By Garland Pollard
We are fascinated by the whole idea of the woman’s exchange movement, which started in the 1830s to allow “nice” women to sell goods on consignment to make spending money. In an age when there were few jobs for women and working outside the home had a stigma, this was a revolution.
Through the years, this sort of activity helped women in countless ways. By the end of the century, hundreds of thousands of women had sold goods at these exchanges, which turned people who might need charity into entrepreneurs. How wonderful and American. Frankly, we need a bit of this incubator spirit now.
The groups had another renaissance in the 1930s, an era when “nice” ladies took in boarders and made goods in order to keep their houses. Their organization is now the Federation of Woman’s Exchanges. There are many women’s exchanges still around on the East Coast, though one of the oldest in Manhattan closed in 2003. One of my favorite brands came from a Woman’s Exchange. It is Mrs. Fearnow Brunswick Stew. Mrs. Fearnow sold stew at the Richmond exchange, and turned it into a multi-million dollar business. The family eventually sold out, though the brand lives on.
The exchanges were serious business. Wallis Simpson, yes that famous Wallis Simpson, credited the Baltimore exchange with giving her daughter the “nicer things in life.”
In fact, today some websites like Etsy.com and even Ebay have the feel of the “exchange” as they enable people to earn extra spending money, and do it quietly and in a creative way. The other element important to the success of the woman’s exchange is that there is no social stigma to selling goods there. People of less means work with people with more connections and resources.
So, for instance Wallis Simpson’s mother would be OK selling goods to make her daughter at school have the right clothes. Because all the goods are different, there is no competition. In fact, the more women of means who sell a the stores, the more foot traffic there is, and the better chances everyone has to sell.
During flush times, these types of exchanges function as incubators for craft artists who are trying to figure out whether they can turn their business idea into a full-time artistic career.
We can think of a couple of great brands that started as spin-offs of women’s exchanges, not only Mrs. Fearnow’s but Sally Bell’s Bakery, also a Richmond institution. Sally Bell’s was started by Sarah (“Sallie”) Cabell Jones of Ashland and Elizabeth Lee Milton of Gloucester, who met at the Woman’s Exchange of Richmond and parlayed a love of cooking and a collection of recipes into a beloved Richmond institution.
There are products unique to the various exchanges. For instance, The Woman’s Exchange in St. Louis is known for its Peter Pan-collared strawberry dresses sold at their children’s boutique (seen here), as well as an old-style Tea Room. Baltimore’s exchange also has special items.
We would love to add to the list if readers know more. And if you are lucky enough to have a woman’s exchange in your city, go check it out. Or if you are a woman who has an entrepreneurial idea, start selling.