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Women as Merchants in Eighteenth-Century Northern Germany: The Case of Stralsund, 1750–1830

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Daniel A. Rabuzzi
Johns Hopkins University


The purpose of this paper is to bring to our attention the important role of women in wholesale international commerce in eighteenth century northern Germany, using examples from Stralsund as a case study. (Stralsund, a port-city formerly in the Hanse, was at that time the capital of Swedish Pomerania and had a population, including garrison, of some 14,000 around 1800; it was an economic center of regional importance, specializing in the production of malt and the export of grain to Sweden and Western Europe). After sketching a social and economic profile of Stralsund's female merchants ca. 1750–1830, I will discuss the crucial issue of control, i.e., to what extent and how these women were able to operate independently within a political and legal system that favored men. In my conclusion, I suggest that women left, or were forced out of, the wholesale trade around 1850 as a result of political changes and a shift in the meaning of the concept of Bürger, rather than as a result of industrialization or market expansion. Throughout, I consider whether my observations about female merchants in Stralsund have any wider validity by comparing them with research on the commerce of other ports in Northern Europe and in North America.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1995

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1. This article stems from a comprehensive study of merchant culture in Stralsund between 1750 and 1830 with a focus on the interactions between individual risk-taking, family formation, inheritance practices, and market networks.Google Scholar

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9. Data on shipments and net worth are from SAHS, 15–242 (Schifferbuch, 1755); SAHS, 35–345 (Getreydebuch, 1778); SAHS, 15–251 (Schifferbuch, 1796); SAHS, 35–476 (Zuiageregister, 1796); SAHS, 33–1699 (Generalbüro/Vermögenssteuer, 1809). The Glaser deal is from Pomm. Landesarchiv, 10–2428 Navigation & Commerce Acta, Tome 1 @125 (“Gehorsamste Memoriale,” 21 June 1810).Google Scholar For Bevernis, see data in Rubarth, Alfred, Stralcunds Segelschiffe, ihre Kapitäne u. Schicksale 1800–1920 (Hamburg, 1992).Google Scholar The characterization of the Widow Hoffmann was by the Schätzungscommission in 1809 (Beschwerde, 1809, SAHS, 33–1694).

10. Sample limited to 1755–1815 but in analyzing the prior and subsequent fortunes of some individuals, I have stretched the period to ca. 1750–ca. 1830.Google Scholar

11. Stralsund's women had a long history of wholesale trading before 1755. In 1706, for example, the Widow Puetter was the 15th-largest grain exporter by volume (personal letter from Stefan Kroll, then Hamburg University, 1 March 1994). In 1744, women were 16 percent of the merchants who renewed or took the merchant oath for the year (Kaufleute Eid 1634–1759, SAHS, 16–168).Google Scholar

12. These statements can only be approximate because of the nature of the sources. Records for imports by individuals before the 1790s are sparse.Google Scholar

13. Percentages calculated from data in SAHS, 15–242, 15–248, 35–345, 35–347, 35–348, 35–481, and 35–487 (Schifferbücher, Getreidebücher or Zulageregister).Google Scholar

14. Such women were the only acceptable adjuncts. The best guide to Lübeck city law is Ebel, Wilhelm, Lübisches Recht, vol. 1 (Lübeck, 1971).Google Scholar

15. I have also left off another seven women who appear on the shipping lists only in one year (though, since most are unmarried at that time, this was not a winding-up of a husband's affairs).Google Scholar

16. Brück, Thomas, Korporationen der Schiffer und Bootsleute (Weimar, 1994), 129.Google Scholar Examples of Stralsund shipmaster-widows trading ship-shares: SAHS, 3–5502 (notarial), contract Glaser & Netterberg, 12 April 1798, and contract Timm & Peters, same date. Artisans' widows often continued the husband's business, e.g., chairmaker (SZ 3.12 1803/#145); glazier (SZ 19.4. 1825/#46); hatmaker (SZ 26.5.1825/#62); housepainter (SZ 14.1.1830/#6).

17. E.g., correspondence between Baroness von Krassow and the Beetz bankruptcy receiver in SAHS, 3–5814 (Konkurs Beetz, 1767).Google Scholar

18. J. G. Sonnenschmidt's widow in Wolgast continued to ship very large amounts of grain for at least 3 years after his death (“Getreideverkauf ins Ausland 1783–1794”, Pomm. Landesarchiv 38 b Wolgast #875). Other examples: Wendt (SZ 9.10 1830/#121); Runge (SZ 11.6 1811/#70); Engel (SZ 18.5 1830/#59); Rosental (SZ 12.5 1807/#57); Binder (SZ 14.4 1825/#44); Struck [in Barth] (SZ 18 December 1804/#151).Google Scholar

19. For Lübeck, see Simon, U., “Der Tod des Mannes war ihre Chance; die Kauifrau in Lübeck” in Der Lübecker Kaufmann, ed. Gerkens, G. & Grassmann, A. (Lübeck, 1993), which notes (p. 125)Google Scholar that there has been no deep archival research on this subject. Cursory probes in the Lübeck City archives suggest that through 1800 at least some women remained heavily engaged in big-ticket trade, e.g., Widow Bruehl or Widow Danckwertz in A. H. L. (Lübeck City Archive) Zulagebücher #s 20 (1760) and 24 (1790). 1 estimate that some 11 percent of Lübeck's merchants were women in 1743 and 6 percent in 1784, based on Lübecker Firmen im Jahre 1743; Aus Jetzlebende Kaufmannschaft in und ausser Deutschland, Erster Versuch, Leipzig 1743…Mitteilungen des Vereins für Lübeckische Geschichte und Altertumskunde, 12 (19051906): 145–61,Google Scholar and Lübeck's Fabrik und Handeisfirmen vomJahre 1784,” in Neue Lübeckische Blätter 24 (1858): 34–37, 41–42, 31–53, 62–64.Google Scholar See also: Meyer-Stoll, C., Die lübeckische Kaufmannschaft (Frankfurt am Main, 1989), 26, 114;Google ScholarMomsen, I. E., Die Bevölkerung der Stadt Husum (Kiel, 1969), 182;Google ScholarSchaub, W., Sozialgenealogie der Stadt Oldenburg (Oldenburg, 1979), 14 ff,Google ScholarBrandenburg, H.. “Die Erwerbsstruktur der Stadt Altona nach der Volkszählung von 1803” (Master's Thesis, Hamburg University, 1993), 5152, 85–87;Google ScholarEtzold, G., Seehandel und Kaufleute in Reval (Marburg, 1975), 191–93.Google Scholar

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21. Clark, Working Life of Women, 35–38;Google ScholarBarbour, Violet, Capitalism in Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century (1950), 140.Google Scholar See data in Oldewelt, W. F. H., “De beroepsstructuur van de bevolking der Hollandse stemhebbende steden… verfoig: De personele Quotisatie van 1742,” Economisch-Historisch Jaarboek 25 (1952).Google Scholar

22. Butel, Paul, “Comportements familiaux dans le négoce bordelais au xviiie siècle,” Annales du Midi: Revue de la France meridionale 88, no. 127 (1976), esp. 145–46;CrossRefGoogle ScholarCarrière, Charles, Nègociants marseillats au xviiie siècle (Paris, 1973), 2:892;Google ScholarClark, John, La Rochelle and the Atlantic Economy during the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore, 1981), 72, 80, 228;Google Scholar and esp. Smith, Bonnie G., Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1981), ch. 3.Google Scholar

23. Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (Chicago, 1987), 272–89, 301–4;Google ScholarOkin, Susan Moller, in “Patriarchy and Married Women's Property in England: Questions on some Current Views,” Eighteenth- Century Studies 17, no. 2 (Winter 19831984): 135;CrossRefGoogle ScholarSpruill, Women's Life and Work (chs. 13, 14);Google ScholarCalhoun, J. et al. , in “The Geographic Spread of Charleston's Mercantile Community 1732–1767,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (07 1985);Google ScholarWaciega, Lisa Wilson, “A ‘Man of Business’: The Widow of Means in Southeastern Pennsylvania 1750–1850,” William & Mary Quarterly, series 3, 44, no. 1 (01. 1987);CrossRefGoogle ScholarShammas, Carole, “The Female Social Structure of Philadelphia in 1775,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography 107, no. 1 (01. 1983);Google ScholarGoldin, Claudia, “The Economic Status of Women in the Early Republic: Quantitative Evidence,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16, no. 3 (1986): esp. 400;CrossRefGoogle ScholarJordan, Jean, “Women Merchants in Colonial New York,” New York History 57, no. 4 (1977).Google Scholar For Boston, there is the much-questioned figure in Dexter, E., Colonial Women of Afairs (Boston, 1931)Google Scholar that 9.5 percent of merchants and shopkeepers in 1773 were women (p. 38) but Tyler, John, Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (Boston, 1986)Google Scholar shows only 3 women among 245 overseas merchants In 1760–1775 (appendix).

24. Clark, Working Life of Women, 38–41, sees English women leaving wholesale commerce ca. 1690, and Pinchbeck, Women Workers, 283, sees the process nearing completion ca. 1800.Google ScholarHeyrman, Christine L., Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts 1690–1750 (N.Y., 1984), reports that no women were active in trade in Gloucester ca. 1690 (p. 242);Google Scholar moreover, while women had been very active in Marblehead's trade in the early 1700s (pp. 241–42), this ended ca. 1735 (p. 382). This is a great contrast co the northern French women in Smith's Ladies of the Leisure Class who were in business until the middle of the nineteenth century, or to the Stralsunders who were still going strong in 1830.

25. The husband's death is the start-date. Documentation for most of the women active after 1785 shows a seamless continuation of the husband's business. The end-date is not the woman's death, but her last appearance as a trading merchant in the sources. In some cases this means the figures presented here may be understated by 5 or 10 years. Cf. Sandvik, “Umyndige” Kvinner, 40, for the period 1742–1791 in Christiania (Oslo) where, for the 53 women she tracks through the tax rolls, the average length of activity was nine years.Google Scholar

26. SAHS 3–1484; SAHS 3–7098.Google Scholar

27. SAHS, Test. B 175 (Behn)—see esp. the undated (prob. 1816) addendum. Her situation must have been desperate: immediately after her husband's death, the commercial court sought to sell his shares in nine ships plus his house at public auction, presumably to satisfy his creditors (SZ 1.12.1801/#144; SZ 23.2.1802/#23).Google Scholar

28. Maas, SAHS, Test. M 43.Google Scholar

29. Gesuche, 1808–1828; hers, 30 December. 1808, SAHS, 33–1693.Google Scholar

30. “Debilitating setback” means moratoria on payments, flight from creditors, and bankruptcy.Google Scholar

31. Govt. Decree of 22 March 1809 and full returns in SAHS, 33–1699. The bases for calculating net worth were apparently the same as for the Vermögenssteuer of 1808 (Govt. Decree, 15 January 1808, in SAHS, 33–1651). Key points: each individual calculated his/her net worth; all assets were to be included, except for real property held outside the city, i.e., all real estate and land within the city, all commercial goods, ships and shipshares, cash, accounts receivable and loans in the city or abroad, all annuities and rents and all assets over which one had beneficial usage, less “real” debts. There is no reason to assume that women under- or overvalued net worth more or less often than did men. There are only two important areas of divergence between the men's and women's share of the wealth: institutional wealth (churches, guilds, and charitable foundations, which were controlled by men) and the real property outside the city owned by individuals, Only three merchants (2 male, 1 female) appear to be missing from the tax returns.Google Scholar

32. Includes four nobles among the non-nobles because they were either robe nobles who had for generations been Bürger, senators and merchants of Stralsund or had just been enobled through marriage or elevation while continuing to act as commercial Bürger.Google Scholar

33. This close correlation between taxpayer participation and share in total taxable wealth is corroborated by statistics on merchant employment of servants and commercial help. In SAHS, 33–1700, 33–1701, 33–1702 (Kopfsteuer, 1809) there were 2.14 servants per merchant and 0.6 commercial helpers; the women had 1.78 servants per capita. though only 0.3 helpers.Google Scholar

34. Schultz, Helga, Soziale und Politische Auseinandersetzungen in Rostock im 18. Jahrhundert (Weimar, 1974), 68–69.Google Scholar

35. Derived from data in Schramn, Percy Ernst, Kaufleute zu Hause und über See (Hamburg, 1949), 271–75.Google Scholar

36. Gause, Fritz, Geschichte der Stadt Koenigsberg (Cologne, 1968), vol. 2, 161–62.Google Scholar

37. Söderberg, Johan et al. , A Stagnating Metropolis: the Economy and Demography of Stockholm 1750–1850 (Cambridge U.K., 1991), 132.Google Scholar

38. Derived from Sandvik, “Umyndige” Kvinner, 33.Google Scholar

39. The American probate material overstates women's share of wealth in ways that the Stralsund tax material does not. The former records personalty only, and young and middle- aged men are underrepresented in probate inventories but not in the tax rolls.Google Scholar

40. Jones, Alice Hanson, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of Revolution (New York, 1980), 220Google Scholar (7 percent) and 39 & 323 (9 percent). Lynne Withey shows women as 3 percent and 4 percent of total taxpayers in resp. Providence and Newport for 1760–1775, see Withey, Lynne, Urban Growth in Colonial Rhode Island: Newport and Providence in the Eighteenth Century (Albany, 1984), 125.Google Scholar “Wealth-holder” and “taxpayer” are not synonymous.

41. Shammas, Carole, “Early American Women and Control over Capital,” in Women in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Hoffmann, R. & Albert, P. (Charlottesville, VA, 1989), 137–39.Google Scholar

42. Shammas, , “A New Look at Long-Term Trends in Wealth Inequality in the United States,” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (04 1993): 422CrossRefGoogle Scholar (quote), 423 (table).

43. Shammas, “Early American Women,” 139–40. The demographics were apparently similar in England and in Stralsund, with a much larger number of widows and single women than in the colonies, which may play a role in the wealth percentages.Google Scholar

44. Steuerregister, 1808, SAHS, 33–1655 for tiny net worths of the daughters of deceased merchants Vollert, Harrien, and Kluender; Portionssteuer, 1809, SAHS, 33–1658, ditto for Widow Passow; Portionssteuer, 1812, SAHS, 33–1666, and SZ 25.11 1809/#141 on the fate of Widow Pagenkopff. For teaching, see Widow Gemeinhardt (SZ 6.10 1807/#120), Frau Bankamp who was daughter of merchant Hercules (SZ 13.9 1804/#110), and merchant Paepke's daughter (SZ 9.10 1830/#121).Google Scholar

45. See generally Cocalis, “Der Vormund will Vormund sein.” For Stralsund, see [no first name] Mehlen, , Die gesetzliche Erbfolge nach Lübschem Rechte (Stralsund & Greifswald, 1798) 5, 15, 59;Google Scholar Mehlen was professor at Greifswald University and his book appears in inventories of Stralsund lawyers. See also von Wilmowski, G., Lübisches Recht in Pommern (Berlin, 1867), 91–94.Google Scholar Some of the best work on north European concepts of guardianship is by Scandinavian scholars: Sandvik, “Umyndige” Kvinner, with partial summary in English in Sogner, Soelvi & Sandvik, Hilde, “Minors in Law, Partners in Work, Equals in Worth? Women in the Norwegian Economy in the 16th to the 18th Centuries,” in La Donna nell'economia secc. XIII–XVIII, ed. Cavaciocchi, S. (Prato: Inst. Internat. d. storia economica ‘F. Datini,’ series 2, no. 21, 1990);Google ScholarDuebeck, Inger, Koebekoner og Konkurrence: Studier over Myndigheds- og Erhvervsrettens Udvikling med stadigt Henblik paa kvinders historiske retsstilling (Copenhagen, 1978),Google Scholar with summary in German.

46. Ebel, Wilhelm, “Zur Rechtsstellung der Kauffrau,” in idem, Forschungen zur Geschichte des lübischen Rechts, Pt. 1 (Lübeck, n.d., ca. 1951), 102.Google Scholar

47. For Gütergemeinschaft, see Mehlen, Erbfolge, 1–5, and von Wilmowski, Lübisches Recht, 91–94. Although the husband had full rights of disposition (Niessbrauch) over his wife's property and his wife did not over his, this could be a cause of dispute when dowries got caught in bankruptcies, see Konkurs, Rahtz, 1795, SAHS, 3–5830; Appellation, Rietow & Stegemann Erbtheil, 1795–1797, SAHS, 3–295; Schlueter in SZ 10.3 1825/#29). For “frauliche Gerechtigkeiten,” see Ebel, “Kauffrau,” 105, and von Wilmowski, Lübisches Recht, 126; for an example, see Notariatsakten, promissory note from pastor's wife Willich to merchant C. Z. Hagemeister, 22 February. 1776, SAHS, 3–5470.Google Scholar

48. E.g., Gesuche um freies Geleit…Harloff, 1779, SAHS 3–1484 and Tunnemann, SZ 24.2 1803/#24.Google Scholar

49. Mehlen, Erbfolge, 2, 141; v. Wilmowski, Lübisches Recht, 98, 111–13, 118, 122; Ebel, “Kauffrau,” 120.Google Scholar

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52. Trendelenburg, F., Geschichte der Familie Trendelenburg für Kinder und Enkel (Halle, 1921), 55;Google Scholar SZ 6 March 1801/#29; SZ 8 April 1802/#42; SZ 29 May 1830/#64.

53. Wwe. Bevernis, 1841, SAHS Test. B 226. For the Wallis v. Wallis suits, see SAHS, 3–5686 and 3–5688.Google Scholar

54. Wechselschuldklage, Bagge g. Wwe. Bevernis, 1818, SAHS, 3–2894, and Schuldklage, Born g. Wwe. Bevernis, 1813–1814, SAHS, 3–2806 are examples.Google Scholar

55. SAHS, 3–2209 (1771–74); 3–2269 (1775); 3–2288 (1776) are examples.Google Scholar

56. Wwe. Brandenburg g. Kfm. P. Eggerdes, 1771, SAHS, 3–2199.Google Scholar

57. Klage, 1820, SAHS, 5–268.Google Scholar

58. SAHS, 3–7098 (1792), nor is there any mention in any other Harloff-related documents such as SAHS 3–5470 (see “Prot. Inv. 21–11–1797”) or the Widow's testament SAHS Test. H 131 (1822).Google Scholar

59. Konkurs, Beetz 1767, SAHS, 3–5814, response 22 August, 1767 of bankruptcy receiver J. G. Hagemeister to lender Landrentmeister Mau in re promissory note 2 July 1764. There is no mention of a guardian in the Beetz bankruptcy process.Google Scholar

60. For Schlueter's request, SAHS, 3–4922 (1808), and for Gloede's announcement, SZ 26 November 1812/#142.Google Scholar

61. Appellation, Muggenburg g. seine Mutter, 1817–1818, SAHS, 3–309; Wwe. Bevernis, 1841, SAHS Test. B 226. See also Konkurs, Beetz, 1767, SAHS, 3–5814, letter to receiver 4 July, 1767.Google Scholar

62. Wallis, 1837, SAHS, Test W 100.Google Scholar

63. Friedrich, CarlCommerzienrat” Bohnstedt, 1810, SAHS, Test. B 164. Two months after his death the family house was put up for sale (SZ 2.1 1812/#1).Google Scholar

64. Commerzienrat” Hagemeister, 1811, SAHS, Test. H 101. Widow Hagemeister, a noble, sold all his assets: see SZ 19.5 1812/#60; SZ 17.9 1812/#112; SZ 14.11 1812/#137; SZ 18.5 1813/#59.Google Scholar

65. Ockel, 1794, SAHS, Test. O 16.Google Scholar

66. Senator Johan Hagemeister, 1771, SAHS, Test. H 50.Google Scholar

67. Glaser, 1801, SAHS, Test. T 42.Google Scholar

68. Frey, 1787, SAHS, Test. F 27.Google Scholar

69. E. g., Clark, Working Life of Women and Pinchbeck, Women Workers; Goldin, “Economic Status of Women,” 393, 395, 401, 403; Hausen, “Polarisierung der ‘Geschlechtscharaktere,’” 370–71;Google ScholarDuden, Barbara, “Das schöne Eigentum: Zur Herausbildung des bürgerlichen Frauenbildes an der Wende vom 18. zum 19. Jahrhundert,” Kursbuch 47 (1977): 130–33.Google Scholar A good overview is Berg, Maxine, “Women's Work, Mechanization and the Early Phases of Industrialisation in England,” in The Historical Meanins of Work, ed. Joyce, P. (Cambridge, U.K., 1987).Google Scholar

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71. Three-generation households were unusual. Some households consisted of 2 or 3 same-sex adults but these were typically widow and unmarried daughter(s). Servants lived in, as did some of the business help; both were often favored with bequests in wills and other familial-type affection (see, e.g., Landrath Levenhagen, 1811, SAHS, Test. L 54).Google Scholar

72. Most Stralsund inventories were meticulously detailed by room, as were many sales notices in the newspaper and also the earlier cadastral surveys.Google Scholar

73. Kontobuch, D. L. Kuehl, 1802 ff, SAHS, Hs X, 25 is an example.Google Scholar

74. Weber, M., Economy and Society, (Berkeley, 1978, ed. Roth, G. & Wittich, C.), vol. 1, 379.Google Scholar

75. Scharping, Karl, Stimmung und Verhalten der Bevölkerung schwedisch Pommerns im Wandel der Zeit von 1806–1820 (Stettin, 1932), 18, 22–23, 38.Google Scholar