Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bovina in 1860 - What's With All Those Ladies?

150 years ago, the federal government conducted the decennial census of U.S. population. The results from Bovina were fairly typical for the area, but some interesting little tidbits caught my eye. Bovina's population in 1860 was 1240 people, occupying 220 dwellings. Bovina had 644 men and 596 women. The oldest person in Bovina that year was 86 year old Jennet Gordon, who was living with Alexander and Martha Gillie (if they were related, I cannot find how). Bovina also had 64 children aged one or less.

One bit of data collected included the person's 'profession.' The single most common profession recorded, as you may have guessed, was farmer. 185 men were reported as farmers. And yes, it was all men. No women were recorded as being farmers (though many of those 185 men listed as farmers were married and you can bet their wives were farmers, too). The second most common profession was a bit of a surprise to me. Bovina had 50 people listed as servants.

And the third most common was a real surprise - and a bit of a puzzle. Bovina had 22 women who were recorded as having 'Lady' as their profession. A list of these women is at the end of this post - one of these 22 ladies included Bovina's oldest resident, Jennet Gordon. As I went through the data, I found it slightly perplexing and maybe a bit quaint, but as I kept finding these ladies I did see a pattern. They always were the head of the household, which meant there was no man in that position. It dawned on me what I was seeing - these ladies were likely widows. After a bit more research, my hypotheses was proven - for the most part. Not all of these ladies were widows. I found one woman who was single (Hannah Halstead) and another whose husband was still living. Nancy Erkson was the head of her household in 1855 and 1860, but by 1865, her husband, Archibald, was back as the head of the household, as he had been in 1850. There could be quite a story there or just a matter of some sloppy census taking.

I was curious about the use of 'lady' in census records. I have not seen it in any other Bovina census rolls. Did it show up in other communities? A quick scan of 1860 census records from Delhi and Andes revealed no one labeled as 'lady.' What I did find were at least two examples in each town of a woman as head of the household and as a farmer. Not a lady in sight. This identification of lady as an occupation appears to have been somewhat unique to the 1860 Bovina census - though further research might find other towns using this term.

Most of these Bovina ladies likely were farmers - the census taker in Bovina just didn't want to call them that! Did he think he was being kind, or was he a male chauvinist pig? Was it an honor or a pejorative? Since this was 150 years ago, we really can't be sure of his motive, if any. Maybe he just misunderstood his instructions. I would like to think that these women would have been proud to be called farmers and would have preferred that to being called 'lady.'

Look for a future blog posting on some of the other things noted in the 1860 census.

And here are the names and ages of those 22 Bovina 'Ladies'

Adee, Harriet - 56
Douglas, Catharine A. - 64
Erkison, Nancy - 41
Gordon, Jennet - 86
Halsted, Hannah - 58
Hobbie, Sally E. - 50
Hogaboom, Elisabeth - 48
Johnston, Mary - 66
McCune, Catharine - 64
McFarlan, Elisabeth - 75
McKenzie, Margaret - 79
McNaught, Margery - 55
Pherdon, Charlotte - 60
Purdy, Anna - 68
Seacord, Ann - 38
Sloan, Jane - 63
Snooks, Mary - 47
Storie, Mary - 75
Thompson, Jennet - 40
Turnbull, Margaret - 35
Tuttle, Sarah - 64
White, Jane - 55

1 comment:

  1. What an intriguing post! It's interesting that, with one exception, all of these "ladies" were over 40 years of age. However, I think you're onto something when you note that all of them were heads of household. From what I understand, 19th-century Census takers weren't given extensive instruction and, as a result, there is wide variation in the amount and types of information captured on the Census forms. A grad student colleague who was using 19th-century Ohio census records found all kinds of interesting notes (e.g., "neighbor says is insane") on the enumeration forms for one town.

    I expect that most of the "ladies" would not have objected to the term; in fact some of them might have been pleased by it. Our ideas about gender weren't those of the 19th century, and things that seem outrageous to us seemed like the natural order of things to many people living back then. One of the things I was startled to discover when researching late 19th-early 20th century insane asylum workers was that all of them seem to have accepted that men would be paid more than women who had the same job titles and that managerial positions were off-limits to women. If anyone challenged or questioned this situation, there's no evidence of it in the documentary record.