The Lost History of Female Business Owners in the 19th Century

In this episode, we talk with Alexi Garrett about her efforts to uncover the lost history of female business owners in the nineteenth century. At a time when married women’s property and income passed to their husbands, some single and widowed women were able to carve out economic niches for themselves, even becoming heads of major industrial concerns. But these women had to tread the fine line of gender roles as well, and often emphasized their femininity over their business acumen.

Garrett tells the story of Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens, who, through inheritance, marriage, and widowhood became the head of the Lukens Steel Company in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1825. She walks us through the documents she found in the company’s records at Hagley, helping us understand why Lukens focused on romance and marriage in her autobiographical memoir, and how Lukens’s social status growing up allowed her to escape the prospect of indentured servitude that girls from poorer backgrounds faced.


Banner image: Lukens rolling mills, Hagley Digital Archives. Inset image: Rebecca Lukens, Hagley Digital Archives.

Alexi Garrett is a Ph.D. candidate with the University of Virginia. Find her on Twitter @AlexiGarrett.