Jennifer Rubin Garey, Flat Curves
2019 ©Jennifer Rubin Garey courtesy of the artist
Photo by Anne Marie Murphy copyright 2020

City of Corsets,
Worcester Massachusetts

The stories of its corset industry
and how it shaped the city

Discovering the city filled with corsets

The purpose of this website is to provide an overview of a project which will, I hope, soon become a published book.  Previous visitors to the site will be sad to see the stories of the Bon Ton School of Corsetry women, corsetiere Edith Salgstrom, and factory owner Mary Bowne missing from Website Version 2 but please, bear with me as we wait for those stories to appear in book form.

Soon after moving to Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2017, I noticed signs directing people to the Ivy Corset Building in an industrial neighborhood a few blocks from City Hall.  I had stopped at the building but hadn’t been able to find out much about it.  I had read that it was owned by a woman, that intrigued me.  On the other side of town was the Royal Worcester Corset Company factory building, now a converted residential property, a business that was very well documented and which had been at the forefront of corset production in the United States.  But this Ivy Corset place, that was the mystery.  How long was it in business?  Who was this female owner?  How big an operation was it?

I started looking through Worcester city directories for clues and what I found in them was so much bigger than Ivy Corset’s story, which itself is fascinating.  From the Worcester corset industry’s beginnings post-Civil War until the disappearance of corset production here completely in the 1980s, there were almost 130 businesses either making, making supplies for, or selling corsets.  It was a city filled with corsets.

Exterior of the Ivy Corset Building, Worcester Massachusetts.  This woman-owned business began life as the Corset H Company in 1904.   Photo by the author, copyright 2020.
Exterior of the Ivy Corset Building, Worcester Massachusetts. This woman-owned business began life as the Corset H Company in 1904. Photo by the author, copyright 2020.

The research became a writing project which is now complete and waiting to be published.  The book City of Corsets focuses on the women of the local industry, telling the story of that Ivy Corset Company owner Mary Bowne in great detail, along with the stories of many Worcester women who played a part, such as: 

– a group of saleswoman educators who worked as travelling corset-fitting teachers across the United States

– a multiple patent-holding seamstress entrepreneur who was allegedly the richest woman in Connecticut at the time of her death

– a “dress reform” doctor who lectured on the damaging health effects of corset wearing before her untimely demise

The website now has a table of contents with a paragraph describing each chapter. You will also find three chapters that are not in the book:  the stories of Linehan-Conover Corset Company, Park Corset Works, and Sherman Textile.  All three businesses were owned and run by men, a demographic I chose to leave out of City of Corsets after receiving much encouragement to “focus on the women!” 
For their stories, please sign up for the
City of Corsets newsletter and get notification of progress toward the published book. 

The corsets and their makers

Corsets are one of Worcester’s fancier outputs. They are elaborately constructed intimate apparel items made of specialty fabrics, laces, many seams, and tiny clasps. Some of them are little works of art. There are in fact corsets produced by Worcester businesses that are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City such as the Royal Worcester Corset Company’s Bon Ton corset pictured below.

Who is making the corsets?

It is a labor-intensive product: the embroidery, the custom fittings, the imaginative touches, the artisanry. In Worcester that labor was provided either in a factory setting or by a woman on the long list of “corsetieres” in town, working on her own, often from home. I once read that most service businesses do not last past their first three years, and that those that make it to year five will likely survive going forward. We see many Worcester single operator home-based locations surpassing that five year threshold, with some prospering much longer. Two of the self-employed corsetieres (May Cosgrove, Edith Salgstrom) ran their businesses for over thirty years, another (Emma Kemp) for over twenty. This is a testament to their hard work, to their intelligence as business owners, to the size of the market for these items, and to a climate in the city that seemed suited to corset making.
Title: Corset, 1876
Manufacturer: Worcester Corset Company (American, 1872–1901)
Medium: silk, cotton, metal, bone
Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of E. A. Meister, 1950
Accession Number: 2009.300.3106a–c

Where are worcester's corsets being made

Worcester’s downtown hosted most of the early corset makers because that’s where the city congregated at that time: on Main Street. We see clusters of activity at certain addresses: 339 Main Street (7 corset makers), 390 Main Street (7 listings), 393 Main Street (4 listings), 306 Main Street (4 listings), 507 Main Street (4 listings). There were also three Main Street addresses with 3 listings each and another with 2 listings. The total number of Main Street businesses from 1860 to 1979 that were at a Main Street address was 60… almost half of the total.

I imagine knocks on doors in those big Main Street buildings among the sisterhood of makers at random hours asking to borrow such-and-such. Perhaps a neighbor down the hall at 339 Main would be willing to lend you a particular color of thread until tomorrow. I picture late night troubleshooting visits about a jammed sewing machine on one of those upper stories over Main Street. Many of the women who ran those Main Street businesses also lived where they worked.

As the years pass, we watch corset making businesses and their owners moving around the newly expanding city limits, especially west. We certainly see increasing numbers of the management of these businesses listing upper middle class west side addresses as their residences. And speaking of moving: Worcester’s growing trolley service likely moved many employees from one end of the city to another just as its prominence as a significant New England rail hub allowed for rapid movement of product out of the city to destinations across the U.S. and around the world.