Capital Intentions

Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920

By Edith Sparks

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 illus., 2 figs., 13 tables, 1 map, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5775-5
    Published: November 2006
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6820-1
    Published: December 2011
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7890-8
    Published: December 2011

Luther H. Hodges Jr. and Luther H. Hodges Sr. Series on Business, Entrepreneurship, and Public Policy

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Late nineteenth-century San Francisco was an ethnically diverse but male-dominated society bustling from a rowdy gold rush, earthquakes, and explosive economic growth. Within this booming marketplace, some women stepped beyond their roles as wives, caregivers, and homemakers to start businesses that combined family concerns with money-making activities. Edith Sparks traces the experiences of these women entrepreneurs, exploring who they were, why they started businesses, how they attracted customers and managed finances, and how they dealt with failure.

Using a unique sample of bankruptcy records, credit reports, advertisements, city directories, census reports, and other sources, Sparks argues that women were competitive, economic actors, strategizing how best to capitalize on their skills in the marketplace. Their boardinghouses, restaurants, saloons, beauty shops, laundries, and clothing stores dotted the city's landscape. By the early twentieth century, however, technological advances, new preferences for name-brand goods, and competition from large-scale retailers constricted opportunities for women entrepreneurs at the same time that new opportunities for women with families drew them into other occupations. Sparks's analysis demonstrates that these businesswomen were intimately tied to the fortunes of the city over its first seventy years.

About the Author

Edith Sparks is associate professor of history at the University of the Pacific.
For more information about Edith Sparks, visit the Author Page.


"Study makes an undeniably significant contribution to the fields of women's, business, and San Francisco history."--Western Historical Quarterly

"A lively, engaging, and far-ranging look at women entrepreneurs. . . . Sparks fills a large gap in historians' understanding of women's role in the development of the West. . . . There is much to glean from Sparks's investigation."--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Sparks offers the most sophisticated account to date of the history of women in business. She gracefully navigates between choice and constraint, vividly depicting women as shrewd economic actors who seized the opportunities available to them, but who nevertheless operated within a gendered economic landscape.”--Wendy Gamber, author of The Female Economy

"[Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco] is a fine study and a nice addition to the continuing work on female proprietors. . . . Those who are interested in the history of small business in the U.S. should read this book."--EH.NET

"Female entrepreneurs in the West have been invisible for too long. This book fills a gap in women's history and business history and answers important questions about women's economic participation in the West--questions that have often been obscured by stereotypical portraits of prostitutes and madams."--Lynn M. Hudson, California Polytechnic State University