New York Exchange for Women’s Work

Article about a charitable enterprise that supported middle-class Civil War widows.

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New York Exchange for Women’s Work
It is just one year since the Women’s Exchange, in East Twentieth Street, was opened with thirty articles for sale; the year’s rent in the bank, and a fund in the treasury sufficient to pay contingent expenditures. The Exchange for Women’s Work opened a year ago with 30 items for sale.
This latter sum was raised by subscriptions of five dollars by those who desired to join the society. Mrs. Wm. G. Choate was made president, Mrs. Wm. E. Dodge, Mrs. Y. N. Otis, Mrs. Henry Anderson, and Mrs. Jacob Wendell, were made vice-presidents, with a very efficient board of managers. The Exchange was intended in no way as an art society, or to conflict with the interests of the Decorative Art Society, but as a depôt for the industries of impoverished gentle-women; and in various ways to assist ladies who desired to replenish their slender purses without making it known to the world. Work could be received that is attractive and yet not up to the standard of elegant needlework, and sold to persons of refined although not critical tastes. Better than all, perhaps, no publicity need attend this exchange of money for industry. During the year the receipts have been $15,240.72, and $10, 252 has been paid to consignees. The expenditures for various matters have been $3,664.32, and a balance remains of $1234. The subscription lasts but one year. Of the 17,566 articles registered for sale, only thirty-seven have been rejected. People who wanted to join gave a $5 fee to cover expenses. The president was Mrs. William G. Choate. The vice-presidents were Mrs. William E. Dodge, Mrs. Y. N. Otis, Mrs. Henry Anderson, and Mrs. Jacob Wendell. There is also a board of managers.

The Exchange was created to help poor women who needed to make money, but who did not want the world to know they needed money. These women could submit needlework to the Exchange. People could then buy that work. The work needed to be of good quality. It did not need to be of the same quality as fine art.

Over the past year, the Exchange has sold $15,240.72 of goods and paid $10,252 to the people who made those goods. The Exchange’s costs were $3,664.32. Earnings of $1,234 remain. Donations to take part in the Exchange last for a year.

Out of the 17,566 items recorded for sale, only 37 were rejected.

A commission of ten per cent is charged on all articles sold. All articles are submitted to the approval of the managers ; and none are received save through a manager or subscriber.  The Exchange charges a 10% fee on all goods that are sold. All goods are approved by the managers of the Exchange. The only way to submit goods is through a manager or a subscriber to the Exchange.
It is often asked what kind of work is received at the Exchange? It may be answered that almost every thing that is useful or beautiful that can be devised by the quick ingenuity of a woman’s brain, from the darning of a stocking to the adornment of a plaque–every thing, indeed, save plain white needlework. People often ask what kind of work the Exchange gets. The answer is all kinds of needlework that are useful or beautiful, like a mended stocking or a decorated panel. All kinds of work except for everyday linens.

Ellen E. Dickinson, “New York Exchange for Women’s Work,” The Art Amateur 1, no. 2 (1879).

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Historians estimate that about 200,000 women lost their husbands in the American Civil War. Because of the practice of coverture, widows had very few legal and economic protections. Lower-class widows were expected to find work while continuing to care for their families. This was a terrible burden, but they were lucky to have the choice to work. Social standards dictated that white middle- and upper-class women could not work outside the home without losing their status. This meant middle-class widows had to choose between losing their position in society or letting their families slide into poverty.

Candace Wheeler and Mary Atwater Choate wanted to help middle-class war widows support their families. In 1878, they founded the New York Exchange for Women’s Work. The Exchange sold handmade luxury goods that women could make at home and gave the women a percentage of every item sold. This allowed middle-class widows to earn a living while still maintaining their reputations.

The New York Exchange for Women’s Work was a great success. It inspired women to open at least 75 exchanges in other cities around the country. The New York Exchange for Women’s Work operated for 125 years. It closed in 2003 because it could no longer afford the rising cost of rent.

About the Document

This article was written about one year after the New York Exchange for Women’s Work was founded. It provides details about the purpose of the exchange and the service it provided for widowed women in New York.


  • balance: Earnings.
  • commission: Fee.
  • consignees: People who make goods to sell.
  • coverture: A common law practice whereby women fell under the legal and economic oversight of their fathers and then, upon marriage, their husbands.
  • depot: A place to store things and shop.
  • expenditures: Costs.
  • impoverished: Poor.
  • receipts: Sales.
  • replenish: Refill.
  • slender: Slim.
  • subscriptions: Donations.
  • widow: A woman whose husband has died.
  • white needlework: Everyday linens.

Discussion Questions

  • What challenges did war widows face after the American Civil War?
  • Why did Candace Wheeler and Mary Atwater Choate found the New York Exchange for Women’s Work?
  • What does this story tell us about the status of some women in the Reconstruction era?
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