The Exciting Life of Mary Bowne

PArt 1

Milestones in the life of Mary Bowne (1870-1964)

  • 1870 – Mary Gertrude Heintzelman born (Indiana? Ohio?)
  • 1887 – Springfield Ohio city directory lists “Mamie Heintzelman, saleslady” (Mary’s nickname)
  • 1899-1900 – Mary Heintzelman listed as “corset maker” in the New York City directory
  • 1904 – Mary Heintzelman listed for the first time in the Worcester City Directory
  • 1904 – incorporation of the Corset H Company (December 14)
  • 1905 – death of brother Albert; his son Allison moves to Mary’s Worcester home
  • 1905 – opening of the Corset H factory at 154 Front Street (December)
  • 1910 – marriage to Arthur E. Gifford (April 18)
  • 1910 – opening of new Corset H factory at 40 Jackson Street
  • 1912 – U.S. Patent & Trademark Office publishes notice of boneless corset patent no. 1085121
  • 1914 – Mary H. Gifford receives approval for a patent no. 1085121
  • 1917 – Arthur E. Gifford moves to New York City, Mary’s first marriage has ended
  • 1917 – Mary marries William Rainear Bowne in Worcester (March 22)
  • 1917 – Mary files articles of incorporation for United Corset Shops (April)
  • 1917 – Corset H becomes the Ivy Corset Company (April 6)
  • 1930 – Mary applies for U.S. patent for a “corset of the girdle or step-in type” of elastic material
  • 1938 – Ivy Corset building suffers severe damage in a hurricane
  • 1956 – Mary retires from Ivy Corset
  • 1961 – last Worcester city directory listing for the Ivy Corset Company
  • 1964 – Mary dies in the family home in North Grafton (February 2).

The Beginning: Ohio to New York to Massachusetts

Childhood in small-town Ohio

Mary Gertrude Heintzelman arrived in Worcester Massachusetts in 1904 with a job as “salesman” for the Royal Worcester Corset Company; by year’s end, she was running a corset factory of her own in the city’s vibrant downtown.  Leaving small town Ohio behind her some years earlier, she had first settled in a bigger midwestern town, next in New York City, until finally planting herself in the booming New England industrial capital of Worcester.  Enroute she learned to make and design corsets, and she refined that skill to a level probably unparalleled among women of her day.  Hers is a story of perseverance, family struggles, and female pioneering in an industry run by men.  And because it all happened so long ago, it is also a story with a few mysteries.

Artwork from a 1918 Ivy Corset advertisement.

On various official documents throughout her life Mary identifies Madison, Indiana, as her birthplace. But all evidence points to a childhood in London, Ohio (in Madison County… hence the confusion?) where her parents and older brothers were living per the 1870 U.S. Census. For oldest brother Signor (born 1863) I find conflicting information about where he was born (Germany? Ohio?) but I suspect Germany is correct, having located what appears to be his father’s U.S. naturalization record which shows John (aka Jacob) George Heintzelman, born in 1836 in Wurttemberg, Germany, arriving in America in 1866. Documents for Mary’s other brother Albert (born 1865) also noted this same conflicting birthplace information (Germany/ Ohio?) but again, my money is on Germany.

Her father and his bride Mary (aka Margaret) Bonnet (born 1841, Prussia) made the same difficult decision as thousands of other Europeans in the latter part of the 19th century. They scraped together the money to book an ocean passage to the United States, a complex voyage made more stressful when embarked upon with two very young sons. This Europe-to-U.S. immigration tale is repeated in City of Corsets’ profile of Edith Salgstrom, another Worcester corsetiere whose family immigrated from Europe (Sweden). We read about this journey so often in 19th century family histories that it seems useful to stop for a moment to imagine what that trip looked and felt like: bumpy transit by horse and wagon to a coastal port, many weeks on sometimes stormy seas, crowds of strangers above and below deck, sickness, diminishing food supplies, nervous guarding of property, and the constant underlying worry about what will happen upon arrival.

A 2021 screen capture from Google Earth of the town of London Ohio shows a tiny town surrounded by farmland.
A 1903 photo of London Ohio taken from the courthouse roof. A horse-drawn wagon approaches Mary's journalist brother Albert's house at the lower right. Photo courtesy of Chuck Reed, Madison County Recorder's Office, London Ohio

We’ll never know why Jacob and Mary moved to central Ohio but Jacob’s skills as a barber were likely put to use there to feed the growing family.  The only clue I found about his profession was on the 1870 U.S. Census log for London, Ohio, where his trade is described as “jour barber.”  With a little asking around, I learned that this was probably short for “journeyman barber.”  An online history of the barber profession explains the term: 

In the latter part of the 19th century a few barbers who were men of high ideals initiated efforts to lift the craft of barbering from its degraded position to its rightful level of professional, personal service. Barbers began to organize into employer organizational services, known as “boss barber” and “master barber” groups and into employee organizations known as “journeyman barber” groups.

On December 5, 1887, the Journeyman Barbers International Union was formed at its first national convention at Buffalo, New York. Affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, this employees’ union is now called The Journeyman Barbers’, Hairdressers’, Cosmetologists’ and Proprietors’ International Union of America, with its headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.

When the Heintzelmans were in London it was a famous center for livestock auctions which were attended by people from across the country.  Although the town did not print annual city directories — a treasure trove of historical clues — I have been able to discover that during Mary’s childhood the town had rail service to nearby Columbus and was home to two banks, four newspapers, and seven churches.

In 1871 a woman named Missouri C. Acton, “about to move from said town,”  sold lots 58 and 59 in downtown London to Mary’s mother.  The three small Heintzelman children (Signor, Albert, Mary) were named as “tenants in common” on the deed.  Mary as an infant child was co-owner of a parcel of downtown real estate.  The loud omission from the London house deed is the father’s name.  Maybe he was ill and not expected to live much longer?   Not likely, as his daughter Georgia was born 8 years later.  Maybe he had some demons that prevented him from assuming such a responsibility… a gambler?  a drinker?  Maybe he was not even living with the family by then and had gone elsewhere.  I have been unable to find a record of his death.  The only thing I know for sure is that his wife was called “widow” and head-of-family in the 1880 Census.

How did Mary get into the corset business?

Another unanswered question is more central to our City of Corsets project: how did Mary get into the corset business? London had no public library until 1905 so she would not have been able to browse that collection looking for ideas for a future. And typical of the times, the few library-type organizations in the town in those years (the Young Men’s Library Association 1856- and the London Lyceum Club 1874- ) were open only to men.

To see a corset in her youth, Mary probably looked to her mother’s wardrobe but mail order catalogs could have brought into her home images that started her thinking. I have been unable to get details on the contents of the earliest Sears catalogs (the first appeared in 1888) but have seen two from the early 1900s, neither of which carried corsets. They offered a selection of corset covers — a sleeveless blouse-type fabric garment that a women wore over the corset — but not corsets. The local dry goods store was a go-to in those years for an off-the-shelf corset. Was London big enough to have its own dry goods store? I have been unable to locate business directories for town at that time. According to Corset and Underwear Review, the famous 19th century New York City retailer Edward Ridley & Sons in the 1880s ran the largest mail order business of any dry goods store in Manhattan. Did Mary write to them for one of their catalogs?

In contrast with 1870s London, Ohio, where Mary was living her small town midwestern American childhood, the city of Worcester Massachusetts in that decade was bursting with people, factories, jobs, rail service, horse-drawn downtown trolley lines. City population was just over 40,000. Wire manufactured there was sold all over the globe; the city produced half the cable and wire made world-wide. A new kind of house the “triple decker” appeared on the east side of town to help accommodate the influx of people, stacking families across the city into three-level dwellings with porches at each end. The city had other modern amenities: a professional baseball team, department stores, and electric lighting.

By 1880, Worcester was home to citizens of 44 different countries, had almost 1,100 industrial companies, its city railroads were the second busiest in New England, and it had newly-provided service from the New England Telephone company. It was home to multiple corset-making businesses, two of them industrial in scale. This would be a great place for an ambitious young businesswoman to end up.

Solon & Bryant was part of Worcester's earliest corset history, first appearing in city directories in 1880.
Begun in 1860 as David Hale Fanning's hoop skirt enterprise, changing its name in 1866 to Worcester Skirt Company, re-naming again in 1875 to Worcester Corset Company, this became in 1903 the pioneering Royal Worcester Corset Company, an international force in the corset industry.

The 1880 U.S. Census shows the Heintzelmans still in London but circumstances had changed.  With the father gone, the oldest children went to work.  Signor at 17 years old worked as a printer and Albert at 15 served as printer’s apprentice.  Mary had a new sister, 11-month-old Georgia.  During this decade we see breakthroughs in technology that will soon put affordable sewing machines on the market.  Was there one in the Heintzelman’s Ohio home?  By 1889 anyone who could locate a Sears catalog could buy an electric sewing machine.  I haven’t been able to find out much about the retail options available in tiny London at that time but if there wasn’t a shop there that sold sewing machines, Mary could have borrowed the money to order one from Sears.  With their father out of the picture, an enterprising daughter with a sewing machine could add another source of income to the family.

Lookingfor work - springfield OHio

Within a few years the Heintzelmans moved to the larger nearby town of Springfield Ohio where we can see their careers progress.  Albert was a printer at the Springfield Sunday News.  He had taken rooms at 81-1/2 East Main Street.  By 1894 mother Mary had arrived in Springfield:  “Mary A. Heintzelman, widow of Jacob, res. 113 S. Factory.”   A few years later Mary — “saleslady” at 31 South Market Street — showed up in the Springfield City Directory listed by her nickname “Mamie,”  living at the corner of Plum and Columbia streets.

The Esplanade in downtown Springfield Ohio circa 1889. Beyond the trees on the middle right is the block that included 31 S. Market Street, Mary's 1887 business address. Photo courtesy of the Clark County Historical Society Archives, Springfield, Ohio
An 1880s image of the block where Mary's Springfield business was located, it includes the A.P. Trout Market (33 S. Market Street). Photo courtesy of the Clark County Historical Society Archives, Springfield, Ohio

The year 1885 marked the beginning of a short but prolific career in publishing for Mary’s brother Albert.  He established the London Vigilant which he ran for the next ten years, ending its run with a final issue on Christmas Eve of 1895.  The Vigilant strongly supported the Prohibition party, a stance that makes me wonder again about father Jacob and the circumstances in their household growing up.

Albert next shifted his attention to publishing the Madison County Republican which began its run on January 6, 1896, two weeks after the Vigilant’s final act.  A history of Madison County, Ohio, says that “he kept the paper running until July, 1905, when he sold it to Harrington and Shaw, the new proprietors of the London Times.”  The same history mentions London Ohio’s only daily newspaper the Daily Nickel Plate, also edited and published by Albert.  One of that paper’s employees recalled “the trouble sometimes experienced by the editor and his assistants in getting the paper off to press and to the subscribers on the same day.  It was common occurrence to distribute the papers through the village as late as nine o’clock p.m.”

Mr. Title, postmaster Clayton C. Schoner, and C. Scheetzewhelm stand outside the Hartville, Ohio post office circa 1900 with stacks of newspapers awaiting delivery. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection

In 1889, Albert married Katharine “Kate” Flanagan in Clark Ohio.  She was the daughter of two Irish immigrants and a New York City native.  Albert and Kate welcomed their first son Allison in September 1892.   Probate court records say that his full name is Albert Allison Heintzelman; maybe he shifted to his middle name to avoid confusion with his father?  Allison will later find himself in Worcester with his aunt, working his way up the ranks at her corset factory. 

The first move East: new york city

102 Wooster Street in the SoHo district of New York City, from Google Earth circa 2021. Here in a city filled with fashion, fabrics, and money, Mary could refine her corset-designing skills.

Mary’s next move was to New York City. In the world of fashion and clothing manufacturing, that’s still where you go to see how you line up with the best. For a corsetiere from small town Ohio, making this commitment would be upping her game 100 fold. Mary took the plunge. We find her business in the 1899-1900 New York City directory at 102 Wooster Street: “corset maker.” She ran a shop in what is now a very high-rent SoHo block, a neighborhood described recently by the The New York Times as being a “glitzy retail and dining district” where in early 2021 the average asking rent for a two bedroom apartment was over $8000. Mary listed a home address at 2340 7th Avenue. She commuted most of the length of Manhattan each day, from Harlem to Soho.

In the same year 1900 we find a Worcester listing for another character in Mary’s story:  Arthur E. Gifford, bookkeeper 79 Beacon Street, living in a boarding house at 30 Oread near downtown.  He’ll reappear a bit later. 

Mary was not alone in New York.  The 1900 Census tells us that both her mother “Mary A. (head of family/widowed)” and now 19-year-old sister Georgia (aka “Georgie”) moved there with her.  It’s interesting to watch this female family unit creeping its way east in search of opportunity while the two brothers had stayed in Ohio, where from an early age they were able to find work to support themselves.  This was a tough spot for a woman to be in at the turn of that century.  The 1900 U.S. Census Bureau’s volume on “Woman At Work” offers another view of the difficulty:  of American breadwinners 16 years and older,  over 22 million (83.2%) were male compared to 4.8 million (17.7%) female.  The men had the jobs, the men got the jobs.  But Mary had the intelligence, ambition, and drive not only to create her own job but also jobs for hundreds of other women in the years to come at her Worcester factories.

Sister Georgia found a husband in New York City.  She married Charles M. Deering (native New Yorker, born 1880) in October 1901.  But this is the end of the New York chapter for the Heintzelman women.   Both Charles Deering and sister-in-law Mary had ideas about corsets that pushed them to the northeast.  [We will learn about Charles’ company Deering Corset in a forthcoming City of Corsets installment.]

In 1903 Arthur Gifford had left Worcester and was living in Brooklyn, New York.  Seven years later, he and Mary will be husband and wife.