Journal Article

Lost in registration? Missing occupations of single women in the Bruges countryside, c. 1814

Devos, I., De Langhe, S., Matthys, C.
History of the Family, 19:4, 469–488 (2014)


The absence of occupational titles for women in historical censuses has stymied numerous scholars. Various authors have explained this phenomenon as carelessness or bias on the part of the census-takers. Women's work was of little interest to the authorities and census officials focused their efforts upon the activities of the head of household. While source triangulation can be a useful tool for uncovering ‘hidden’ employment of women, it is often a complex and time-consuming process. In this article we outline an alternative to deal with the issue of missing occupations of single women in censuses by exploring their living arrangements. We identify four aspects of co-residence that can highlight the roles played within the household by single women without registered employment: their relation to the head of the household, and that individual's occupation, property and marital status. Comparing data from the 1814 population census regarding two social agro-systems and the city of Bruges, we argue that occupational titles of single women were not randomly omitted by the census officials, but reflect the embeddedness of these women in the family economy and household. While we do not refute recent research that stresses single women's economic independence during the long eighteenth century, our findings suggest that for a subset of singles this was not the case. We claim that by studying registered labour only, the historical picture of single women's work is biased or at the very least incomplete.
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.