Flat Curve
Sculpture: ©JenniferRubinGarey, featured use courtesy of the sculptor.
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

As the Covid-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, I offered my services to the librarian at the Worcester Historical Museum for a research project.  When asked if there was anything that I had been curious about, I mentioned the Ivy Corset building downtown a few blocks from City Hall.  I had driven by signs directing people to its location and had stopped at the building itself but knew nothing of its story.  I had read that it was owned by a woman.  That intrigued me.  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 140 businesses either making corsets, making supplies for corsets, or selling them.  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.

Famously denigrated by The New York Times as being the “utility closet of Massachusetts,” Worcester is known for its many large 19th century brick factories that poured useful products into the world at an amazing rate starting with the opening of the Blackstone Canal in the early 1800s.  This so-called gritty grimy little brother of Boston — America’s highbrow Athens of the West thirty-five miles away — punched far above its weight in industrial production.   Among the useful products pouring out of Worcester were wire (barbed wire for western lands, elaborate cable wires for urban trolley cars, piano wire), looms, guns, boots, machinery, envelopes, horseshoes …  the list goes on. 

The corsets

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:

“The fine embroidery representing traditional motifs of oak leaves and wheat ears symbolize well-being and prosperity. During this period, a woman’s dress was very representative of her class and so having an embellished undergarment with these motifs would be most fitting.”

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. 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.

I imagine families contributing to the success of the corsetieres. The women of the Salgstrom family (see the profile of Edith Salgstrom ), for example: were they all doing piecework around their dining room table for sister and aunt Edith? The notion of Worcester as a city of only big brick factories is challenged by the existence of these small family-fueled businesses. Clearly there was enough demand to support both methods of production.

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

On the end of the production spectrum far from owner/operator kitchen table assembly we find Royal Worcester Corset Company (RWCC). It was the biggest of Worcester’s corset factories and was a major player in the American corset industry, a leader in domestic corset production from its founding as predecessor company Worcester Corset Company in 1875. I suspect that many of the other corset making businesses in the city started when former RWCC employees set up as competitors.

We see connected industries in the corset supply chain in the city too, for example, the wire manufacturer Washburn & Moen that made hoops for David Hale Fanning’s first female-focused venture (hoop skirt manufacturer) then made wire stays for the city’s corset-makers. There are fabric producers the American Narrow Fabric Company (“manufacturers of hose supporters, elastic webbing, tapes, etc. for the corset and brassier industries”) and Sherman Textile Company (from 1916-1935, producing fabrics for the corset industry). Another Worcester corset industry supplier was the Keystone Braiding Co. which made corset laces. Having locally-based suppliers also surely helped Worcester’s corset industry grow.

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 (6 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.