Summer Series – “How much did a milliner make?”

This is a harder question than it seems on the surface. A woman may take many roles from an assistant to an employed milliner to a millinery shop owner. Each of these roles could take place in a larger or smaller shop, in a large city, small city, or small town. 

Skill level and shop sales were factors as well.  In the agreement between Newman and Stout, Emma would initially be paid $8 per week. A clause was included that if after 6 months “if business is good”, her pay would increase to $9 per week. (The full document, with notes is available to Patrons in Patreon.)

There are a few resources that help us understand what a milliner made.  Virginia Penny breaks down many of the rolls within the millinery industry in her book The Employments of Women. Penny looks at their pay as well as the training needed and some of the negative ramifications of some roles such as influence on health. This excerpt shows that overall some women in the role of milliner could make more than those making many other items. but the details show a wide range of income:

Looking at her more detailed sections, Penny breaks down her findings by city and type of job. Millinery shop assistants, who she calls “girls” are noted as being paid between $2.50 and $6 per week in Philidelphia in 1853. These are the young women who decorated bonnets and hats. In New York City, a shop owner would pay “first class workwomen” between $6 and $7 per week. Sales women in larger urban shops are said to have been paid $1 per day (Philadelphia, 1853.)

The workday would be long by our 21st century standards. This was true for both larger, urban millinery shops and smaller goods shops. Some passages I’ve read talk about work days starting before dawn, being fed quickly at the shop, and working until mid-night from Monday through Saturday. Penny accounts as slightly shorter day:

I called in a small store of dry and fancy goods, with which was connected a millinery. The young lady waited on customers, and in the intervals trimmed bonnets for the store. She received $1 a day, and is at the store by half past seven, and leaves at nine at night.”

It is important to understand the millinery industry was a seasonal one. Shop assistants were often employed for the spring and fall seasons with the work hours running from dawn to past nightfall during the busy times and minimal to no work during the off seasons.


I would be remiss if I did not include this particular passage of Penny’s. She is discussing the work and living conditions in New York City, including how they vary. She notes “On the back streets and avenues in New York, women work longer, and the stores are kept open later than on Broadway. On Division street, large cases of bonnets are exposed for sale in summer on the sidewalks. In the poorer portions of a city, people live much and sell mostly out of doors. Their crowded apartments and the high price of rent account for it.” Her observations differ from this shop owner:

“He [D., on Broadway] says his girls spend all they make on dress. He has two forewomen, to each of whom he pays $500 a year. They never save a cent. He had one to whom he paid $1,000, but she never aid by a dollar. Women, he thinks, have not as much originality of thought as men. They seldom invent. He would give $1.000 a year to a woman who would think for him, and originate styles, and combine and arrage the trimmings of his bonnets with taste. He walks Broadway, and studies the fashion of bonnets; but none of his women ever do. (Perhaps they have no time.) Women, he thinks, never acquire such proficiency as men. They advance to a certain degree in the art, and ever after are stationary. He thinks it is partly because they majority look forward to marrying, and partly because they are constituted that they are not susceptible of acquiring the highest decree of excellence. (I fear that D. does not consider that women have not had as much time nor so many opportunities for improving themselves as men, nor have they as much to stimulate them.) He pays women from $3 to $8 per week.”



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Published in: on June 13, 2022 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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