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Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920

Author(s):Sparks, Edith
Reviewer(s):Nickless, Pamela J.

Published by EH.NET (March 2007)

Edith Sparks, Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xv + 329 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-5775-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela J. Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina-Asheville.

In all likelihood, everyone reading this book review is the customer of a small proprietor. Particularly in largish cities, small proprietors abound ? coffee carts, lunch carts, neighborhood groceries, alteration shops, nail shops, hairdressers and barbers. Edith Sparks’ Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors on San Francisco, 1850-1920 begins her story by reminding us of the small businesses serving our daily needs. As she points out, when we notice the women, men and families who run these small, often tiny, businesses it is as human interest stories not as businesspeople. It is her contention that female proprietors in San Francisco’s past were also quite common and overlooked.

Sparks’ work joins a growing body of literature on nineteenth and early twentieth century businesswomen. Like Gamber, Lewis and others [1], she uses the R. G. Dun and Company records, city directories, the published census and newspapers to seek out information on women running businesses. She has also laboriously collected information from the Bankruptcy Case Files for northern California for 96 businesswomen who declared bankruptcy. The information from these records includes a wealth of details including information about creditors, inventories, amount of debt and occasionally testimony from court cases. Anyone who has worked with archival data that is not indexed will appreciate the amount of time and frustration involved. Consequently, the best part of this work is the chapters on women as financial managers and women whose businesses failed.

Sparks frames her analysis with the assertion that women proprietors had “capital intentions.” By this she means that while females in business were usually providing services that were within the domestic sphere, they had made a commercial decision in choosing what services or goods to offer. They intended to profit and they intended to provide a marketable commodity. For most women, this was a good or service that was “domestic” in nature. San Francisco in the early days suffered a lack of women. Indeed, the gender imbalance in population was pronounced for most of this period. (The male/female ratio was 158/100 in 1860, declining to 117/100 in 1900.) This gave women an edge in the hospitality industry where a woman providing food or shelter was often seen as superior. Women in San Francisco would continue to work in this sector in proportions larger than other U. S. cities.

The text is organized thematically. The first chapter is an overview of San Francisco female proprietors. Using census data from six other U.S. cities, Sparks argues that San Francisco was unique in some respects such as the ethnic make-up of women proprietors. In other respects, such as the concentration of women in jobs considered feminine, the city was similar. Like other cities, the number of female (and male) small proprietors declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sparks finds that in San Francisco the new opportunities for women in clerical work as well as the competition from name-brands and large retailers explain this decline.

Each succeeding chapter looks at an element of women’s businesses: why women went into business, how women went into business, how they attracted customers and finally, women as financial managers and women who failed. The thematic approach is at first distracting, each chapter seems to repeat gold rush stories, but the last three chapters are quite good and make use of a small database effectively.

In particular, Sparks has collected information from the R. G. Dun and Company records on a comparable group of San Francisco businessmen and is able to compare women and men. She finds that the experiences of men and women who ran small businesses were not all that different. Her discussion is interesting and nuanced bringing into sharp relief what is one of the core problems in studying women (or men) who run small enterprises.[2] To put it simply, what do we mean by being “in business?” Is the owner of a tiny enterprise using entirely her own labor and her own money “in business?” What is the distinction between self-employment and running a business? Are both terms too grand for women who are working every waking hour at sewing (or baking or cleaning or performing any of the myriad tasks of their business)? Many of the women and men Sparks examines were in business because it was the only way they could earn a living. Particularly for women with domestic responsibilities, a small business that could be run at home (or in the case of a boarding house is home) had obvious attractions. Without other opportunities and access to education and training, a business may be a last resort.

The bankruptcy records, where Sparks’s data are for women only, also highlight the problems for small business owners where illness, fire, recession or earthquake could bring down the house of cards. The bankruptcy records cover the years 1872-1920 (not inclusive) and the experience of the female proprietors seems to echo that of their male counterparts. Nothing is as certain as failure for small businesses. When combined with the Dun records, it seems clear that both men and women who failed often tried again. Sparks argues that some persevered out of gumption or tenacity; others simply had no alternative but to try again. The bankruptcy records also highlight the challenges women faced as the financial management of a business became more complex. It is likely that with the exception of some ethnic groups women were less educated than men in financial matters.

This is a fine study and a nice addition to the continuing work on female proprietors. The bankruptcy records provide the first substantive information on women as financial managers and Sparks’s use of the Dun records to study both women and men in San Francisco is intriguing. I wish she had collected a more inclusive sample of San Francisco businessmen but time is short and the Dun records do not readily lend themselves to scientific sampling. I also found myself wondering if we could learn about the typical by studying the atypical bankrupt business. But with female proprietors the variety is so great; it is hard to know what is typical. In short, those who are interested in the history of small business in the U.S. should read this book.


1. See Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Susan Ingalls Lewis, “Women in the Market Place: Female Entrepreneurship, Business Patterns, and Working Families in Mid-Nineteenth Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885,” Ph.D dissertation, SUNY Binghamton, 2002.

2. On this point see Susan Ingalls Lewis, “Business or Labor? Blurred Boundaries in the Careers of Self-Employed Needlewomen in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany” in Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Beth Harris, (Ashgate, 2005).

Pamela J. Nickless recently published “Scarlett’s Sisters: Spinsters, Widows, Wives, and Free-Traders in Nineteenth Century North Carolina,” Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Beth Harris (Ashgate, 2005) and has recently started a study on nineteenth-century female proprietors in Charleston, SC.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII