Early Women Occupations, Jobs & Avocations

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our female ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Our female ancestors were hard-working and talented women. Although historically many early jobs were not made available to women, the workplace roles that were filled by women often required highly skilled and talented workers—such as milliners and educators. These working women performed several different types of jobs throughout the 1800s and 1900s.

How well do you know the occupational terms used in old newspapers to identify our American female ancestors’ jobs during the nineteenth century and earlier? Test your historical jobs knowledge with this handy Early Occupations for Women quiz. Play the women occupations quiz by matching the historical occupational names in the left column with the modern occupational name answers on the right. Check the key on the bottom to see how well you know your historical jobs.

Early Occupations for Women quiz

Accoucheuse, Accoucheus or Accoucheur: An accoucheuse was a midwife, or one who assisted during childbirth. This 1826 newspaper article reported an unusual marriage, when Mr. William Sharp, age 18, married Mrs. Rebecca Varnel, who was 64 and had officiated as “accoucheur” at his birth.

wedding announcement for William Sharp and Rebecca Varnel, Bangor Weekly Register newspaper article 7 December 1826

Bangor Weekly Register (Bangor, Maine), 7 December 1826, page 3

Alewife: An alewife is a type of herring (fish) that spawns in rivers, and was used in Colonial times by Native Americans and Colonialists as fertilizer. When applied to an occupation, it indicates a female ale house or tavern keeper. In 1897, this newspaper account of “Meat and Drink in Old England” reported how food and drink were sold at a tavern: “The cook comes out to the tavern door and cries, ‘Hot pies, hot!’ and the alewife fills pots of half and half by pouring penny ale and pudding ale together.”

Meat and Drink in Old England, Woodbury Daily Times newspaper article 13 October 1897

Woodbury Daily Times (Woodbury, New Jersey), 13 October 1897, page 1

Besom Maker: A besom was a hand-made broom, in which a bundle of twigs was secured to a stick or broom handle. The job was common for, but not specific to, women. The term appears in this 1852 newspaper story.

story about a besom maker (broom maker), Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 14 August 1852

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 14 August 1852, page 4

Charwoman: Charwomen were cleaners, who sometimes worked by the day or for several employers. The etymology may relate either to the term “char,” indicating something burned (possibly related to fireplace cleaning), or to the word chore. In this 1890 newspaper article, the Archbishop’s daughter is doing charitable work as a charwoman.

A True Sister of Charity, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 15 August 1890

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 15 August 1890, page 5

Chautauqua or Chautauquan: In 1874, the New York Chautauqua Assembly was founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent as an informal religious teaching camp along Chautauqua Lake. It developed into what is known as the Chautauquan movement. The main gathering was known as the “Mother Chautauqua” and spin-offs as “Daughter Chautauquas.” During these meetings, presenters provided lectures, concerts and other forms of educational entertainment. The following notice from 1874 announced the first convention, which lasted two weeks.

A Big Sunday-School Gathering, Springfield Republican newspaper article 4 August 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 4 August 1874, page 5

Many women, such as Jane Addams and Maude Ballington Booth, were well-known on the Chautauquan circuit. The movement is still active today.

story about Chautauquan gatherings, Rockford Republic newspaper article 8 May 1905

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 8 May 1905, page 5

Executrix: This occupational term is still current, and describes a female who is the administrator of an estate. This 1911 newspaper article names Mary C. Wishard executrix of the estate of E. S. Wishard.

The Wishard Estate, Evening News newspaper article 5 December 1911

Evening News (San Jose, California), 5 December 1911, page 4

Midinette and Milliner: Midinettes were Parisian fashion house assistants and seamstresses. Milliners made and sold women’s hats. In 1910, there was a strike in Paris by the midinettes, milliners and dressmakers of Paris.

Strike of the "Midinettes" in Paris, Trentoon Evening Times newspaper article 1 December 1910

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 1 December 1910, page 10

Necessary Woman: Prior to the advent of indoor plumbing, the necessary woman had the unfortunate job of tending to chamber pots (used for toilets). In 1882, this newspaper article described the employees of Queen Victoria’s household, which included a necessary woman.

Queen Victoria's Household, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 11 April 1882

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 11 April 1882, page 3

Pugger: Puggers were clay manufacturing workers who assisted in treading clay to make a paste. The job was not specific to women and often included children. This 1916 notice advertised for three clay puggers in Trenton, New Jersey.

ad for clay puggers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisement 3 April 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 3 April 1916, page 8

Scullery Maid, Woman and Worker: The term “scullery” applied to a small room, typically at the back of a kitchen (domestic or commercial), where laundry was processed, small food prepared or dishes washed. The job was common for females, but men also worked as scullery workers. This 1914 newspaper article, reprinted from a London newspaper during World War I, recruited women for a variety of jobs including scullery work.

story about work available in England during World War I, Weekly Times-Picayune newspaper article 15 October 1914

Weekly Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 15 October 1914, page 2

Tire Woman: Tire women were dressers or costumiers who worked in dressmaking or the theater. This 1801 newspaper article quoted the late Gov. Livingston commenting on the practice of promoting dress sales by dressing dolls in the latest fashion: “Doth a tire-woman in Paris send to London a doll completely accoutred [finely dressed] to shew [show] the new mode…”

story on fashion and dress making, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 26 June 1801

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 26 June 1801, page 2

Tucker: A tucker is a dress embellishment, or a person who attached a tucker to a garment. The decoration was typically made of lace or linen, and secured at the top of the bodice. The following image shows a 1906 ad for tuckers, and a 1910 picture of a girl’s evening frock (dress) described with a “neck being filled in with a tucker of mousseline and straps of pink ribbon.”

newspaper ads and a drawing for a tucker

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1906, page 13 & Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 2 January 1910, page 13

Yeomanette: This is the female equivalent of yeoman, a term associated with certain military occupations, as well as farming. During World War I, women who served in the Naval Reserve were designated yeomanettes, as seen in this newspaper announcement that Eileen Carkeek, a member of the February 1918 class, had passed the Civil Service examination to become a yeomanette in the Navy.

notice about Eileen Carkeek becoming a yeomanette, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1918, page 49

The Library of Congress Prints and Photograph archive has an interesting photo depicting uniforms worn by yeomanettes on duty.

photo of "Navy Girls on Review" c. 1918

Photo: “Navy Girls on Review, Washington, DC” c. 1918. Credit: Library of Congress file LC-USZ62-59313 at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b07059/