The Female Business Owner By Nora Greenharper

Bonnie Basté was a white female business owner in Raleigh, NC during the Great Depression. The following biography is based off of a 1939 interview written by Harry Fain from the Federal Writer’s Project. This gives great detail about Basté’s life and focused on the struggles of owning a business, and beauty norms of the 1930s

Small business in the United States

Federal writers' Project

The Federal Writers Project was a project introduced under the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidency. The history of the Federal Writers' Project spanned between 1935 and 1940 (Fox 3). This project gave everyday working people a voice in society and it also gave people a job. The FWP writers "..had more success penetrating contemporary life than writing about the historical past" (Fox 5). All of the life histories gave a reality of what life was really like, and everything they could have possibly run into in the early 20th century. "They cast considerable light on the social, economic, political and intellectual ideals of a whole generation of American literary craftsmen" (Fox 4). Although, these writers interviewed and analyzed the lives of these every day people, information may be altered to make a better story. Before reading the Bonnie Baste life history something that stood out in the margins stated "revised: only a few minor changes." What someone considers a few minor changes can be a lot of major changes if read back to the interviewee. With this being said, the Baste life history should be read thoroughly to get a good understanding.


Bonnie Basté was raised in Louisburg, North Carolina with her father and two sisters. Her father was a common carpenter who also farmed. She grew up dressing hair but stated that she felt she had another calling. Based on this letter written in 1939 it is uncertain when Bonnie was born. However, as a child, she grew up in a time where makeup was frowned upon. In the life history she stated, “..She might as well have gone in a house in the red light district and started hustling." During this time period trying to change the way you look with makeup was sinful and people may look at you as a prostitute. Bonnie was married four times, for the first time at age 19. Bonnie had a child named Pedro by her second husband in which she kept the last name Basté, even though she could've went by many. Bonnie fell so in love with her last husband that she sold her big business. Bonnie was a manager of a beauty parlor located in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A model beauty shop in the 1930s

Business during great depression

Once Bonnie moved into a new shop after her last marriage business just wasn’t the same. In her old shop on Fayetteville street she would bring in $50-$100 weekly. "Catherine attempted to find full time work again, but harsh working conditions, an inadequate diet, worry and the strain of her mother's illness had taken their toll" (Helmbold 630). She brought all new appliances and states that they will get paid off one day. Also stating "May starve to death trying to pay for all this equipment." Although business is slow in the parlor prices for styling are still very low. Bonnie charged $1.50 for a shampoo and style and $7.00 for permanent style. With all the debt that Bonnie is in it forces her and her son to live in a very small house, smaller than she had ever lived in before. "..women's economic significance was central to their families' survival" (Helmbold 632). What Bonnie experiences helps represent larger issues is that when times are hard you work harder.

Similar size housing of Bonnie Baste

Beauty Norms of the 30s

The history of the beauty parlor in the United States is very popular and has recently become well known (Scanlon 310). In the early twentieth century, being able to do hair "turned domestic workers and farm girls into successful entrepreneurs" (Scanlon 310). Baste couldn't think of any other job fit for her, but at least she was good at what she did for a living. "By the end of World War I hairdressing had become a middle-class, respectable occupation for black and white women across the United States" (Scanlon 310). Baste went the extra mile to keep her shop in good condition even through the Great Depression, which is a main reason that her shop did not go out of business. "Even through the Great Depression, the beauty business preserved, in part because of women's entrepreneurial skills in introducing products that could be purchased only in salons" (Scanlon 310). "By 1930, the local beauty parlor had become 'the women's equivalent of the men's club: the place women went to be with each other'" (Scanlon 311). Baste went through hard times, but being a woman and being able to become successful was a great accomplishment.

Works cited

Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project.” American Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, 1961, pp. 3–19.

Helmbold, Lois Rita. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, 1987, pp. 629–655.

Milkman, Ruth. "Women's Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression." Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 8, Issue 1, pp. 71 - 97

Scanlon, Jennifer. “‘If My Husband Calls I'm Not Here’: The Beauty Parlor as Real and Representational Female Space.” Feminist Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2007, pp. 308–334.

Images cited

Lee, Russell. Small business establishments. September 1940. Ouray, Colorado. Photogrammar. index.php?record=fsa2000018796/PP, Accessed 3 Feb 2017.

Lee, Russell. Entrance to beauty parlor and barber shop. October 1937. Williston, North Dakota. Photogrammar. index.php?record=fsa1997022390/PP, Accessed 3 Feb 2017.

Allison, Jack. In this single-room house. September 1938. Hudson, Colorado. Photogrammar. index.php?record=fsa2000000565/PP, Accessed 3 Feb 2017.

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