From the Archives no. 11: Woman’s Work?

This is a post that owes a big debt of thanks to Caitlin Dover, my former colleague at Print magazine. She is doing research on 19th c. signs in New York City and came across this intriguing reference to women signpainters. It is in The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work by Virginia Penny (Boston: Walker, Wise & Co., 1863), pp. 471–472. The entry, one of a long list of potential professions for women that defiantly avoids gender stereotyping, says in its entirety:

No. 508. Sign painting requires a long, steady, and regular apprenticeship. It requires also a correct eye and a steady hand. In large cities, sign and ornamental painting can be made a distinct branch of painting; but in a town or village it is combined with carriage or house painting, as one individual seldom has enough sign and ornamental painting to keep him constantly occupied. It is not more necessary for a painter to know how to mix the paints, and use judgment and taste in the selection of colors, than to form letters according to geometrical proportions. A painter must measure, more by the eye than a rule, the size and arrangement of letters in a given space. Good painters receive $3, $4, and $5 a day for their work, but generally are paid by the piece. When paid by the week, and they work regularly, they receive from $12 to $15 a week. Mrs. K, New York, says in Dublin there are many families that devote themselves to sign painting, but she knows of none in this country except her own. She employs a man to grind paints, put up signs, &c.;,—also to paint out-of-door signs, that is, such as must be painted on the building. Her two daughters paint all the signs that are to be put up. Some of the large signs above stores in New York have been painted by them. They are paid as good prices as men. Her daughters received their instruction and advice from their father. In that way they acquired maturity of judgment and nicety of hand. Judgment needs to be exercised in regard to size and space, and artistic taste in ornamenting. A sign painter told me that superior workers can earn from $3 to $15 a day, if they have sufficient employment. Many house and other painters, in cities, profess to paint signs, but in reality have it done. Germans do much of it in New York, because they do it cheaply, but many of them do not execute their work well. It is customary to have an apprentice three years and pay the usual terms, $2.50 a week, the first year. A boy, during the first year, mostly grinds paints, goes errands, &c.; Spring is the most busy season. Painting in oils is not neat work. A sign and carriage painter writes me: ‘The work is unhealthy on account of the poisonous vapors and dust. It requires two or three years to learn, and one must have a great deal of practice. A common education, natural taste, and a correct eye are the qualifications needed. Many parts of it are very easy and pleasant. Some parts might be done by women.’ The business pays best in large towns and cities. An ornamental painter writes me: ‘Women are employed in sign painting in England, France, Germany, and Belgium. The time required to learn would depend on the taste or genius of the individual. The qualifications requisite are those of an artist in a less degree.’ B., an emblematic sign painter, thinks the employment very suitable for females, but supposes there are better openings in other cities than New York. It requires two or three years to learn all the different branches well. During the first year a learner could not support herself, but after that could, if she had a taste for it, was industrious, and received enough orders to keep her busy.

It would be interesting to know how many women were employed as sign painters in New York City and other major American cities in the 19th century. As in the printing industry did they enter the profession through husbands or fathers? The three female sign painters specifically cited here apparently did so. Did that make them unique? There is much exciting research to be done.