Marriage, money and the wolf at the door
Think life is rough today? For 19th-century Chico women, financial security was hard to find and easy to lose
Mrs. Oscar Stansbury didn’t appreciate it when women of a certain profession appeared on the street outside her stately home at Fifth and Salem streets, as they sometimes did, but there was little she could do about it. Prostitution was a fact of life in the Chico of 125 years ago, as it is today, but in a town of only 4,000 people, many of them single men, it was far more visible.
That was one of many fascinating tidbits that local historian Michele Shover offered Sunday afternoon (March 25) in a talk titled “Women and Money in 19th-Century Chico” at the Chico Museum. Shover, who recently retired after 38 years as a political-science professor and department chairwoman at Chico State University, is the author of numerous articles on local history, many of them collected in her 2005 book, Exploring Chico’s Past … and Other Essays.
It was easy for Mrs. Stansbury, the wife of a prominent doctor, to recognize the women as prostitutes, Shover explained. For one thing, they were, “in a sense, the most expensively dressed women in town.” Clothing was handmade then, and local dressmakers would “meet them privately” to take measurements, so as not to scandalize more reputable customers. In addition, prostitutes wore makeup at a time when no other women did so.
Prostitutes made more money than other employed women in Chico. “No other work even approached what prostitution provided,” Shover said. Most of the women who turned to the profession did so because they had no choice. Some were widows of poor men, other were fleeing abusive marriages. Married young, they had little education and no skills at a time when society held working women in low regard and offered them few opportunities.
A woman’s choice of husband was the single most important decision of her life by far, Shover said. Once married, a woman was utterly dependent on her husband. He made the money and owned the property, and society frowned on her working outside the home. If she was lucky enough to marry a man she loved who could provide for her and their children, and if he didn’t get sick or die, she’d obtained the apex of success for women of her era. Often, unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.
For the town’s poor single women, who took grueling jobs as domestics or seamstresses to survive and were often mistreated, “their rescue was marriage,” Shover said. Chico was “packed full” of poor single men, and many women married them and “wrestled through life together.”
Many were good men who worked hard, but injuries were common. She mentioned one man who was impaled by a pitchfork, another who fell into some harvesting blades. Malaria was common, too, and even more so tuberculosis, and both rendered many men unable to work. Their wives had to carry on somehow.
Then there were the men who were plain no good—lazy, alcoholic and abusive. As long as a wife didn’t die, her husband’s physical abuse “wasn’t a public matter,” Shover said. She mentioned one case where neighbors heard a man, a freight wagon driver, beating his wife with a blacksnake whip. They did nothing at the time but later took out a notice in the paper saying they were aware of his behavior.
Booze was trouble then as now. “Chico has always had a problem with alcohol,” Shover said, chuckling. Liquor’s effect on families was well understood, which is why temperance was such a serious concern at the time.
A few women divorced, but in doing so they gave up their rights to their children, which is “why there were a lot of long marriages that were continuing tragedies.”
Few women were independently wealthy, and these usually were widows of successful men, Annie Bidwell being the most famous. Shover also mentioned Ardenia Morehead, widow of a prosperous westside landowner, who “became one of the most astute business people in the area, bar none” and was one of the few women in town who were “completely secure on their own terms.”
Another was Sydnia Jones, née McIntosh, the widow of a man who owned a large general store and hardware. Not only did she become a prominent social figure, she also sent all her daughters to Mills Seminary (now College) and her son to Yale while paying close attention to her businesses.
There were a few professional women in town, the most noteworthy being Ella Gatchell, a physician. Another was Marie Woodman, who with her husband owned the Chico Academy, a private high school attended by the offspring of the well-to-do. Teaching was the “pre-eminent job for women,” Shover explained.
These women were the elite. Below them on the social ladder came the women who worked as milliners and dressmakers and those who operated boarding houses, all respectable occupations. Fashion at the time “was an incredible drill” that changed every season, and women who had the means to do so “really showed up well on the social scene.” And boarding home operators provided a valuable service—a home, really—to the town’s many single men.
At the lowest rung, aside from the prostitutes, were the service workers—waitresses, domestic workers and laundresses. Because waitresses served men, the job was considered slightly disreputable, and domestic workers and laundresses faced stiff competition from the town’s many Chinese, who often did better work for less money.
“The Chinese were so important in Chico homes that there were two generations of Chico women who never went in the kitchen,” Shover said.
Finally, Shover mentioned that there were a few married women who worked part-time to supplement the family’s income or make some pin money. They had to be discreet, however, as this was frowned upon. The most common were farm wives who sold their extra chickens and eggs, but Shover also mentioned a police officer’s wife who gave voice lessons, a pastor’s wife who taught painting and another woman who taught French.
Like their counterparts today, 19th-century Chico women worried about money, but their options for obtaining it were severely limited. Only a few enjoyed independent financial security, and the threat of being thrust into poverty was omnipresent. Understanding the challenges they faced, Shover suggested, enables today’s women to appreciate the rights and freedoms they have obtained.
Shover’s interest in local history began in 1976, when she purchased and began restoring the Little Chapman Mansion on 12th Street. Research into the home’s history sparked an interest in Chico’s past that has led to a wealth of articles and established her as one of Chico’s premier local historians. For nearly a decade she has been working on a history of Indian-settler relations in Chico and Butte County from 1850 to about 1867. She said she expects to publish it in a couple of years.
Her Chico Museum talk was sponsored by Las Señoras, an auxiliary of the Chico Chamber of Commerce.