Women in Trade

(Case 6, nos. 124-153) 

From the 16th to 19th century financial hardship in all but the upper classes (and increasingly in the 19thcentury, also the tradesmen’s class) obliged women to work. Little concession was made to women’s comparative lack of strength or, often, to the suitability of the employment to the female sex.

Women were excluded from most of the trade guilds, and traditional female occupations usually lacked formal organisation. However, when her husband died, a widow was entitled to run his business and his guild membership was transferred to her to enable her to do so. In the Stationers’ Company, for example, widows of freemen retained their husband’s privileges and could take apprentices. Similarly, we see women pewterers, wire workers, chasers, etc. Often, but not always, this merely meant that they oversaw the business, the workforce being unchanged. Widows were anxious to retain their husband’s clients and advertised in the local press or had trade cards printed to ask for the continuance of their custom. Mrs Locke’s trade card (no. 143) amounts to a plea aimed at the charity of the women for whom she produced her corsets.

Women appear in large numbers in early trade directories. However, they can be difficult to chart, especially if they ran a business only for a short time before remarrying (when the business interests were transferred to the new husband). What is even more interesting, however, is the unacknowledged women, the women who helped their husbands to run their businesses but appear in no trade directory. Bill headings (and the versos of trade cards) provide evidence in the form of women’s signatures acknowledging receipt of payment.

Partnerships between husbands and their wives are not uncommon, but it is rare for a woman to take precedence as in the case of the bill heading of Susannah and Jonathan Coleman.

Trade Cards of Women

The John Johnson Collection contains firm evidence of women’s role in commerce. The first section shows women running many kinds of businesses with no reference to husbands, alive or deceased, although research does reveal that many were widows.

Widows' Cards

Widows’ cards often represented an attempt to reassure customers of the smooth continuity of a business under the wife’s ownership. Continued patronage was, of course, essential to a widow’s livelihood. Some widows allowed their dependence on this to be more overtly stated than others.

Husbands and Wives

Case 6 Supplementary Images

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