A sudden tragedy thrust Rebecca Lukens into the family business and into history, making her the nation’s first woman industrialist and the only woman to run and eventually own an iron mill in the United States during the 1800s.
Rebecca Lukens, from the collections of the National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum, Coatesville, Pennsylvania
In 1825, at the age of 31 and expecting her sixth child, Rebecca Lukens endured a heart-wrenching loss. Her husband, Charles Lukens, died unexpectedly from illness. On his death bed Charles made Rebecca promise she would take over Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory, the family business which he had been running prior to his untimely death. Rebecca’s father, Isaac Pennock, was the original owner of the mill. He had died in 1824, and while he did not leave the business to Rebecca and Charles directly, he had made Rebecca a verbal promise that it belonged to her.
While white women from less privileged backgrounds increasingly worked outside of the home at the time, especially in textiles mills, white middle class women were expected to tend to the home, prioritizing homemaking and childrearing. These domestic ideals might have led Rebecca’s mother to believe that the male-dominated iron industry was no place for a woman. Despite her mother’s lack of support, Rebecca took over the family company because she was prepared to do so.
Rebecca had learned the business, first from her father, and then from her husband, who consulted her as he advanced and expanded the company. Though it was nearly bankrupt at the time of Charles’ death, Rebecca revived the mill and made it profitable, but this came at tremendous personal and financial cost.
Prior to running the mill, Rebecca’s life was different from other young women in the industrializing nation. The first child of her parents, Isaac and Martha Pennock, Rebecca was born on January 6, 1794, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Pennocks were Quakers whose faith shaped their lives. Because of their religious connections, Rebecca attended two Quaker boarding schools. While Rebecca learned traditional subjects such as math, chemistry, and French at school, her father taught her the ins and outs of the family business.
Brandywine Iron Works specialized in the production of small iron products such as nails, wheels, barrel hoops, and blacksmith rods. Rebecca sometimes joined her father on business trips. It was on a trip to Philadelphia that she met the man who would eventually become her husband.
Quaker women like Rebecca wore bonnets of this style throughout the mid to late 1800s. This lined and quilted bonnet, while plain, was functional and kept the wearer warm during cold weather.
Rebecca met Dr. Charles Lukens, a fellow Quaker and a physician with a thriving medical practice in Abington, Pennsylvania. The two fell in love and married in 1813. Soon after marriage, Charles changed professional course, giving up his medical practice to join Isaac Pennock, Rebecca’s father,