The Woman’s Exchange was a nonprofit organization that allowed women to create handiwork from home and sell them to the public. It was like a year-round craft fair. Their goal was to allow women to work to support themselves as necessary while still keeping their dignity. These women were considered craftsman. The Woman’s Exchange in Milwaukee also included a dining room and bakery, as well as a separate restaurant called the ‘Men’s Grill’. These restaurants as well as the sales floor also allowed women and men to work.
The Woman’s Exchange was a nationwide movement with branches in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and many other cities across the country. The Exchanges were run by a board of philanthropic women, who gained experience and notoriety working for the Exchange. Some exchanges lasted a few years, some still exist today. The Woman’s Exchange opened in 1882, and after many years of helping women achieve independence, the Exchange eventually ended. They closed the store, and sold the restaurants to other Milwaukee businesses. Their final holdings were sold off and all proceeds they had went to various local charities and causes.
The Milwaukee branch of the Woman’s Exchange did remarkably well, lasting longer than many other exchanges throughout the United States and keeping up standards for producers. They had stringent cleanliness policies for those selling food products at the Exchange, and they would send officers to the homes of these women to ensure this. Products were kept shelved much longer than typical stores as an attempt to maximize profits for the women selling. The store had policies on when certain goods could be sold within the store, like wool products could not be sent to the exchange before September. The sellers also took orders for personalization and monograms. Newspapers often spoke of the popularity of the children’s toys that were available through the Woman’s Exchange.
The Woman’s Exchange was a great example of philanthropic work by the middle and upper classes during the early 20th century. Very often they viewed factory work, especially by women, degrading and not the proper place for a woman. This can be seen as the Woman’s Exchange attempted to provide an alternative source of income so they could ‘maintain their dignity’. The Exchange was a place where women, and a few men, could earn a living in a respectable fashion or could service those in need. As the Exchange said ‘We help those who help themselves’.
Amanda Scott, Intern