Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Social Shaping of Business Behaviour in the Nineteenth-Century Women's Garment Trades

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Social Shaping of Business Behaviour in the Nineteenth-Century Women's Garment Trades

Article excerpt

Introduction

A popular account of the development of the clothing trade in the South Bridge area of Edinburgh, published in 1901 as a publicity device by J. and R. Allan Ltd., a major department store owned by a male entrepreneur, failed to mention a single firm that was owned and operated by a woman, despite the fact that the women's garment trade had been centred on this area of the city for decades and there were numerous women with premises in South Bridge.(1) This history of economic development in turn-of-the-century Edinburgh - like the similar histories of many other cities during the same period - provides a narrative of business evolution in which the rise of individual firms such as J. and R. Allan Ltd. is linked to the municipal and political affairs of the city.(2) Women, of course, had no tradition of formal association with the administration of cities or nations and were consequently invisible to such commentators in the past.(3)

The preoccupations of modern historians have also obscured our understanding of the scale and role of women in business. There is a rhetoric common to most business histories that suggests that modern capitalist firms act on the basis of a uniform economic agenda and that behaviour within firms is dictated by entrepreneurial ambition. Such rhetoric was also articulated in the past, especially in contemporary accounts of nineteenth-century business, with their focus on the self-made man, the individualist owner-manager, often engaged in heroic technical innovation and a dedicated pursuit of growth.(4) Successful businesses - defined according to market share, employee numbers, commitment to innovation, and length of survival - have dominated the interests of business historians, and business behaviour that restricts growth, or innovation, or profit maximization has been characterised as the failure of entrepreneurship.(5) Though size-dualism is widely recognised as a one of the defining characteristics of nineteenth-century business in Britain, and the vast majority of businesses were small in scale and unmodernised in their structure and strategy, business and economic historians have tended to find this a problematic phenomenon.(6)

The flowering of women's history over the past twenty years has raised awareness of the presence of women in the nineteenth-century business world in certain contexts, particularly in the early-modern period(7) and in such pioneer economies as the United States.(8) We know a great deal more about women's roles within the family context of small-scale retail,(9) and women's contributions to family-firm finance or their strategic marriages to support business partnerships has generated much interest.(10) The impact of gender on corporate development and on the internal characteristics of large financial business has also attracted recent scholarly attention.(11) But the dominant paradigm that has shaped the history of women in nineteenth-century Britain has not enhanced our understanding of independent women in business. The preoccupation with separate spheres ideologies and with the transition from the relative economic freedom of the eighteenth century to occupational restraint and imposed domesticity through much of the nineteenth century has marginalised those women who were active in their own firms, the classic businesswoman being characterised as the impoverished widow reduced to a life of penny capitalism.(12) The most influential account of the economic and social experience of men and women in the British middle class, focussed on the lives and experience of the business-owning groups, while acknowledging that some women did engage in trade, has effectively dismissed them as insignificant in numbers and operating at "the less capitalized, less formal end of the commercial spectrum with quick turnover and short credit chains."(13)

Ignored by contemporaries, only a footnote in the standard business histories and dismissed by those historians of women's lives who have promoted a separate spheres narrative, women in business have been rarely acknowledged. …

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