My 19-year-old mother was tricky to find in Brooklyn in the 1950 census. I expected that. The family moved frequently. Her grandparents were deceased and their touchstone of a home was no longer in the family. It was around when she went to live on her own.
Like most women of her generation, many of her decisions were influenced by others. Her parents separated. She left school to work and help provide for her family. One brother, serving in the Navy, found a bride and a home in another state. Their mother would follow. My mother, a single working woman, stayed in Brooklyn until her father and oldest brother told her that she also needed to move to Illinois. They did not like a young woman living on her own in the city.
That 1950 census entry was not exactly what I expected. She lived in a small Brooklyn apartment house with her mother and brother. The street name rang a bell; she mentioned it when reminiscing. Of the three in her mother’s household, my mother was the only one working. Her mother, at 44, was surely capable of holding a job. Her brother, 24, did not have a job and was not looking for one. His entry was marked “OT” (other) for his work that week. He was a model, but I do not know if he modeled then. My teenage mother, a saleslady at a “retail 5 + 10 store”, was somehow keeping their family afloat. If you ever heard stories about her eclectic working career you would be reminded of Lucille Ball and the candy factory. I did not expect to find her in the role of provider.
There is much to learn about the working lives of women. I found a bonanza of publications on that topic, and added some to my online law library. They are not the law, but many can point you toward the law. Although they more rightfully belong in a government documents collection, once I found them I was unwilling to keep them from you. They are just that neat.The Women’s Bureau, founded in 1920 under the Department of Labor, still exists. They study how American women work, including types of jobs held, working conditions and pay, and even demographics and home lives. Numerous summaries were written. I mean gobs of them. Some Women’s Bureau publications might be considered social history, but their studies were sometimes influential in getting protection for women in the form of regulations and legislation. Other publications were collections of laws on non-labor and labor topics, like minimum wage rates and home work laws. One major series, The Legal Status of Women in the United States of America, has promise for many genealogists. There are volumes on individual states, territories and possessions, and compilations for the country.
Working women were good for the nation’s economy, even if it was thought that they needed to be told how and when and where they could work. Some locations restricted women from working at night, for example.
I included a few books too good to pass up. Some have little law in them, but who can resist volumes on women working in meat packing, hotels and restaurants, and studies like the title, Negro Women in Industry in 15 States? If your ancestor’s locale had a specialty industry and women worked in it, chances are the Women’s Bureau wrote about it. Search collections of digitized books to find titles on orchard workers in Washington, women in the cigar and cigarette industry, and home workers in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Search with terms including “Women’s Bureau” and “Women in [insert state name here] Industries.” There was a series of titles named in that manner.
That there is still a Women’s Bureau speaks volumes. As in 1920, not all today give women equal footing, and the Bureau marches on. Some studies made me feel as if working women of the past were considered like animals in a zoo exhibit, fascinating and serving a purpose, but probably incapable of living on their own in the wild. Like my mother, who supported her mother and brother with her five and dime earnings when just 19. Her father deserted the family, contributing to her need to work. Her brother, whom she once briefly supported, got more steady work and a place of his own. Despite her sacrifices, both men believed that it was their place to tell her that she should not live alone in the only city she had ever known.
Visit the Historic Publications on Women, Labor, and Related Laws page. The link will be tucked in the Law Library Index under Law: Special Topics Index.
I am off to learn about women working in five and dime stores. Although the 1930 volume, Women in 5- and 10-cent Stores and Limited-price Chain Department Stores precedes my mother’s work in that industry by twenty years, it is worth a peek.