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Digital Archive:  Women, Work & Family in Antebellum Appalachia

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Resource Materials about 19th Century Appalachian Women

by Wilma A. Dunaway

Publications about 19th Century Women      Electronic Documents about Appalachian Women

Illustrations of 19th Century Women's Work & Community Roles


Publications about 19th Century Women

   Information about Wilma A. Dunaway, Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

  Table  1860 Occupations of Appalachian Women

  Links to Articles and Book Chapters about 18th & 19th century Women


Electronic Documents about Appalachian Women


Illustrations of 19th Century Women's Work & Community Roles

  Women's Roles in Religious Camp Meetings  Camp meetings were a threat to traditional denominations that feared loss of hierarchical control over local congregations and that opposed the use of uneducated lay religious leaders. Note the great numbers of women involved in a typical camp meeting. Source: Library of Congress

  Women as Religious Leaders  Female exhorters at Methodist camp meetings and gender-integrated public prayers excited critique from more traditional clergy whose congregations held separate services for men and women and reserved ministerial roles for males. Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (September 1882).

  Cherokee Women Protecting Community Food Crops  From scaffolds in the midst of their corn, older women and teenage girls guarded the fields against birds and rodents. Their distance from the village made them especially vulnerable to slave raids and war parties. Source: Schoolcraft (1851-57, 3: 62).

  Cherokee Women in the Fur Trade  As trade dependency deepened, the labor time of Cherokee women was redirected to processing of deer skins for export. Here the woman is scraping the skin to prepare it for drying in the sun. Notice the child in the cradleboard. Source: Library of Congress.

  Enslaved Women as Religious Leaders   Like this Rabun County, Georgia gathering, Appalachian slaves participated illegally in night-time religious services. Because they were assigned textiles production at night, women combined that regular labor with unauthorized prayer meetings and singings. Thus, black females were punished for such resistance more often than men. Source: Scribner’s, 1874.

  Poor White Female Peddler   This poor white woman is peddling cakes and beer to tourists at Natural Bridge in southwestern Virginia. Sharp class cleavages are made obvious in three ways: differences in dress, the poor woman’s need to do public work outside her home, and the financial capacity of elite and middle-class women to afford leisure time and travel. The artist captured a look of pity or disdain on the face of the female tourist in the rear. Source: Harper’s Monthly (Aug. 1855).

  Women in Maple Sugar Production  Women’s maple sugar was an important household resource and such a significant source of family income that this activity was reported in the 1840 Census of Manufacturing. This drawing depicts an antebellum tree sugar camp operated by women in Tazewell County, Virginia. Source: Bickley (1852, 65).

  Women's Household Spinning  In 1840, spinning wheels were owned by a higher percentage of Appalachian households than was typical of the rest of the country. To provide household essentials and to earn cash, poor white, free black, and Cherokee women routinely spun. The top view is an ex-slave who had treasured the handmade wheel used by women in her family for many generations. The bottom view is a poor white women with a wheel of the sort typically used by free Appalachian females in the nineteenth century. Source: Library of Congress.

  Women's Household Cloth Weaving  Household-based textiles production was widespread among 19th century poor white, Cherokee, and African-American women who produced fabrics and clothing for household use and for marketing. The top view shows a poor white women weaving in the barn because the loom was too large for a typical small cabin. The bottom view shows an enslaved woman weaving at night while tending her children. Sources: Library of Congress and Love (1907, 10).

  A West Virginia Milliner  This Greenbrier County, West Virginia, milliner made pheasant-tail hats for elite and middle-class women who visited the prestigious mineral spa at White Sulphur Springs. Summer tourists at White Sulphur were sharply polarized from the majority of local Appalachian women who could not afford such luxurious travel or living conditions. Source: Harper’s Monthly (Aug. 1855).

  Women in Gold Processing  Rather than being isolated in a feminine sphere within their homes, poor white and nonwhite females worked at many forms of nonagricultural labor that elite and middle-class commentators considered to be weaknesses of character. To the left, two barefooted white women are rocking cradles to separate gold ore from rocks at a western North Carolina gold mine. A third female worker is at the right. Source: Harper’s Monthly (April 1857).

  Women in Hotel Service About one-fifth of all Appalachian slaves were employed in nonagricultural occupations, like this chambermaid in an Abingdon, Virginia hotel. Such hireouts increased the likelihood that enslaved females would be sexually exploited by white males and separated from their children most of the time. Source: Harper’s Monthly (May 1857).

  A Free Black Businesswoman  This free black woman operated a small inn that served rafts and boats on the Tennessee River outside Chattanooga. Such “men’s work” attracted the attention of Appalachian sheriffs and courts to such “dangerous class” female household heads. Source: Harper’s Monthly (July 1858).

  Free Black Washwomen  Because of limited employment opportunities and biases against such “dangerous class” mothers, free black washwomen, like these residents of Rome, Georgia, often headed households from which children were removed by courts and indentured to long-term service by county poor houses. Source: Harper’s Monthly (June 1857).

  Wet Nursing  A majority of enslaved Appalachian females, like this Page County, Virginia woman, worked as care givers to white children at some point in their lives. While weaning their own children early and leaving them with limited supervision in the quarters, wet nurses often broke their own health and were unable to nurture their own offspring. Source: Page (1897, 98).

  Caregivers to Children Due to attenuated breastfeeding, malnutrition, and inadequate child care, one-half of all Appalachian slave children died before age ten. While their mothers worked in the fields or were hired out, some youngsters were tended by elderly slaves, like this Rockbridge County, Virginia woman, However, 40 percent of Appalachian ex-slaves reported they had almost no adult supervision before age ten. Source: Harper’s Monthly (March 1856).