Women at Work in the Formal Economy
of West(ern) Virginia
BARBARA J. HOWE
Together with the stories of the hundreds of women who are the subjects of other essays in this volume, those of Deborah, the fictional cotton mill picker described by Rebecca Harding Davis, and of Mary C. Key Leech and Elizabeth Key, two successful businesswomen in the clothing trade in western Virginia, enrich our understanding of the roles of white women in the antebellum textile and clothing industries in the Upper South. 1(For the purposes of this essay, the word “industries” also refers to the work of milliners and dressmakers, who made and sold clothing.)
Deborah, a character in Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills,” published in 1861, was a picker at a cotton mill who lived a harsh life in Wheeling, the largest city of western Virginia. 2 After standing “twelve hours at the spools,” she was weak and aching by the time she joined the “crowd of halfclothed women … going home from the cotton-mill” about 11:00 p.m. one night. 3 There may not have been a real Deborah, but Davis was one of the nation's earliest fiction writers to base her stories in the reality of nineteenthcentury urban life (and her descriptions conjure up Dickensian images of a wage worker's life in the textile mills).
Mary C. Key Leech, on the other hand, left a long record of her life as a businesswoman. Her family was from Baltimore, and she started in the clothing business about 1835. Her husband, John, was a merchant tailor in 1839, and Thomas Hughes apprenticed for him. She inherited half of John's estate in 1844 and took over his business. In 1845, although Thomas Hughes conducted the