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Women at work: New York City at the turn of the 20th century

New York City was rapidly expanding at the turn of the 20th century: the five boroughs had just unified, skyscrapers were going up, and the economy was booming. In the following extract from Greater Gotham, historian Mike Wallace discusses how the New York City’s flourishing economy influenced the career opportunities available to women in the early 1900s.

In the mid-nineteenth century, middle and upper-class gender ideals had prescribed that men and women occupy separate spheres of action—men running business and politics, women raising children and governing the household. These Victorian ideals were not universally adopted, much less lived up to. But as goals, they achieved a measure of acceptance, particularly among members of their own social circles, in which husbands commonly had enough wealth or income to forgo their wives’ earning power, which was in any case limited.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the gap between prescription and practice had grown steadily wider. Middle-class women had gained access to higher education, and then, diplomas in hand, had challenged the formal barriers that had kept the professions—medicine, law, engineering, architecture, business management, college teaching, and the ministry—as male-only preserves. Some women did pass through professional school gateways and on into careers, though ongoing masculine resistance kept their numbers in check. Women had also been contesting the double standard, revising family law, managing economic resources, building female-run institutions, and engaging in politics (despite being barred from the polls).

The twentieth century’s opening decades witnessed major developments in Gotham’s macro-economy, changes that drew vast numbers of women into the workforce. This quantitative phenomenon was of such magnitude that it wrought a qualitative transformation in the metropolitan gender order—in fact if not yet in ideology.

While women’s progress in traditionally all-male professions remained incremental, professions already coded female—notably teaching and nursing—grew rapidly, responding to the immigration-driven boom in school creation and the parallel growth of hospitals and public health care agencies. The opening up of new positions drew in large numbers of public-school-trained daughters of the Anglo, German, and Irish lower middle class.

Secretaries were called “Miss Remingtons” after the typewriters they used, which helped to lock in the job category as female. Image Credit: “Remington Model 1892” by Dement, Isaac S. (January 1892). The National Stenographer.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In a similar way, the creation of skyscraper-headquarters by the proliferating national corporations, and the collateral mushrooming of business service industries, generated a tremendous demand for office workers. Clerical positions had hitherto been a male preserve, but the corporations opted for cheaper female labor. Male holdovers from the old regime were mollified by making them supervisors of the new army of women stenographers, typists, bookkeepers, copyists, file clerks, secretaries, receptionists, and telephone switchboard operators. Female entry into the white-collar workforce was further eased by the fact that many of the new positions were associated with new technologies, ones that hadn’t yet been sex-typed. As a result, when the corporations brought in women, men couldn’t complain their territory was being invaded.

The city’s flourishing culture industries also opened up multiple opportunities for women workers. Publishing underwent a phenomenal growth. Old family-run institutions swelled in scale, and new entrants crowded into the print marketplace, which collectively produced a torrent of books, newspapers, and magazines (including scores of labor and radical publications). This increased the demand for copy editors, illustrators, reporters, headline writers, ad writers, executive secretaries, and sometimes even literary or newspaper editors. The print boom also generated a demand for copy, and a concomitant willingness to pay freelance writers for features, short stories, poetry, and reviews. The theatrical industry blossomed, with vaudeville, movies, and the legitimate stage providing work for bevies of singers, actresses, comics, chorus girls, dancers, costumers, and makeup artists. The fashion industry created jobs for ad writers, store buyers (checking out the latest Parisian styles), designers (the Society of American Fashions was formed in 1912), editors of fashion magazines, and proprietors or employees of import firms, millinery shops, dressmaking houses, and cosmetic companies.

Sales and service positions surged with the enormous expansion of department stores and retail outlets. Female recruits flocked in, despite wages being low and work conditions difficult, because wages were somewhat higher and conditions somewhat better than in manufacturing, and pink collars commanded somewhat greater respect than did blue ones. Waitressing slots soared, too, as boardinghouses (which had served meals) gave way to rooming houses (no meals, no kitchenettes), sending throngs through the doors of lunchroom chains (Child’s, Dennett’s, Horn and Hardart). These spread rapidly throughout the city, relying on waitresses rather than the traditional (and better paid) waiters.

Huge numbers labored in the manufacturing sector—by 1910, 27 percent of New York State’s industrial labor force was female. Women were especially prominent in the garment industry, but many others held down light assembly and operative jobs—artificial-flower making, box making, confectionary dipping, bookbinding—a response to steeply rising demand for consumer goods.

The transfer of household tasks (baking bread) to commercial concerns (mammoth bread factories) continued apace. Functions coded as wife-like, such as cleaning, were increasingly provided at an industrial level. Steam laundries hired women to wash and iron for private households and commercial-scale enterprises such as hotels. Charwomen scrubbed floors in offices and theaters, work that was arduous and ill paid. And sex in the patriarchal household was supplemented by professional sex workers housed in apartments and hotels.

The one occupational stratum that shriveled was live-in maids, another instance of the exodus of labor from the home. The percentage of New York City women wage-earners engaged in paid household labor (servants and laundresses) dropped from 32.7 percent in 1900 to 12.9 in 1920. In 1900 there were 141 servants and 22 laundresses per 1,000 Gotham families; by 1920 the numbers had shrunk to 66 and 8. Given the plethora of new employment opportunities, white women were able to flee domestic servanthood, which they found degrading (subject to petty tyranny and sexual harassment) and constraining (leaving them with virtually no time of their own). Second-generation Irish, German, and Scandinavian girls refused to follow in the footsteps of their first-generation forbears, for whom service had been an acceptable entry-level job. Immigrant Jewish, Polish, and Italian women were equally disinclined to don a maid’s uniform. Black women, given their drastically narrower range of employment opportunities, perforce occupied a steadily increasing share of domestic labor’s steadily declining ranks. A complement of servants became the prerogative of wealthy families, while middle-class women, for the first time in generations, were forced to do the bulk of their own housework, and raise children without full-time help.

Featured image credit: Heatherbloom Petticoats, electric sign, n.d. (Image No. AAA0109, Outdoor Advertising Association of America Digital Collection, Duke University). 

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