This Woman’s Work

Many of the women in Isabella Alden’s books had to earn a living to support themselves or their families. That was the case with Maria Randolph in Household Puzzles, who took in laundry so she could buy medicine for her father and pay the family’s bills.

Women in Sewing Factory

And in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, Mrs. Bryant supported her children by sewing late into the night, when she wasn’t working long hours at the local canning factory.

Women working at the Endicott Johnson tanning factory
Women working at the Endicott Johnson tanning factory in New York


Earning a living wage wasn’t an easy thing for women to do in the years between 1880 and 1920. Competition for jobs was fierce, as more and more women entered the job market and took over low-paying, repetitive jobs that men once held—and they earned considerably less than men did for performing the same work.

Women working at the Anheuser Busch Bottling Company
Women performing manual labor at the Anheuser Busch Bottling Company


The majority of jobs open to women were manual factory work and service employment. Both were physically demanding. If a woman was lucky enough to find a position, she could count on working long hours in often poor conditions.

New York hat makers, 1907
New York hat makers, 1907


In factories there were few breaks in the long work day. Employers commonly boarded up windows to keep employees from being distracted; and they blocked doors to discourage workers from leaving their posts before the workday was done.

Seamstresses at Eaton's Department Store, Toronto
Seamstresses at Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto


Those were some of the conditions that lead to one of the worst work-place disasters in American history: the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist fire. A New York clothing manufacturer, The Triangle Waist Company, locked its workers inside their assigned work areas so they couldn’t leave. Most of the workers were young women and girls as young as fourteen.  When a fire broke out, their only means of evacuation was a dilapidated fire escape that collapsed under the weight of the first few workers who scrambled to safety.

Click on the image to view a pdf of the full page.
Click on the image to view a pdf of the full page.


The fire took a horrific toll: 147 people burned to death or died as a result of jumping or falling from the upper floors of the burning building.

Work in private service had its own set of challenges. Women worked long hours as house maids, cooks, and charwomen (women who clean other women’s houses).

Cooks in the kitchen of a private home.
Cooks in the kitchen of a private home.


The work was physically demanding and they were often treated poorly. Isabella Alden gave an example of such treatment in her book, Pauline. In the story, Constance Curtiss had to fight off the unwanted advances of her employer’s eldest son because he thought a working woman wasn’t due the same level of courtesty as a lady who was his social equal:

Maid3She had always taken the position that no self-respecting young woman need fear being treated other than respectfully by men; that girls probably had themselves to thank for carelessness when any man attempted familiarity. Yet the only excuse that she had given Mr. Emerson was the fact that she had chosen to make herself useful, on occasion, in his mother’s kitchen, and accept payment in money. This, it seemed, not only shut her out from Mrs. Emerson’s parlor as a caller, which she had expected, but made the son feel privileged to call her “Ellen” and treat her with a familiarity that could have been justified only by long and intimate acquaintance. She felt that such a state of things was a disgrace to American civilization.

For a woman who was lucky enough—and had the financial means—to afford an education, she could go to school and be trained to work in a more skilled capacity as a teacher or nurse.

Newspaper ad for a New York nursing school
Newspaper ad for a New York nursing school


Summer residents at Chautauqua Institution could take advantage of courses in stenography, teaching and library science—training that opened up new job opportunities for women. (Click here to read more about courses at Chautauqua Institution.)


But that kind of training cost money. Women who had to support themselves and their families often took whatever work they could get, leaving them at the mercy of their employers’ whims and wage structures.

As Constance Curtiss discovered in Pauline, she had to put up with long hours and some embarrassing mistreatment if she wanted to keep her job.

She meant to be brave and true, and to demonstrate that the religion of Jesus Christ was of sufficient strength to bear any weight; but in order to do this she need not accept the attentions and take pleasure in the scenes that other women of her age would naturally accept and enjoy. God did not ask this of her; she was thankful that she felt sure of it. How, then, was she to ward off such attention?

On her knees that night she gave herself solemnly to the work; and the sense of humiliation that Henry Emerson’s treatment of her had induced, passed. It had come to her that she might in this way have been permitted a glimpse of his true character for a purpose.

Constance’s prayers were answered. With patience and God’s help, she found a solution to the dilemma of her employer’s son, and in the process, she became God’s agent in saving a young soul.

Next week’s post: Lady Entrepreneurs in Isabella’s Books


Want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? This brief video from CBS marked the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy:


And this documentary video provides a more comprehensive look at the fire and its aftermath:


Click on the book covers to read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.

Cover_Pauline    Cover_Household Puzzles and The Randolphs    Cover_Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant

9 thoughts on “This Woman’s Work

  1. I am reading straight through all of Mrs. Alden’s books after completing all of Mrs. Livingston-Hill’s books. Since I am going through them rapidly and one after another I have forgotten the book by Mrs. Alden where there was a factory fire and wondered if you remembered the title? It was a lovely book about a mother, daughter and son leaving a “better home and neighborhood” due to financial reasons and moving to and renovating a home owned by the mother and father when first married. I think the factory fire was in that book but I might be mistaken.

    1. Karen, you stumped me. Off hand I can’t think of a Pansy book with those elements. It sounds like a book worth researching, though, so I’ll see what I can find out.

      In the meantime, maybe the readers of this blog can help. Does this book sound familiar to anyone?

  2. Also, I wanted to mention that since I am a nurse and my daughter a teacher the pictures of both professions were particularly interesting to me. My artistic side loved the photo of hat making but my it must have all been extremely dreary. As an old nurse now I work in what could be a closet with no window, but I can at least get out the door!

    1. I liked the hat making photo, too, until I noticed that a nearby table had completed hats of the same design the woman was working on. Made me wonder how many copies of the exact same hat she had to produce each day?

      1. I noticed that too and perhaps that is why she appears somewhat slumped in spirit. The more I think about the factory burning I think it is a Grace Livingston Hill book. I will go through my books to find the book. The son in the book takes a job as a policeman in town, the family moves to a home that is on the poor side of town and they renovate it with very little money. I think that is the one that has the factory fire. One of the main characters in the book worns the owner that the factory is dangerous. Mysteries.

      2. Could you be thinking of April Gold by Grace Livingston Hill? I don’t remember a factory fire per say, but I recall that the father was injured before he died; then the mother moved her family to a cottage the family owned in the poor section of town.

  3. You are correct. The content of April Gold was exactly the story of the family left behind by the father moving to the old home in what I would guess was “the slums”, and I will not forget the content after looking back over the story and remembering the mother waiting for spring for he “April Gold” to bloom again . However, I had two stories meshed together (after reading them back to back) in my mind, when the stories were actually from two different books, one having nothing to do with the other than a dream of a factory. In April Gold the family’s cottage I think was near an abandoned building and thus my association of a factory with that particular book since frequently factories are closed. But I now know the book which had the factory fire after searching frustratingly. The book that had the factory fire is The Witness by Grace Livingston Hill. It is a moving book and perhaps you have read it. I don’t know anyone else who has read GLH’s books so it is nice to know about other people that have. In the Witness, Paul Courtland can not forget Stephen Marshall’s death in a fire as Stephen saved lives. Later in the book, Paul is offered to become a partner in a factory which he turns down. Later, there is a fire in that factory and Paul assists in saving lives. It is a very moving book. So it was not Isabella Alden who wrote the book. To me there was a seriousness in The Witness that Grace did not always convey in depth that I have felt in Isabella’s books. The Witness was published in 1917. six years after the fire that you mention in this post.

    1. After I mentioned April Gold to you, I pulled out my copy and started reading it again! My collection of GLH’s books have been on my “keeper” shelf forever, right beside Isabella Alden’s. The Witness is one of my favorites, too; the first time I read it, I was so drawn into the story, I didn’t want the book to end.

      1. Hee Hee I never want any of them to end! And that is why I too have bought a vintage copy for as many of GLH’s books I could find and now collecting Isabella Alden’s too, but their price is too high most of the time so I have settled for paperback copies. They are all an inspiration, especially Mrs. Alden’s.

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