Ohio History Journal

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Butter and Egg Business: Implications

From the Records of a Nineteenth-

Century Farm Wife


Few stereotypes have a clearer image or more persistent endurance

than that of the nineteenth-century married woman who devoted

herself to home and family and relied upon her husband as the

economic provider. This image produces the perspective that "a

dramatic increase has occurred in the labor force participation of

women of all income levels, including married women who traditionally

have felt no economic need to work,"1 a viewpoint which permeates

twentieth-century public policy.

Researchers compiling statistics regarding women's earnings in the

nineteenth century have focused primarily on groups which contained

significant numbers. In 1900 experienced factory girls could earn five

to six dollars per week for a sixty-hour week, but domestic workers

earned as little as two to five dollars for a seventy-two hour week.2 The

latter was a far more likely option for married women forced to seek

employment outside their home.

Historians acknowledge that women traditionally earned income by

taking in boarders, sewing or laundry. Julie Matthaei estimates that at

the turn of the century 42 percent of the employed women were earning

income in their own homes.3 Rural homemakers, who had fewer

options for earning at home, often sold butter and eggs, but little

research has examined the economic impact of this activity.





Virginia E. McCormick earned a Ph.D. in education at The Ohio State University and

has taught there, at Iowa State University, and at the Pennsylvania State University.

This article is adapted from Virginia E. McCormick, ed., Farm Wife: A Self-Portrait,

1886-1896. 1990, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa 50010.


1. Sandra L. Hofferth and Kristin A. Moore, "Women's Employment and Mar-

riage," in Ralph E. Smith ed., The Subtle Revolution (Washington, D.C., 1979), 99-124.

2. Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the American Family from the American

Revolution to the Present (Oxford, 1980), 382.

3. Julie Matthaei, An Economic History of Women in America (New York, 1982),