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She Was Just a Housewife…Except When She Wasn’t

She Was Just a Housewife…Except When She Wasn’t

Housewife…you see that word, or its related term "keeping house," describing women in the census and other records. But were women always housewives?

You may think that having two working parents is a modern-day necessity, but for most families, that necessity is historical. Women have always had to work to provide for their families. Only families who were well off financially could afford to have wives not engage in paid employment.

Virginia Penny (1826-1913) set out to do something no one had done before. She documented 19th century American women’s work. Her 1863 book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopedia of Women’s Work (available on Google Books). This work follows her 1862 book, How women can make money married or single, in all branches of the arts and sciences, professions, trades, agricultural and mechanical pursuits. “Penny interviewed thousands of employers and workers in person and by mail-in survey questionnaires. From 1859 to 1861 in New York, she studied various occupations in which "women are, or may be engaged," ending up with 533 listings.”[1]

Virginia Penny documented women’s work for a time period that we incorrectly assume women didn’t work. However, the reality was that women needed to work. She writes in her preface,

I strongly advocate the plan of every female having a practical knowledge of some occupation by which to earn a livelihood. How do men fare that are raised without being fitted for any trade or profession, particularly those in the humbler walks of life? They become our most common and ill-paid laborers. So it is with women's work. If a female is not taught some regular occupation by which to earn a living, what can she do, when friends die, and she is without means? Even the labor that offers to men, situated as she is, is not at her disposal.

In the pages of her Cyclopedia are jobs and descriptions. These entries can help you better understand the time period and the jobs women held. Take, for example, this entry for coverlets where women employed by the interviewee appear to have some real advantages.


Some of the occupations described are all but unknown to us today, take for example, "bone collectors."

Bone collectors

The entry “Postmistresses” provides a look at why women worked. 

I called on Mrs. W., who was for nearly two years at the ladies' window in the general post office, New York. Very few approved of a lady being there. She found some advantages, but many disadvantages arising from her position. In the first place, it yielded her and her child support, the salary being $600.

Penny writes that in 1854 there were 128 postmistresses, and they received the same pay as the postmasters. Her descriptions of jobs include duties and salary and explore the treatment of women in that job.


What's the benefit of looking at an older book such as Virginia Penny's Cyclopedia? Contemporary information. We can better understand our ancestors when we look at materials written at the time they were alive. This work offers us a sense of what it was like to be a working woman in the mid to later part of the 19th century. And it gives us a sense of what was available to our female ancestors working and living in the United States. Using this, along with census data, newspapers, and archival records provide us with information that we can use to write a historical narrative.

In her dedication, Virginia Penny writes, “To Worthy and Industrious Women in the United States, Striving to Earn a Livelihood, this Book is Respectively Dedicated By The Author.” Virginia Penny was one of those women. Having worked as an economist conducting groundbreaking work in women's occupations, she later worked for the census bureau and was involved in the suffrage movement. Unfortunately, in her later years, she would be institutionalized by her brother and would die destitute in 1913. Virginia Penny knew the importance of women's work, and because of her, we can better understand what types of work 19th-century women, our female ancestors, engaged in.


[1] “Virginia Penny, economist and suffragist,” HNet ( accessed 13 October 2020).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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