Burnside Building
339 Main Street in Worcester

This downtown commercial building was home to seven different corsetiere businesses from 1904 – 1927

The Burnside Building circa 1900. From the collection at Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts.
Front entry to 339 Main Street in Worcester, the Burnside Building built in 1886-1887. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

The Burnside Building sits in the heart of Worcester’s downtown, two blocks from City Hall.  In 1904, when the first corsetiere (Mary Costello) in the building set up shop, her fellow tenants included the following:  

  • 7 skirt and dress makers
  • 5 real estate firms
  • 4 insurance agencies
  • 3 each:  hairdressers, dentists
  • 2 each:  milliners, chiropodists, music teachers, pension businesses
  • 1 each:  barber, typewriter company, collector, dental lab, oxygen treatment, patent lawyer, architect
Period light fixture in the Burnside Building lobby. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.
Detail of the Burnside Building entryway. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

A Worcester lady of the era might enter the Burnside Building where she could, after knocking on the doors of three of its tenants, collect her dresses, hats and undergarments for the next year.  If she had extra time and money after engaging in all that commerce, she could also visit the hairdresser.  The variety of commerce available in the building that year gives us a vibrant example of what Main Street used to mean to North America.  Main Street was where you went for your goods and services before cars, highways, malls, suburbs, box stores, internet, ecommerce.  

The Massachusetts Historical Commission describes the Burnside Building as a good example of late Victorian commercial architecture.  Heirs to 19th century Worcester lawyer Samuel Burnside spent some of their inheritance on architectural plans for the building from the Boston firm Bradlee, Winslow, and Wetherell.  When it first opened in 1887 its street-level storefronts featured “plate-glass display windows set in a cast-iron surround” and its façade was covered with carved stonework.  The Main Street exterior looks today very much as it did when the building first opened.  

In the current public spaces (hallways, staircase, etc.) inside the building, not much historic detail remains.  It has been transformed over the years by multiple owners to reflect the taste and needs of changing times.  What was probably a wood trim interior with hardwood floors is now five stories of dropped ceilings, fluorescent bulb light boxes, wall-to-wall carpeting, and plastic mini-blinds.  A majestic glass ceiling light fixture from the early days still hangs in the building lobby, which gets an upscale feeling from deep green marble tiles that fill the area.

          … from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, published in 1900:  “The huge plates of window glass, now so common, were then rapidly coming into use, and gave to the ground-floor offices a distinguished and prosperous look.  The casual wanderer could see, as he passed, a polished array of office fixtures, much frosted glass, clerks hard at work and gentlemanly business men in ‘nobby’ suits and clean linen lounging about or sitting in groups.”

1. Mary Costello, Burnside Building corsetiere in 1904

Mary A. Costello was the first corsetiere to haul her sewing machine through the Burnside’s impressive foyer.  The 30-year-old first generation Irish-American had previously worked as a telegraph operator, a job also held by her older sister Agnes.  Following the disappearance of their father from the home and the death of their brother in the last years of the 1890s, the two sisters with their Irish-born mother Nora lived in a series of downtown Worcester boarding houses (42 Belmont Street, 34 Belmont Street, 2 Clinton Street, 133 Main Street, 123 Main Street) as they scraped together a living.  Mother Nora, no stranger to adversity, had left Ireland as a five-year-old in 1839, when the infamous Potato Famine was about to send thousands out of that country in search of a better life.

In 1910, Mary married Frank Richard Smith who held the positions of tower man and signal man at one of the local railroad yards.  She continued as a corset maker after leaving the Burnside Building, working out of different home addresses for many years.  Later adding manicures to her marketable skills, she partnered in that venture with her sister Agnes (Robinson) as “Smith & Robinson” and worked out of another Main Street address (120 Main).  She also ran a “dyers and cleansers” business at 120 Main in the mid 1920s.   I get a strong feeling of the drive and determination of this woman, trying one job after another to pay the bills.  Her husband died in 1935, leaving Mary on her own until June of 1943 when she died at her home at 5 Chatham Place in downtown Worcester, where she had both lived and worked for all of her adult life.    

Mary Costello made and sold corsets in the Burnside Building in 1904.  She was there that year in what we hope was the supportive company of seven skirt and dress makers and two milliners, women in related lines of work with similar concerns and supplies that could be shared, in any of these scenarios:  a broken sewing machine needle, a spool of black thread that simply disappeared, change for a ten dollar bill.   Her employment in the corset industry, her Irish immigrant parents, her all-woman boarding house homes, and her husband the rail yard worker position her as an archetypical Worcester woman of the early 20th century.

2. Mary Lovett, Burnside Building corsetiere 1912-1916

Mary Lovett worked as a corsetiere in the Burnside Building from 1912 until 1916, opening her shop eight years after Mary Costello’s departure from the building.  City directories for the five years prior to 1912 describe Mary Lovett as a forewoman living in a boarding house at 25 Portland Street.   The 1910 U.S. Census says that her work was at a corset shop and that she was rooming with Elizabeth Lovett, an inspector at a corset shop.  I’m guessing that: 

  • a. “shop” in this context meant “factory” because the title of inspector is not typically used in the one-person corsetiere shop setting, where the inspector is also the maker and the presser and the seller and the sweeper of the floor.  There were six Worcester corset factories at which Mary might have been working in 1912.   
  • b. Elizabeth was likely Mary’s sister.  Mary was 42 years old when she opened her shop at 339 Main.  Younger sister Elizabeth, 29 at the time, did not work in the shop because she had left Worcester in 1912 for Springfield, Massachusetts.  

Both women were single and born in Massachusetts to Irish parents.  Like Mary Costello, they fit a classic Worcester profile of white first generation American corset industry workers living in an all-woman household, typically a boarding house in the downtown core.  The men in the family are gone, either dead or living elsewhere.  In 1900 the three women of the Costello family had lived in Fall River:  Mary, sister Elizabeth and widowed mother Maria.  Mary worked there as a cotton weaver, a job that could provide a helpful background to work in corsetry.

Mary Lovett made corsets in the Burnside Building for five years before moving in 1917 — the year the U.S. entered World War I — to Springfield Massachusetts.  There, she briefly continued to make corsets after moving in with her brother Thomas and his wife and son.  By 1921, she had taken a job as a machine operator, ending her many years of involvement in the corset industry. 

3-5. Hannah O. Johnson, Burnside Building corsetiere 1917-1911

Hannah O. Johnson had a six year tenure in the Burnside Building as owner of three different corsetiere businesses:  Johnson & Valva (1917), Johnson & Streeter (1918-1920), and Shop Johnson (1921-1922).  Starting in room 27 with business partner Michael Valva and keeping that room after his death late in 1919, she moved to room 26 for her last year in the building.

Born in Sweden in 1881 and immigrating to the United States as a toddler, she became part of Worcester’s huge community of displaced Swedes.  I wonder, did she know Edith Salgstrom from that expat community?  Did Hannah talk Edith into opening her corsetiere business in the Burnside Building?  They both worked out of room 26, giving that room double credit in any City of Corsets contest.

The 1910 U.S. Census has 34-year-old Hannah Johnson working as a “machine hand” at a corset shop.  She lived in Worcester with her husband Charles (a moulder at a brass foundry), daughters Hazel and Helen, and either her or Charles’ mother and father. 

Handrail detail, the Burnside Building. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

Her first business venture was a partnership with Michael Angelo Valva.  This is an intriguing combination of two of Worcester’s largest immigrant communities:  Swedish and Italian, joining forces to produce one of the city’s most famous products.  It is also noteworthy that, in 1917, a married man and father of 7 and a married woman and mother of 2 would collaborate as business partners.  It is an unusual scenario.   

Born in Naples, Italy on April 15 1854, Valva kept his native land very close to his heart after immigrating to the U.S. as a 12-year-old boy.  His obituaries mention that he was “well known among the Italian speaking residents of Worcester” and was “one of the most renowned and oldest Italian-speaking citizens of Worcester.”  He was a founder of the Columbus Mazzini Lodge, Sons of Italy.  

Valva had multiple employable skills.  His death certificate identifies his profession as wood carver.  The 1902 record of his son Lawrence’s birth in Worcester shows him working as a machinist.  He was also an accomplished artist, working mainly in charcoal, and his drawings were apparently a prized possession around the city.  He carved the decorative wood interiors of many of the city’s churches.  

After finally getting my hands on his obituary, I learned why this machinist and wood carver had the credentials to enter a corsetiere partnership in 1917.  His artistry also extended to our focus here:  corsets.  He had worked for over thirty years at Royal Worcester Corset Company as a grader and a designer.  He next worked at the Ruben Corset Company in Boston as superintendent and chief designer.  After some time travelling back and forth to his job in Boston while starting to feel the effects of heart disease, perhaps he thought a local corsetiere partnership would be a better employment fit.  It is quite likely that he and Hannah Johnson met while working as colleagues at one of Worcester’s corset factories and respected each other’s skills.  Unfortunately, they were not able to partner for long as he became sick the year they opened Johnson & Valva, dying in October of 1919 after an 18 month illness. 

Hannah Johnson was next the treasurer and manager of Johnson & Streeter Inc.’s custom corset shop (1918-1920), also operating out of room 27.  I found no one in the city directories by the surname Streeter who seemed to be working in the same field so am unable to say who this business partner was.   

In 1920, the U.S. Census tells us that Hannah, although still married, was now the head of the household.  Husband Charles was gone but her two teenage daughters were with her, working as clerks in a dry goods store and at a corset parlor … Hannah’s?  The business morphed into Shop Johnson in 1921 and continued under that name through the following year.  By 1923 there is no listing for her in the Worcester city directory.  At the time of her death in April of 1938, she was living in the neighboring town of Auburn.

The Burnside Building exterior circa 1920. From the collection at Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts.

6. Edith Salgstrom, Burnside Building corsetiere 1923-1927

Edith Salgstrom moved into the Burnside Building in 1923 with significant corsetry making expertise.  She had established herself as a corset maker and stitcher while living at 13 Kilby, 13-1/2 Kilby, and 202 Beacon.  Those years of experience led to her job as forewoman at the Royal Worcester Corset Company from 1915-1922.  Venturing out on her own in room 26 of Burnside in 1923, she would fill what appeared to be a rotating position of resident corsetiere in the building that had been vacated with Hannah O. Johnson’s departure at the end of 1922.  From 1924-1927 she worked out of room 17 before moving her corsetiere business to an address that she would enjoy until 1955:  21 Elm Street, a short walk from 339 Main.  

Read more about Edith Salgstrom’s life. 

7. Ethel E. Smith, Burnside Building corsetiere 1923-1926

Ethel E. Smith joined Edith Salgstrom in the Burnside Building, designing and selling her corsets there from 1923 to 1926 in rooms 224, 25, and 415.  I was not able to discover much more about her life; the genealogy websites were a bit too full of women by the name Ethel E. Smith who had a connection to Worcester.  I do know that when she left 339 Main she left corsetry behind her and opened a bakery on the west side of Worcester (1114 Pleasant Street).  The Smith & Elliott bakery lasted a year then both the bakery and Ethel disappeared from the Worcester listings.  Like her corsetiere colleague Edith, she also lived in the Vernon Hill section of town in one of a sea of triple-decker homes at 74 Harlem Street.

Ethel Smith's 1920s address in a Vernon Hill triple decker at 74 Harlem Street (bottom of photo)

A vibrant downtown and some hidden thread

In the year 1928, when the last corsetiere had just left the building to set up a new shop around the corner, the Burnside Building tenants consisted of:

  • 11 real estate firms
  • 7 each:  insurance agencies, music instruction
  • 3 each:  lawyers, beauty shops
  • 1 each:  radio equipment, weather stripping, dress plaiting, lumber company, pension agent, collections, consulting chemist, optician, watchmaker, architect, accountant
 
What strikes me most about that list is the variety.  In 1928 you could have visited the Burnside Building and left with:  profiles of local homes for sale, an insurance policy for any of those homes, a successful violin lesson, a draft of a will, a new up-do, a radio, weather stripping and lumber for a backyard shed, a watch, a transformed dress, an updated pension plan, a collections agent to handle your tenant problems, new glasses, and more.  A visit to 339 Main at the end of 2021 finds variety only among the names of the lawyers on its directory, with just two other professional services currently represented (accountants, architects).   The earliest available listing (1888) of Burnside Building tenants leans toward professional services:  insurance, real estate, music teacher, dentist, teacher, lawyer.  From 1888 to 2021, the legal profession has been well represented here.
 
Burnside Building in 1979. Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Commission
Main Street exterior detail, the Burnside Building. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

The size of the city has shrunk considerably for me as I have dug into its corset stories.  Here’s an example.  Among the current tenants in the Burnside Building is the law firm Seder & Chandler LLP.  Brothers and former law firm partners Samuel and Saul Seder represented Mary Bowne, the owner of the Ivy Corset Company which is profiled elsewhere at this website. From Sam Seder’s son J. Robert Seder, former owner of the Burnside Building, comes this whisper from the building’s past:   “Once during some cosmetic renovations on the third floor we found some buttons and thread behind a mantle piece that had temporarily been removed.”