Musing on Career Options for Women #research #historical #fiction #author #lifestyle #careers

Before I get into my recent research tidbit, I’m excited to share with you that I’ll be onstage at the Panoply Arts Festival in Huntsville, Alabama this month! If you’re in the area, I’d love to meet you after I do a short reading on the Art OutLoud Stage. I’ve chosen to read the short story I wrote about the two kitchen maids in the Fury Falls Inn series, “The Perfect Birthday Gift.” It’s a lighthearted story about the magical gift one of them receives. You can find out more and buy your tickets to the festival here. If you haven’t read the Fury Falls Inn series, check out the first book’s description below and give it a try. Now, let’s get on with today’s tidbit…

I’ve been developing an idea for an historical romance and needed to know what were typical careers of women in the county around the time of my story. Which of course meant my favorite activity: research! So I went to the census records to see what they listed in the 1870 census for Madison County, Alabama. Now, I’ve read through census records for one reason or another for several decades now so I had an idea of what I’d find. Typically in the 1800s the head of household was male and his occupation listed, with the “lady of the house” listed next and her occupation such as it was (keeping house or its equivalent). So I wasn’t surprised to find this pattern in the census records I scanned looking for possible occupations for women. I did notice two things though that did rather surprise me.

First, in addition to Keeping House, there were several other common and some not-so-common occupations listed. Common ones included Cook, Seamstress, and Domestic Servant. Nothing surprising or shocking about those, right? They’re simply extensions of the tasks women did at home. The ones I found interesting included Hotel Cook, Mantua Maker, Nurse, Hotel Waiter, and Farm Hand. That last one—only one occurrence of it, too—truly stopped me to make sure I read it right and that it was associated with a female in the household. I was also rather surprised to find Nurse only listed once or twice in the approximately 30 pages I scanned. Why?

Well, the American Civil War ended in 1865 and had created a demand/need for women to be nurses for the injured and dying. The war actually opened the door wider for women to take advantage of a tendency to nurture and care for others as a means of gainful employment. So it’s interesting to me that so few claimed that career on the census. Did they not consider it an occupation or did they not perform the role of nurse? Did they not want to put in writing that they were working outside of the home in order to avoid any besmirching of their husband’s ability to provide for his family? We’ll never know for certain, of course.

The second thing that surprised me is the vast number of females listed by name, age, sex, but with no occupation noted. Despite their age, whether in single digits or matrons residing within the household, that field is left blank. Now, I have to assume that these females were doing something, right? At a minimum, they were assisting in housekeeping and gardening of some extent to provide for the family pantry. So, what didn’t they want to put down? Perhaps the census taker wasn’t required to list the occupation for other than the lady of the house? Or they again didn’t want to make the man of the house look incapable of being a good provider? But surely they were doing something to fill their days and evenings with meaningful pastimes. They just didn’t claim it as a source of household income.

What that empty box means for me as a writer of fiction is this: I can fill in that blank for my character with anything I want. Keeping it plausible, of course.

I’ve chosen something she could do at home, on the farm where she was raised, that aligns with other tasks she’d be responsible for managing. You know: sewing, cleaning, gardening, home remedies, and naturally cooking. But I can add a little pepper to the pot by having her dabbling into something the males on the property and in her orbit of acquaintances might look askance at—if they knew she was doing so. What might that be? I’ll share in the story which I expect to start writing this month. Hint: it’s related to something I’ve loved all of my life.

I have a few other questions I need to research answers to, but I’ll keep you posted on my progress both with the research and the writing. In the meantime, happy reading!


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Fury Falls Inn in 1821 Alabama. A place for ghosts, witches, and magic. A place of secrets and hidden dangers.

Cassie Fairhope longs for only one thing: to escape her mother’s tyranny. Her plan? Seduce the young man, who is acting as innkeeper while her father is away on business, into marrying her. But Flint Hamilton has his own plans and they don’t include marriage, even to the pretty temptress. He quickly learns that running a roadside inn in northern Alabama in 1821 means dealing not only with the young woman and her hostile mother but also with horse thieves and rogues. When tragedy strikes, Cassie and Flint are forced to face unforeseen challenges and dangerous decisions together in order to attempt to rid the inn of its newly arrived specter—who doesn’t have any plan to leave…

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