Immigrant Women at the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century Marketplace
Business History Conference 3
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 6
Whether working, saving, or spending, most nineteenth-century immigrant women in the United States operated at the periphery of the national capitalist economy. The stories of such women’s lives and activities refuse to fit into neat binary categories like public and private, enslaved or free, business and labor, production and consumption, or the domestic sphere and the market. Negotiating their way through the mid-nineteenth-century urban landscape, immigrant women from Europe and Africa “made do” through a combination of strategies both to generate cash and to preserve their money. Through an examination of several female enterprises, we can begin to analyze the part that gender played in these women’s adaptations to the expanding marketplace in both a slave society and an industrializing nation.
Our conversation will bridge the borders between women of several nationalities in multiple regions, making connections between Irish women savers in New Orleans, enslaved female traders in antebellum Charleston, and immigrant businesswomen in communities across the United States. Although historians currently recognize that nineteenth-century women played an economic role far beyond domestic labor and consumption, we still know too little about how specific groups of women managed and maximized their resources. Methodologies used in our papers include archival research in day deposit books from a Redemptorist Savings Bank, GIS mapping of plantation records that show enslaved women moving through the southern informal economy, as well as discovering linkages between credit records and the federal census. Each of these papers provides another lens through which we can analyze diverse women and their contributions to the urban marketplace.