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MHS (Maine Historical Society)
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Working Women of the Old Port

This Exhibit Contains 20 Items
1
Porteous, Mitchell & Braun Department Store, Portland, ca. 1912

Porteous, Mitchell & Braun Department Store, Portland, ca. 1912

Item 11160 info
Maine Historical Society

Department stores were the new shopping phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century and, unlike earlier stores where one went in solely to buy something, department stores offered browsing, along with a variety of activities meant to draw in customers, most of whom were women.

Most of the clerks, too, were women, trained in appropriate dress, speech, and customer relations.

In Portland in the first decade of the 20th century, four large department stores -- Porteous, Mitchell & Braun, Eastman Bros. & Bancroft, Rines Bros., and J. R. Libby -- employed more than 500 women.


2
Eastman Bros. & Bancroft Department Store, Portland, ca. 1910

Eastman Bros. & Bancroft Department Store, Portland, ca. 1910

Item 26153 info
Maine Historical Society

Employees included "cash girls" who made $2 a week through the most desirable job, department head, where women earned $20 to 25 a week.

The position of buyer also was sought after. And, it might lead to other things.

Anita Files, for instance, started work as a milliner's apprentice, then became a salesclerk, moving up to buyer and head of the millinery department the J.R. Libby store. In 1927, she opened her own shop.

While a buyer, she went to New York every three weeks to learn about the latest fashions and buy materials for the department store.


3
J.R. Libby Department Store

J.R. Libby Department Store

Item 7738 info
Maine Historical Society

The average weekly wage for women in department stores was $7 in the early 1900s.

A woman living on her own needed at least $5 a week to survive.

Women clerks complained to the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics about having to stand all day, which led to swollen legs and sore backs.

Like many jobs at the time, women were laid off at slow seasons.


4
E.T. Burrowes Co., Portland, ca. 1923

E.T. Burrowes Co., Portland, ca. 1923

Item 6025 info
Maine Historical Society

E.T. Burrowes Co. on Free Street was a huge company that opened in 1873 to make pool tables, card tables, storage chests and other wood products.

The photograph shows a woman tending a machine that weaves screens for windows and doors.

In 1913-1914, the company had 30 women and 250 men employees.

It also employed women office workers.


5
Center Street School, Portland, ca. 1900

Center Street School, Portland, ca. 1900

Item 19319 info
Maine Historical Society

Schools were another large employer of women.

At the Center Street School in 1900, all the teachers were women. Most earned $425 to $450 a year, or about $8 a week. (The school changed its name to Staples School in 1900-1901.)

Teaching paid somewhat more than factory work, but was not as well paid as some office work or as buyers in department stores.

Principals and other supervisory personnel usually were men.


6
Gorham's Corner, Portland, ca. 1904

Gorham's Corner, Portland, ca. 1904

Item 6674 info
Maine Historical Society

Gorham's Corner at Danforth, York, Pleasant, and Center streets was the center of the working-class Irish community.

Irish immigrants -- many of them single women -- started coming to Portland in 1847 during the potato famine and came in larger numbers after 1860.

Many worked as domestics in private homes or hotels.

After 1900, Irish women began working in fish processing plants and other canning factories along the waterfront.


7
Ayer, Huston and Co., Portland, ca. 1893

Ayer, Huston and Co., Portland, ca. 1893

Item 6026 info
Maine Historical Society

Women employees made hats at Ayer, Houston & Co., a manufacturer of men's felt hats at 2 Beach Street, off Commercial Street.

Between 1910 and 1914, about 50 women stitched sweatbands into the hats and added trim.

Some of the hat workers were Polish women who lived in the Salem Street area.

They earned $4.50 to $6 a week, or, if they were especially skilled, they could make up to $12 a week.

Men at the factory felted the material and shaped the hats.


8
Unloading the Petrel, Portland, 1931

Unloading the Petrel, Portland, 1931

Item 7912 info
Maine Historical Society

In 1889, the Star Match Company on Commercial Street employed 39 women and girls as match bunchers.

They separated finished matches into packets and wrapped them for sale and shipping.

Paid by the piece, the bunchers earned an average of $5 a week.

The work was risky as the matches could easily ignite. Each worker had a basin and wet sponge to put out fires.

Another risk was phosphorus poisoning, which could damage teeth and produce "phossy jaw," destruction of the jawbone.


9
Filling fish cans, Portland, 1934

Filling fish cans, Portland, 1934

Item 11194 info
Maine Historical Society

Many women worked at canning and packing companies along the waterfront.

A 1902 story in the New York Times boasted that Maine had 175 canneries and was first in the U.S. in the value of sardine packing, third in corn, and "well up in other articles."

There were 60 corn canneries alone in the state. But sardine canning was the most common.

When the fishing boats came in to the Portland piers, the captain would sound a whistle, sending canning employees to the factories to process the catch.

During the first half of the 20th century, Italian, Irish, Polish and French-Canadian women were working in the fish canneries in Portland.


10
Burnham & Morrill Co.

Burnham & Morrill Co.

Item 6836 info
Maine Historical Society

The largest canning employer was Burnham & Morrill Co., originally at 13 Franklin Street.

In 1913, the year the firm moved to Baxter Boulevard, it employed 75 women and 65 men.


11
Twitchell, Champlin, & Co., ca. 1885

Twitchell, Champlin, & Co., ca. 1885

Item 11225 info
Maine Historical Society

At the Twitchell-Champlin Co., a fruit and vegetable cannery on Commercial Street, the number of women employed in the seasonal work increased from 16 percent of the workforce in 1910 to 40 percent of the 96 employees in 1914.

Women prepared the fruits and vegetables and filled the cans.

In 1907, they earned from $4.50 to $6 a week and worked nine-hour days.


12
Boothby Square, Portland, c. 1920

Boothby Square, Portland, c. 1920

Item 12863 info
Maine Historical Society

Women were engaged in a variety of other occupations as well.

About 140 women manufactured men's clothing in the early 20th century. Some worked in women's clothing manufacturing also.

The largest employer was Clark-Eddy Co., located first on Middle Street, then on Preble Street. It employed 70 women and 15 men in 1907.

A typical small employer was R. K. Dyer, with 10 women and 9 men working in an upstairs space in 1912 and earning $5 to $15 weekly for seasonal work.


13
Customs House, Portland, ca. 1900

Customs House, Portland, ca. 1900

Item 15498 info
Maine Historical Society

Rose Alice Henry was the first woman to work at the Portland Customs House.

She began in 1899 as a stenographer, an up-and-coming occupation for women. She was secretary to the Inspector of Immigration for 28 years.

By 1907, at least 500 women worked as stenographers or typists in Portland, most in various business offices.

Some, though, like Abba Harris and Ruby Jackson, owned their own business. The pair bought a stenography firm in 1910 and, within 10 years had increased its output five-fold and employed six women.


14
Curtis Chewing Gum Factory, Portland, ca. 1900

Curtis Chewing Gum Factory, Portland, ca. 1900

Item 9994 info
Maine Maritime Museum

For more than 50 years, beginning in 1866, young women rolled out, flavored, sugared, cut and packaged spruce, pepsin and peppermint gum at the Curtis and Sons Chewing Gum factory on Fore Street.

At the factory's peak in 1907, between 90 and 115 young women earned $3.50 to $6 a week for workdays that began at 7 a.m. and ended at 5:45 p.m.

The 20 men at the factory earned twice as much.

Women wore white aprons, caps and sleeve protectors provided by the company.

They could earn an extra $1 per week in the summer, an enticement to stay at the factory instead of leaving for appealing seaside resort jobs.


15
Milk Street, Portland, 1901

Milk Street, Portland, 1901

Item 20876 info
Maine Historical Society

Holmes Confectionery Co. on Milk Street was the largest candy-making firm in Portland in the early 20th century, employing 40 women and 30 men.

Women worked 10-hour days for an average $4.50 a week.

Women who worked in the retail store earned more because they worked longer hours.

A factory inspector in 1907 reported, "The business of making candy and putting it up in attractive forms has become almost an art."


16
Middle Street, Portland, ca. 1912

Middle Street, Portland, ca. 1912

Item 11153 info
Maine Historical Society

Between 60 and 70 women and the same number of men worked making shoes at A.H. Berry Shoe Co. on Middle Street in the early 20th century.

Across the city, some 300 women worked in shoe shops where they earned $4 to $7 a week -- or up to $10 if paid by the piece.

They worked nine-hour days, eleven months of the year.


17
Pedestrians on Middle Street, c. 1890

Pedestrians on Middle Street, c. 1890

Item 13765 info
Maine Historical Society

Also on Middle Street was the Coronet Manufacturing Co. where 206 women and 29 men in 1910 made tailored blouses for women.

Cutters prepared the work and stitchers sewed the shirtwaists. Some women also operated machines that sewed on buttons.

The average salary was $6 a week in 1907.

One shirtwaist stitcher told the inspector, "The only thing I would ask to have changed would be an increase of pay." Others complained about lack of ventilation.


18
Exchange Street, Portland, ca. 1900

Exchange Street, Portland, ca. 1900

Item 20832 info
Maine Historical Society

About 150 women worked in the printing business in Portland in the early years of the 20th century.

Among the printing companies employing women on Exchange Street were Portland Publishing Co., F.J. Smith Co. and Smith & Sale.

Some women worked as compositors, picking type out of cases and placing it in forms. Others operated linotype machines that cast type in metal.

Alice Walsh, like many working women, remained single. She worked as a compositor for the Portland Evening Express.

She and her two younger sisters, who worked for the telephone company and who also were single, earned enough by 1925 to move to a socially prominent address on Thomas Street in the West End.


19
Parade, Portland, ca. 1900

Parade, Portland, ca. 1900

Item 12526 info
Maine Historical Society

Some women opened lunchrooms or tea houses to cater to the large numbers of working women in downtown.

Lula Bowman opened a tea room in 1914, serving mostly women customers. Her Cumberland Tea Room was so popular that it sometimes attracted 100-200 patrons a day.

From then until the late 1950s, Bowman was a successful cook and restaurant operator at various locations, including Exchange Street, where she operated Bowman's Cafe starting in the late 1940s.


20
Park Avenue, Portland, ca. 1950

Park Avenue, Portland, ca. 1950

Item 12847 info
Maine Historical Society

Wage-earning women often faced challenging working conditions. The pay was low, the hours long. That fact did not go unnoticed.

The 1907 Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics report noted that, "The woman wage-earner of Portland is a person, and not merely a screw in a machine, as she would be in a larger city."

Yet, they concluded, "If some arrangement could be devised to leave a larger margin between the amount of wages received and the price paid for living expenses, the problem of the women wage-earners of Portland would be greatly simplified."


This Exhibit Contains 20 Items
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