1846. Many others soon followed her example; by the 1870’s as many as one third of telegraphers were of the female persuasion. Some male directors believed that women would make better operators than men because they have more sensitive fingers. They were probably more stable on the job, not being allowed in saloons.

Another reason women were considered suitable for the work was that it wasn’t physically strenuous, despite having long hours—usually ten hours a day, six days a week. Telegraphers in those days were an elite club, much like computer geeks today. They often got to know each other personally though never having met in person, a situation that sometimes led to “on-line” romance.

Tunnel-6-185x280aNot all operators worked in large offices; many were sent to remote locations on the prairie, where they found themselves in effect running the railroad. Many of these were women. In fact they might be found in such places up until the early twentieth century, when Morse code began to be obsolete.

For more information on the subject, please read The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, ©1998 by Tom Standage.

Steve Bartholomew is the author of Tunnel 6 which features one of these telegraph operators.


“Lady Teachers”

By M. Louisa Locke

school teacherFrom the start, my plan for my series of mysteries set in Victorian San Francisco has been that each book should feature a different occupation held by women of that period. In Maids of Misfortune, my protagonist, Annie Fuller, goes undercover as a domestic servant, in Uneasy Spirits, she investigates a fraudulent trance medium, and in my most recent novel, Deadly Proof, the mystery revolves around women in the San Francisco printing industry. But Bloody Lessons, the third book, featured San Francisco teachers, relying heavily on this section of my dissertation ‘Like Machine or an Animal:’ Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century.


“Less than ten percent of all the women working in San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles in 1880 held jobs in the professions, and over ninety percent of them were teachers. Fifty years earlier school teaching had been dominated by men; women had begun to join the profession in significant numbers as full-time teachers only in the 1840s, and yet by 1880 over two thirds of the teachers in the United States were women.

“There were several reasons for the increasing importance of women in this profession in the period. The spread of the common school movement, which worked toward the establishment of public schools, had produced an accelerating demand for teachers. Men, who had traditionally taught in the public and private schools of the nation, could no longer adequately fill this demand, at least not at a price that the small budgets of public schools could handle. As a result, the hiring of women as teachers at lower rates of pay seemed a practical solution to the problems facing financially-strapped communities. Catherine Beecher, one of the earliest promoters of women as teachers stressed the advantages of accepting female teachers, writing at one point, ‘…women can afford to teach for one-half, or even less, the salary which men would ask…’

“Whether or not this view was correct, just as the demand for female teachers rose, there was an increasing number of women available and eager to meet this demand. The middle-and late-nineteenth century witnessed the expansion of institutions of higher learning for women, and more women were attending high schools, normal schools, and colleges. Teaching was a logical outlet for those women who wished to do something practical with their learning before settling down to marriage. At the same time, the middle classes were beginning to view teaching as a more respectable occupation for young women. Women who taught, particularly if they taught in the elementary grades, were seen as simply applying (or practicing) their maternal talents outside the home.”

bloody-lessons185x280“Even after the passage of a California law in 1874 that states, ‘Females employed as teachers in the public schools of this State, shall in all cases receive the same compensation as is allowed male teachers for like services, when holding the same grade certificates,’ the average salaries of women teaching in California were substantially lower than those made by males. For example, in 1879 a woman’s average monthly salary of between $70 and $80 was $50 a month less than a man’s. The ineffectiveness of the state law explains this differential in part, but the fact that women were usually limited to teaching in the lower-paying, elementary and primary grades while men were more likely to hold jobs as administrators of high school teachers explains most of the difference.”

In doing my research for Bloody Lessons, this attitude was revealed to have existed in San Francisco in 1879, when a newly elected school board decided to cut the salaries of primary school teachers by over half—prompting a storm of outrage from local women––and setting the stage for my mystery.

M. Louisa Locke is the author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, including Bloody Lessons.


“A Woman Sculptor with a Mission”

By Ann Elwood

Anna_Coleman_Ladd_and_soldier_photo credit American Red CrossIn the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the World War I veteran Richard Harrow wears a painted metal mask on the left side of his face to cover his grievous war injuries. The show never explains what it is or how he got it. I was probably one of the few people watching who knew its story – I had found out all about those masks while working on my interwar historical novel, Out of Stone. I wanted one of my main characters, Marion Blauvelt, to be a woman sculptor, but I wasn’t sure how common it was for a woman to become one. In researching the subject, I came across Anna Coleman Ladd, who was one of the prime makers of the kind of mask Harrow wore. Before World War I, Ladd, a socialite who studied in Paris and Rome and was married to a physician, created pretty sculptures—fountains with nymphs, for example. During the war, in France with her husband, who was a medical adviser for the American Red Cross, she set up a studio for making these masks in Paris, near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Though soldiers in previous wars had suffered facial disfigurement, it was particularly common during World War I. This was partly because soldiers often stuck their heads up over the edge of the trenches to see what was going on, and for their trouble part of their faces could be blown off: noses, chins, eyes, cheeks. Soldiers so mutilated felt as if they would be shunned by society. And they were. In Sidcup, England, blue benches near the veterans’ hospital were designated for the disfigured so that townspeople could avoid seeing them and being distressed by the sight.

Out-of-Stone185x280Metal masks gave soldiers a semblance of their faces back. The thin copper masks made by Ladd and her assistants (and in my novel Marion Blauvelt becomes one of them) were painted to resemble the soldier’s original appearance—an eye where an eye had been, skin color to match, etc. Richard Harrow’s mask is attached to a pair of glasses, but sometimes soldiers wore the masks by tying them to the backs of their heads with string, like Hallowe’en masks.
Though Ladd interests me because of her war work, which fit so well into my novel, she was not the only woman sculptor of the time—though you can count them on the fingers of both hands.

Ann Elwood is the author of Out of Stone and other works of historical fiction and non-fiction.