Boston Department Store Workers: Female Employees of Women’s Voter Records

Of the 50,000 women who registered to vote in Boston in 1920, many worked in various occupations in the city’s department stores.

by Anna Boyles

Shopping Time, Washington Street, 1910

In the United States, women entered the workforce in increasing numbers throughout the 1900s. By 1920, however, only about twenty percent of women in the United States were employed outside the home. Retail businesses hired female workers, and department stores in downtown Boston employed large numbers of women to operate these huge establishments. Journalist and suffragist Rheta Childe Dorr observed in 1910 how essential female workers were to the operation of America’s department stores:

“Buy and sell, serve and be served, women. On each floor, in each aisle, at each counter, women. . . . Cleverly busy at the switchboards, the women. In the basement, buy and sell cheap summer dresses, women. Under the roof, keeping records, checking the accounts, taking care of all the complex accounting of a metropolitan department store, women. Behind most of the counters on all intermediate floors, women. At each checkout, at the counters of the packers, going back and forth with parcels and change, women in short skirts. . . . Simply a shifting mass of femininity, seeking and in a hurry, in the midst of which the occasional buyer, the employee and the supervisor seem lost and out of place.

After the turn of the 20th century, department stores dominated the malls of cities like Boston. The vast majority of people working in these companies were women. The Mary Eliza Project transcribers discovered a large number of women employed in Boston’s department stores listed in the General Register of Women Voters of 1920. These women served as countermaids, shop assistants, seamstresses, clerks, and elevator operators in a number of departments. downtown stores such as Jordan Marsh, Filene’s, RH Stearns and Gilchrist’s.

Excerpt from Ward 13 of the General Register of Women Voters showing women voters employed by the Jordan Marsh Company and Filene Company, 1920, Boston City Archives
Voting record of Josephine Bowen employed by Jordan Marsh Company and Filene Company, 1920, Boston City Archives
Excerpts from Ward 13 of the General Register of Women Voters showing women voters employed by the Jordan Marsh Company and Filene Company, 1920, Boston City Archives

According to Susan Porter Benson, male managers and supervisors worried about the capacity and effectiveness of the female sales force. They used to think that companies simply needed to staff store counters with attractive, polite women, who would act as cogs in the retail machine. Managers learned in the 1910s that retail workers needed certain knowledge and interpersonal skills to sell merchandise as efficiently as possible. The relatively low wages, long hours, and harsh working conditions offered by department stores discouraged middle-class, educated women from seeking work in the workshops. Department stores still seemed like a promising opportunity for working-class women, but black women were excluded from most available positions. Mobility within the company attracted many young women, but some reformers wondered how far it was possible to climb the ladder without a proper education.

Two unidentified students from the retail class that became the Prince School of Retailing pose in the boys' clothing department of the Filene & Sons Company in Boston, 1912, Courtesy of University Archives Simons.
Two unidentified students from the retail class that became the Prince School of Retailing pose in the boys’ clothing department of the Filene & Sons Company in Boston, 1912, Courtesy of University Archives Simons.

Lucinda W. Prince of Boston established a retail training school in the city in 1905. While serving as a social worker and executive at the Women’s Education and Industrial Union, Prince discovered the apathy that department store employees resented their poorly paid jobs. . She believed that with the right training, these women could become happier and more successful retail workers. A number of stores have partnered with the Prince’s School of Salesmanship to offer students positions in their stores. This model of hands-on, classroom experience proved successful, and Simmons College (now Simmons University) began offering Prince’s program to its students in 1920.

Unidentified student and instructor in a textile technology class with samples of textile fibers at the Prince School of Retailing, 1949, Courtesy of Simmons University Archives.
Unidentified student and instructor in a textile technology class with samples of textile fibers at the Prince School of Retailing, 1949, Courtesy of Simmons University Archives.

Those who graduated from this program entered the workforce with more expertise and more power to oversee and make decisions in Boston’s department stores and retail establishments. In the fall of 1920, many department store workers of all levels registered to vote in Boston. Electoral rolls documented this new and changing profession for women. Datasets from the Mary Eliza Project reveal the variety of occupations held by women in Boston during this time.

Read more:

  • What eight million women want by Rheta Childe Dorr
  • Women and the City: Gender, Space and Power in Boston, 1870-1920 by Sarah Deutsch
  • “The Cinderella of trades: managing the work of department store saleswomen, 1900-1940” in Review of company history by Susan Porter Benson
  • Education for work: the historical evolution of professional and distributive education in America by Arthur F. McClure, James Riley Chrisman and Perry Mock

Anna Boyles is a fourth-year undergraduate history student at Simmons University.