Robust Sales and Trim Figures: Lane Bryant Catalogs, 1921-1947

By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting

Lane Bryant, a New York firm established as far back as 1904, today focuses on creating fashions for—in modern parlance—“plus size” women. However, its first origins were actually in maternity wear. The company’s founder, seamstress Lena Himmelstein Bryant, was asked by a customer to create something comfortable yet street-appropriate for her to don while expecting. Word of mouth quickly spread and Ms. Bryant soon realized that there was a high, unmet demand not just for presentable maternity clothing (thanks in part to a burgeoning market of working- and middle-class consumers who could not afford to give up paid work while pregnant), but also for inexpensive, larger-sized women’s wear.

Lane Bryant became the first company to mass-produce both of these clothing types, launching the firm on a trajectory of rapid growth. Between 1909 and 1923, annual sales grew from $50,000 to $5 million. Among other factors, the mail-order catalog was key to this success. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers would not run ads for maternity wear, considering the topic too indelicate for print. When in 1911 Ms. Bryant was able to convince the New York Herald to run an ad for one of her maternity garments, the company’s entire stock sold out the next day. However, the taboo proved persistent. By privately and directly marketing to consumers via the mail-order catalog, Lane Bryant found a clever (not to mention lucrative) way around this problem.

 

Lane Bryant maternity wear was “Designed to Grow with Your Figure,” and this 1947 catalog features many models who do not yet have the appearance of pregnancy.

Lane Bryant maternity wear was “Designed to Grow with Your Figure,” and this 1947 catalog features many models who do not yet have the appearance of pregnancy. Accn.# 2014-207-pg5. chace.athm.org

 

Despite this, and in spite of their presumed audience, over the following decades even Lane Bryant’s own catalogs reflect an assumption of squeamishness about abundantly-proportioned female shapes, pregnant or not. Their imagery idealizes the ultra-slim female, with the illustrations on all but a few pages of the 1921 catalog featuring delicate ankles and waists and nary an ounce of excess flesh. The 1934 and ’47 catalogs have jettisoned images of heavy-looking women altogether, displaying only trim women with small busts and flat bellies. The catalogs’ language reflected this bias, as well: while the 1921 catalog was titled, “Bargains for Stout Women,” those of the later decades avoided such unflattering language, touting instead the company’s “slenderizing fashions.”

 

The slender models appearing on this 1921 catalog cover belie the title “Bargains for Stout Women.”

The slender models appearing on this 1921 catalog cover belie the title “Bargains for Stout Women.” Accn.# 2008-242. chace.athm.org

 

“Stout” in 1921 has given way to “Slenderizing Fashions” by the time of this 1934 catalog.

“Stout” in 1921 has given way to “Slenderizing Fashions” by the time of this 1934 catalog. Accn.# 2014-2-11. chace.athm.org

 

For better or worse, at the time Lane Bryant was hardly unusual in its tactics—advertisers had, by the mid-1920s, figured out that the aspirational approach sold a lot more clothes than grim reality. Though its marketing strategy continues to evolve with the culture, today, the company and its wares still meet the needs of a significant customer base.

Converse: Mass.-Made Rubbers

By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting

Once again on the subject of famous shoe companies born in New England (see a previous blog post on Keds), another remarkable artifact recently surfaced in ATHM’s collections. This 1950s-era Converse Sporting Footwear poster, issued to retailers by the Converse Rubber Company, depicts shoe styles that, like the high-heeled Keds featured in the prior post, might not seem to fit the brand name we know today.

Converse, Inc. Only Converse sporting footwear brings you all these features! [Malden, Mass.]: Converse, Inc., [1950?]. Accn. #2010.12.3.

Converse, originally founded in 1908, is now famous around the world for its iconic Chuck Taylors (launched in 1917). The company, established by Marquis M. Converse, in Malden, Massachusetts, is another example of a New England manufacturer that managed to successfully weather a hundred years of changing consumer tastes—an order as tall as some of these boots, to be sure.

Different from what we picture when we hear the name “Converse,” these rubber boots look more like those of fellow New England sports clothing maker, L.L. Bean. According to Abraham Aamidor, who penned a history of Converse’s famed Chuck Taylor and his All Star sneakers, by 1910 Converse was producing over 4,000 rubber boots per day, and the company had to send workers home for the winter after all orders for galoshes had been filled. The rubber-soled Chuck Taylors were created to help the company balance the books, and keep its employees working, during this time of year.

But the story of local rubber ingenuity deepens, as in fact it was inventors in early 19th-century Massachusetts who made crucial advancements in the materials needed to make boots like these. In 1830s Springfield, Mass., Charles Goodyear first developed the process of “vulcanization” of rubber, which allowed it to remain stable and strong whatever the temperature (rather than sticky in hot weather, and brittle in cold—problems that had previously plagued the material). Around that same time Edwin Chaffee, working in Boston, invented a machine called a calender that pressed rubber into sheets, making it much easier to fashion into footwear and clothing. Both of these inventions propelled the rubber industry forward dramatically. (However, it should be noted that at the time this poster was made, most “rubber” products were made up largely of synthetics, partly as a result of WWII rubber shortages.)

As it happens, now is an especially appropriate time to be looking back on this home-grown shoe manufacturer—Converse Inc. moves in April, 2015 from its current home in North Andover, Mass., to new Boston headquarters, its Chuck Taylor shoe still very much at the heart of its longevity.

ATHM Welcomes New Project Archivist

ATHM is pleased to announce that Rhonda Chadwick has been hired as a Project Archivist to begin work on the Troy Mills records, a large collection (approximately 700 cartons) of material relating to the Troy Mills of Troy, N.H.  Troy Mills, owned and operated by the Ripley family, began life in 1865 as Troy Blanket Mills, a manufacturer of horse blankets; branched out into apparel fabrics and automotive trim in the 20th century; and continued operations under the same family until the early part of this century, a remarkable span of over 135 years.  The collection represents an exceptional look at the complete business history of the longest family-owned textile mill in New Hampshire.

Rhonda Chadwick stands among the stacks of records from the Troy Mills that she will be archiving.

 

Rhonda holds a dual master’s degree from Simmons College in Boston: an MS in Library and Information Science and an MA in History.  She recently completed work on a comprehensive survey of the Gorham Manufacturing Company collection (6,000 linear feet) at the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and has worked on collections at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston, the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The Troy Mills Project is being supported by the generosity of Ripley family members.

How Big is Your Turbine?

Turbines, or water wheels, were manufactured to supply power to many industries, not the least of which was the textile industry.  Before the advent of electricity, it was the water wheels in the basements of many textile  factories churning the water supplied by the canals or rivers on which these factories were situated that supplied the power to the textile machinery on the floors above.  The Osborne Library has an extensive collection of trade catalogs for companies that manufactured turbines, including the Rodney Hunt Machine Company of Orange, Mass.; the Holyoke Machine Company of Holyoke, Mass.; and James Leffel & Company of Springfield, Ohio.

However, turbines were produced for other industries, especially the power industry, such as this one pictured below, a water turbine manufactured by S. Morgan Smith Co. of York, Penn.  Made for the Great Falls Power Station of the Montana Power Company, it was one of six units manufactured by S. Morgan Smith Co. developing 90,000 HP (horsepower) under 50 feet head at 200 RPM (revolutions per minute).

It’s not until you realize that’s a man standing inside the penstock (on the right) that you understand just how tremendously large this turbine is.  It gives a whole new meaning to scale, and illustrates the awesome size far better than a dry recitation of so many feet high and so many feet wide.

S. Morgan Smith & Co. was founded in York, Penn., in 1876 and operated under that name until 1959, when it was taken over by Allis-Chambers Manufacturing Company.  The company continues today under the name Precision Custom Components, still manufacturing energy related equipment for commercial and government markets, including components of nuclear reactors.

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

Bombazetts for Sale!

Bombazetts were only one of the many dry goods for sale by William Manning Jr. in his shop at No. 1 Old Faneuil Hall in Boston around 1835, as we can see in this broadside issued by Manning and recently purchased by the Osborne Library. Along with ginghams, plaids, calicoes, cambrics, linens, silks, velvets, etc.—all terms we recognize today—he also sold such fabrics as bombazetts (a thin dressgoods cloth), fearnoughts (a heavy English cheviot material), duffils (a poor quality blanket made from low grade woolen yarns), kerseys (a term referring to both a high quality woolen fabric and a coarse ribbed or twilled fabric), and bockings (a coarse woolen fabric used for floor cloths), terms that have pretty much faded from the modern lexicon!

Fabrics, of course, were only one aspect of a dry goods store. Manning also sold all of the accompaniments that would be used when sewing a piece of clothing—buttons, ribbons, laces—as well as the needles, thread, and pins needed, plus gloves, handkerchiefs, shawls, hosiery, umbrellas, and the like. And for those interested in one-stop shopping, note the reference to butter and cheese being for sale in the cellar under Manning’s store. Manning’s shop was located directly opposite what we know today as Quincy Market in downtown Boston, where shopkeepers of all sorts of provisions could be found, both then and now.

Industry and art come together in this broadside with the addition of a charming engraving of Faneuil Hall at the top of the sheet, making Manning’s shop location instantly recognizable, even to those who might not be able to read his long list of “articles too numerous to be mentioned.” Manning was “desirous to extend his business” and was willing to accept goods in exchange or barter. He offered cash or credit terms, and would deal wholesale or retail. Despite the wear and tear seen on the sheet, it’s remarkable that this thin sheet survived 175 years to remind us of how some things have changed but some things haven’t. As any business owner would say today, it’s all about the service!

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

To Market, To Market (In An Overloaded Truck)

Raw wool could be brought to wool processors in many ways: shipped by train, by truck, or by boat, depending on where the raw wool was gathered and where it was being shipped for processing into yarn and eventually cloth. But as the photograph below indicates, the general idea was to ship as much as could possibly be stuffed into whatever method of transport you chose—in this case a truck—and then just add some more to the pile!

Photograph, c. 1905. Accession number: 1997.250.2

 

This gentleman, piloting a very early truck (probably about 1905), is possibly hoping that all those bags of wool don’t fall on his head before he reaches his destination. While we don’t know what each bag weighs, these bags are pretty large, and we can see at least 16 in the photograph, not counting what might be underneath in the bed of the truck. An estimate of 1500 or 1600 pounds total weight is probably not too unrealistic. It doesn’t seem like those thin little wheels on this truck could support all that weight (compare them to the large tires on tractor-trailers these days). In the early days of automobile design, the steering wheel sits perpendicular to the driver, rather than facing the driver as in modern-day cars, and note the complete lack of a cab, roof or any kind of cover, as well as the hand crank in the front.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the location of this photo, but what we see here is an enterprising gentleman who isn’t afraid to take on a load. Maybe he was just trying to conserve fuel by making only one trip. When “horseless carriages” first began operating, the “rules of the road” were minimum at best, and non-existent at worst, so he certainly wasn’t worried about weight limits. I’m just glad I wasn’t in a vehicle coming the other way!

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

Work Rules—Then (1859) and Now

Over 150 years ago, on March 18, 1859, Martha Constantine was registered to work in the No. 2 Weaving Room of the Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company in Salmon Falls, N.H.  (Salmon Falls Village was part of present-day Rollinsford, N.H., just across the river from South Berwick, Maine.)  The Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1822 to make woolen cloth; after a fire in 1834, the mill was rebuilt and the company turned to the manufacture of cotton cloth.  The company continued under the Salmon Falls name for over 100 years until 1929, when its name changed to the Tire Fabric Corp., as tire fabric had become the company’s chief product.  The company finally stopped production in 1936.

General Regulations of Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company, Salem Falls, N.H.; 1859; 0033.85.77

When Martha was registered to work, she was probably given a copy of the notice published here: the General Regulations of the company.  The Osborne Library holds a number of the work regulations of various companies, and the language is startling similar in many of them, indicating that these were system wide rules.  These were the rules laid out for employees, starting with the regulations to be followed by the overseers (the supervisors) who were “to be punctually in their rooms at the starting of the mills, and not to be absent unnecessarily during working hours” and who “may grant leave of absence to those employed under them, when there are spare hands in the room to supply their places; otherwise they are not to grant leave of absence, except in cases of absolute necessity.” 

Continue reading >

“The Jail Is All Full”

By early March 1912, the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., had been ongoing for nearly two months. Textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., primarily immigrant women, went out on strike on January 12 after mill owners lowered wages due to a shortened workweek.  More than 20,000 workers were out by the end of the first week.  Demonstrations and picketing took place and the governor of Massachusetts eventually called out the state militia to keep the peace, and large numbers of strikers were arrested. 

Postcard Front

Postcard, 1912; 0000.1623.2

The postcard shown here is a common view of the Lawrence Dam; we have about a dozen different views of the dam in the holdings here in the Osborne Library.  However, it is the message on the back of this one that stands out.  Postmarked Feb. 26, 1912, and written by “Tom” in Lawrence to “Rose” in Revere, Mass., it includes the following message: “Rose am having a swell time here this. [sic] a man was shot and 17 women arrested, and 30 men.  the jail is all full.  Yours, Tom” 

Postcard Reverse

Postcard-reverse, 1912; 0000.1623.2

While the strike was extensively reported in newspapers and periodicals of the time throughout 1912, and has been studied in depth since then, it is less common to see a personal comment while the strike was ongoing.  This is the only personal notation concerning the strike we have here in the library. 

The strike was settled on March 14 in favor of the strikers, with pay increases, overtime pay, and a promise of non-discrimination against the strikers.  Due to a number of factors, the gains from the strike dissipated over the next few years and the mill workers ended up no better off than they had been before 1912. 

By Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian