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Friday, June 18, 2010

Working Women of the West

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Women of 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 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 theatre. 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 are you inclined to give your heroine if your story were set in the 1800’s American west? Leave a comment and you could win a copy of “Texas Chuckwagon Cuisine: Real Cowboy Cooking.”

Sites to visit:

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Loved this informative post. I live just above Hwy. 49 and know of many of the ladies you mentioned. This area is an amazing place with still so much of the history available. I love talking to the old timers who have memories from their families. On occasion we run into direct descendants. I love using these great ladies as my heroines.

Margaret Tanner said...

Terrific information, loved reading about the feats of these women. The American West is similar to the early days in frontier Australia, where women did extraordinary things, that is why I like writing Australian historicals.



unwriter said...

Great informative piece. If I had a human heroine, she would have to either be a vet, run a stable or own a pet shop.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Women of the old West have always interested me. When I was a little girl, I used to wish I could turn back time and live in the 1800s. I've since changed my mind because I love today's modern conveninces. I like strong heroines, so I might make her the owner of a ranch, someone who wasn't afraid of roping and branding cattle, and fighting off rustlers.


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Good mornging everyone. Thanks for stopping by

It's wonderful to live near history. We all do, of course, some people just don't realize it.

Ranching/farming was one thing I left off the list, but many women took over the family farm when their husband's died. And of course, husband there or not, the women work the land, too.

Marie Higgins said...

This is great information! I think I've only had one historic heroine who I put to work. She was a doctor. I knew women did this occupation back then, but I had no idea the possibilies they had until reading this post. Thanks so much!


Cate Masters said...

Wonderful post. All the women who lived in that era are heroines to me. I'd love to write about an Annie Oakley-type who could outshoot and outride the men. :)

Caroline Clemmons said...

This is such a great post. I had no idea women (or anyone else) could earn that much money baking pies! I knew Lotta Crabtree was a huge theater draw, but had no idea she was that wealthy. I had a heroine who baked bread and pies and then opened a restaurant. I should have had her earn more money. LOL Thanks for sharing your info.

Virginia C said...

My favorite era is the American Old West of the mid to late 1800's. I have always thought that women make better doctors. We are natural nurturers and healers. We also have to deal with menstrual discomforts and childbirth. Many women love cooking and recipes, so we would be quite adept at preparing medicines and herbal remedies. Women of the Old West had a high likelihood of becoming widows, due to natural disasters or disastrously inclined husbands! Undertaking would have come quite naturally to frontier females who became adept at survival.

I have long admired the strength of pioneer and frontier women. Many of them had to leave their cherished keepsakes along the trail in order for the wagon loads to be lightened. There were also great personal losses along the way, and loved ones were buried where they died. The journey continued for the survivors, and people often had to band together and form new "families" in order to live from day to day.

I loved the TV show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman". It's one of my all-time favorites. I think that it did an excellent job of portraying the difficulties faced by woman physicians of the 19th century. Dr. Quinn incorporated many herbal medicines into her practice as a healer. She was continually learning from the Native Americans who became her friends as well as her teachers. One should never stop learning. We should always keep an open heart and a curious mind.

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Paty Jager said...

Great post. So far some of my heroines have been miners, doctors, and a Pinkerton agent.

Teresa Reasor said...

My Great Grandmother was a school teacher and a midwife. So, I think those two things would be high on my list. A laundress, soap and candlestick maker, gunsmith, and horse trainer would be my choices I think. And what about a wagon train master?

Teresa R.

robynl said...

wow, I would never have guessed at the money these ladies made. Very informative post and thanks.

I would like to see a lady who would help someone write a letter if they didn't know how, have books for others to read and perhaps a newspaper once in awhile from a city. A place to relax.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

I was really surprised at the money made baking pies! Great blog, wonderfully informative. Thanks.

Penny Rader said...

Fascinating post! I would've made a lousy pioneer. :D I especially liked the story about the woman who built her own table without her dh knowing. I feel for the lady who made all the pies without anything to shelter her from the sun. She must've had an exceedingly strong constitution and/or an iron will!

Mary Ricksen said...

What a great post! Such wonderful information. I had no clue that women did this. I woulda been doing the cooking thing myself if I was there in that time!
Good stuff!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hello, everyone. Thanks for stopping by. Theresa, those are great occupations to add to the list.

In my story Salvation Bride, the heorine is a trained doctor, something she kept a secret from her husband (she was a mail order bride).

One of my favorite writers is Maggie Osborn, she always has great heroines who worked outside the box. The Promise of Jenny Jones is great. Jenny is a muleskinner. In Silver Lining, Louise is a miner.

We tend to put women in a box and think of them there, usually in the house...lol.

Oh, I'll draw for a winner on Monday, give others a chance to comment.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Anna,

Fascinating post! I'm curious as to the social status of these working women. Were they viewed as "uppity" or "unfeminine"? Did the men see them as competitors?

I was thinking that a woman muleskinner would be an interesting heroine. But I gather than someone has done that already!

I'd probably most naturally write a woman who ran a hotel and saloon. I've always been good at throwing parties. ;^)


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Someone pointed out that I forgot to draw a winner for the cookbook. Sorry about that! The winner is.....Teresa Reasor. Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Anna Kathryn

Anonymous said...

I'm in HR here in this modern world. But back then I probably would have been an author or a journalist.

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Aisha S said...

Thanks for sharing the post! Jobs for women is become vital in the current generation.