Women as Helpmeets
The traditional role of the wife in the English household was as a friend and partner, albeit a junior partner, of her husband. Some tasks, such as running the household, doing the shopping and bringing up young children were more the function of the wife; others, such as running the family business, were more the
function of the husband, but this did not mean that the wife should not play an important part in the business side of family life. One reason that Defoe opposed the marriage of young tradesmen was that their savings would be so small that their wives would be forced to do the housework, as they would not be able to afford servants, and so would not have time to learn the business and help in the shop. This was the place for the wife of a shopkeeper, not upstairs dispensing tea to her friends or gadding around town turning over the stock of other shopkeepers.
Most authors who wrote on this subject emphasized that women should learn their husband's business not simply to provide assistance on a day-to-day basis but also so that they could take over in such regularly occurring situations as his visits to the fairs and country traders or in emergencies, such as a husband's illness or flight for debt. The greatest emergency was the husband's death. As already mentioned, the widows of Londoners could be in an enviably independent legal and financial situation. However, none of this was likely to be enjoyed if the woman was ignorant not just of her husband's business but of business in general, since there were plenty of people around who would be only too happy to take advantage of a widow's ignorance.
Defoe repeatedly stressed this point in his chapter on the role of the wife in business in the Complete English Tradesman, where he points out that women who do not understand business are frequently cheated as widows, find it difficult to recover their husband's debts, cannot get a good price for the goodwill of the business and, far from being able to maintain their former pretensions of gentility, are reduced to beggary. Other writers echoed Defoe, the lengthy subtitle of Advice to the Women and Maidens of London giving the advice away by saying that, instead of learning needlework, lace and pointmaking, women should 'apply themselves to the right understanding and practice of the method of keeping books of accompts, whereby either single or married, they may know their estates, carry on their trades, and avoid the danger of a helpless and forlorn condition, incident to widows'.
Very few girls did learn book-keeping, or anything else which might have helped them fulfil their role as the partner of a
businessman. The provision of education for girls certainly improved in the seventeenth century, and so did their general standard of literacy, but the emphasis for middling girls was on acquiring social graces, domestic skills and perhaps a smattering of French. Girls of this class married quite young and most would probably still be living at home when they got married, so they were devoid of independent work experience and their knowledge of business would depend on how much responsibility or instruction they had been given by their parents. Girls of a rather lower class tended to leave home earlier and marry later. In the meantime, they would have had work experience, but this was unlikely to be particularly relevant to the understanding of business. Much the commonest employment of girls before marriage was domestic service, good experience for a future housekeeper but not of much value for the junior partner of a businessman. Few girls in London were apprenticed to trades and those that were tended to be concentrated in a few 'feminine' occupations such as millinery, mantua-making, lace-making, various branches of the silk industry and some shopkeeping trades. Such girls tended to be poor and remain poor as married women, though some were able to set up as independent businesswomen, as will be seen in the next section. However, the great majority of girls destined to become wives of London businessmen, especially those who were at least moderately well off, had virtually no experience or knowledge of business except what they might have picked up from their parents or brothers. If they were to be of use as business partners, it was up to their husbands to train them to their new responsibilities.
It would certainly be worth the while of husbands to do this, for, quite apart from learning the business as an insurance against widowhood, there was an important role for women to play in many of the businesses that have been discussed. The wives of tavern-keepers, innkeepers or coffee-house-keepers played a fundamental part in attracting and serving customers, and all these catering businesses had a role for daughters to play as well. The same was true of most shops, particularly those which dealt in textiles, clothing, small-wares and food. 'Not one grocer in twenty employs a regular bred journeyman,'
wrote Campbell. 'Their wives, daughters, and perhaps a servant-maid does all the business of the shop." The manual side of manufacturing was much more dominated by men, but selling goods from the front of the workshop, supervising journeymen and apprentices, and buying raw materials might well be the job of the master's wife, while in some industries, particularly in textile manufacture, it was absolutely normal for the wife and daughters to work alongside the master. It might be rather more surprising to find women working in the realm of 'big business', in a merchant's counting-house, a wholesaler's warehouse or a bank, but it was in just these types of business that writers thought that wives should make the greatest effort, learn the business, study accounting and work as the book-keeper and close partner of their husbands in preparation for the possibilities of widowhood.
There was, then, a wide range of occupations where a sensible master might have been expected to employ his wife and daughters, if only to save himself paying wages to someone else, and where a sensible wife would insist on being admitted to all the secrets of the business. However, it is the thesis of Alice Clark, one of the pioneers of the study of women's work in this country, that such expectations were increasingly not being fulfilled in the course of the seventeenth century. She found this to be a period when the concept that women should be 'kept' by men was growing, as wives became either unpaid domestic servants or, if their husbands were rich enough, decorative ornaments. She explained this fundamental change in the life experience of women by the rise of 'Capitalism', a stage of economic development which still warranted a capital letter when she published her book in 1919. Capitalism led to an increase in the scale of business, with the result that fewer journeymen could afford to set up in business for themselves and so had to leave home each day to work on a master's premises where there was no place for their wives to work. Capitalism also made the capitalists richer and placed them in a position where they could not only afford to have an idle wife but would positively want one as a sign of their rise in the world and a recognition of their newly genteel status—idleness and gentility being closely connected in the English mind.
A steady stream of social comment certainly suggests that
good sense was indeed giving way to vanity and extravagance, producing a new breed of idle middle-class women whose husbands and fathers did not make them work. They preferred to see them as the means of displaying their own economic success, thus foreshadowing those very negative attitudes towards women's work which are often seen as a product of the social ethos of Victorian times. As has been mentioned, daughters were in fact educated in needlework and French and not in accounting and, when they were married, they continued to engage in purely decorative activities rather than playing their part in the business. 'The tradesman is foolishly vain of making his wife a gentlewoman, forsooth,' complained Defoe. 'He will ever have her sit above in the parlour, and receive visits, and drink tea, and entertain her neighbours, or take a coach and go abroad; but as to the business, she shall not stoop to touch it.'
Some writers suggested that women disliked this new idleness and wished that their husbands would treat them as something more than ornaments. Lucinda in Bernard de Mandeville's The Virgin Unmask'd of 1709 rebuked her niece, who praised the respectful and tender way in which Englishmen treated their wives. "Tis that respect and tenderness I hate, when it consists only in outward show. In Holland women sit in their counting houses and do business, or at least are acquainted with everything their husbands do.' Holland was the Japan of the day, the place where critical Englishmen looked for evidence of excellence with which to berate their fellow-countrymen, and Sir Josiah Child also made this distinction between the wives of Englishmen and Dutchmen. In Holland, both boys and girls studied accounting and arithmetic, and showed 'not only an ability for commerce of all kinds, but a strong aptitude, love and delight in it; and in regard the women are as knowing therein as the men, it doth incourage their husbands to hold on in their trades to their dying days, knowing the capacity of their wives to get in their estates, and carry on their trades after their deaths'. In England, on the other hand, the family was likely to lose one-third of the deceased businessman's estate, 'through the unexperience and unaptness of his wife to such affairs'.
However, Defoe's Roxana suggests that, by the 1720s, even frugal and sensible Dutchmen were beginning to treat their wives like the frivolous English, Roxana complaining of the 'life
of perfect indolence' which she would live if she married her Dutch merchant. 'The woman had nothing to do, but to eat the fat, and drink the sweet; to sit still, and look round her; be waited on, and made much of.' But such examples of English women complaining of their leisure are rare in the literature of the time. Most writers, admittedly nearly all men, were scathing in their criticism of the mindless pleasure in which middle-class women indulged and the vices to which this led. They castigated them for the endless visits in which idle woman chatted to idle woman, the hours spent in scandal and gossip at the tea-table, the masquerade and the assembly-room, for going to bed late and getting up late, for gambling at backgammon and basset, for window-shopping, extravagance and for their general silliness.
What is one to make of all this comment, much of which suggests that the idle woman is a new phenomenon and one little known in earlier times? Social comment is not necessarily true but, when there is so much of it pointing in the same direction, the historian is bound to take notice. There is also much circumstantial evidence which suggests that there may well indeed have been a growth in the number of idle and frivolous women. Who bought all those silk fabrics being turned out by the rapidly expanding Spitalfields industry and had them made up into garments which were certainly not designed for working? Who sat in all those comfortably upholstered and attractively covered chairs and sofas which will be discovered when the undoubted improvements in domestic comfort are looked at in Chapter 10? Who peered at themselves in the larger and larger mirrors which appear in middle-class homes? Who went to the masquerades, the assemblies and the tea-parties? Who had the time to read the translations of French romances, the play-books, the periodicals and later the novels which were poured out by English publishers for a predominantly female reading public? Much of the demand for all this extravagance and frivolity did of course come from the wives and daughters of the gentry and near gentry of the West End, people who had been idle and frivolous for a long time, but there was just too much feminine luxury around for them to have absorbed it all. There does seem to be little doubt that many citizen's wives had translated their pretensions to gentility into a fairly reckless
round of pleasure which, if not quite genteel, at least appealed to them more than sitting in a shop.
All this does not mean that women completely deserted business. Some of London's business continued to be run independently by women, as will be seen in the next section, and some women continued to be helpmeets in their husband's businesses. There does, however, seem to be a prima facie case for a decline in this role. It is difficult, for instance, to find women of this class playing much part in their husbands' businesses from the many vignettes of everyday life which provide such an important source for social history. The records of the Mayor's Court, which were used extensively for the chapter on apprenticeship, have masses of depositions describing the ordinary situations in which an apprentice might find himself in his master's household. One meets many master's wives in these depositions but one nearly always meets them in their role as housekeeper, maybe bullying an apprentice into doing housework, maybe looking after him when sick or locking up the food and drink. It is rare to find the mistress of the house working behind the counter or keeping the books, the roles which contemporaries thought that they should perform.
Vignettes provide attractive source material, but are difficult to quantify, and alternative methods of analysis are hard to find. However, it is the impression of this author that Alice Clark and the social commentators of the day were more or less right and that the majority of middle-class wives played little or no part in the running of their husbands' businesses, especially if those husbands were reasonably well off. However, this did not mean that there was no role at all for women in the London business world.