Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The illusion of the Victorian woman – a creature accustomed to leisure and com­fort- was alive and well in Indiana County at the turn of the century. Newspaper columns reported a variety of social activities in which women participated, including temperance and missionary societies, social and reading clubs. Advertisements for medicines appealed to women who considered themselves delicate, sensitive, even unhealthy creatures. “Pity the girl with nerves,” one ad advised, because “Sunken Eyes and Hollow Cheeks … tell the story of ravages of dys­pepsia.” Indeed, it appeared that the “feminine mystique” was well entrenched.

Given such perspectives, it is not surprising today to hear old-time residents of Indiana County say, “In those days women didn’t go out to work.” Society, in general, accepted this illusion of the “Victorian” woman, but the basic and sometimes cruel reality was that many women had to work outside the home for at least a part of their lives, espe­cially before marriage. Recent research dealing with the county’s first half century iden­tifies women working in a variety of jobs, some requiring only a modicum of expertise, such as rural school teachers, to others which could be classified as unskilled.

Interviews, drawn primarily from working-class families of English, Scotch. German, Pennsylvania Dutch, Lithuanian and Italian descent, further confirmed the reality of women at work. Not surprisingly, the interviews also revealed strong family lies and gener­ally strict parental attitudes in turn-of-the-century rural Indiana, a county in which fanning, mining and lumber production were the major industries. Views concerning the role of women were conservative and, although daughters might work before marriage, their true destinies were expected to rest with the traditional institutions of marriage and motherhood.

The young working ladies of this period rarely thought of careers or perceived of them­selves as part of a working class. These women worked not for luxury items but rather to satisfy basic needs and to help their families. There were many women who had to find work. During the first half of the twentieth century as women gradually moved beyond traditional jobs, most of which were domestic in nature, their perceptions of themselves as important members of a working class gradually evolved as well. Significantly, although the number of job opportunities in Indiana County were limited, the experiences of women often reflected na­tional trends in women’s labor history, albeit on a much smaller scale.

From 1900 until the outbreak of World War I, only a few found employment in the two occupations at the time gen­erally believed to be most desirable for young women: teaching and nursing. Teaching, particularly in the one-room school houses scattered throughout the county, was an occupation which strongly appealed to young ladies be­cause they could be certified to teach the first eight grades with only minimal profes­sional training. Work as the local schoolmarm offered prestige and a real sense of accom­plishment, but the drawbacks to the career were all too obvious. Former teachers re­member breaking ice in their wash basins each winter morn­ing, trudging through miles of mud, then stoking the pot­bellied stoves and oiling the floors. Classes could be large, with as many as seventy students, many of them chil­dren of immigrants, assigned to a cramped one-room school. Salaries were low and sometimes payment was in kind. Some teachers boarded with local families during the school term only to be asked to do farm chores or act as live-in babysitters in addition to paying for their room and board.

A career in nursing was thought to be considerably less desirable because it involved drudgery as well as arduous service. Admittedly a hard life, nursing required long hours with little remuneration. in part a result of its apprenticeship system of training. To economize, hospitals used nursing students to staff wards, often requesting them to work twelve-hour shifts which combined both on-the-job training and classes.

Less appealing occupations were also available; young girls could find work as maids, cooks, waitresses, chamber­maids, upstairs girls and laundry girls. This was heavy work, but decent employ­ment; although menial, these positions were in great demand by numerous hotels and res­taurants whose hierarchical structures offered the possibil­ity of advancement. Beyond these, there also existed the traditional jobs of gover­nesses and live-in maids, but their desirability rested on the personality of the individual employer. Often the work was lonely, demanding and very tiring, offering no oppor­tunity for advancement. One Indiana woman remembered cooking and making bread for an entire family while simul­taneously acting as a governess for eight children, including infants. Years later she recalled, with indignation, the con­sternation of her employer when she asked for a raise in salary to $8 a week.

Seamstress work could have offered good employment had there been sufficient local industries to hire all those with the appropriate skills. With no factory work available, seamstresses were forced to do what was, in effect, piece work, accepting the task of outfitting entire families, even spending a week or two in the homes of the affluent until the season’s clothing was completed. Only a few local factories, such as the Indiana Candy Works, the Macaroni Factory, the Indiana Steam Laundry, the King Razor Manu­facturing Company and the Diamond Glass Company, offered work at all – and those for women without market­able skills. Job opportunities for working-class women were rare.

During the second decade of the century, opportunities for women began to improve throughout the nation. On a moderate scale, this national trend was paralleled in Indiana County. There was a perceptible growth in the Indiana business community, and with it came greater demands for the services of telephone operators, or “hello­-girls.” salesgirls and female clerks. Stores such as the Bon Ton, Troutman’s, Luxenberg’s and McCrory’s placed help wanted ads for “girls,” occasionally specifically de­manding “good” girls. One 1917 advertisement for a female clerk further stipulated that the job seeker must live at home with her parents.

The improvement in the employment picture had little to do with World War I. In fact, the impact of the war on the job market appears to have been virtually nonexistent, and few attitudes or assump­tions about women’s roles in the work force changed as a result of it.

The 1920s proved equally disappointing. In spite of the modish rebellion of women’s shortened dresses and “bobbed” and “shingled” hair, both men and women viewed female labor as, at best, a temporary hiatus between school and marriage. Many did quit work upon marriage, although some married women and those who remained single often stayed on the job. Open­ings were limited, however, and opportunities for career advancement and supervisory positions were extremely unusual. In spite of the appar­ent freedom offered to women in other ways during the 1920s, they remained isolated from the work of men in status, the possibility of ad­vancement and higher pay. Although most women could expect to remain at the very lowest levels of employment, female workers in the county showed little working-class consciousness and little dissatis­faction with their lot until the war years. Women were usually content just to be able to work.

Fortunately, a few local companies, including the Diamond Glassware Company, the King Leather Company and the Indiana Textile Mills, needed an increasing supply of working-class women during this period. For thirty years Diamond Glassware in Indiana employed women in its work force so that by the 1920s almost one hundred “girls” were listed on the pay­roll by the company manager. The women rarely considered striking for better wages, although one former employee remembers going on strike once, after dinner, “during the Christmas rush.” The strike, which won the women a slight pay increase, lasted all of several hours.

The glassware factory women counted and inspected1 polished, painted and packed the glass. The work never approached the status of skilled workmanship, nor brought the extra pay this might earn. Young women were hired without previous training end without being tested for artistic skill. a somewhat sur­prising fact since their respon­sibilities included actually decorating the glass. They were taught to mix paints and to do freehand work – flowers, leaves and gold rims on cups. Usually, the young women learned quickly and soon acclimated themselves to the paint and turpentine fumes which, to the novice, seemed overpowering.

While glass decoration was delicate, former employees also remember women clean­ing and polishing molds. Requiring oil, emery stones and old-fashioned elbow grease, the work was hard, sometimes requiring two days of laborious scrubbing. Nevertheless, women were happy just to have good jobs at the glass company, since few other local industries employed large numbers of women. This only added to the tragic proportions of the 1931 fire which destroyed the glass factory at the onset of the depression.

Another long standing company, the King Leather Factory, also offered employ­ment. Since 1910 the company had produced a variety of leather items, ranging from money belts to pocketbooks. The work force was com­prised primarily of women and in the decade following the war, approximately fifty to seventy-five women were employed in its barnlike factory. Of the three men who worked there, one owned the company and the other two were supervisors who occasionally did heavy work. Women operated electric sewing and cutting machines, stamped the product with gold lettering, and sorted and packed the finished product. As usual, the women learned quickly, but their job cate­gories remained classified as unskilled. Interestingly enough. however, considering the predominantly female work force, few women aspired to managerial work. The seg­regation implicit in this struc­ture – three male supervisors overseeing a predominantly female work force – caused little concern: in fact, the atmos­phere at the factory has been described as ” … just like a family.” Much credit for the pleasant atmosphere should go to the women who worked there primarily because they had n􀁺1t thought in terms of unionization or increased wage demands.

The newest job opportunity of the post-World War I period in Indiana was what long­time residents still call the silk mill, the Indiana Textile Mills, which began operation in the late 1920s. Riding high on the popularity of the “flapper style” which revealed women’s legs, the silk mill had a market for its top quality, high fashion stockings. Manage­ment relied heavily on women, who were employed in un­skilled positions as seamers, loopers, run menders and inspectors; men were generally assigned to the skilled cate­gory of knitters. Business was so good that the silk mill operated on three shifts, each consisting of about seventy-­five to one hundred people, three-fourths of them women, who were paid by the piece.

Employees enjoyed working at the company and they believed job conditions were good, although they per­ceived minor problems: cotton dust in the air and occa­sional allergic reactions. For some, reactions to the material could become so severe that their hands actually bled, requiring generous applica­tions of ointment every evening. But work at the silk mill was valued, especially during the Great Depression. One woman had wanted to organize a union, but she found little sympathy – or support­ – among fellow workers. It was not union activities, but the success of the newer nylon stockings that prompted the downfall of the Indiana Textile Mills, which ceased operations before World War II.

The Great Depression hurt. It affected everyone, but for women scarce job oppor­tunities became even rarer. With prejudices against working women already strong, area employers openly discouraged married women and those under age eighteen from seek­ing jobs which men might otherwise take. As one woman recalled, “They didn’t take on too many workers at that time … and yes, this was especially true for girls.” Jobs as clerks during holiday seasons offered some possibili­ties, but these were not considered desirable because salaries were poor.

In a small community atmosphere, jobs often were discovered through friends. Women who sought regular, salaried employment in stores, hotels and restaurants (as well as those who hoped simply to find room and board) often placed advertisements in the Indiana Evening Gazette offering to do a variety of work: keep house, sew clothes, mend, do wash, or care for young children and incapaci­tated elderly couples. Never­theless, work was hard to find. The futility of the job search in the 1930s was well illus­trated by one woman who was widowed in 1936 when her miner husband died of pneu­monia. Left with four children to raise she remarked,” … that was hard times. You just felt like you had a brick wall in front of you and on the back of you and on both sides and no place to look.” Welfare “… to me was disgusting …. Anytime I got a job I was like a rooster on a fence.” This determined woman would take whatever work she could get: housekeeping, taking care of a family of children, short order cooking in a restaurant, ” … any­thing to make it.”

Pervading economic prob­lems led to financial cutbacks, and female teachers were asked to take cuts in their meager salaries. A first grade teacher at a rural school recalled being asked to take a cut from $1,000 to $900 a year. A single teacher at Indiana High School remembered “pressure” to return about eight percent of her salary, although she was already paid less than men. Of this era she recalled: “Women were never offered a cent for anything extra that we did, where the men were maybe not giving as much time and yet were paid for everything they were doing besides having higher salaries.” Still, hard-pressed teachers some­times bought clothes, food and even vitamins for needy students and they would quickly acknowledge that, in spite of cuts, it was obvi­ously still better to have a job.

In the 1930s, women were still perceived as peripheral to the labor community; they were daughters and wives and they had fathers or husbands to take care of them. Newspapers continued to resort to the image that the well-bred woman was feminine and femininity belonged in the home. An article in the Indiana Evening Gazette on August 19, 1931, asked “Where are the sleek cropped heads of yesteryear? Where is the softer bob? In fact, where is the bob at all? … New styles in hairdressing are extremely feminine, terrifyingly feminine …”

World War II drastically changed this situation, reshaping attitudes and bringing more women from their homes into the work force. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, local women were suddenly encouraged to replace men in civilian industries and join burgeoning new defense industries. They entered the work force with a new self-esteem because, as one former local defense industry supervisor commented, “They knew they were needed.” Women were then so much in demand that some companies, such as Acme Dye, even provided buses to transport them from Indiana and Clymer to its Latrobe factory, where they worked with explosive powders and bullets. In Indiana County itself, defense industry work was soon underway at Federal Laboratories in Tunnelton, in Indiana on Indian Springs Road and at the newly opened plant near South 13th Street, in the same building which had previously housed the silk mill. Federal Laboratories began preparing for high-speed production.

For someone who had done housekeeping for five dollars a week during the 1930s, wages at defense industries were a boon. One woman remembered starting at a salary of fifty cents an hour; after two weeks, she was making about sixty cents. Some women even suggested that monetary motivation, not patriotism, ranked high in getting women to work.

The policy at Federal Laboratories illustrated the rapid changes which occurred as the county hurriedly mobilized the female labor force. Previously, Federal Laboratories had shown little inclination to employ women, as the work was considered man’s work; women were said to be too emotional to handle dangerous pyrotechnics. In addition, state protective legislation limited working hours and regulated the maximum weights women could lift. During the depression years, a time of potential civil disturbance (which usually bodes well for the pyrotechnics industry), the company had not needed to employ women. But as men were drafted, the situation changed dramatically.

Women joined defense industries because they were needed; they remained because defense jobs proved profitable and secure. Many who entered local defense industries had previously been able to find only domestic and custodial work. Now, women labored on the production line, mixed and handled explosives and assembled hand grenades. Unless restricted by state law, they did everything which once only men had done. Women quickly learned of the new opportunities available at Federal Labs and, as one male supervisor sardonically recalled, “If they walked in breathing, we hired them. As far as testing [went] there was only one primary question: Are you afraid?” A timid person was a hazard around explosives, but during World War II, the Federal Labs women maintained a good safety record.

An especially satisfying aspect of defense work was the evolving sense of camaraderie among women; a more practical change was an acceptance of the union. Whereas many local women who had worked in the early period had expressed considerable hostility to unions, perceiving their leaders as either trouble­makers or meddlers, many who became involved in the large­-scale concerns of impersonal war industries discovered that an active union was a necessary ally.

Even more significant than the satisfaction of new interests and friendships outside the home was the impact of the paycheck itself. For those who had previous work experi­ence, the higher pay of the defense industries was a sig­nificant improvement over earlier wages. Remembering that most women in Indiana who worked at this time had never before had the oppor­tunity to work regularly, it is easy to understand the sense of new found pride that came with the extra income that filled their pocketbooks.

Besides convincing men – and some women – of the capabilities of working women, the war years affected atti­tudes. A new consciousness had been raised and new expectations developed. Those who once thought women should stay home to be wives and mothers discovered that women could successfully and simultaneously manage a career and family.

By 1945, women were working in new jobs, both paid and volunteer; moreover, their number was greater than ever before! But their ulti­mate, patriotic goal was the war’s end and the return of the soldiers. When the war concluded, women realized they would be out of a job. As they were displaced from their wartime positions, few opportunities once again existed in the labor market for those who still wanted and needed work.

Despite this apparent return to the past, the first half of the twentieth century dearly saw significant and perma­nent attitudinal changes regarding working women. What had happened in Indiana County had occurred elsewhere. Throughout the nation, formerly rigid attitudes defining proper female work had diminished, replaced by a new appreciation of women’s abilities. It was working women especially who recog­nized this, as they sought both the obvious and implicit reward of that regular pay­check. Women had been given the opportunity to prove that they could do the job. By the 1950s, as new companies, factories and businesses flour­ished, women joined the work force, fully believing that there should be “Good Wages for the Right Party.”


For Further Reading

Chafe, William Henry. The American Woman: Her Chang­ing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Greenwald, Maurine. Women, War, and Work – The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Off to Work: A History of Wage Train­ing Women in the United States. London: Oxford Univer­sity Press, 1982.

Rupp, Leila. Mobilizing Women for War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Ryan, Mary. Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. New York: New Viewpoints, 1975.

Tentler, Leslie. Wage Earning Women. London: Oxford Univer­sity Press, 1979.


Dorothy Vogel Krupnik has taught courses in women’s history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where she is a full-time faculty member of the history department. Much of the material for this article was collected from research undertaken for a local history project sponsored by Indiana University in 1979. Dr. Krupnik received her Ph.D. from New York University in 1970.