Abstract: Agents, Victims, or Survivors? Interpreting Female Microentrepreneurship in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Cities

Susan Ingalls Lewis

Abstract

Business historians now recognize that tens of thousands of women in the United States engaged in home-based microbusiness during the mid-nineteenth-century, but the mere existence of such enterprises does not prove that female microentrepreneurs enjoyed significant agency within the capitalist system. This paper argues that only a few exceptional women in each community were able to find significant agency through small business enterprises -- yet it would be a mistake to see most microentrepeneurs merely as exploited victims, sacrificing more in capital and effort than they gained in profits. Based on my research on female-run ventures in more than twenty U.S. cities, and linking evidence from the R.G. Dun & Co. credit ledgers (1840-1885) to demographic data from the federal manuscript census, I propose that most nineteenth-century female microentrepreneurs were survivors rather than successes, penny capitalists using a variety of strategies to hang on at the edge of the volatile marketplace. Nevertheless, microentrepreneurship was an important and flexible economic strategy within the family economy and one of the better choices for working class women whose primary goal was simply “making a living” for themselves and their families in U.S. urban centers.