Women Working , 1870-1930
Created and maintained by the Open Collection Program, Harvard University
Reviewed May 2005

Reviewed by Carole Srole

"Women Working, 1870-1930" is the first website by the Open Collection Program of selected resources from Harvard's library and museum collections. In this case, most of the materials are drawn from the Schlesinger library on the history of women in America at Radcliffe and the Baker Library's business collection. The website provides researchers and students on-line access to a major archive in U.S. women's history, whetting our appetite for more. It will especially appeal to researchers. But its easy-to-find categorizing may work for advanced undergraduate research projects as well.

Many of the published books will be familiar to long-time scholars of working women, but the numbers of them are daunting and the breadth of the collection will please both researchers and students. As of this writing, the website includes 2,447 books and pamphlets and trade catalogues, 1,125 photographs, and 5,588 manuscript pages, although some listed are not yet digitized. Scholars at institutions without a major research library will welcome the access to so many published studies.

Over half of the documents listed by genre are statistical and government studies, ranging from published studies of the Woman's Bureau, state and federal investigations, settlement houses, and reform organizations. Despite this strong emphasis on statistical studies, the collection includes a variety of other documents, including trade catalogues, full-length books, short fiction, diaries, photographs, legal records, biographies, autobiographies, and advice manuals. The thirty-two trade catalogues are organized by clothing, household goods, office work, reading materials, recreation, and school supplies. These aim to show consumerism and some housework, but thus far, there are really not too many materials about women in the paid workplace or those in blue-collar occupations. I was pleased, however, to see fifty-five well-chosen pieces of fiction, including Emily Sargent Lewis' suffrage parlor play, Election Day, which discusses labor issues, and Laura Jean Libbey's novel A Master Workman's Oath about a woman who worked in a silk mill. The website also contains twenty-three unpublished and published diaries, memoirs, and budgets, although users would benefit from more thorough introductions. Nonetheless, students will enjoy reading unpublished manuscript diaries and researchers will value the access. Both students and researchers will appreciate the advice manuals for women workers, like Ann Rosenblatt's 1916 guide to The Ambitious Woman in Business, which are especially useful for revealing middle-class criteria for good employees.

The Baker Library's Business Manuscript Collections and the Fogg Museum's Social Museum Collection have provided varied types of photographs. The Baker collection includes twenty-nine sets of photographs of workers from specific company. The Waltham Watch Company in 1900 is but one example. This series reveals different jobs performed by men and women, such as a steel-finishing room filled with male workers, the plate rooms showing separate rows of men and women, and a wheel and pinion-making room with all women workers. The Dun and Bradstreet photography collection also includes a document that lists the number of employees in each division in 1935, although I wish it were less blurry. The Fogg collection furnishes a series of photographs about industrial life, including industrial and commercial training of African-American students at Tuskegee and Hampton Institute, middle-class organized playground activities, social settlements, religious agencies, industrial education, reform schools for girls, housing, and more.

Two unpublished sets of documents particularly stand out. The Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston's 1907-1909 Living Wage Survey Questionnaires from the Louise Marion Bosworth Collection, which ultimately became part of her 1911 published study The Living Wage of Women Workers: A Study of Incomes and Expenditures of 450 Women in the City of Boston, are very rich. In addition to the survey questions about income, expenses, birthplace, and the like, these documents also contain notes describing the participants in the study, their living arrangements, their male friends, and if they were expected to complete the survey or not. One such note referred to a young women who preferred the theater and dances rather than the "monotony" of the country. Website users will also be grateful for the National Women's Trade Union League of America collection, which includes materials ranging from working women's depositions, demands, and announcements of strikes, to the League's proceedings from 1909 to 1936.

The website casts the definition of working women broadly, including many aspects of women's lives such as suffrage, feminism, social movements, and education. For example, the collection holds 846 documents on education, stretching from primary to higher and vocational education. Annual reports of the Boston Trade School for Girls, the Girls' Service League, the Training School for Nurses, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and many more are included.

Despite these riches, I had one major disappointment. Since I had not been at the Schlessinger Library in years, I had hoped to find more voices of working women and especially women of color. The website does contain sixty-six holdings on African Americans, five on Asian Americans, two on Hispanic Americans, and one-hundred on immigrants, but few consist of their actual voices. Most documents show working-class women's voices mediated by middle-class scholars or reformers. After getting over my initial disappointment, I reminded myself that this is "what's out there" for this time period. How can I expect something else? Nonetheless, there are still some gems in the collection, such as a 1902 fictionalized travel diary by Yone Noguchi, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl.

The website is generally easy to use, but suffers from some technical choices that slow down access. Users can search for phrases, names, or subjects, or just browse. The website designers created very useful categories, such as Types of Work/Occupations/Professions , Working Conditions, People, State or City, Living Conditions, Education, Types of Working Women, Document Type/Genre as well other topics, like organizations and social movements, suffrage, anarchism, mothers' pensions, unemployment, philanthropy etc. I particularly appreciated the way the site was organized by type of occupations and genre. I spent hours clicking on occupations, like domestics, prostitutes, business, laundry workers, and more. Students could do projects on one occupation without having to weigh through the entire website.

Technical aspects of the website, thus, have both strengths and weaknesses. Pictures can be rotated and enlarged to varying sizes. Single pages can be printed and copied, but not parts of documents. Although quality is high, the photographed manuscripts often take a long time to access. Reading can be time consuming, since each page of a document loads separately, but the reader can skip ahead in a document by typing in a page number. Some of the documents are blurry, although they can be read with the zoom feature.

Overall, this website exemplifies the new archival approach of providing major segments of collections to online and offsite readers. We can only hope that we will see more in years to come.

Carole Srole is an Associate Professor of History at California State University at Los Angeles. Her most recent projects include completing a book-length manuscript on nineteenth-century court reporters and stenographers and an article on the 1950s television show "Queen for a Day."


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