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Reviewed by:
  • The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, Home, and Household in London, 1800–1870
  • Judy K. Miler
Alison C. Kay. The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, Home, and Household in London, 1800–1870. New York: Routledge, 2009. xv + 185 pp. ISBN 0-415-43174-3, 978-0-415-43174, $130.00 (hardback).

This book would be of interest not only to those who want to have more knowledge of businesswomen's history, but also to material culturists, economists, sociologists, and others who are interested in women and their work. It provides thoughtful insight into the interrelatedness of the sociocultural and economic environment of the early nineteenth century and women's entrepreneurial businesses. Alison Kay presents compiled documental evidence regarding the types of businesses that a group of women managed and owned, using her data analysis to interpret and explore the connections between the studied women's work and their sociocultural worlds. The book presents a multidimensional perspective on an examination of the records of a sample of London's nineteenth-century female entrepreneurs.

The introduction to the book clearly explains and states the intent of the author, to examine female business from an entrepreneurial perspective, and summarizes the study that was the basis of the book. A chapter-by-chapter account focuses on the different aspects of the women entrepreneurs she has studied. A full chapter is dedicated to women in retail and the respectability of selling at the time studied. The last two chapters of the book summarize the findings of the study and clearly put the research in the historical context of female entrepreneurship.

The author presents a detailed documented research study based on evidence from insurance records, business accounts, census, and directories, along with other collections such as trade cards. The trade cards and insurance records used are thoroughly discussed, from the usage to the costs and types, and conclusions are drawn to aid the reader in comprehending how much the marketing and protection of business meant to the women of the study who held their own businesses. [End Page 200]

Although Kay suggests that the women studied in her research held occupations that were often domestically rooted, such as milliners and dressmakers, laundresses, and coffee house and inn keepers, there were many that chose to do nontraditional women's work, such as tobacconist and snuff makers, which were normally considered male occupations. The author also notes that the majority of women's businesses included in this study were retail based, both service and product oriented. This is not unusual today either, whether or not businesses are male- or female-owned and -run. Comparative discussion has also been made often between male and female entrepreneurs throughout the book.

This reviewer found a few minor shortcomings with the book. First, there is great detail in the compilation and explanation of numerical data in the body of the book, which bogged this reader down to some degree. The Appendices include compilation of data for reader's reference, so perhaps more could have been included from the body of the book. Second, some of the terms for the occupational titles have been used before they are defined. These are the reasons that seem to be reserving the clarity of the matter for only those who be familiar with these possibly outdated British titles such as "chandler" and "victuallers."

All in all, this reviewer believes that the book adds to the body of knowledge on Victorian women entrepreneurs. The study and analysis provide evidence of the varied types and range of work these women undertook, as well as critically examining the possible sociocultural reasons and ramifications of their work. Kay points out a number of matters, such as the underlying balance Victorian women of enterprise strove to obtain between "revenue and respectability" (127) for social acceptability. The author also discusses the motivation and goals of many of the women studied as related to their businesses. In addition, she aids in dispelling some common myths that have arisen over the years on women and work, such as the majority of women being in the needle trades. The shortcomings of coming to generality with the type of research undertaken is also pointed...


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pp. 200-201
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