5 Savvy Businesswomen from History
March 8, 2017

Hurray, it’s Women’s History Month! In addition, March 8th is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Be Bold for Change. The 10 women in this article definitely knew something about being bold, as being a woman with her own business was an unheard of thing until, well, not all that long ago.

Marie Tussaud

When Marie Tusseau was very young, she and her mother moved in with a physician, Philippe Curtius, as Marie’s mother was his housekeeper. Curtius was a highly skilled wax sculptor and became proficient at sculpting anatomy, followed by wax busts. He passed this skill onto the young Marie who developed her craft over the years. Her first completed work was of Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher, in 1777. She and Curtius created busts of the French monarchy, famous figures from the French Revolution and then Napoleon. Customers came to their salon and paid a fee to view the busts, likely the best way to see what these famous people looked like up close.

Curtius died and left his waxworks to Marie. She married and had a couple kids. Her husband ended up being a bit of a deadbeat so Marie took the oldest of their two sons and traveled all over England, Scotland and Ireland, displaying the wax busts at travelling shows for 33 years. She opened a permanent museum in London on Baker Street in 1835. As of March 2017, there are currently 24 Madame Tussauds locations around the world.

Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason

Bridget was born into slavery in in Georgia in 1818. She was given as a wedding present to a newly married couple and they eventually ended up in California. In 1850, California became a ‘free state’ and all slaves residing there were supposed to be free. However, her master Robert Smith didn’t exactly come out and tell her this news so she remained a slave in his household. Bridget eventually received her freedom papers in 1860.

While working as a nurse and a midwife, Bridget saved and, only ten years after acquiring her freedom, became one of the first African Americans to purchase land in in Los Angeles. This parcel of land is now in the city’s commercial district. She built commercial space on the land and amassed an impressive fortune. She also gave generously to charities and was one of the founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

Coco Chanel

After growing up poor and in unfortunate circumstances, Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel learned to sew while in an orphanage with her sister. Once she aged out of the orphanage, she moved to a boarding house in Moulins. She made enough money from sewing to live on but dreamed of a career on stage. When this didn’t pan out, she became the mistress of a wealthy socialite. During this time, she started designing hats.

Coco’s next romantic interest was another wealthy socialite, Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel. With financial assistance from Capel, Coco opened her first boutique in 1913 in Deauville, France where she sold hats, coats and sweaters. In 1916, Coco was able to pay Capel back in full. She purchased a commercial property in Paris in 1918 and continued to earn incredible success.

It’s unfortunate that some events later in her life have tainted her position as an inspiring businesswoman. However, it’s worth noting that Chanel is still one of the biggest couture brands in the fashion world, 108 years after its founding, and had a revenue of over $5 billion in 2016.

Anna Bissell

Anna’s Bissell’s husband invented and patented a carpet sweeper in 1876. Upon Melville Bissell’s death in 1889, Anna became the CEO of the Bissell Sweeper Company, and the first CEO in US history. She marketed and sold the product, making it an enormous success and even found a loyal customer in Queen Victoria. She was also one of the first entrepreneurs to provide employees with pensions and other benefits.

Fun fact: Anna Bissell was born in Nova Scotia. I’ve heard some really cool chicks come from that province. WINK!

Margaret Hardenbroeck

Before New York was New York, it was New Amsterdam. One of the first settlers in New Amsterdam was Margaret Hardenbroeck, the daughter of a German immigrant who moved to New Jersey. Hardenbroeck married, had a child and was soon left a wealthy widow. She took over his estate and began shipping and trading pins, cooking oils and vinegar in exchange for furs which went to Holland.

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast and the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle (historical fiction), The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street (historical romance), and The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII (non-fiction). Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.

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  1. Margaret HardenbroekDeVries Philipse was my 8th great grandmother I appreciate the post but it is factually inaccurate

    • Such as? I’m interested to hear the specifics.


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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.

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