Women play a significant role in today’s wool scene. Many of the farmers I interviewed and surveyed during my PhD research were women. This led me to wonder what role women played historically on farms.
For my PhD research, I looked at “The Wool Grower” digital archives during 1830 to 1855. There were little to no representations of women and their contributions to the sheep and wool industry. Letters were predominantly written by men with sheep farms, some letters were anonymous so it is uncertain who wrote each letter.
With a series of short articles, I hope to highlight women’s labor on sheep and wool farms, factories, and households.
A Historical Connection Point
I came to this topic after finding a book called “A Home in the Battenkill Valley: The Early Years of Susan B. Anthony” by Theodore Corbett in 2016. The book talked about how Susan B. Anthony’s father was recruited to move to New York from Massachusetts to revitalize a cotton mill in Battenville during 1826. Even though the 19th century provided demands for local clothing and textiles, Susan B. Anthony’s father declared bankruptcy in 1846. The family shortly after moved to Rochester New York where Susan B. Anthony grew up to become a leader in the women’s rights movement.
This history is significant considering that Washington County was a center for sheep and wool farms and manufacturing during the 19th century. I also found that today Washington County has a high density of fiber farms with diverse animals that produce wool, alpaca, mohair, and cashmere. They also host the annual Washington County Fiber Tour to expand knowledge about natural fibers and the historic legacy of the region. I feel honored to have visited several of these farms in 2015!
An interesting finding from my PhD was also the dramatic shift of the sheep and wool industry between 1840 to 1920. In “The Tariff on Wool” from 1926, Mark Smith visually mapped out the westward shift of the industry. This led me to want to learn more about the 1920s, especially as the women’s rights movement was evolving.
To give an idea of the significance of wool during the time period, the graph below shows the consumption of over 650 million pounds of wool by manufacturers in 1922. Wool was in high demand.
To learn more about the role women played in agriculture historically, I began by looking at “The National Wool Grower” publication during the years 1919 to 1924. (Most are open resources, except for the publication in 1924).
In a May 1919 article in “The National Wool Grower,” women were referred to as “agitators” based on efforts to obtain the right to vote. The author explained, “Woman’s suffrage will come and in five years not 20 per cent of the women of the country will take sufficient interest in it to vote” (pp. 33-34). There was a disbelief that women would be active participants in the democratic process even though they were active community members.
Women’s Sheep & Wool Leadership
During the same year, women were beginning to be recognized for their leadership, business, and management roles on farms.
In August 1919, two sisters from Bovina Texas were praised for the success of their sheep farm. Miss Dona Gardner and her sister managed one of the largest sheep flocks in Texas. They were in charge of the ranch, employed and retained sheep herders from Mexico. Miss Gardner was a graduate from the University of Chicago and spoke fluent Spanish, which explains how she was able to work well with the sheep herders from Mexico. The sisters also obtained higher market prices for wool ranging between 48 to 57 cents per pound. This suggests strong interpersonal skills, knowledge for the worth of their wool, and access to a market.
In September 1921, Laura H. Thompson of Colorado was asked to write an article for “The National Wool Grower” as women were starting to be acknowledged as readers of the publication. She explained, “First I must tell of my greatest experience since I have been interested in sheep, that of having the help of a business partner. This partner has proven truly wonderful. He takes such an interest in the work…” (p. 13). It seems like she was talking about a male business partner, but in further reading, she discussed, “now please do not be misinformed, for my partner is only a light Ford truck.” It suggests that women were adopting the latest technologies, such as cars that were newly accessible to a mass public in the 1920s.
Women’s Manufacturing Labor
As the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 devastatingly presented the abundant labor of women and girls in factories, I found some examples of women working in wool manufacturing companies.
In an article published in August 1920, women were reported to work in Hickey-Freeman coat shops along with men. Hickey-Freeman was a prominent manufacturer for men’s tailored clothing in Rochester NY. The article reported on average wages before and after World War I. It highlighted higher wages and cost of materials. In 1914, wages were approximately $12.25 per week, and by 1919 wages were $31.50 per week. To compare with the value of the dollar today, the 1919 wage is equivalent to about $400 per week. E
As the sheep and wool industry shifted westward, mills were also developing. In a May 1921 article, women were anticipated to be an active part of the skilled workforce for a new wool mill in Denver CO. Based on the size of the mill, it was anticipated to provide employment for 60 to 150 people.
Women’s Right to Vote
To link back to women’s rights and the impact of obtaining the right to vote, I found an article published in June 1924 that showed women’s active participation in the voting process.
Women casted their votes for the proposed “Fordney-McCumber Tariff Law” as show below. In total, 154 women voted and 195 men.
Tariffs were always discussed by farmers since they were worried about international wool competition. It is important to note that at this time, the US didn’t have a large enough supply of wool to meet domestic demands. Wool imports were important to wool manufacturers who needed a steady supply of wool to create products for a consumer market.
It is interesting to see that women were actively voting and representing themselves by voting on bills that could impact the agricultural and textile economy of the time.
These are limited representations of women’s labor as it was published in “The National Wool Grower.” In the future, I hope to find more information about women’s labor in the digital archives of “The Ladies Home Journal” and “The New York Times.”
Special thanks to the organizers of the Global Digital Humanities Symposium in Michigan State University for allowing me to present this research in March 2019 and providing travel support.
Conclusions on Wool Industry. May 1921. The National Wool Grower. Volume 9. Pp. 42-43. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=PcIxAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA10
Corbett, T. 2007. A Home in the Battenkill Valley: The Early Years of Susan B Anthony. New York: NorthStar Historical Project.
Jones, J.M. August 1919. Texas Sheepmen’s Annual Meeting. The National Wool Grower. Volume 9. pp. 27-28. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c2645977;view=1up;seq=253
Natural Agitators. May 1919. The National Wool Grower. Volume 9. pp. 33-34. Retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c2645977;view=1up;seq=253
Smith, M. 1926. The Tariff on Wool. New York: Macmillan Co.
Tariffs and Parties. June 1924. The National Wool Grower. Volume 11. P. 12. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89047868377;view=1up;seq=17
The Price of Wool and the Price of Cloth. August 1920. The National Wool Grower. Volume 10. Pp. 39-41. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c2645978;view=1up;seq=449
Thompson, L.H. September 1921. Lambs, Wool, and Women. The National Wool Grower. Volume 9. P. 13. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=PcIxAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA10
Vanderbilt, G.W. December 1922. Biltmore Handwoven Cloths. The National Wool Grower. Volume 12. P. 1. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c2770740