Saturday, February 13, 2010

Work Comes Back Home

Betsy Ross's house, both a home and a place of business for Mrs. Ross from 1773 to 1785.

States and municipalities are revisiting their zoning laws, reports the Wall Street Journal, as the number of home businesses has dramatically increased. The general rule is that home businesses are permitted as long as you don't receive your customers there--a ruling geared to keeping residential areas free of noise and traffic. But home businesses are growing, as people are laid off from jobs in companies and seek to use their skills to create a business from home, or small business owners seek to reduce their expenses by foregoing their shop or office and moving their work activity into their homes, with businesses being set up in garages, basements, bedrooms, or studies.

This is one interesting result of our current economic difficulties. The home has not been a prominent locus of employment since the early days of the 19th century, when encroaching industrialization took the man out of the home into the labor market and the woman was bound mostly to the home, unless she too had to work outside. In the urban setting, work in the home was mostly piecework for an employer performed by women and children.

A family does piecework the garment industry in the home in 1913, earning $2 a week.

But before industrialization, homes in the cities and towns were often places of business, and apprentices or employees often lived there too with the owning family. All these people were also referred to as "family." In this way many women ran businesses in their homes, either as a central focus of their work or on the side to bring in extra money. One such lady was Betsy Ross, who originally ran an upholstery business from her home with her first husband, John Ross. He and Betsy had been apprentices together under an established Philadelphia upholsterer.

The parlor in Betsy's house where George Washington asked her to make the flag. If you have ever been to this house, you know how small it is.

When her husband was killed after only two years of marriage, Betsy ran her business alone, earning extra money by making and repairing supplies for the Continental Army, and was engaged by Washington to make the first American flag. Even after the twice-widowed Mrs. Ross left this home with her third husband, she continued her upholstery business until her retirement at the age of 76. Living and working in the same location enabled her to also bear and raise seven children, six of whom lived to maturity. With its prime location near the Delaware River port, Betsy's house also continued its life as a home and business for more than 150 years.

If Betsy Ross had been caught making the flag, she could have been charged with treason. Given the secretive nature of the project, it is believed that she probably sewed the flag in her bedroom.

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