The Conversation Crammer and other Odd Occupations for Ladies: 1890-1936

A railway "inspectorette," 1901

A machine shop “inspectorette,” 1901

Mrs Daffodil understands that this week-end is “Labour-day” in the United States. Ostensibly this is a holiday to celebrate the honest toil of the world’s workers, but somehow it has devolved into a festival of al fresco luncheons and “cook-outs.”

Nevertheless, Mrs Daffodil will follow the lead of that industrious person over at the Haunted Ohio blog, who has written several posts on the “Club of Queer Trades,” and tell of some unusual professions for ladies.

The scope of work for animal lovers was a large one:

With the increasing craze of dogs of rare and valuable breeds as pets in England a new employment for girls has been created. They can become dog nurses. The profession offers remunerative work to a girl who is fond of dogs and has knowledge of them and their habits. Many young women are advertising for this kind of employment or consulting agents who deal with the wealthy dog lovers. It is no uncommon thing to see in the squares and parks a pretty girl in a neat uniform with two or three valuable little dogs on leash, giving them their daily airing. She is a dog nurse, and this is only one of her duties. Besides the exercising of the pets, the nurse must see to their food, which is no small matter. Special things are cooked and the dogs must be carefully watched while they eat to see that nothing goes wrong. Then the bath is a serious affair. Sometimes a silver bath-tub is used and scented water. The nurse must also look after the toilet of her charges. When they go out with their mistress she must see that they are in proper trim, with their little coats carefully brushed and cleaned and their jewelled collars bright and sparkling. After they have retired at night her time is her own and for the most part she considers her $5 a week very easily earned for she has her board and lodging provided as well as her uniform. One of the great requisites for the new profession is that the applicant shall have an extinct sense of humor. The Sun [New York, NY] 6 September 1908: p. 8

Teaches Parrots by Phonograph.

Mrs. J. Hope of Philadelphia charges a phonograph with the word of praise she wants the parrot to learn, and then shuts him in a room alone with the machine. The bird listens to the oft-repeated sound and tries to outdo the brazen throated trumpet, so that with no expenditure of human strength, and in shorter time than personal attention would consume, he masters one lesson and then is put upon another. Iowa State Bystander [Des Moines, IA] 15 December 1905: p. 1

Of course, personal services are always in demand:

Word comes from St. Louis of an enterprising woman who acts as body-servant to four men, who reside in a fashionable quarter of the city. She probably does not see her employers once a month. She goes to their rooms every day after they have left them and puts their clothes in order. She gets the laundry ready and delivers it to the laundry-wagon on specified days. She is there when it is returned, sorts it, sews on missing buttons, darns the silken socks, puts the handkerchiefs between their scent-bags, and regularly once a week she cleans out the drawers. When one of her charges leaves her a note, saying that he is going to the theatre or a party at night, she lays his dress-suit out, puts the shirt ready, adjusts the buttons, varnishes his pumps — in fact, has everything so that all the man has to do is to put them on. Next morning they are as carefully put away. His various suits of clothes are brushed every day, and his valet does not have to be told when they should go to the tailor for fresh creases in the trousers and a sponging of coat and vest. A moderate charge per week is made for the service by this woman, who makes really a good living out of her clever idea. The Argonaut January 10, 1898

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Another enterprising London woman has hit on a capital, although probably painful, business. She earns a profitable living by “breaking in” boots for members of the upper circles. She wears them for a few days, until they become easy and comfortable to their owners. In three or four days they are sufficiently “tamed,” and she only wears a pair two hours each day. She works hard, seeing that she sometimes wears 36 different pairs in a week. Half a crown a pair is the professional fee. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 23 March 1899: p. 3

Mrs. Aggerholm, Trunk Packer

Such a wonderful reputation as an expert trunk-packer is enjoyed by the celebrated Danish actress Fru Aggerholm, that a German has approached her with a view to her becoming managing directress of a school for professional trunk-packers which he proposes founding in Berlin during the autumn. Fru Aggerholm was reluctantly compelled to decline the responsibility on the score of professional engagements. Throughout Scandinavia, Fru Aggerholm is regarded as the world’s champion trunk-packer. The Royal Magazine, Volume 20, 1908

And, of course, jobs are always open in the business of beautification:

Those Shingled Heads

One Scotch girl has reaped quite a benefit from the present-day fashion for shingled hair. During the season when so many English and American folk attend house parties and hunting parties in Scotland there are many many well-dressed women who have difficulty keeping their shingled heads in good condition, owing to the remoteness of the country houses and shooting lodges. The ordinary lady’s maid cannot take care of a shingled head. Hearing of this situation a clever Scotch girl borrowed money to take a thorough course in hair shingling and to buy a small automobile. Before long she had established quite a business in her capacity of ladies’ barber. She has paid back all she owes and made a comfortable living besides. Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 21 September 1924: p. 4

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Purveyors of services for children were also not idle.

Mlle. Komissarochevska, Tattooist

Besides being an actress of ability and renown, Mlle. Komissarochevska is the head of a flourishing tattooing firm in St. Petersburg, the clients of which are, without exception, babies of tender years. To prevent kidnapping Mlle. Komissarochevska hit upon the novel idea of tattooing the babies of wealthy society women with a minute reproduction of their mother’s coat of arms to establish identity. The Royal Magazine, Volume 20, 1908

An advertisement in a London newspaper comes from a woman who may be known as “professional baby namer.” She proclaims her willingness for the sum of one shilling, to select a suitable name for the new arrival. She asks to know the child’s sex, complexion, color of eyes and date of birth, and guarantees to satisfy the parents. Washington [DC] Post 17 September 1911: p. 3

The world of business was also populated by odd jobs:

Another western woman who has made for herself a place in the world is Mrs. Patti Collins or Mississippi, who holds an important position in the dead letter office at Washington. She is what is called a “blind reader,” and is invaluable for her aptitude and success in making out the most hopelessly incorrect and incomplete addresses on the thousands of letters which daily find their way to what sometimes proves an epistolary tomb. A vast proportion, however, of “dead letters,” ultimately reach the people they are intended for, and that they do so is entirely owing to the perspicacity of just such clever workers as Mrs. Collins. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 30 September 1893: p. 4

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In the East end of London a lucrative trade is followed by some score or so of women. The pawnbrokers there are very numerous and never lack for clients. Among the latter, however, are some who do not relish the idea of being brought into personal contact with “uncle.”

It is for the special benefit of these that the pawnbroker’s agent exists. She goes several times a day to the pawnshop with articles belonging to the bashful ones, for whom she gets the highest sum procurable on the items pledged.

For her services she receives a percentage on the amount obtained, ranging from a halfpenny in the shilling, but her commission seldom comes to more than two pence on a single transaction. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 23 March 1899: p. 3

They Have Strange Jobs.

There lives at Maidenhead a lady who sells the time for a living. She is the second generation of her family who has had this curious privilege, which was granted originally to her father by the then Astronomer Royal in the year 1835.

She has about 40 customers in different parts of London. She possesses a most marvellous old chronometer, made by Arnold, in 1835, for the Duke Sussex, and each Monday morning goes to Greenwich and has her chronometer corrected, and gets an official document stating that it differs from mean time by so many seconds or tenths. Her customers correct their time accordingly. Washington [DC] Post 17 September 1911: p. 3

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Another odd occupation is that of an auction clincher. In this case it is a beautiful young woman, who until a few years ago, was one of the best-known “show girls” at the Casino. Now she is making her living more easily. She is employed by a big Fifth-avenue auction company which makes a speciality of rugs. She met the manager of the concern through her knowledge of rugs, and one day he asked her if she didn’t want to help him in a little matter that might be profitable to both. His plan was this:

In all auctions certain lots go for much less than their value if some one does not stimulate the bidding. With rugs this is especially so, for often the true value of a rug does not appear in the cursory glance people given them at sales. He suggested that this girl go to the auctions, having been told the minimum price at which every rug is to go, and, if the bidding should not reach that figure, bid it up and apparently buy the rug, thus saving it for the company.

She tried it, and the plan worked so well that she is now in the employ of this company permanently, and attends every auction sale, taking a remote seat and bidding only when it looks as though the rug were going too cheap. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 July 1904: p. 12

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Dr. Johnson said there was nothing like being sentenced to be hanged to clarify a man’s thoughts. And there is nothing like hard times for smartening up a woman’s. I met a really well-known actress the other day who has discovered how to make more money when “resting” than when in regular job. She makes it her search out comfortable flats, which just now are to be got cheap in the West End, and then, having taken one she gets it done up artistically and furnishes cheaply from the Caledonian Market. Being gifted with a perfect colour sense, she does this magnificently. Then she gives a few parties, and always finds someone who begs her to let them have the first refusal of her charming flat if she thinks of moving. That process has been repeated time and again, and the bright actress is now drawing a handsome revenue on sub-let flats. Auckland Star, 17 June 1933: p. 3

Then there are the unclassifiable professions:

Mrs. Allison, Vendor of Hotel Labels.

A novel business has been started by Mrs. Allison, a well-known American society lady, who, recognising that many women “globe-trotters” like their travelling trunks to appear well-covered, supplies European hotel and railway labels “to choice” at five dollars per dozen. Although Mrs. Allison only commenced business two months ago, she already has the names of no fewer than 4748 “clients” on her books. The Royal Magazine, Volume 20, 1908


According to a contemporary, positively the newest occupation for women is that of “conversation crammer,” whose business is to coach up ladies for afternoon or dinner parties. The object of the crammer (we are informed) is to provide a “a short and easy way to the art of conversation,” and this new creation of our social system guarantees a perfect stock of tall and intellectual talk “at two hours’ notice,” or thereabouts, say, on “any subject of the day—politics, religion, art, literature, fashion,” everything, in fact, it would seem, except “scandal,” which, at any rate, is not referred to in the announcement. Provided the “crammer” in question is really worthy of her hire, and does not altogether rely for her information upon the morning’s newspaper, she need never be idle. Evening Post, 29 November 1890: p. 1

“Cured Patient” as an Occupation

Good-looking young women have found in Paris a new calling, “playing the cured patient.” Visitors who find time having heavily on their hands in a doctor’s waiting-room are drawn into conversation. The good-looking woman, who is evidently in the pink of health, tells the visitor how ill she was. Neuritis, rheumatism, gout, dyspepsia and vertigo were combined in her case with appendicitis and hallucination. Several physicians treated her expensively and left her worse. She went in despair to the present doctor who cured her in three weeks. She has come today merely to thank him. The “cured patient” charges $5 a day, but doctors find that the money is not thrown away. Chicago News. The Daily Republican [Monongahela, PA] 25 July 1908: p. 3

And, perhaps Mrs Daffodil’s favourite odd occupation:

It is reported that Florence Harding Pipers, a beautiful woman, sits in the box of cinemas, where premieres of tragic films are shown and weeps throughout the performance, thus causing other visitors to join in. She has a fixed salary of £80 a month. New Zealand Herald, 28 November 1936: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil hopes that all of her readers are blessed with congenial occupations and wishes all those who celebrate it, a very happy Labour Day.

Mrs Daffodil has previously written on Labour Day frolics and a working-girl’s ghost.  That hard-working person over at Haunted Ohio has published a second part to “The Club of Queer Trades.”


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

2 thoughts on “The Conversation Crammer and other Odd Occupations for Ladies: 1890-1936

  1. Ike Renfield, via Sally & Tom Campbell

    “It is for the special benefit of these that the pawnbroker’s agent exists. She goes several times a day to the pawnshop with articles belonging to the bashful ones, for whom she gets the highest sum procurable on the items pledged.”
    I believe Dinny in the final throes of the Forsyte Saga (really, Galsworthy dies soon after) uses such an agent. I think it’s a fellow, though. So I’ll re-read all the Galsworthy soon. It’s the best fix for Victorian to Edwardian to Bright Young Things sagas.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Before there was Downton Abbey, there was the Forsyte Saga, keeping audiences riveted to their television sets! One wonders if such pawnbroker’s agents still ply their trade among the wealthier, who might prefer discretion when disposing of designer hand-bags and costly watches.
      Best Wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil



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