Women at work

By Iris Nelson, Quincy Public LibraryThe focus of this section on “Women at Work” will feature those women who boldly pioneered new working arenas, most of which had habitually been in the male domain. Women have always worked–but they did not have the opportunity to educate themselves, establish professional identities, and broaden the female experience to work outside the acceptable social norm. Evolving beyond the roles to which women had historically been relegated, those of the nineteenth century distinguished themselves as artisans and merchants in the business arena, as well as in the professions of education, law, and medicine.

Profound change occurred during the 1800’s–a new social order was born. Changes in the political, social, and cultural environment in the United States affected the prevailing ideologies. The American Revolution sounded a permanent prominence to the ideals of liberty and equality. Men and women were increasingly unwilling to tolerate the political and social injustices. This spark, combined with the advances of the Industrial Revolution that lessened the burdens of domesticity, slowly affected the cultural landscape.

Before the Civil War women’s groups were social in orientation; after the war women’s groups took on broader issues including the rights of women. Additionally, educational institutions slowly became co-educational. Land-grant colleges and women’s institutions were established to encourage women to earn college degrees and seek different avocations without threatening the contemporary role. Many women became schoolteachers. In 1870, the U. S. Census Bureau reported over 30,000 female proprietors in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. By 1880 growing numbers of Illinois businesswomen were active artisans working as milliners, dressmakers, bakers, and photographers. As merchants, such as grocers and dry goods shopkeepers, women pursued and successfully operated business establishments. Midwestern women in amazing numbers marketed their acquired domestic skills and were remarkably active in commercial ventures.

By the 1870’s, advanced professional degrees were attainable at some institutions of higher education. The 1880 Illinois Census indicates that there were 9 women lawyers and 155 women physicians. Slowly and in small numbers, women began to earn degrees in medicine and law as well as other professions.

In this section, we honor these women of unique distinction who sought worlds beyond the grasp of previous generations. Given opportunity and a choice of careers, women shed their previous societal confines and vigorously contributed to the workplace. The dynamics of the workplace was altered forever.

Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld. “Her Own Boss: Businesswomen and Separate Spheres in the Midwest, 1850-1880.” Illinois Historical Journal. 80 (1987): 155- 176.

Nellie Kedzie Project

Click on an image to see a larger image.
Portrait of Nellie Sawyer Kedzie, 1901 polyscope photo
An early foods laboratory, 1930s. Cooking was one of the subjects taught to the small number of female students at the Domestic Science department, created in 1897, the number gradually increasing over the next few years. Most parents were reluctant to send their daughters to an institute of higher education were it not for the homemaking skills offered.
During the World Wars, students in the Home Economics Club becamse involved in fund-raising and leadership organizations. Women had a chance to leave the household and be exposed to female role models who had achieved success.
In food laboratories, many types of stoves were used: coal, gas, kerosene, and electric attachments, among others. A large stove was placed at one side of the room, and smaller individual stoves near a worktable for each student or for pairs.
A sewing classroom. Students were offered courses in Costume Design, Textiles and Laces, added in the early 1920s. Laundry was also taught, emphasizing the chemistry of hot and cold water, soaps, and removal of stains and oil.
Besides cooking, students learned the chemistry of food, food principles and classification, as well as food marketing. One of the courses’ prerequisites was Physics and Botany. Students spent 4-6 years to complete their major’s requirements.
The Home Economics department suffered most from the 1963 fire in Bradley Hall. Most of Lydia Bradley’s treasures that she had given to the Department were burned and lost. The Department was re-developed, new courses added to meet the requirements for the American Dietetic Association in 1967. Such courses included Nutrition, Diet and Disease, and Consumer Education.
Dorothy Holmes, great grand-niece of Lydia Moss Bradley, weaving on the loom in the Home Economics department at the Bradley Polytechnic Institute, in 1937.

Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones

When Lydia Moss Bradley decided to found Bradley Polytechnic Institute as an institution for the education of both young men and young women, she became destined to cross the path of another influential woman: Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones. Whether Mrs. Bradley tried to pursue Mrs. Kedzie to come to Bradley or whether their association was a fortuitous accident, we don’t know. What we do know, is that Nellie Kedzie was a pioneer in the field of Domestic Economy, and that her few years at Bradley seem to have had a profound impact on both the institution as well as her own career. The following is a long excerpt from Dr. Nina Collins’ Book: An Industrious and Useful Life: The History of Home Economics at Bradley University. [United States]: n.p., 1994.

Mrs. Nellie Sawyer Kedzie came to the new Bradley Polytechnic Institute in 1897 to become an assistant professor, and head of the newly developing Domestic Economy Department. She had graduated with the Bachelor of Science degree from the Kansas Agricultural College. Mrs. Kedzie was listed as the third faculty member in order of priority in the board of Trustees records. Hoeflin in History of a College: from Woman’s Course to Home Economics to Human Ecology offers some insight into Nellie Kedzie:

A radical change occurred in 1882 when Mrs. Nellie S. Kedzie, a very young graduate of the college, who had earned a B.S. in 1876 and a M.S. in 1878 but had no special preparation for the work, was put in charge to succeed Mrs. Mary Cripps. Mrs. Kedzie was a young widow living with her parents in Topeka. She had married Robert R. Kedzie as the culmination of a courtship which began when Professor Kedzie had taught chemistry at the college during the absence of his brother, William K. Kedzie, who went on leave to Europe to study the types of chemistry laboratories. At Christmas time of 1881 Robert came from Mississippi Agricultural College, where he was professor of Chemistry, to marry Nellie Sawyer. They returned to Mississippi, where he died seven weeks later. Upset by his death, Nellie Kedzie then moved back to her parents’ home in Topeka. (p. 14)

How Mrs. Kedzie became a leader in the newly developing field of domestic science/home economics was a story told be Nellie Kedzie herself, on her 86th birthday, to the Kansas State Alumni Newsletter, the K-Stater, in an article of October 1954 entitled “Pioneering in Home Economics.”

President Fairchild of KSAC, who was calling on alumnae of the College, called on her in the summer of 1881. She invited him to eat supper with her with her family. At the end of the meal, the president said to her, “Do you think you can teach Kansas girls to make such biscuits as these we have been eating?” Her surprise answer to the surprise question was “I can try.” That fall she went to KSAC to try to help college girls to become efficient homemakers with less effort than many women were exerting.” (ibid, p. 14)

The socially acceptable overt agenda of teaching young women to become better homemakers in the setting of higher education was obviously operating here. Even the development of the curriculum would need “manly help,” which would of course, give more credibility to the project of educating young women in colleges. Nellie Kedzie (Jones) remembered:

“The Regents and the President helped me make a list of what knowledge might be valuable to girls. We believed that every girl ought to have some knowledge of hygiene to keep herself in the best of health. Also, that she should be thinking of what foods she will want to learn to cook and serve to a family and she should be able to make garments needed by herself and by anybody dependent upon her.” And according to Mrs. Kedzie Jones, that is the way that the program to teach hygiene, sewing, and cooking was decided. (ibid, p. 14)

Most scholars would place Kansas (state university) among the pioneers in the development of home economics. As a pioneer in the discipline, Mrs. Kedzie was faced not only with developing a curriculum and appropriate textbooks, but also with the development of a philosophy of this new discipline. Mrs. Kedzie, in speaking about this challenge, stated:

“The main goal was to elevate home standards and to lessen labor, the constant quest to discover an easier way” . . . . Until 1884 Mrs. Kedzie was the only woman on the faculty . . . . In 1887, Mrs. Kedzie was given the rank of professor, the first woman to hold that title at KSAC . . . . Handwritten notes dated October, 1889, of Mrs. Nellie Kedzie . . . . discussed how few women in history had assumed positions of leadership. She wrote that most were like her mother and grandmother who had been pioneers and had to struggle hard to keep their homes going . . . . Because of the personal work of Mrs. Kedzie the legislature appropriated $16,000 in 1897 to erect Domestic Science Hall . . . . In 1902, Domestic Science Hall was renamed Kedzie Hall in honor of Mrs. Nellie Sawyer Kedzie (Jones), former professor of Domestic Science and head of the department, in recognition of her early work in organizing the field of home economics. It is believed that this is the first home economics building in the nation and the world that was named for a woman . . . .” (ibid, p. 16)

Bradley was able to secure the services of Mrs. Nellie Kedzie because of disastrous events at Kansas State University.

In 1897, radical changes were made in courses and the administration at KSAC. All of the faculty were asked to resign. Later when some were given the opportunity to return, neither Mrs. Nellie Kedzie nor Mrs. Winchip [who was to come to Bradley in 1898] chose to remain . . . . For the next five years after Mrs. Kedzie left, the Department of Domestic Economy was in a most unsettled condition. (ibid, p. 16)

Mrs. Kedzie must have felt some vindication after the naming of the first building in domestic science in her honor. She receives another great honor when she returned to Kansas for a special event. In 1925 at the golden anniversary celebration of the beginning of home economics at Kansas State, Mrs. Kedzie (Jones), who was at that time the State Leader of Home Economics Extension in Wisconsin, became one of the first three women to ever receive an honorary degree from KSAC — a Doctor of Law. (ibid, p. 29)

Nellie Kedzie was obviously a very persuasive and socially adept woman. Not only was she able to persuade the Kansas legislature to build a building exclusively for domestic science at that university, but she demanded and expected the very best in equipment and curriculum at the newly developing Bradley Polytechnic Institute.

***************The early curriculum [at Bradley] was most surely shaped by Mrs. Kedzie, Mrs. Coburn and Mrs. Feuling, all of whom had had full administrative experience in land grant universities, with a founder’s perspective. Their experiences were important as part of the contributions they made in shaping early curricula. These three women were well-traveled and had an excellent sense of the overt, societal-accepted agenda; as the early curriculum clearly states, a young BPI domestic science student would surely become a skilled homemaker. On the other hand, as is apparent in early course descriptions, textbooks used and recruitment material for domestic science, the subversive agenda of teaching of teaching women science, technology and mathematics was very important to these early leaders.

***************Certainly Nellie Kedzie and the curriculum she had shaped at Kansas State before coming to Bradley had an important part to play in the shaping of the early curriculum. According to Virginia Railsback Gunn, in Educating Strong Womanly Women: Kansas Shapes the Western Home Economics Movement, 1860-1914, Kansas State adopted the “manual-training approach to education in 1873, offer[ing] all students a program emphasizing a balance between sciences, general culture subjects, and technical courses, called industrials. . . .designed to prepare both males and females for paid vocations”(p.iii). Mrs. Kedzie must have felt most comfortable with the philosophy of Bradley Polytechnic Institute and Mrs. Bradley’s reason for the founding of the institute.

***************Teaching young women to be skilled in housework was certainly acceptable to most of society, which believed that doing housework would keep women “in their place.” Nevertheless, the subversive agenda is working here. The study of chemistry, sanitation and geometry, as part of the discipline that supposedly offered only training in housework, allowed young women to become educated, with their families’ blessing, in a field that was acceptable by almost all of society.

***************Bradley has always taken seriously its obligation to serve the central Illinois community. Holding “open houses” was one of those services from the very beginning. The availability to the community of what was being taught to women at BPI shows that the curriculum was, at least subtly, making its way into the mainstream of society. Education was not corrupting young women at BPI, but was improving everyone’s life by providing better managed homes. That women were being educated was not as newsworthy. Evidence of the delight of the press and the community in visiting the Institute can be found in early newspaper reports. According to the Herald, June 17, 1899:

6,000 people visited Bradley Institute last night and acquainted themselves with the workings of Peoria’s young but famous educational institution. They saw four hundred students busied with their varied tasks; young men and women representing every state in the union, who have an aim in life and who are taking advantage of the rare chances there offered to prepare them for a successful strife in their various callings. . . .But of all attractive places, the cooking laboratory certainly took first place. The savory odors from the dishes being prepared permeated the hallways and pulled at visitors like a magnet. This is more properly known as the department of domestic economy and is under the supervision of Mrs. Kedzie. The young ladies who were giving exhibitions in cooking wore pretty white dresses and sweet smiles. They gave the visitors tastes of their cookery and the room was packed at all times. All were loath to leave and others were clamoring for admittance.

More information on Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones can be found in the Special Collections Center of the Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinois.

Contributing Library:

Cullom-Davis Library, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois

Vivian Harsh (1890-1960)

Vivian Harsh was the Chicago Public Library’s first African American librarian. Under her direction, the Midwest’s largest collection relating to African American history was developed.

Vivian Harsh was a native of Chicago, born in 1890. At age 19, Harsh began working for the Chicago Public Library. By 1924, Harsh was the Library’s first black librarian. In 1932, the Library opened a new branch called the George Cleveland Hall Branch to serve the expanding south side black community. Vivian Harsh became the first head librarian of this new branch, and as such became the first African American woman to head a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

In her position as head of the new branch, Harsh gathered books, pamphlets and other documents about black history. Many African American writers, such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, donated books, manuscripts, and research to her rapidly growing collection. By Vivian’s death in 1960, the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature contained more than 70,000 volumes. The Collection, the largest of its kind in the Midwest, continues to be available to researchers today at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library on South Halsted in Chicago.


  1. http://www.chipublib.org/002branches/woodson/wnharsh.html

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1957)

Annie Turnbo Malone achieved great success as a business woman. She is also remembered as a generous philanthropist.

Annie Turnbo was born in 1869 in Metropolis, near the far southern tip of Illinois. As a young woman, Annie developed hair care products which she sold door-to-door through the African American community of Lovejoy (now called Brooklyn), Illinois. In 1902, Annie moved her business to St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair was held in St. Louis and Annie’s business grew. She trained agents nationwide and began marketing her products under the name “Poro”, a name which she copyrighted. One of Annie’s agents was Madame C. J. Walker. Walker, often shares with Annie Turnbo the title the United States’ first African American millionairess.

Annie built a factory and a beauty-training school in St. Louis that she named Poro College. The factory and the school employed and educated many African Americans. Later, Annie moved the factory to Chicago. By the 1920s, Annie Malone was a millionaire. She shared her wealth with many less fortunate than herself. For example, she served as the President and donated fund for the construction of the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, now known as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center. She also donated large sums of money to schools and colleges for African Americans and supported many students.


  1. Smith, Jessie Carney, Ed. (1992) “Annie Turnbo Malone” in Notable Black American Women. Gale Research Inc, Detroit, Michigan., Pp. 724-726.

Louisa McCall

Portrait of Louisa McCall, from Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Fulton County Photo of First National Bank of Canton, Illinois

Louisa McCall has the unique distinction of being the first lady bank director in the United States. She assumed the position at the First National Bank of Canton in 1877 and was Vice-President of the same institution from 1899 until her death on January 11, 1907.

Mrs. McCall was born in London, England, October 26, 1824, to Charles Richard Basden Raymond and Margaret Priscilla Widenham Raymond. In December 1834 they set sail from London to arrive 10 weeks later in New Orleans. They came up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Peoria. Her parents were scholarly and cultured. They taught their children literature, mathematics, history, and music. In Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois by Newton Bateman, 1908, she is described as “systematic, orderly, thorough and even executive at an age when most children find greatest solace in the companionship of their dolls, and in addition to these solid traits she was a musician of merit, possessing an excellent voice.”

In Peoria County, Illinois, on June 10, 1845, she married James Harvey McCall. They had four daughters, Margaret Louisa, Grace Caroline, Josephine Elizabeth, and Agnes. James McCall had operated a saw mill and grist mill in Peoria. In 1862 they moved to Canton, Illinois, where James had purchased a distillery. Mr. McCall became one of the founders of the First National Bank, of which he was President for the remainder of his life.

During the fall of 1872 James McCall went to California and became interested in the mining business. He kept his family posted on his travels, business, and health. While all reports seemed positive, in 1873 Mrs. McCall received word James had died.

Louisa McCall continued her husband’s business affairs. According to the newspaper account of Louisa McCall’s death from the Canton Daily Register, Mrs. McCall was instrumental in following through with a lawsuit involving her husband’s estate. Mr. McCall had sued his old partner in California and won the case. Although $35,000 was to be paid to James, upon James McCall’s death, the partner instead brought in a “writ of error” suit. The suit was eventually settled in Louisa McCall’s favor. Because of her large holdings she was later elected as a director at the First National Bank in 1877.

Louisa McCall died on January 11, 1907, of ill health. She had suffered from pneumonia in 1905 and never quite recovered. In addition to her position at the bank, Mrs. McCall was president of the Canton Aid Society for 25 years and had also contributed to many local organizations. She was known for her generosity as well as her great executive ability and keen business acumen.


Bateman, Newton. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Fulton County. Chicago: Munsell Publishing, 1908.

Contributing Library:

Parlin-Ingersoll Library, Canton, Illinois

Mahala Phelps (1845-1932), librarian


Miss Mahala Phelps


Macomb Library
(Carnegie building) [top],
Miss Phelps [rt],
Edith Whitson Trail, member original library board [lt]

Mahala Phelps served the Macomb community as a librarian for almost fifty years. During her half-century in the Macomb library, she influenced the reading materials for the young people of the community and supported their education.

Miss Phelps was born in Macomb in 1845 and was a life-long resident of the city. She began her career as a teacher. In 1881, community members established a public library. At age 36, Miss Phelps became the librarian, a role which she would continue for the next half-century.

The first library opened in 1882 in a back room over a jewelry store on the south side of the Macomb square. The library owned a few hundred books and was open just 2 days each week. In 1883, the library moved to an upstairs room in City Hall.

The generosity of Andrew Carnegie made it possible for the library to construct its own building. The Carnegie building opened on South Lafayette in 1904. The Macomb City Library still (1998) occupies the building. (An addition to the north side expands the original building.) Prior to the move in 1904, Miss Phelps had devised a cataloging system for the books. When the library moved to the new building, Miss Margaret Dunbar, librarian of the Western State Teachers College (now Western Illinois University), assisted in migrating the cataloging system to a standard system.

Miss Phelps continued as librarian until about 1928. Even in retirement, she maintained an active interest in the institution. Miss Phelps took great care in choosing the books available on the library shelves. During the early days, she read each book and only those books she approved were made available in the library. She paid particular attention to young readers and assisted many school children with their projects. Her influence was felt over several generations of Macomb residents.


  1. “Miss Phelps Funeral on Wednesday: Gave Life time of Service at Macomb Public Library”, Macomb Daily Journal, Macomb, IL. Oct. 18, 1932.
  2. Crabb, Richard. “Macomb Library to Celebrate 48 Years of Service During the Coming Week”, Peoria Star, Peoria, IL. Apr. 6, 1930.
  3. Hallwas, John E. (1990) “Women at Work”, in Macomb: A Pictorial History, G. Bradley Publishing, Inc., St. Louis, MO.

Contributing Library:

Macomb Public Library, Macomb, Illinois

Aunt Josie Westfall (1873-1941)
McDonough County Orphanage & Macomb City Judge


First Orphanage
415 N. Madison, Macomb, Illinois


Josie & the children (ca. 1917)

In 1911, Macomb had no public facility for the care of orphaned children. Some children were housed at the County Poor Farm, but the place was really not suitable for children. Limited other private facilities were available in the community. When two orphans became the focus of the community’s concern, Josie Westfall took on the task of caring for them. Within her life time, Josie would become the protector of hundreds of the community’s orphans.

“Aunt Josie” Westfall was born in 1873 in Macomb, Illinois. She did not marry and worked as a dressmaker. Josie began her career as “mother” by taking just 2 children into her home in 1911. Before a single year had passed, she was providing a home for 19 children. The county board of supervisors agreed to supply $25 per month to assist Josie in the children’s care.

In 1913, an Orphanage Board was appointed. The County purchased a 12-room house at 415 N. Madison Street in Macomb. An addition was soon added to the home, as the number of children grew to 67. Although the funding was increased, money was always in short supply.

In 1914, Josie ran for the position of Macomb City Judge and planned to donate her salary to the orphanage. She was elected by a large margin. Josie received a total of 839 votes to defeat her closest opponent’s total of 577. Her opponent contested the race in McDonough County court on the grounds that the election was not legal. Although the Illinois Women’s Suffrage Act was passed in 1913, the suit claimed the Act did not authorize ladies to vote in that judicial election. Josie’s opponent had received 430 votes from men to Josie’s 409 votes. The County court found in favor of Josie and women’s right to vote, but the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the decision. It would be 1920 before the 19th Amendment was passed. An interesting side note is that one of the lawyers representing Josie’s opponent was a woman.

Josie’s goal of serving the area children continued without the funds from a judicial position. She enlisted the assistance of area organizations. The community responded with clothing, food, medical services, and Christmas presents.

During the 1920s, the existing orphanage building became inadequate and funds were collected for a new building. The community responded with money, building materials, and furnishings. One of the more unusual donations came from the Stevens family, owners of the Stevens’ hotel in Chicago. They donated over 12 dozen new dishes. The children moved into the new building on East Jefferson Street in 1933.

During her career of thirty years as an orphanage matron, Josie provided guidance, food, shelter and care for over 500 children. She was not paid for her services, although she was provided with a place to live.

In 1940, an illness forced Josie to retire from her work. She died in June 1941 at the age of sixty-seven. The orphanage building was occupied by the Salvation Army and later sold as an apartment building.


  1. Macomb Heritage Days Souvenir Book. 1982.
  2. Hallwas, John E. (1990) “Women at Work”, in Macomb: A Pictorial History, G. Bradley Publishing, Inc., St. Louis, MO.
  3. Jani, Shanti (ca. 1985) “Aunt Josie” reprinted in Macomb Heritage Days Souvenir Book. 1985.
  4. Nichols, Katherine. She sheltered the children: Westfall opened her heart – and her doors – to those in need. Macomb Daily Journal pp. 1E, 4E, July 28, 1996.
  5. Scott, Judge Keith F. “McDonough Bar History Described”, Macomb Daily Journal, Macomb, IL. May 6, 1976.

Contributing Library:

Macomb Public Library, Macomb, Illinois


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