The hired girl was in demand on the farms of the Great Plains. Though sought after, she was often spurned if her work habits, language skills, and personal habits did not meet the standards of her employer. In spite of the need for supplemental labor on nonelectrified farms, the supply of girls available to do domestic work between 1870 and 1940 seldom met the demand, perhaps because the hired girl's pay ran about half that of the hired man.
In the Great Plains, hiring out daughters was a common practice among nearly all immigrant ethnic groups. The money they earned usually returned, at least in part, to their families, perhaps to support the educational goals of younger siblings. The work also served as training in running a household, and for those who obtained work in homes of native-born Americans, an opportunity to learn the English language and Americanstyle housekeeping.
The rural domestic was not confined to the house proper. She was especially valued if she could milk cows and separate the cream, feed chickens and gather eggs, harness horses, and perhaps take a few turns in the field. The lack of definition in the job often drove rural girls to urban homes where the pay was better and the tasks limited to the house.
Child care was usually a part of the hired girl's work, and because it interfered with the other assigned duties it was often a major source of discontent. Yet the domestic filled every aspect of the role the farm woman vacated when seasons of intense work, such as harvest, demanded her labor in the fields. For some hired girls, this exposure was enough to convince them to leave farm life behind. City work often led to marriage and life in an urban setting.
The hired girl often went to work at a very young age. Hired girls as young as seven took on child care and minor household and barnyard tasks. Often these very young girls had lost one or both parents or were born out of wedlock and had no place in their mother's subsequent family. By the age of twelve, most young girls were considered capable of managing housework, barnyard chores, and child care for a couple of weeks while a woman recovered from childbirth. After the age of sixteen, young women who had completed their education, or who sought income to support more education, took positions near home or farther away, with enough understanding of the demand for their labor to arrange for the most advantageous situation. If pay was withheld, the work too demanding, or the atmosphere too oppressive, they could easily find another position. The advantage of mobility might fade for a widow or divorced woman who had to turn to domestic work to support herself and her children.
The demand for domestics in the rural Great Plains guaranteed that women, even those with little education or some social handicap such as an illegitimate child, could find work at any time. The quality of the experience varied with the domestic's age, family status, and ability to maintain some control over the selling of her labor.
Barbara Handy-Marchello University of North Dakota
Coburn, Carol K. "Learning to Serve: Education and Change in the Lives of Rural Domestics in the Twentieth Century." Journal of Social History 25 (1991): 109–22.
Dudden, Faye E. Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.