Monday, April 13, 2009

Treasury Courtesans and Postmistresses

Above: A Womens lunchroom at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, 1913.

We might be in an “Information Revolution” today, but let’s not forget that the latter half of the 19th century saw a boom in information technology as well. The development of telegraphs, typewriters, and improved mail service (by use of rail) all contributed to stacks upon stacks of paper piling up in the government agencies across Washington. An efficient and cheap source of labor was sorely needed to keep up with demand. The government needed women!

Finding himself with a shortage of men due to the Civil War, US Postmaster Montgomery Blair was the first to hire women in traditionally white collar jobs by placing them as clerks in the Dead Letter Office at the Postal headquarters. By 1865, women outnumbered men in that office 38 to 7.

Soon women were filling clerical positions across departments—handling mail, keeping financial records, and typing correspondence. In 1870 the number of women employed as clerks was in the low hundreds, but within twenty years their numbers surpassed 4,000. By 1910 women filled 8,443 clerical positions in the federal government. When we look at the statistics nationally, 16% of women in DC were employed in white collar jobs, compared with 7% across the country.

While the Federal City led the country in employing women, we should note that these white collar jobs were for white women only. Most African-American women living in DC continued to be employed in domestic service positions, with many DC-born blacks working in the housekeeping departments of the governmental agencies.

White women employed by the government found themselves not without a glass ceiling. Employed as clerks, women rarely if ever rose in the ranks of management. In fact, the US Postal Laws and Regulations of 1866 forbade women from holding the position of postmaster (this was amended 7 years later so that married women could become postmasters). Women received 35% less pay than their male peers. Further, by breaking traditional roles women had to endure the whispers and criticisms of others. Those in the treasury department were referred to as “Treasury Courtesans,” sent there to seduce their male counterparts!

Despite the hardships of the working world, women remained in government offices and proved to be an efficient and educated source of labor. Postmaster Blair later admitted that women handled the mail with “fidelity and care” and with faithfulness greater than the men.

Sources: Carl Abbott, Political Terrain.

Smithsonian U.S. Postal Museum, Women in the U.S. Postal System.

Picture Source: Shorpy,

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