Women and Work – Eleanor Gordon

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Courses that may find this source useful: The Century of Revolutions, Changing Britain, The Treaty of the Union

Professor Eleanor Gordon (University of Glasgow) provides an important insight into women’s role in the economy of Georgian Glasgow, illuminating an area often ignored throughout history. Discussed is the variety of occupations women were involved with and how vital they were to everyday commerce.

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4

Section 1

The woman stands behind a counter, with large, purpose-built shelves and drawers behind her housing neat packages of goods wrapped in paper and tied with string.  The woman in the picture appears to have been an affluent grocer, with a basket of imported lemons displayed on the counter and parcels of sugar. Her fashionable dress and cap are symbols of her relative affluence, but also of her taste demonstrating her skill and discernment in choosing goods to sell, and perhaps customers to sell to.

An important point about this painting is that it is anonymous, we don’t know who painted it.  For me, this is a particularly interesting point.  Because it strikes a chord with what I want to talk about today: women’s role in the economy.

So often, throughout history, women’s economic role, and the work that they did, is hidden from history.  We might say that is true for many roles that women have performed throughout history.  However, in relation to work, there has been an assumption that women’s public economic role declined from around the late 17th century.

The story that is often told about women’s economic role in the centuries after this, indeed right up until the last decades of the twentieth century, is of women being confined mainly to the private sphere and occupied with the business of being wives and mothers.  The work of many feminist scholars has now revised this story by unearthing the many and varied roles that women played in the economy throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the Georgian period,  using trade directories, newspaper adverts, insurance records it can be demonstrated that women played a dynamic role in the environments of urbanising Britain, exploiting growing consumption practices and fashionable society to their advantage as well as providing basic services to the populace. It is now established that women played active roles as proprietors of smaller and larger enterprises in urban areas over this time period, with little evidence that their activity was on the wane and this was also true of Georgian Glasgow.

Section 2

The painting portrays one aspect of women’s economic activity in this period.  Shopkeeping, in all its forms, constituted an important aspect of women’s role in business.  In this portrait we see a woman in what looks like a moderately prosperous business. It is clearly a small shop.  So the items that she is selling might be described as semi-luxury items.  Her clientele would have been the middling sorts, rather than the poorer sections of society.  It is worth noting that shops in this period were very different from the ones we are familiar with, and the ones that were to become more popular in the course of the nineteenth century.  Not only were they small, but they usually did not have windows where the produce was displayed to attract customers and make the wares that they were selling look attractive.  Shops were usually specialised in nature– they were small, intimate and very often there was a personal relationship between customer and owner.

From the last two decades of the eighteenth century women made up around 6% of owners of shops which were sufficiently substantial to pay the shop tax (explain).  The women paying the highest rents were located in the centre of town westwards, for example, North Argyle street and the streets off to the North such as Virginia street.  The majority of these women were wealthy grocers, but some were also milliners, glovers, cotton sellers or simply ‘merchants’. Indeed women were to be the primary proprietors of the shops that were to open in the 1830s in Argyle Arcade which of course is still open today.

Grocers, both male and female, dominated the retail sector.  However, the term ‘grocer’ could denote a person who was very affluent or one who was rather badly off.  The dominance of grocers in these records also suggests that provisioning rather than luxurious clothing or homewares was the area with most opportunity, although there were also some grocers who provided more expensive, imported items. The majority of women in retail were involved in dealing in small shops such as, grocers, victuallers, dairies and also in stalls in market places or in the arcades that ran under some buildings.   This kind of dealing was very small retail activity or petty trade in less affluent areas. For example in Maryhill, on Garscube road there were scores of retail shops, owned primarily by women.  Women were also to be found in the many markets that were scattered throughout the city, such as the herb or vegetable markets and the flesh markets. Many of them were to be found in Candleriggs, and the area west of the Bridgegate along the north side of the river.

Women and men would also have sold things more informally on the streets, although by the turn of the century, there were attempts to limit this kind of activity.  Streets and markets were spaces officially regulated by the Town Council, who controlled buying and selling through weight and pricing regulation, and by the watchmen and the police, but their authority was clearly contested by those continuing to attempt sales on streets where they were prohibited.

Section 3

Living above the shop was very common or even using the front room to sell wares which is a far cry from the large department stores that we are familiar with now. The woman in the painting may have rented the shop for retail purposes or it may have been part of her home.  Most of those engaged in petty retail, like the ones in Maryhill would have been selling from their home- usually a room at the front of the house.  Living ‘above the shop’ persisted right through the nineteenth century.  Although it was common in retail, we find the practice in businesses that we don’t normally associate with home-based business activity (masons, builders, textile manufactures).

Although the separation of home and work is much more prevalent now, it has not entirely disappeared. There is a cafe in Bearsden, the Hillfoot which is crammed with large jars containing every sweet imaginable from the era of my childhood and it is essentially a part of the owner’s home. The living room is adjacent to the shop and the bedrooms are upstairs.  So if you want a taste of late eighteenth and nineteenth century shops, take a trip out to the Hillfoot cafe.

Shopkeeping was not the only form of business where we find women.  Women were actively involved in local money markets, using their own capital to make an income and in the process supporting the economic growth of the city.  They also played an important role in the provision of local credit, which was still essential within local communities even when more formalised systems and banking were increasingly important in credit provision.  These loans would often have been made to merchants and the interest on the loans would have provided the women with an income, often over a long period.  Other women took an active decision to invest in a public, civic fund such as lending to the City Council.

And of course women were very involved in family businesses e.g. brewers, hatters, bakers, wine merchants, printers, umbrella makers.  Wives often took over the running of family businesses when their husbands died. Guild regulations often specified that masters were to be married in recognition of the wives central role in the enterprise.  For example, James Cheape’s indenture to a cooper required the master’s wife retain him if her husband died during the apprenticeship.

Section 4

We have been talking mainly about women and business but of course women played an important role in many areas of the economy.  Domestic service and agriculture, even in the Glasgow area, occupied large numbers of women.  The eighteenth-century mercantile ‘city’ was not that distinct from its rural surroundings. Sheep were allowed to graze in George Square and St Enoch Square, both new developments.  However, by the last couple of decades of the century, Glasgow was beginning to resemble the industrial city that it was to become in the second half of the nineteenth century. And women were extensively employed in manufacturing.  From small craft industries and workshops to work in the just beginning mills and factories.

Guild regulation of the workplace, and access to it through apprenticeship and mastership ensured that skilled craft work was almost entirely the preserve of men. Nonetheless many women worked in the craft industries that produced for a largely female market.  Needle trades were especially important; they were milliners, mantuamakers and seamstresses making all sorts of goods including underwear, children’s clothes, gravecloths as well as the high class millinery which growing fashion demanded.

Manufacturing in the 18th and early 19th   centuries employed mainly children and women.    In the second half of the 18th century women could be found working in the linen industry and later in the century the newly burgeoning cotton mills.  Even in mining communities wives tended ‘a good-sized garden, which was generally kept in a first class state of cultivation; and in many of them a little byre had been erected where a cow, and sometimes two, were kept.

So women played an important role in Glasgow’s economy and were to continue to do so right through the nineteenth century.  However, it is also important to make the point that women were concentrated in a small number of areas of the economy and their participation in craft trades and business was becoming more and more curtailed by Guild regulations for example, there were also legal constrictions on women’s working, like Coverture, which meant that women’s goods and personal property were, when they married, the property of their husbands.

However there was considerably more space for women’s agency and economic participation within patriarchal institutions than the letter of the law would seem to permit. The evidence from Glasgow appears to support the view that patriarchal marriage laws placed some limits on women’s activities, but in practice contained enough space for a relatively wide-ranging and flexible economic participation for women in the city.

I think the painting that we see here, is symbolic of the kinds of work that women performed in Georgian Glasgow, it was often hidden from view, concentrated in a small number of sectors but it was embedded in and central to the grow of a city which was soon to acquire the name of the Second City of the Empire.


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