Wiesner M. (1999) Single working women in premodern Germany

Wiesner Merry E. (1999) “Having her own smoke. Employment and independence for singlewomen in Germany, 1400-1750” in Benett Judith M. and Froide Amy M., Singlewomen in the European past 1250-1800, Philadelphia: University Philadelphia Press, 192-213.



Premodern German cities commonly worried about their Frauenüberschuß, or surplus of women. As early as the 14th century from 15 to 25% of women were headed by singlewomen (p.192). Women married relatively late (25 to 28 in villages and 21 to 25 in cities; p.194).

Importantly the situation of never-married single women (as opposed to widows) varied considerably whether or not they children. Those with children were considerably poorer (p.195).

The rising tide of hatred

In the late 15th century Catholic humanist and later Protestant scholars reverted the medieval praise for the holy celibate to defend the values of marriage. Single men were targetted by moralists but they were too economically valuable to suffer significant legal persecution (p.196).But women, primarly single recently immigrated ones, were exposed to an increasing number of restrictions mostly due to the fact that they were seen as an unfair competition by guilded male workers. Inkeepers and landlords were banned from hostong foreign unmarried women. Ultimately, by the 17th century, in numerous cities women were forbidden to “have their own smoke” or “earn their own bread”.

Women living in proto-industrial cities were particularly targetted (Augsburg in the 1500s, Würtemberg in the 1600s and Berlin in the 1700s; p.197). Guildsmen were particularly upset that self-employed female spinners manage to soak part of the benefit they used to enjoyed when they were employing in-the-house spinners.

The most commonly expressed reproaches against working single women were:

  • being in the street at all times since they were their own masters and could decide to work when they pleased they distracted journeymen (p.198),
  • by leaving domestic service, they created a shortage of maids,  thus forcing employers to pay more the remaining ones,
  • they had children out of wedlock who typically needed public support (p.199).

At your service

Depending on the city, female domestic servant (in their majority unmarried) represented 5 to 15% of the population (p.195).

Domestic service was praised unlike other occupation as it put women in a male-headed household. But numerous moralists nonetheless compared maids with prostitutes solely aiming at seducing the master or his sons (p.200). Gradually servants were treated more rudely and many writers compared them with apes and pigs and considered they were nothing but “ashes and dirt”. Their freedom was restrained by the cities: they were not allowed to leave their employers nor to ask for higher wages (p.201).

Nevertheless domestic service remained attractive for female workers over the period. House and food being included they could save on their (low) wages for a dowry, in some cities they could be granted citizenship after a certain time (and thus become attractive marriage partners for foreigners), in other cities public funds had be set up to pay for their dowries and of course they could always steal their masters to build up their trousseau (p.202). But it was also common for aged maids to be laid off and find themselves too old to marry and without a job.

Wage labour

In rural areas, living in a nuclear familly was almost an obligation due to the division of labour along gender lines. In the 17th century rural proto-industries did provide some earnings to single women (p.203) but it paled compared to the wide range of occupation offered by cities: women could spin, launder, care for the old, the sick and the young (during plague times single women were to host up to 3 orphans; p.204), work in public bath or even in the municipal house of prostitution that existed from the 14th to the 16th century (p.205).

The borders between whoring and other activities were not always clear: some were nitting between two clients, while other occasionally supported themselves by selling sex. As a result, single women in general were regularly apparented with prostitutes, and criminals.

The guilds’ ire

Corporations were amongst the most adamant supporters to the social stranglehold imposed on working single women. By the seventeenth century even

“daughters had to prove there were special circumstances that necessitated their working, and journeymen argued explicitly that masters’ daughters should get married rather than take work away from men”

Although masters found ways to employ female workers, sometimes by officially adopting them as their daughters (p.206). Lesser functions were also out of the interest of corporations: making soap, candles and broom, gathering firewood, herbs, fruits, berries and mushrooms or peddling house to house selling food or secnd-hand clothing. Sometimes they could also have a small stand on the market or become petty pawnbrokers. These activities were essentials for single and poor married women as employment opportunities varied during the year (p.207).


One Response to Wiesner M. (1999) Single working women in premodern Germany

  1. Fantastic blogpost, I bookmarked your blog post so I can visit again in the future, Cheers

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