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Capital Intentions

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

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  • Book Info
    Capital Intentions
    Book Description:

    Late nineteenth-century San Francisco was an ethnically diverse but male-dominated society bustling from a rowdy gold rush, earthquakes, and explosive economic growth. Within this booming marketplace, some women stepped beyond their roles as wives, caregivers, and homemakers to start businesses that combined family concerns with money-making activities. Edith Sparks traces the experiences of these women entrepreneurs, exploring who they were, why they started businesses, how they attracted customers and managed finances, and how they dealt with failure.Using a unique sample of bankruptcy records, credit reports, advertisements, city directories, census reports, and other sources, Sparks argues that women were competitive, economic actors, strategizing how best to capitalize on their skills in the marketplace. Their boardinghouses, restaurants, saloons, beauty shops, laundries, and clothing stores dotted the city's landscape. By the early twentieth century, however, technological advances, new preferences for name-brand goods, and competition from large-scale retailers constricted opportunities for women entrepreneurs at the same time that new opportunities for women with families drew them into other occupations. Sparks's analysis demonstrates that these businesswomen were intimately tied to the fortunes of the city over its first seventy years.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0247-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. 1-21)

    For most Americans today, the word “businesswoman” brings to mind women who have enjoyed spectacular success in big business corporations. Of course, it is only recently that such female success stories have emerged from what remains a male-dominated business world. Yet female corporate executives are minorities not only in the world in which they circulate, but also in the overall population of businesswomen today. Unlike the female executives we read about in today’s business newspapers, most businesswomen operate small-scale enterprises that promise only modest success, if any at all. Limiting our definition of businesswomen to corporate icons, therefore, obscures the...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Female Proprietors and the Businesses They Started
    (pp. 22-55)

    In 1888 Mrs. Ann Hudson’s clothing store, on Market Street at Seventh, was situated to draw attention from the San Francisco men who attended functions at the Odd Fellows building on the adjacent block. Any of the working-class men who dominated the club’s membership likely found the location convenient, since so many must have walked by it on the way to meetings and social functions at the Odd Fellows hall. Yet while Hudson’s prominent sign and window display no doubt caught the attention of pedestrians passing by, the store did not stand out. Nestled between a millinery store, window shade...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Why San Francisco Women Started Businesses
    (pp. 56-82)

    The stereotypical entrepreneur was motivated by a desire for riches and independence. But for businesswomen in San Francisco between 1850 and 1920, such dreams provided only brief inducement. Gold, the dust that inspired a worldwide migration to northern California, pulled women into proprietorship during the first decade of statehood. Yet gold’s lure was shortlived and, after 1860, women in search of a stable income sought it in morepredictable realms.

    For those singlewomen pursuing economic independence, proprietorship continued to be an attractive option, but one that required calculated risk and no promise of a steady income. Comparatively few single women were...

  7. CHAPTER 3 How Women Started Businesses
    (pp. 83-114)

    Once San Francisco women seized on proprietorship as a way to overcome the economic, legal, and personal restrictions that limited their employment choices, they faced the daunting task of getting their businesses started. This too was a test of a woman’s capital intentions. For what start-up strategy she adopted might determine whether or not her enterprise took off at all. Such a decision involved careful consideration of the risks and requirements of each approach. Because female proprietors had few other income options to turn to, prudence was necessary every step of the way.

    Easy access to credit during the flush...

  8. CHAPTER 4 What It Took to Draw Customers
    (pp. 115-147)

    Starting their businesses was only the first of several hurdles that San Francisco businesswomen confronted at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The next challenge was to attract customers or, in the popular parlance of the day, to draw “a share of public patronage.”

    At first, doing so was relatively simple. In the 1850s, women in San Francisco enjoyed automatic appeal amongmale customers eager to lay their eyes on a woman. Whatever service she provided—whether it was cooking, laundering, or selling provisions—was inherently valuable in the society of single and unattached men who...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Women as Financial Managers
    (pp. 148-182)

    “Do a good job and the profits will take care of themselves.” According to her son Grover, this was the philosophy of Mary Ann Magnin, founder of the elegant San Francisco–based department store, I. Magnin.¹ The formula seems to have worked, since the retail chain eventually opened stores in thirty different locations and maintained a reputation as the West’s premier retailer until it was closed in 1995 more than one hundred years after its founding.² And yet, even Grover admitted that with this approach the company was “not run like a business” but was “more of a hobby.”³ Awash...

  10. CHAPTER 6 When Women Went Out of Business
    (pp. 183-202)

    Although most female proprietors entered the world of business poorly prepared to take on the complicated job of financial management, the marketplace did not wait for them to catch up. Not only were they hurled into a frenzy of daily financial decisions, but many also faced the caprice of business ownership head-on when calamity struck and their fortunes took a turn for the worse. Economic depressions, fire, illness, and earthquakes were regular occurrences for proprietors in San Francisco. Such catastrophes complicated the already treacherous dependencies between business owners, their creditors, and customers discussed in the previous chapter, often causing women’s...

    (pp. 203-208)

    Capital intentions steered San Francisco’s female proprietors through the vagaries of small-business ownership between 1850 and 1920. This is not to say that women operated their businesses unhampered. In fact, women’s choices as female proprietors, from start to end, were shaped by legal, economic, and family restrictions, sometimes in ways that distinguished these women from their male counterparts, who were often freer in their commercial maneuvers. Yet within the confines of these boundaries, women business owners displayed sensitivity to market forces. This was as true in their decisiontostart a business as it was inhowthey started and...

  12. APPENDIX 1: Note on Sources
    (pp. 209-212)
  13. APPENDIX 2: Figures and Tables
    (pp. 213-228)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 229-296)
    (pp. 297-312)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 313-329)