If you were a respectable married woman in 1868 in San Francisco, and you needed to find work, what could you do?
Most women who had to work ran boardinghouses and cooked and cleaned for a living. Many women worked as seamstresses, dressmakers and milliners. Teaching school was another possibility, but unmarried women were preferred for that job.
Mrs. J. W. Likins found herself in just this quandary in the summer of 1868. She and her husband and daughter had come to California that spring, and soon Mr. Likins found work with the railroad as a baggage handler. Disaster struck when their hotel caught on fire (a common occurrence in young San Francisco) and they lost everything but their lives and Polly the parrot. Then Mr. Likins became ill, and soon they were in dire want.
AUGUST 11th, 1868.
Now begins the one great struggle of my life. I scarcely know where to turn or what to do. As I look around the room, I see nothing but want and poverty on every hand. Something must be done to get out of this place. Bidding my dear ones keep up courage, I start out. Never before did I know the meaning of the word poverty. Now I felt it in all its keenest pangs—everything looked dark and cloudy. I started for the Post-office. Not being able to pay car hire, I went on foot.
On my way I passed the book-store of H. H. Bancroft, then on the corner of Montgomery and Merchant streets. In the window I noticed a card, with the words “Agents Wanted” on it. Stepping into the store a gentlemen advanced to meet me. I asked him “Do you employ ladies agents?” “Yes”, he replied, “allow me to take you to the Subscription Department.”
And so began Mrs. Likins employment as a lady book agent. She was given an engraving of “Grant and His Family” and an order book, and told to go out and get orders for the print. Although she says that “It was a great trial for me to know just how to approach them,” she pressed on, talking to men on the street and in offices, and ladies in their homes.
Taking them on my arm, order-book in my hand, I started up Montgomery street, calling on one and all, up stairs and down, in every room. Some looked at me curiously, others with pity, and some few with contempt, while I endeavored, in my embarrassment, and in an awkward way, to show the picture.
I admire the courage of Mrs. Likins. Selling anything is hard work, and she had never sold anything before in her life. But she pressed on, in spite of her fears and embarrassment, and became quite good at her job. And she was able to support her family.
I came across her account in a book called So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier (University of Nebraska Press, 1990). The excerpt in this book is taken from Six years experience as a book agent in California, including my trip from New York to San Francisco via Nicaragua, by Mrs. J.W. Likins, published in San Francisco in 1874. If you would like to read the complete book, you can download from the Library of Congress.
She never mentions her first name, but if the 1870 census is to be trusted, she was Amy Likins, married to James, with a daughter Lucy, and in 1868, when she began her book-selling career, she was 37 years old.