Employment opportunities for girls in the eighteenth-century

Not all women in the eighteen-century were able to marry a wealthy aristocrat, in fact very few did, the majority had to hold down a job as well as running the home and raising children. We thought today we would follow on from an earlier article in which we looked at eighteenth-century careers and have picked out a few of the career options listed in Joseph Collyer’s book of 1761, that were deemed suitable for girls and women, of which of course, there were only a limited number, far fewer choices than for men.

Basket Maker

There are several sorts of basket-maker. Some who form baskets of green oziers (willow), chiefly for the use of gardeners. These are the most considerable branches; for some of the masters employ many hands, and also rent large ozier plantations; which not only produce sufficient for themselves, but many to spare. This part of the work requires no other abilities but strength and application. Another sort of basked makers make finer works with rods stripped, split, halved and dyed; or with split cane or dyed straw of various colours. The workers in the finer sort of baskets, which are chiefly to be found in the turner’s shops, require less strength and more ingenuity. This is chiefly carried out by girls and women who make the smaller wares.

A young girl and child carry baskets on their heads
A young girl and child carry baskets on their heads. Wellcome Library

Bodice Maker

This was once a trade of universal use, but now bodices are worn by none but the poorer sort of women and girls in the country. They are made of canvas and whale-bone or cane and sometimes leather. Women are principally employed in making them; they can get six or seven pounds a week and require no great qualification. Their apprentices are generally parish children, whom they take with little or nothing. As their dealings are mostly in the country, they require a pretty large stock; most of them now deal also in ordinary stays, by which means they make a handsome livelihood.

Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys from The Cries of London, 1795.
Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys from The Cries of London, 1795. The strawberry seller wears a simple canvas or leather bodice. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Button Maker

The greatest part of the mohair, silk and horsehair buttons are made in the county and sent up to shops in town. Those made here are chiefly livery buttons, or some patterns particularly bespoke. Those who work at this are chiefly women, who are paid by the dozen and are able to get but a poor living. The boy or girl designed for the business of making gold and silver buttons ought to have some fancy and genius, that they may be able to invent new fashions. They should also have good eyes and a dry hand. The lace-man furnishes them with all the material for his buttons, except the moulds and pays him for the work when done.

Portrait of a Trumpeter in Livery (called ‘Valentine Snow, 1685–1759, Sergeant Trumpeter’); Michael Dahl I (1656/1659–1743) (style of); National Trust, Fenton House

Cap Maker

These are shopkeepers who make and sell caps for men or women to travel in and also men’s morning caps. They deal in many sorts of millinery goods, such as ladies’ hats, bonnets, cloaks, cardinals, short aprons, hoods, handkerchiefs, or almost anything made of black silk or velvet. Their apprentices ought to be smart girls of a genteel appearance, they should work well at their needles and be ready accomptants. They serve only five years and are kept the first part of their time close to the needle. Once qualified they may be cap-makers but may also be shop women to the milliners, the haberdashers or to any buying and selling trade proper for women.

A Morning Ramble, or, The Milliner's Shop; Carington Bowles after Robert Dighton, 1782.
A Morning Ramble, or, The Milliner’s Shop; Carington Bowles after Robert Dighton, 1782. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Child’s coat maker

This branch of business is generally performed by women and is a pretty profitable employ. They take ten or fifteen pounds with a girl; who ought to be ingenious, handy and a tolerable needle-woman. The boning part is hard work for the fingers, but the rest is easy enough. As the apprentice must appear neat and gentle, and, when out of her time, must depend on a good acquaintance this trade is not fit for the children of people in low circumstances; but for those a little above the vulgar it is a very proper one. A journey-woman may get a pound a day in summer, but they are generally out of business some of the winter months.

Fan Painter

Fan painting is an ingenious business and requires skill in drawing, in perspective, in the proper disposition of the lights and shades and in laying on the colours. This business is however almost ruined by the introduction of printers fan-mounts. Therefore it would be a pity that any ingenious girl, who has a taste for drawing should be put apprentice to it.

Fan depicting the gardens of Chiswick Villa, 1757.
Fan depicting the gardens of Chiswick Villa, 1757. Met Museum

The Gilder

The gilding of metals is a very profitable and at the same time a dangerous business with respect to those who perform the work, occasioned by the quicksilver used in this art, which is apt to affect their nerves and render their lives a burden to them; whence the trade is but in a few and some of them women.  Gilding is performed with the following amalgam of gold and Quicksilver. The gold is then heated in a crucible and when just ready to flow, three or four times the weight of quicksilver is poured upon it and immediately quenched in water, both together become a soft substance like butter. When the artist intends to gild, the piece is rubbed with aqua fortis and then covered with the amalgam. When is all covered over and smother it is held over a charcoal fire, by which means the mercury evaporates and the gold remains upon the piece. The artist then rubs off all the roughness and at the same time spreads the gold with an instrument called a scratch brush, the work is then burnished to give the colour wanted.

Goldsmith's workshop: interior view, gilding dishes and the implements used.
Goldsmith’s workshop: interior view, gilding dishes and the implements used. Wellcome Library

A Quilter

Quilting is chiefly performed by the women, but there are some masters, who employ a number of women and girls in making bed quilts for the upholsterers. The women of this business not only make bed quilts but quilted petticoats. They either take poor girls as apprentices, whom they keep for the sake of their work or have a small for learning those grown up, whom they afterwards pay about ten or twelve pounds a week.

Portrait of Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763.
Portrait of Nelly O’Brien wearing a quilted petticoat by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763. © The Wallace Collection

Tassel Maker

These are more frequently women than men. They make tassels for pulpit cushions, window curtain cords and for a variety of other uses. These tassels are made of gold or silver thread, silk, mohair or worsted, worked over a mould. When tassels were worn by the ladies to their mantels, this was exceedingly good employment, and many families go a genteel maintenance by it, but now, I believe, it is hardly worth learning. The masters take girls out of the schools and parish children with little or no money who, if in good hands, may, when out of their time, be able to get six or eight pounds a week as journey-women, or may set up with a very little. All materials being found from the lace or worsted men.

Late eighteenth-century purse with pink tassels.
Late eighteenth-century purse with pink tassels. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tire woman

Thirty years ago this business gave many women in London genteel bread; but now the ladies cannot be dressed with elegance, except by a French barber, or one who passes for such, by speaking broken English, adjust and curls their hair at the exorbitant price of a crown or half a guinea a time. Our grandmothers thought it bordered on immodesty to appear with their heads uncovered; but probably our grandchildren, despising such narrow prejudices, may not be ashamed of going naked from the waist upwards or of having men chamberlains or dressers. I believe the few women, who now cut hair, cannot live by the employment and therefore need to say nothing of the terms on which they teach others.

The preposterous head dress, or the featherd lady, 1776.
The preposterous head dress, or the featherd lady, 1776. © The Trustees of the British Museum

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10 thoughts on “Employment opportunities for girls in the eighteenth-century

  1. Thank you, very informative.

    Those girls with trades probably had it easier than those with more itinerant jobs like street venfors; going by the street cries, women also collected and sold watercress, violets, primroses and lavender, presumably each at its proper time. Also oysters, cherries, milk, song sheets, dolls, apples, eggs, strawberries, roses, green peas [hastens], curds and whey, oranges. And worst of all, those who sifted through the ash and clinkers carried away from the houses, to collect cinders which could be resold to those who could not afford coal.
    I suspect that the old clothes men also employed girls to mend those which could be re-sold but with the level of antisemitism then, as Jews dominated the rag trade this was probably considered by many to be low.

    Embroideress was also a trade, and there was a school for embroideresses sponsored by Queen Charlotte, for impoverished girls of more gentle birth.

    there was also a lot of piece work which was done by women; making flowers for bonnets and caps, embroidered and beaded motifs to apply, dorset buttons, and of course lace-making. I need to check out whether weaving silk ribbons on an inkle-loom was still the province of women as it was in the 16th century but I doubt it as there was a phrase about being as close as inkle-weavers.

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      1. something I forgot to mention, which was the province of boys and girls as well as adults was mudlarking; I had passed on an article about an early skull found to the joy of archaeologists by mudlarking, and she asked me ‘but what is mudlarking?’ and I had to explain that this was now a hobby but had once been the cold, dangerous business of wading in the mud of the Thames at low tide hoping to find things to sell; coals fallen off a barge when loading, if you were lucky a brooch or watch some gentry mort or gentry cove had dropped, broken old metal to sell for scrap, glass to recycle, bone to sell to make glue and so on. the risk of tetanus or blood poisoning with cut feet is horrific, not to mention cholera, typhus and other diseases. But still, I think, preferable to wading in still waters to collect leeches on the legs for physicians!

        Having a hero who is a Bow Street Runner makes me consider the seamier side …

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t expect that there would be so many options for girls in 18th c. Very illuminating post and comments with additional information.
    It was interesting to learn that button makers working in gold and silver should have ‘fancy and genius’ so they could invent new fashions 🙂 Who would have thought that button-making was such a creative industry.

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    1. Sarah Murden

      We’re delighted that you enjoyed it. We were quite surprised too. It definitely shows the difference between what were regarded as male/female occupations at the time, with the women carrying out tasks that required nimble fingers. We’re so used to not even thinking about the buttons on our clothes which, of course, are mass produced that we forget that historically much more detail went into their manufacture 🙂

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  3. Jayne Davis

    Maybe we should add Mad as a guilder to our sayings, heating the amalgam until the mercury evaporated meant they must have been breathing mercury fumes…
    Thank goodness for modern H&S regulations!

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  4. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 10) | www.weyerman.nl

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