The formidable ‘foremothers’ of female entrepreneurship

Women were successful entrepreneurs in their own right far earlier than we thought, according to new research into the archives of London’s guilds. In unravelling the story of the Burney family (whose ranks include the novelist Fanny Burney), historian Amy Erickson paints a picture of powerful, independent women in the 18th century.

Trade card of Esther Burney. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, transferred from the library

The glass ceiling that prevents women getting to the top has a long history. The usual view of women’s role in Britain’s economy is that only recently have they been able to become successful entrepreneurs and to be financially independent. For most women in the 18th century, for example, the most significant economic choice is often seen as which man they would marry and be financially dependent on.

Research by historian Amy Erickson, published in the current issue of Eighteenth-Century Life, shows how inaccurate that picture is. She has discovered that women played a central role in London’s thriving trade in luxury items in the 18th century as both producers and merchants. Erickson’s research examines women in the workplace and in City of London businesses regulated by the guilds, many of which have left substantial archives.

Among the businesswomen whose stories Erickson has unravelled is that of the maternal family of the writer Frances (or Fanny) Burney (1752–1840) whose novels and plays earned her a small fortune. Burney’s writing, and her gossipy diaries, afford us precious glimpses of life in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Burney describes more working women than most 18th-century novelists, but nowhere does she mention fans, then the must-have accessory of the lady about town.

This omission is striking because Burney came from a family of fan-makers. Not just one but at least three generations of her maternal family (her maiden name was Sleepe) made and sold fans on London’s most fashionable shopping street. Erickson’s research reveals for the first time that Burney’s mother was a prosperous and independent businesswoman who contributed more to her growing household than did her musician husband Charles, whose stipend is likely to have been a fraction of her earnings.

Sleepe family locations, shown on detail from S. Parker, “Plan of the City of London, Westminster and Borough of Southwark (1720). London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, Collage record no. 30390

Perhaps, suggests Erickson, Burney’s omission of any reference to fan-making reflects the novelist’s wish to distance herself and her author father and siblings from manufacturing and commerce — and her desire to confirm her status as someone with a pedigree of gentility.

“The Burneys are a fascinating family story, and alert us to the many women running businesses in 18th-century London.”

Erickson unravels some of the puzzles surrounding Burney’s maternal family. By combing the archives of the City of London, Erickson reveals that Burney’s mother, Esther Sleepe, and two of her sisters were mistresses of their own businesses in Cheapside. Elaborately decorated trade cards show that the sisters each had a workshop and showroom in a district famed for its luxury goods.

“The fact that the Burneys are one of the best-studied English families of the 18th century, and no-one has noticed the evidence of the trade cards, and the guild register, suggests how unaccustomed we are to seeing women in the business world in this period,” comments Erickson.

“The Burneys are a fascinating family story, and alert us to the many women running businesses in 18th-century London. There were scores of fan-makers, hundreds of milliners, even a hundred female silversmiths. It’s time we knew more about them.”

Trade card of Mary and John Sansom, BM, Heal, 60.11. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The paucity of information about Burney’s maternal family stems from the interpretation of notes written by Charles about his first wife Esther’s parents (Sleepe) and their occupations. His notes are ambiguous and seem on quick reading to suggest that Esther’s father had a fan shop.

The City of London, where the Sleepes lived and worked, was the largest manufacturing centre in England at the time, regulated by powerful livery companies, or trade guilds. By cross referencing tax and guild records with trade cards, Erickson reveals that the fan shop mentioned was in fact Esther’s and not her father’s.

Tracing the Sleepe family, Erickson creates a snapshot of women entrepreneurs, skilled in handicrafts and wholesale and retail trade. She reveals that Burney’s mother Esther and her sisters and brother followed in their mother’s footsteps. Esther established her own business when she was just 22. Three years later she was running a household of nine or ten people — often in the absence of her sick husband who spent long periods away from home.

In genteel families men not women were responsible for finances. The story passed down is that Charles was sole supporter of a growing brood, Esther’s death at the age of 37 leaving him with six young children. But Erickson shows that when Charles, an apprentice musician when he and Esther married, secured the position of church organist some months later his stipend was £30. As the proprietor of a fan shop, Esther would have employed journeywomen each of whom would have earned at least £30 per annum — and her business would have generated many times that sum.

Trade card of Martha Sleepe, BM, Heal 60.13. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gentility was defined as not working for a living — and Burney’s mother, aunts and grandmother all worked. Yet in her memoir Burney represents her female relatives as gentlewomen. Perhaps she chose to forget about their involvement in trade. Or perhaps Burney’s insistence that her grandmother, who played a large part in her life after the death of her mother, was the perfect gentlewoman is a way of insisting that manners rather than birth dictate gentility.

If trade was demeaning, unmarried motherhood was much worse. Another fact airbrushed from family history was that Esther’s first child was born out of wedlock, several months before she married, and at a time when her beau had no income. Esther’s mother, suggests Erickson, would have known midwives who could take care of a delivery discreetly and perhaps neighbours were misled into thinking that the young couple were already married.

Families move up and down the social scale, and the social scale was changing in the 18th century. With the rise in newspapers, magazines and novels, it became possible to earn one’s living as a writer, and increasing numbers of both women and men did so, including Charles and Fanny Burney. But these working writers mingled with and sought patronage from those who were wealthy enough to write for amusement and this complicated the social status of writers.

In fashionable London, fan-makers and other luxury traders were a cut above other shop-keepers, and certainly wealthier than many writers. Their businesses brought them contacts with the gentry and aristocracy, and their earnings paid for their children’s education and advancement. Having married into a London trading family, Charles propelled himself and his children into the elite intellectual circle of Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame and diarist Hester Thrale, securing them a place in English literary history.

Careful curation of the family story played a key part in that upwardly mobile enterprise. Erickson concludes:“Eighteenth-century novelists, and the way that later generations read them, played a key role in obscuring the commercial activities of their foremothers.”

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