Book Review: A Dictionary of Female Occupations: Women's Employment from 1850-1950, by Margaret Ward

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Think that most women in your family tree were housewives? Guess, again. While we tend to believe that women's work was relegated solely to the home, even our female ancestors had the unenviable job of multi-tasking. If your ancestor was not well-off, then most likely they had to work, even if it was helping out in a family business. "A Dictionary of Female Occupations" looks at occupations women held in England from 1840 to 1950. While some of the jobs listed will be familiar such as nurse or domestic servant (those fans of TV's Downton Abbey can bone up on all the different nuances the term "servant" includes); others will be surprising such as fur pullers and miners.

The author's introduction states that this book "sets out to demonstrate the range and diversity of women's work spanning the last two centuries . . . and to suggest ways of finding out more about what often seems to be a 'hidden history'." I love how this work not only describes the history of an occupation but also provides resources for learning more about the occupation and in some cases where the records exist.

This book takes an encyclopedic approach to its articles with short descriptions of 300 occupations that include hints regarding where to find documents to research. In some cases certain careers can have multiple entries describing all of the nuances that have existed, including various titles during war time. I was surprised by how many of the occupations were unfamiliar to me but were obviously a product of their time. One such occupation was Aerated Water Bottler. This job required protective gear for the face and arms as the women filled glass bottles with aerated water. In a period article labeling this job one of the most dangerous, it explained that removing the filled bottle from the machine posed the greatest danger. A short history of the job teaches the reader that carbonated drinks, available since the 18th century, were popular in the Victorian period especially as an alternative to alcohol.

I enjoyed this work very much and found myself wishing that there were more like it for American women. This dictionary provides researchers with some much needed social history that can enhance your research when you realize all the different types of sources that are available. While it is meant to be a reference work, I read it like a novel and enjoyed learning more about English women's occupational history.

Curious what a fur puller was? Well, probably not surprisingly it involved "pulling the fir off rabbit skins-getting the loose down off with a blunt knife so that the fur could be used to line cloaks and jackets, the down in stuffing beds and pillows." Fur puller was an occupation for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries and also could include preparing other parts of the rabbit.

Dictionary of Female Occupations: Women's Employment from 1850-1950, by Margaret Ward. Countryside Books, 2008.

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