Tracey M. Wilson
The really significant result of the change in employment status during World War I was a change in the distribution of women among the various occupations. In Connecticut, the dramatic change was the decrease in the number of women working as domestics or in personal service. The number of clerks rose 12.4 percent, while the number involved in Domestic and Personal Service, as defined by the Census Bureau, declined 11.8 percent. Domestics included not only servants, waitresses, and laundresses, but also a large number of midwives and untrained nurses, and boarding and lodging housekeepers. The number of women in each of these areas, except midwives and untrained nurses, declined between 1910 and 1920. In Hartford, domestics were the second largest wage group behind manufacturing from 1880 to 1910. In the United States, Domestic and Personal Service had the largest number of women employed in both 1910 and 1920, though there was a sharp decrease during the decade.
There are a number of reasons for the large decline in domestic workers, not the least of which is higher wages in other areas, particularly with the labor shortage during the war years. Some conclude that the introduction of new labor-saving devices such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and electric irons were the causes of the decline in domestics. But as late as 1920, only a third of the nation’s homes were wired for electricity and fewer than a third of those had a washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Electric irons had only been introduced in mail order catalogues in 1912.
While wages were higher in other sectors of the economy, pulling the low paid domestics away from their work, pay for housework had to increase as well. This increase made domestic help too expensive for many families that had formerly been able to afford servants. During the war the number of immigrants, whose first jobs were often as domestics, declined drastically. Most importantly, those women who were able, opted out of this subservient work when given the choice as the census data shows.
Blacks comprised less than two percent of the Connecticut population before 1920. The World War I period saw the first large migration of blacks north to Connecticut, but their impact on Connecticut was minimal at that point. It is clear the blacks did experience much discrimination in job choice. In the nation in 1910, ninety-five percent of all black women worked either in agricultural or domestic work. In Connecticut blacks were recruited to work in the tobacco fields. As white and immigrant women left domestic work for better pay elsewhere, black women took up the slack. In 1910, 54.7 percent of native born whites and 21.7 percent of foreign born women were in the paid labor force.
Blacks in Hartford were not readily hired in the munitions factories (except as custodians) even with the labor shortage.