The Kitchen Girls: Getting to Know Female Campus Employees in the 1860s (Part 1)

Saint's Rest Boarding Hall circa 1865. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Saint’s Rest Boarding Hall circa 1865. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Michigan State University is a big place. Today the main campus is over 5,200 acres, there are 545 buildings, and over 50,000 students. Campus is essentially its own little city and there’s a large work force of approximately 6,800 support staff employees that work around the clock to make things run smoothly. In the early years of the campus, although the campus size and student body were much smaller, a large staff was still necessary to run the college. We’ve been able to do extensive research on experiences of the early faculty and students, but finding information on the employees is more difficult because their experience is often missing from the historical and archaeological record.

As part of the ongoing food reconstruction project, I’ve been going through the Saint’s Rest boarding hall receipt books with Susan Kooiman and Autumn Beyer at the MSU Archives. While recording the 1866-1867 book I noticed some purchases that didn’t quite maker sense; corsets, garters, ribbon, parasols, hoops skirts, etc. Each was associated with a woman’s name. Female students weren’t officially admitted to the university until 1870, so who were these women showing up in the boarding hall account books?

Boarding Hall Receipt 1866 showing purchases of hoop skirt, belt riot and shoes. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Boarding Hall Receipt from 1866 showing purchases of hoop skirt, belt riot and shoes. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

I think that they were the employees of the boarding hall.

Before going through this receipt book we only knew of them through brief mentions in other archival material. In his essay “The Dawn of Michigan Agricultural College” James Gunnison, a member of the inaugural class of 1861, mentions that boys used the parlor (in Saint’s Rest) to visit with the “dining-room girls” (UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8). A 1859 letter notes that the following women were employed at the boarding hall: 2 girls to do the laundry, 2 women as cooks, 1 women in the kitchen to wash dishes and do other odd jobs, 2 girls in the dining room to serve, 1 girl for “chamber work”, and 1 girl for the general washing, washing towels for the washing room, and making candles (Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66). Thankfully now we have identifies for at least 33 of the women that worked at the boarding hall in 1866:

  • Mary Bage
  • Mary Bates
  • Ellen Connor
  • Susan Connor
  • Mary Gannon
  • Matilda Gidley
  • Phobe Gidley
  • Mariah Horbeck
  • Martha King
  • Maria Martin
  • Annie Martin
  • Jane Phillips
  • Adelade Place
  • Mary Roller
  • Rachel Roller
  • Lovina Shattuck
  • Barbary Stabler
  • Jane Trembly
  • Mattie Trevallee
  • Pamelia Trevallee
  • Angie Trevallee
  • Millie Trevallee
  • Mollie Trevallee
  • Malvina Trevler
  • Pamelia Trevler
  • Delia Tyler
  • Lucinda Van Horn
  • Susan Wilson
  • Matilda Wilson
  • Mary Young
  • Mollie Young
  • Jennie Young
  • Agusta Young

The 1859 letter indicates that at least 9 women at a time were employed at the boarding hall, and as enrollment grew it’s logical to assume that more women were hired to work on campus. The receipt book also notes when employees left for a period of time, and when new ones began working.

Unfortunately the timing of the employment records, 1866, makes it a little difficult to track down more information on these specific individuals. The 1860 Michigan census can be a bit sketchy, and by 1870 many of these women may have moved out of the area, or gotten married and thus changed their last name (although Pamelia Trevallee appears in the 1870 census still working as a domestic servant in the boarding hall (spelled Travailla in the census)). Most likely these women were in their late teens or early 20s when employed by the university, further complicating finding them by traditional genealogical means (Pamelia Trevallee is 21 in the 1870 census, making her 17 in the 1866 book). Interestingly many of these women share the same last night, suggesting that they are related.

April 1866 - showing purchases and being marked paid. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

April 1866 – showing purchases and being marked paid. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In the mid 1860s there were approximately 100 students on campus, so why was there the need for so many female employees at the boarding hall (there are male laborers listed in the receipt book but that is a blog for another day). We need to remember that housework in the 19th century was incredibly laborious and highly gender specific.

April 1866 - Barbery Stabler began work at a rate of $2.50 per week. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

April 1866 – Barbery Stabler began work at a rate of $2.50 per week. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The women were being paid $2.00 – $2.50 per week for their work. It appears the room and board was also included as part of their employment. What I’m seeing in the receipt books appears to be purchases/charges employees made against their weekly payroll. At the end of every month the accounts are balanced, with any remaining money being paid out to the individual.  For example Millie Trevallee charges $11.28 in May and $4.05 in June and is paid $4.90 at the end of June, balancing the ~$20 she would have made for two months work.

These receipt books provide a unique glimpse into the lives of female university employees in the 1860s. Stay turned for The Kitchen Girls Part 2 next week where I will explore the fashionable purchases they were making.

References:

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8

Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66

UA 17.107 Box 2461 Item #40

United States Census 1870 State of Michigan, Ingham County, Town of Meridian schedule 1, page 30

https://msu.edu/about/thisismsu/facts.html