A few years ago I had the honor of presenting my research on a signature quilt that I own at the American Quilt Study Group Seminar. The background of that early 20th century quilt is fascinating and my talk combined genealogy, women's history, and quilts. While at the Seminar I met so many interesting people and of course we talked research. One of those attendees was Kathleen Waters Sander.
Kathleen's book, The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement 1832-1900 details a group I had, at the time, never heard of. The Woman's Exchange Movement is one of the "nation's oldest continuously operating voluntary movements." The first Woman's Exchange opened in Philadelphia in 1832 and provided economic independence for women. Kathleen writes, "The history of the exchange movement is meant to be such a story of how everyday women were motivated to take action against economic and cultural conditions that thwarted them." (p. 5). This movement provided help to women who had fallen on hard times by allowing them to consign home-made items to the stores. But they also provided opportunity to the women who worked in the stores as well as those that ran the enterprises. According to the author's introduction "Many of the seventy-two or more Exchanges found in the nineteenth century are still flourishing, including those in Baltimore, Boston, St. Augustine, New York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis, West Hartford, and Brooklyn." (p.3). You can see a list of Woman's Exchanges that are still in business today by consulting the blog, Federation of Woman's Exchanges.
The beauty of the Internet is the ability to find sources from the 19th century that one can read and study. One of the articles I found via JSTOR about the New York Woman's Exchange provides some additional information about the first year of that enterprise. "During the year the receipts have been $15,240.72 and $10,252 has been paid to consignees....Of the 17,566 articles registered for sale, only thirty-seven have been rejected. A commission of ten per cent is charged on all articles sold." Income came from sales but also from subscribers who paid five dollars to join the society.*
I love this book for a number of reasons. It dispels the notion that 19th century women didn't "work." It shows us the creative solutions women came up with in their benevolent work that helped other women. It's also a great study of economic history that can inform our own research into the lives of our female ancestors.
I strongly believe that researching female ancestors involves looking at the organizations they belonged to. This book is an example of one such organization.
*New York Exchange for Women's Work by Ellen E. Dickinson. The Art Amateur
Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jul., 1879), p. 35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25626812