Women Earning a Living in the 19th Century from Charlene Raddon

A big welcome to Charlene Raddon who is joining us today to talk about jobs women could have in the 1800s.

Women in the 1800s could not make contracts, own property or vote. A woman was seen as a servant to her husband. However, by the 1830s and 1840, that began to change when they started to champion social reforms of prisons, war, alcohol, and slavery. But life remained difficult for them. Jobs were scarce and often unbearable. 

In 1841, the census included occupations and provided some of the best information about working women, but it was more accurate for men. Women’s work was often part-time, casual, and not regarded as important enough to declare. 

It might have been illegal (as with prostitution) or performed in unregulated sweatshops (a further reason for failure to record). Women may have preferred their husbands not know they earned any income. They could earn small amounts at home by sewing, mending, knitting, canning, spinning, lacemaking, quilting, and even box-making. 

Female employment in the 1850s, 60s, and 70s appears to have been higher than any recorded until after World War II. Family budget evidence suggests that around 30-40 percent of women from working-class families contributed significantly to household incomes in the mid-Victorian years. This might have been even higher during the Industrial Revolution decades, before the rise of State and trade union policies regulating female labor and the promotion of the male as the ideal breadwinner. After the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. some women worked in factories, sometimes with their children. In 1840, 10% of women had jobs outside the home, and by 1850 that number increased to 15%. 

Domestic service was the largest employer for women, closely followed by work in clothing and textiles. Other jobs included confectioner, brewer, seamstress, laundress, maid, housekeeper, waitress, midwife, gardener, dressmaker, charwoman, clerk, and innkeeper. In some areas, they worked in mines alongside children, dirty, unhealthy, miserable labor. 

For my heroine in Maisy’s Gamble, dealing faro in saloons proved a better choice for its earning power and safety since her nemesis considered ordinary saloons beneath him. Being born in a brothel and raised in a gutter gave Gold Kingsley an exaggerated disdain for the type of life his mother lived. Maisy used this to her advantage. 

Dealing faro also allowed her to move around a lot, making her more difficult to find. She spent her adult years raising her son and finding ways to evade Gold. But time is against us all, and she knew he would find her someday. Fortunately, that day waited until the hero, The Preacher, came into her life. 

The Preacher spent his adult years allowing the vagaries of life to rule him. That ended once Maisy entered his life. Bonded by a common enemy and the need to stay alive, Maisy and Preacher joined forces to battle Gold, but only time could calculate their odds of winning the biggest gamble of their lives. 



In this scene, a patron in the saloon where Maisy works is mistreating his dog. 

On impulse, Maisy stood and said, “Play me for him, Mr. Siddens. One hand of Draw. I’ll wager twenty dollars I can beat you. If you lose, the animal is mine, and you leave Pandora.” 

Crude laughter burst out of the man, splattering her with spit. “Ya joshing me, Maisy? He ain’t worth a plugged nickel.” 

Marshal  Harker moved to her side. “What are you doing?” 

She ignored him. “Well, Mr. Siddens…?” 

The drunken bully looked from her to the marshal and shrugged. “Why not? I don’t mind takin’ money from a woman.” 

Harker leaned close and whispered, “He’s drunk and cheats.” 

“I know. Don’t worry. I can beat him.” 

Shaking his head, the marshal lifted his hands in resignation. “Fine. One hand of Draw. But win or lose, Mr. Siddens, you’re done tonight.” 

“Whatever ya say, Marshal.” With that, Siddens righted the chair he’d knocked over, sat down, and gathered up the scattered pasteboards. 

Taking the opposite seat, Maisy drew a sealed deck from her skirt pocket. “You don’t truly think I’d let you use your cards, do you? I’ve known too many gamblers who cheat.” 

“Why, you…” He raised a hand, ready once more to strike out. At the cocking of a six-gun, Siddens dropped his arm and sat back. 

Maisy looked up surprised to see Preacher slip his Colt back into its holster. He tipped his hat, and she acknowledged it with a nod. Why had he protected her? Did it mean he didn’t work for Gold, or had Gold ordered that she be kept alive until he got his hands on her? 

“Maisy?” Jake said, bringing her back to herself. 

Determined to finish what she’d started, she reached into the small drawstring purse dangling from her wrist to find a gold eagle, which she placed on the table. 

Eyeing the coin, Siddens sneered, “Want me ta put the dawg on the table, too?” 

She forced a smile. “We’ll just pretend, shall we?” She shuffled and offered him the deck to cut. After dealing, she picked up her cards. An ace, two jacks, a ten, and a five. After setting the ten and the five aside, she placed the remaining three cards face down on the table. “How many would you like, Mr. Siddens?” 

“Three shiny new ones,” he said, tossing down his discards. 

She dealt the cards. “Dealer takes two.” 

Aware of the mob gathered around the table, Maisy let her eyes roam the faces, quickly passing over Preacher’s. The spectators murmured among themselves, and money exchanged hands. 

“Well, Mr. Siddens, what do you have?” she asked. 

He grinned as he spread out three queens on the table. “Three ladies. Can’t top that, now can ya, sugar?” He laughed and swapped grins with a few men. 

She smiled and laid down her cards—three aces and two jacks—a full house. 

“What the…?” Siddens leaped to his feet. “Marshal, arrest her. She musta cheated.” 

Jake gave his head a firm shake. “No, she’s just a damned fine player.” 

Grumbles erupted from losers as bets were paid off. Maisy called for paper and a pencil. When they arrived, she set them in front of Siddens and ordered him to write out a bill of sale. 

“Bill o’ sale!” he ranted. “I didn’t sell the mutt. I got cheated out o’ ‘im.” 


Siddens did. “Damned dawg ain’t no good nohow.” 

The crowd dispersed. A deputy appeared to escort the gambler from the saloon. 

Back at her table, she settled the dog on the floor in the warmth of the stove and called for food scraps and a wet cloth to clean the animal’s wounds. “I think I’ll call you Hock,” she told him, “after the last card played in a hand of faro. When we go home, you’ll meet Soda. She’s named after the first card played.” 

He wagged his tail as if he approved. 

Jake Harker returned and took his usual seat, grinning at her. “Dammit, Maisy, I can’t believe you pulled that off. That piece of crap is a good card player, even without cheating.” 

“Yes, well, two can play at that game.” 

He stared at her a moment. “You mean what I think you mean?” Leaning forward, he gave her a stern look. “Did you cheat, Maisy?” 

Avoiding his gaze, she began arranging her faro gear on the table. “Someone had to get the poor animal away from him. He’s a brute, and you know it.” 

Charlene is giving away two prizes today!

To enter for a chance to win a copy of Maisy’s Gamble OR a $5 Amazon gift card, just share what type of work you might have done if you’d lived in the 1800s!


Charlene Raddon is a bestselling author of Western historical romance novels. Originally published by Kensington Books, she is now an Indie author. She grew up on old western movies and loved them, but never intended to be a writer. That part of her life just happened. Besides writing and reading, she raises orchids, designs book covers, and crochets. 


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66 thoughts on “Women Earning a Living in the 19th Century from Charlene Raddon”

    • Being an innkeeper might have paid more but both would be a lot of work. I’ve done canning. Too lazy now and don’t have time. Also, my husband stopped raising veggies. I used to can the fish we caught though and he’d use it like tuna. I also canned venison with onions & mushrooms. Tasted like Swiss steak.

    • It would depend on whether you owned the inn or boarding house how much you made. An owner would obviously make more. Better than a laundress, though. I’d hate that. Too much work. Thanks, Teresa.

    • That would have been interesting, wouldn’t it? A lot less subjects to teach. Of course, you’d have to be good at English grammar and math, which I wasn’t when I was younger. I had a summer job once when I was 15 or 16 at a department store (this would have been in the ’50s) and did a terrible job at making change. I’m sure you’d have made a better teacher than I would. Thanks for the comment, Anne.

      • I make solid and filled chocolates. Peanut butter cups, old-fashioned coconut bonbons, cherry cordials are what I’m most experienced with. Solids in Dark, Milk, or white to eat as-is or as decorations on cakes or cupcakes. I’ve made nut bark and peppermint bark, too–those don’t need a mold.

  1. Hello! Welcome Charlene! I’m going to say an innkeeper. But, would have probably been on a farm doing hard work and raising a passel of children! LOL

  2. Charlene, welcome back. I’ve always been appalled at the few jobs available to women back then and feel sorry for ones whose husbands up and died, leaving her alone. It was extremely hard and few men wanted to give her a chance. I LOVED Maisy’s Gamble! It’s an excellent story. Wishing you much success.

    • Thank you, my friend. Maisy’s Gamble is one of my favorites. I keep meaning to write Dan’s story but having found the right one yet. Yes, I’m glad I live now. The women I’d feel sorry for are the ones whose husbands were abusive and they had to live with that all their lives. I lived with one for 10 years and that was enough for me and mine wasn’t nearly as bad as some. But to be divorced or widowed would have been awful as well. Just being a woman back then was difficult in so many ways. We don’t know how good we have it today. Hugs.

    • I don’t think I could be a teacher or a nanny, but sewing would have been all right. If I had a sewing machine, I could have been a seamstress. I am an excellent sewer. Just ask my 7th grade teacher. She assigned us to make a gathered skirt. At that time that was what we all wore, three yards gathered to a waistband. I went home, made the skirt, doing the gathering and hem by hand and took it to school the next day. It was a nice skirt but my teacher was not impressed. She was mad. She bawled me out and told me to take it home, undo it and redo it on the machine. Well, my mom’s machine didn’t do a good job of gathering so the second skirt was a mess and I never wore it. Thanks for the comment, Karijean.

  3. Well since I was 16 I started working in the food service plus cleaned houses so I’d say work in hotel ( not a saloon ) where I could do both.

    • Waitressing was a respectable job back then in hotels and restaurants. I wouldn’t want to clean houses though. I don’t like cleaning my own, which I need to do tomorrow. Thanks, Rose Ann Folger.

  4. I loved the post and the excerpt. I will be buying this fascinating book.

    I do have a question. In your research, did you run across any references you would be willing to share regarding women school teachers in 1846. The main character is an 18 year old girl who wants nothing more than to teach. Her father and many men of the community in the new Oregon Territory are against. After all, shouldn’t she be married and in a family way.

    If you can, it would be much appreciated.

    • Well, of course, if she was in a family way, she definitely couldn’t teach but I don’t think you meant that. I’m thrilled that you plan to buy my book. I hope you like it. As for research into schoolteaching in 1846 in Oregon, I can imagine the men would disapprove. It was thought only men were proper teachers. But if someone is willing to hire her, she could prove them wrong. Key would be to handling the students, especially the boys. I haven’t really run into anything on teachers in that year. I would look on the Internet and look for diaries of teachers from Amazon, Abe’s books, and other bookstores. There are so many diaries out there, surely one would be from a schoolteacher. Also, on Little House on the Prairie, didn’t the older sister teach or want to teach? I know she went blind which would have ruined that, but you might check into Laura Ingler’s story. I bet she has lots of tale about schoolteachers too. Good luck. Let me know what happens. You can contact me through my facebook page or wepage. Thanks for writing.

    • I’m so glad you found my book interesting. I would have made a lousy teacher so that wouldn’t have been my choice. But back then, you had so little choices, you sometimes had to try things that didn’t appeal to you. Thanks for the commend, Barbara.

  5. I didn’t see “teacher” listed. Do you know when females started in that profession? I’d have enjoyed being an innkeeper. Thanks for the history lesson and the chance to win a prize.

    • Really? I forgot teacher? Oh my. I need you for an editor or proofreader. It was difficult for women to break into the teacher business as it was considered only men were qualified and could handle the job. But I’m sure there were some in small towns where choices were limited. As for when females were accepted in the profession, I’d say late 1800s. Thanks for the comment, Vickie.

    • You’d have been serving the right coffee. Yes, that would have been a pleasant occupation. You’d need to check to find out when women were allowed to own a business or sign contracts. I would have chosen to provide a tea house. Love those places. Thanks, Kathy.

  6. Maybe the washer-woman in their so called wash houses. I picture me dousing clothes up and down in a big wooden tub, carrying hot water from firepits, oh. That woulda been hard work. Maybe I would rather have been a cook. Hah

    • They didn’t have many bookstores back then. Maybe in some big cities. But if you inherited some money, and weren’t married or obliged to turn it over to a husband, you might have tried opening one. To get customers you might have to hire a male clerk though, at least at first. Thanks for the comment, Judy.

  7. Hi!
    teaching or a seamstress. It fits my skill set.

    Or secretly be running a business empire, with my male relative who treats me like an equal. As all the town folks see me as a charity case (from said relative). When in reality, I keep the business running and built it in to the empire it’s become.

    Which works better for me because I’m introverted and am better at books.

    • Now that secret business sounds like a winner. Few women had the knowledge for doing that. So many of them couldn’t read, unless they had a school to attend or their mother taught them. I used to do genealogy and it amazed me how many put down on census sheets and such that they couldn’t read or write. Such a shame. Thanks for the comment.

  8. I guess I would have been on a farm and sold or traded eggs and butter I made.

    I’m pretty sure that most women, not all but most, worked pretty hard at that time. There just weren’t too many shortcuts, I cringe when I think about what it took to simply prepare meals.

    • Me, too, Rachel. You’re right, they labored from dawn to dark on farms, ranches, and mines. In towns, they may have had shorter days, depending on their jobs. Laundresses worked long hard hours. Anything that required cooking started early and ended late. So no one had it easy. Prostitutes may have had shorter hours but we won’t discuss the word they had to do. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Loved your post on your new book. I think I would have been a cook or seamstress. Life for women back then was really hard. I am surprised that so many had a long life.

  10. I would very likely have been a teacher and/or librarian. It is my training and I have always enjoyed the fields. If that weren’t available, I might have worked in a bakery. Not my first choice. They need to get up early to get the dough made set out to rise. I am not an fan of very early mornings. Of course with the life style and schedule back then, most people went to bed much earlier than I now do.
    Thanks for visiting. It was nice hearing from you again.

  11. Thanks, Patricia. I don’t get the opportunity to post for the Fillies very often. Being a librarian would have been unlikely except in cities. There weren’t a lot of libraries back then. But that would have been a good job for me too. I love books. Good to hear from you again.

  12. I am an artist…but a job like that, would only have been acceptable, in a big city out East. And probably, it would have been an assistant painter, to my father or husband. In the West, I would most likely, been a cook. I sew, and would rather be a dressmaker (but there weren’t usually enough women in the town), but I believe cooks were always in demand, if you were strong enough to do all the wood chopping, fire making, dressing and preserving the crops and animals that were brought in, to be cooked, dried and canned. Then, let’s not forget all the cleaning, that goes along with that job! Maybe I will just find a nice rancher, and be his wife. That would be a full time job, also.

    • I think you last idea was the best. As you said, they’d have to work hard too, but at least you’d have security and more freedom. I started out as an artist and ended up being a writer. Life is full of surprises. Thanks for commenting, Nanci.

  13. There is always Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum who was the Professor Moriarty of New York in the 1800s. She was known to people and ran the The Grand Street School to train children in the art of crime. The Pinkertons finally got her, but she jumped bail and lived out her life in Canada. She was brought back to New York for burial; however, there were rumors that her coffin was filled with rocks and she was back at work. 🙂 Not the usual occupation for anyone, but an interesting bit of history. 🙂

  14. Welcome today. Oh but this sounds like a wonderful story. If I lived back then, I would have loved to be a ranchers wife. Or until that time, a dress maker. Which I could continue at a slower pace after married.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

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