Woman's Exchange Movement

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WOMAN'S EXCHANGE MOVEMENT. Started in 1832, the Woman's Exchange movement is one of the country's oldest continuously operating charitable movements. Numbering nearly one hundred across the United States in the nineteenth century, Exchanges were fashionable shops where women who had fallen on hard times could sell their home-produced merchandise on consignment. Exchanges combined elements of charity, cooperation, and retailing, and serve as early examples of utilizing the voluntary sector for quasi-commercial activity.

In the antebellum years, only two Exchanges are known to have existed. The first, the Philadelphia Ladies' Depository, was established by many of the city's elite women to provide a discreet and anonymous employment alternative to harsh conditions "fallen gentlewomen" faced in the industrial workplace. After the Civil War, the movement quickly accelerated across the nation. Fueled by notions of self-help and economic independence, the Exchanges became available to women of all classes to sell their home-produced merchandise. By 1891 more than 16,000 consignors nationwide sold merchandise at Exchanges.

The Exchanges offered both the consignors and the "lady managers" the opportunity to exert their entrepreneurial flair. The working-class consignors often exceeded the industrial wage and could create a market niche by selling specialized items such as needlework or edibles. The middle-and upper-class managers benefited as well by becoming retailing executives, a position formerly off-limits to women of their social status.

The movement provides an early example of women's efforts to legally incorporate their voluntary organizations and to collectively purchase commercial real estate. In addition to retail consignment shops, many Exchanges offered boarding rooms, vocational training, workspace for self-employed women, and tearooms, which often became well known.

In 2001 twenty-eight Exchanges are in business, primarily on the East Coast. Of this number, eight are the original nineteenth-century Exchanges. The others were formed in the twentieth century. Most Exchanges today are affiliated with the Federation of Woman's Exchanges, an umbrella organization started in 1934 to provide cohesion to the movement.


Sander, Kathleen Waters. The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832–1900. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Kathleen WatersSander