Help Wanted-Female Classified Ads: Working Women Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows how “Help Wanted-Female” ads in historical newspapers can help you learn more about the employment opportunities that were available to your women ancestors—and learn about the places and eras they lived in.

What type of work did your female ancestor do? We often assume that our women ancestors were just “housewives” and didn’t work outside of the home. But for many women and girls, some sort of outside work was not an option—it was a financial necessity.

photo of a secretary at her typewriter, 1912

Photo: secretary at typewriter, 1912. Source: Miami University Libraries.

Early Newspaper Classifieds

So how did your female ancestor find employment? One option would have been the local newspaper’s Help Wanted advertisements. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, those classified advertisements were very specific. They didn’t just provide qualifications the employer was looking for; they sometimes specified race, gender, and even age. Classified ads often included the headings “Help Wanted-Female” and “Help Wanted-Male.” In the 1970s this segregation of ads was deemed illegal, and Help-Wanted ads evolved to the advertisements we are accustomed to reading today.

photo of women weavers at work, c. 1910

Photo: weavers at work, c. 1910. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Help Wanted-Female Ads

Help Wanted-Female advertisements were not just employers looking for any qualified woman to apply for their job offerings. These ads were in some cases very specific about what type of female employee they wanted.

Enter Last Name










For example, while these 1885 Help Wanted ads from New York include jobs like cooking and cleaning—they also contain ads that request women of a certain religion or ethnic background. While an obvious sign of discrimination to us, these employment requirements were a common practice in the nineteenth century. In cases of families looking for household help, they may have added such requirements to their ads in hopes of finding someone that mirrored their own familial background, or spoke their language. No doubt, such requirements were sometimes added to Help Wanted ads due to stereotypical beliefs that a certain ethnic or racial group produced better housekeepers and cooks, or were less likely to steal.

help wanted-female ads, New York Herald newspaper advertisements 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

photo of women typists and accountants, c. 1920

Photo: typists and accountants, c. 1920. Source: George Eastman House Collection.

Help Wanted advertisements were not just segregated according to gender but also, in some cases, age or race. All of these advertisements from 1921specifically request a female: one wants an “Italian, Spanish or French” woman, one wants a “middle-aged” woman, one wants a “young” woman, and two want “white” women.

help wanted-female ads, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisements 13 July 1921

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 July 1921, page 18

photo of a maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941

Photo: maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Social History in the Classifieds

One of the reasons I love classified advertisements is that they provide some social history information that can assist in learning more about the place and era of your ancestor. The 1885 ad above reflects how American jobs have changed over time, and provides a look at what types of employment women and girls could expect to engage in. In this particular Help Wanted column, one advertisement is searching for a “Girl who can mount hat birds…”

Enter Last Name










To understand this advertisement you need to know a little bit about late nineteenth century fashion history. Women during this time period were sporting hats decorated with bird feathers and entire stuffed birds. These practices resulted in the killing of large numbers of birds in the name of fashion. Later, the production of these hats fell out of favor after concentrated bird conservation efforts targeted women’s demand for the style.

help wanted-female ad, New York Herald newspaper advertisement 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

In another Help Wanted example, from 1915, we find an advertisement looking for girls to work in a cigar factory. While today we associate cigar making with Cuba and the Caribbean, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cigar making thrived in the United States and was seen as “women’s work” in cities such as Harrisburg, where this Help Wanted advertisement for the Harrisburg Cigar Company is from. This ad starts with announcing that they are looking for girls over 16 years of age to “strip” tobacco (remove the center stem in the tobacco leaf). Other jobs found in making cigars are also listed, including rollers, bunchmakers and packers.

help wanted-female ads, Patriot newspaper advertisements 26 November 1915

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 26 November 1915, page 11

Situations Wanted

Women didn’t just find work through the Help Wanted ads; they may have also placed an ad in the Situations Wanted column to find a particular employment opportunity. This was a good tactic especially if the woman had a child and needed a live-in situation, was older, or did not speak English.

situation wanted-female ads, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper advertisements 1 June 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 June 1906, page 9

Did your female ancestor have a job? She just might have—and by reading the classifieds in the local newspaper of her hometown and era, you may get a sense for what types of employment were available to her.

Do you know what your early female ancestors did for a living? Please share the positions the women in your family occupied with us in the comments.

More Articles Related to Female Ancestors’ Occupations:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Old Newspaper Ads, Your Immigrant Ancestors & U.S. Migrations

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find advertisements that encouraged families to move to other parts of the U.S. for a better life—and shows how these ads can help you better understand the lives your ancestors lived and the decisions they made.

As genealogy and family history fans, we all know the concept of “chain migration,” which is loosely defined as the process of immigrants moving from their homeland to new lands and communities, building upon familiar and familial social relationships from the Old Country. This certainly was true in the case of many of my immigrant ancestors.

But what happened once those immigrants got to their destination in the United States? While some put down lifelong roots in the community they first arrived in, many moved on to other destinations in America. What were some of the influences on these migratory movements within the U.S.?

Newspaper Advertisements Influenced Migrations

Some of the answers can be found in simple newspaper advertisements. Just as letters home might have influenced some people to come to the States, once here they were subjected to the constant allure of a better life in other parts of the country.

Enter Last Name










Here are some examples of historical newspaper advertisements that influenced our immigrant ancestors’ migrations to other parts of America.

Arkansans Urged to Migrate West

With the bold headline “Westward, Ho!” this 1845 advertisement tells of a meeting to be held in Napoleon, Arkansas, “to organize a company of emigrants, to remove to California.”

ad urging westward migration, Arkansas Weekly Gazette newspaper article 29 September 1845

Arkansas Weekly Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas), 29 September 1845, page 3

Montana Riches: Land of Opportunity for Millions!

Some of the people and organizations looking to entice emigrants to move used a method that had worked in the Old Country: they wrote letters to the editor, which in many cases sure resembled an advertisement to me.

For example, take a look at this 1882 letter to the editor headlined “ROOM FOR MILLIONS.” The author of this “letter,” one James S. Brisbin writing from Keogh, Montana, covers a range of items in this letter/advertisement, including the weather, parks, the wealth of the mines in the area, and more. He states:

But not only are stock raisers, farmers and miners needed in the West, but artisans and skilled labor of all kinds. Towns are everywhere springing up, and the services of workmen of every grade are in great demand.

And just for good measure he closes his letter by reminding readers that Montana is only a four-day train ride from the East Coast, and ends with this statement: “Only four days from want and misery to wealth and joy.” Well, how could you not move there?

article urging migration to Montana, New York Herald newspaper advertisement 10 February 1882

New York Herald (New York, New York), 10 February 1882, page 9

Telegraphers Needed

This 1905 advertisement for The Morse School of Telegraphy promises immediate employment upon graduation and a salary of $40-$60 a month “east of the Rockies” and $75-$100 a month “west of the Rockies.” For that big of a difference in salary, I’d say there was probably a waiting line for telegraphers heading out West!

ad offering employment to telegraphers, Morning Olympian newspaper advertisement 2 August 1905

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 2 August 1905, page 3

The Allure of Arizona Gold

The following 1907 newspaper article reads like an ad. While not an actual advertisement, it surely advertises what opportunities might await folks interested in moving to Kofa, Arizona. Kofa, which is an acronym for “King of Arizona,” held the richest gold mine in the history of the Southwestern United States.

Enter Last Name










It may have been an article just like this that enticed one of my own immigrant ancestors, Elijah Poad, to seek his fortune in Kofa. As a Cornish miner, he would have been well suited to the work. However, the one note this article leaves out is the fact that there was no water in Kofa, so they had to bring it in by mule teams. While Elijah did live in Kofa for a few years, he then followed many of his fellow Cornish miners and became a Yupper in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan mining copper, then on to Linden, Wisconsin, to mine lead, and finally to Anaconda, Montana, to mine for silver and other minerals.

article urging migration to Arizona for the Kofa gold rush, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 12 December 1907

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 12 December 1907, page 7

Workers Wanted All across America

This 1922 newspaper article tells readers that there are workers needed across the U.S., and reports what jobs are available where. Almost every category of employment seems to be mentioned in this article.

Jobs Now Plentiful in U.S., Saginaw News newspaper article 15 December 1922

Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 15 December 1922, page 28

Eastward Migration, Also

Not all the U.S. migration advertisements urged westward expansion, however—some encouraged migrants to head east. For example, this 1920 ad in a Colorado newspaper encourages land-seekers to head east to Michigan. It starts out with the statement “Big opportunity in Michigan.” The old advertisement continues and promises “Big money in grains, stock, poultry, or fruit.”

ad urging migration to Michigan, Denver Post newspaper advertisement 18 August 1920

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 18 August 1920, page 21

Many of the ancestors in my family tree moved around the United States, especially in pursuit of better economic opportunities. Did your ancestors move around the country—and if so, do you think they might have been influenced by old newspaper advertisements like these? Leave me a comment, as I’d enjoy knowing your thoughts and experiences.

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank