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50 most common jobs held by women 100 years ago

  • #30. Woolen and worsted mill operatives

    - Total female employment: 61,715

    Women found work in mills when male workers were called away to fight in World War I. Children often would accompany their mothers until child labor laws brought an end to the practice. Jobs in woolen mills declined with competition from overseas manufacturing.

  • #29. Suit, coat, and overall factory operatives

    - Total female employment: 64,515

    The garment industry grew with consumer demand for cheaper clothes, spurred by increased mail-order catalog and department store sales. To find cheap labor and lower production costs in the early 20th century, many manufacturers moved out of New York City for smaller urban areas like Cincinnati and Baltimore where they could build large, more efficient factories and pay lower wages.

  • #28. Milliners and millinery dealers

    - Total female employment: 69,598

    Jobs in millinery were on the decline in the early 1900s, amid growing demand for ready-to-wear accessories. Hat styles for women after World War I were smaller and less showy, and the popularity of hats declined in the decades that followed.

  • #27. Musicians and teachers of music

    - Total female employment: 72,678

    Women came to dominate teaching jobs in the early 20th century, when education was seen as acceptably akin to motherhood. As such, the jobs were low-paid and subject to close supervision by administrators. Music education was typically taught by elementary school teachers, most of whom were women.

  • #26. Silk mill operatives

    - Total female employment: 72,768

    Silk mills were lucrative, but labor-intensive endeavors in the early 1900s. The silkworms had to be well-protected, and the silk itself cleaned, separated into skeins, wound onto bobbins, twisted into yarn, and put on looms for weaving. After the Great Depression, the tedious jobs were less desirable, and competition from synthetics fibers like rayon took a toll as well.

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  • #25. Shoe factory operatives

    - Total female employment: 73,412

    Shoemaking factories were tedious and dangerous workplaces, with a constant threat of machinery fires, but the mechanization of production provided plentiful jobs. Men operated heavy machinery, and women did lighter work such as cutting, pasting, finishing, stitching, and packing.

  • #24. Retail dealers

    - Total female employment: 78,980

    Jobs for women in retail were in supply as the growth of the cosmetics and beauty market required women to sell products to other women. Small shops that sold dresses and accessories also provided work. The jobs were considered respectable, and the hours decent compared with factory and farming work.

  • #23. Knitting mill operatives

    - Total female employment: 80,682

    The highest-paid and most skilled workers in knitting mills were men who were trained to operate the machinery and handle the dye processes. Women tended to do skilled or semi-skilled work such as transferring the tops of stockings onto circular knitting machines run by other women who would attach the feet of the stockings. Other jobs done by women were sorting, inspecting, folding, and mending.

  • #22. Laundry operatives

    - Total female employment: 80,747

    Demand for commercially done laundry rose as urban areas grew more industrialized, polluted, and dirty. Laundries became mechanized, but many did washing by hand, and women took in washing or worked in middle- and upper-class homes. While the laundry business declined overall during the Great Depression, people still sought out linen services and laundries for washing, starching, and pressing men’s shirts.


  • #21. Cigar and tobacco factory operatives

    - Total female employment: 83,960

    Employees in cigar and tobacco factories typically worked on assembly lines, divided by gender and by race, doing tedious, repetitious labor. Women would inspect tobacco leaves, roll cigars, pack boxes, or apply labels, while men did more physically strenuous tasks.

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