Iron Women

Morgan Backenstoss

The Lehigh Valley charcoal-based iron industry was almost exclusively male run and worked. This industry was instrumental in defining the social and economic lives of its workers and the general population of the Lehigh Valley. However, the lives of women are often not counted in this narrative. During the nineteenth century, women of the Lehigh Valley were simply referred to as “Keeping House” or “House Keeper” within United States Census data. Despite this, women connected to the iron industry led complex lives that differed greatly from each other. In conducting my work, I primarily utilized United States Census data from Washington Township, East Penn Township, and Heidelberg Township. I also utilized maps, newspapers, and other historical texts.

Industrialization within America occurred simultaneously with the emergence of the middle class. The nineteenth century in America also marked changing ideals involving what it meant to be a woman and wife. Because of the impact of industrialization, labor patterns changed and family structures were modified. This was especially true of the middle class. The ideal of opposing spheres of influence emerged in which, women were expected to care for the home while men were the sole provider (Johansen 2014; 28). Women within the middle class were expected to entertain guests, care for children, and maintain the home. Whereas land previously would have been the marker of a “real” man, masculinity now had to be enacted through actions and behaviors in public and control over finances because working-class families would live in the city or in industrial complexes (Cherlin 2014; 30-32). This caused a fundamental shift in family structure, where the man would work away from the home rather than with his family on his own land. Eric Larsen(1994) notes that during the 19th century, “Women were literally left each day with the task-oriented maintenance of the home while men went out to time-oriented jobs”(75).

Women’s lives in the Lehigh Valley were directly affected by the ways in which they were connected to the iron industry and the effect the iron industry had on household structure. I utilized census data from 1860, 1870, and 1880 in order to find the average size of households during these periods. The graph in Figure 1 shows the average household size across all census years. It compares the household size of the general population and the iron industry population. The graph further illustrates the difference between classes working within the iron industry between the upper management or owners of the furnaces and the colliers (charcoal-burners). The sample size of the general population was 2420 households. There were a total of 63 households within the iron industry. Of the iron workers fourteen households were colliers while six fell into the management category.

Figure 1. This graph illustrates the average household sizes of various classes and occupation groups within the Lehigh Valley

As demonstrated in figure 1, workers in the iron industry had larger household sizes and comparatively colliers had larger average household size than management. One possible explanation of this is the presence of boarders in working class households. Frequently, working class families during this period would take on boarders in order to cover costs. According to census data, many boarders shared similar occupations with the head of household in which they were boarding. In contrast, wealthier families in the iron industry profession had live-in help, primarily in the form of female maids or housekeepers, or no boarders at all. This interaction with shared living would have impacted the way in which working class people may have interacted on a daily basis. Archaeologist Paul Shackel notes that boardinghouses, and subsequently tenements, often had unequal access to sanitation and water which led to reinforced class differences (2011; 43). These lived realities and increased class divisions led to a discounting of the working class as other and privileged the ability of wealthier classes to own their own home. These class differences reflected in understandings of family structure which further privileged living with family, through blood and marriage, over living with “strangers” in a communal setting, whether by taking on boarders or living within a tenement. It is known from historical documents that the Balliets constructed at least 11 tenement buildings which would have been used to house workers and their families (Mathew and Hungerford 1884: 722). While I was not able to conclusively locate these tenements within census data, the existence of tenements within the area could have affected the understandings of the ideal family structure. While middle-class families started to idealize what is now referred to as the nuclear family, working class families were more likely to experience communal living. Women involved in the iron industry would have been exposed to overall ideals of family structure that were prevalent in the United States at the time. Simultaneously, the lived experiences of working class women within the iron industry challenge the narrative of these ideals surrounding child care and what it meant to be a woman and wife caring for the family.

Figure 2. This chart shows the relative percentage of women (ages 18 and over) within each occupation category from the census data.

Within our sample, working class women bridged the spheres of both private(home) and public. As figure 3 shows, women within the Lehigh Valley were listed as holding many different occupations within census data. Though the largest percentage of women were listed as inside the home, women’s lived experiences were highly variable. Women held jobs within retail, labor, and many other trades and professions. Some of these include stone mason, carpenter, jailoress, and tailors. One example of this connected to the iron industry is the Peter family. Nathan Peter, the head of household, was a dry goods merchant. Many of his sons were employed within the iron industry, including a “worker in the foundry” and a “moulder.” His daughter, Isabella, was employed as an “Asst. clerk in store.” In this instance, the daughter occupied both the domestic and public sphere. The daughter occupied a domestic sphere by assisting in her family’s business. However, she also held an occupation that was predominantly male within the Lehigh Valley from 1860 to 1880. Within the census data there appear to be only seventeen other clerks, all of whom are male.

However, the second largest occupation area for women was as domestic servants, housekeepers, or maids. Working class women held positions within the households of owners/management in the iron industry and within wealthier households of the Lehigh Valley at large. Within Figure 3 is a map which showcases the households that contained housekeepers or domestic laborers and the households that contained boarders. Those shown on this map are only a small fraction of the household data gathered from our census data. However, these were the only households able to be located within the maps.

Figure 3. This map shows the relative locations of households that had housekeepers in red and households that had boarders in blue.

These housekeepers would form fictive kin ties with members of the management classes. Fictive kin ties act as relationships of caring that is not formed through blood or marriage. This was a common occurrence across the United States with many middle class women referring to housekeepers as family within journals or letters (Kruczek-Aaron 2002; 177). Understanding of the role of women and family within the iron industry is complicated by the roles of these women. Census data, newspaper articles, and marriage licenses show that in some cases these housekeepers became family members through marriage. John Balliet, the furnace owner, had relationships with two of his housekeepers and had children with each. His first relationship was with Elizabeth Dankel, who a newspaper article noted as living with his as his wife until 1874. He then began a relationship with Amanda Rehrig who he later married.

Though women within the charcoal-based iron industry were viewed on census data as relatively uniform as “Keeping House”, these women held different roles that depended on their connection to the iron industry. Women involved in the nineteenth century iron industry represent a rich tapestry of roles, many of which have been ignored by history. However, the lives of these women were woven into the fabric of the Lehigh Valley.



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