Besides the obvious and prominent role of men at a blast furnace, women and children were also important in the workings. Perhaps surprisingly, without both women and girls in a supporting role the conditions would have drastically changed. They way the industry functioned might have even have been altered.
We’ll be having a series of posts on the subject of the roles women and children, particularly girl children, played in the iron industry, but this one underscores their role in the community that surrounded a blast furnace like Beckley.
Women didn’t really do much except cook and maintain the households. While you may think that does not sound very important, it actually was. The men working at the furnace had to be incredibly strong. To stay strong, they had to eat a lot of protein and good food. The women spent most of their time cooking to meet those needs. We’ve seen estimates that a furnace worker, particularly one who worked in the casting shed, might burn an incredible 4000 calories per day, day after day, week after week, month after month. That’s a whole lot of food to prepare, and in an age when there were no supermarkets, everything had to be cooked from scratch — and that’s a whole lot of work; a full-time job, in fact.
The girls did mostly the same things as their mothers. A wife could not be expected to cook for more than one man (and her family) by herself. But that left plenty to do around the house. The girls were usually involved in other small tasks as well, although they usually helped their mothers with the cooking. With their mothers occupied with cooking, the girls generally also helped with laundry, cleaning, and maybe took on some cooking herself if her mother had too much to do. There was also a family garden to tend, and likely some livestock to take care of. Virtually all families had chickens, many had a hog or two, some had a milk cow. Each of these creatures took time to feed and care for — and usually this fell to the girl children according to their abilities. Of course there was school, too, although in many of the years that Beckley Furnace was active, an 8th grade education was considered more than enough, and, in an age before extracurriculars, girls had lots of time before and after school to do housework.
One unfortunate fact is that we have very little in the way of documents about the roles of females, and most of what we do know is second hand — someone, usually a man, mentioning what the women might have been doing. The rest? Well, we have had to examine the evidence and draw conclusions.
Also, it’s important to remember that while this may have been the life of females around a blast furnace, roles for women differed widely on the basis of their husband’s work. An ironmaster’s wife might have been expected to take an interest in the families of the furnace workers and offer hospitality when the big shots from Lime Rock visited. At a foundry, for example, there would likely be a whole middle class made up of molders and other skilled trades, and the roles of women there might have been different, too. And finally, there were the few women who were married to the executives and the owners — and their lives were still different, but no less demanding. Finally, this was an age when most middle class and all upper class families had household servants, most of them women, so their lives would have been different as well.
We’ll explore those roles in future posts…..