1930 to the 1960s

PArt 5

THE CHALLENGES OF THE 1930s

By 1930, Mary had moved from the 36 Elm Street address to nearby North Grafton into a property known as the “Deernolm” estate, owned by her sister and brother-in-law Charles. Perhaps the Stock Market crash of the previous year had pushed her and William toward that economy? Deernolm, set deep into its wooded acreage, was once known as the “Worcester Country Club” which had hosted horse riding activity in earlier days. I have not been able to find any photos of that property in its heyday, only very sad images from decades later after the building had been abandoned and preyed upon by vandals (before its destruction by arson).

A Deering family friend describes the house:

The front double doors opened into a very large living room (about 40X40). The living room was tall in the center with a balcony on three sides. To the left the balcony came down in stairways on both sides of a two-story stone fireplace. The main section had only one room room – the living room. It had a huge hanging lantern fixture … The new (1921) wing had the dining room with a ceiling fixture in alabaster shaped like a bowl.

The residential move to North Grafton had not affected her productivity. She applied for another U.S. patent in 1930, this time for a “corset of the girdle or step-in type” made of elastic material. While her previous application had sought economy by attempting to reduce that type of fabric in the product, years later there had perhaps been advances in production and availability of that material which brought its cost down. Elastic was certainly the direction in which undergarments were headed.

Through the 1930s United Corset Shops/Ivy Corset Store expansion continued. A 1932 article, for example, discussed the new Ivy Corset Shop in Oakland, California. Its reach was truly nation-wide. Another noteworthy event from this decade was an incident of arson at the factory on a cold windy February night. A man “believed to have been drunk or mentally deranged” set a fire in one of the hallways at 40 Jackson. The fire was fortunately extinguished by sprinklers before the fire department arrived.

A 1938 photograph of the Ivy Corset building shows the extensive damage to the factory. From the collection of Worcester Historical Museum

Later that decade, however, the building was not so lucky when a natural disaster hit. The region was slammed by a hurricane in 1938 which ripped the roof off the factory. Damages were so significant that Ivy Corset pursued bankruptcy reorganization:

Ivy Corset Files to Reorganize
The first petition for authority to reorganize under Chapter 10 (formerly Section 77B) of the amended National Bankruptcy act was filed in the United States District Court today by the Ivy Corset Company of Worcester.
The debtor states that “during the recent hurricane the roof and a substantial part of the third story of the debtor’s building was totally destroyed, and it will require substantial funds in order to restore it so as to avoid further damage to its assets if not destruction.”
The company is engaged in manufacturing corsets and other women’s wearing apparel and owns the building in which the operations are carried on.
The board of directors, at a meeting held Sept. 26, authorized the filing of the petition. Mrs. M. H. Bowne is treasurer of the company.
A balance sheet as of June 30 lists total assets and total liabilities and capital at the same figure, $133,947. Assets include total current assets $56,895 and total fixed assets-net $76,532. Liabilities consists chiefly of total current liabilities $35,692 and total fixed liabilities $52,490.
The petitioner asks that it may be continued in possession of its estate and authorized to operate its business.
The Boston Globe, 29 September 1938

Mary, 68 years old at the time of the hurricane, must have given this a lot of thought. Pack it in after a good long run? Or reorganize and maintain her focus? The company carried on.

World War II through Ivy Corset's closing 1961

The next decade brought, of course, another World War… the second that the factory would work its way through. As with the running of any business, there were constant unexpected headaches, such as flooding at the Ivy Corsets Company space in Boston near the Public Gardens in 1942. That same year Mary’s husband William Bowne retired from the Navy, ending 41 years of service through both World Wars.

Corset display at R. H. Macy and department store during the week before Christmas in New York City, 1942 Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Leader's in Lima, Ohio. Corset department in October 1949 Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer; Lapidus, Morris, client Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

From the end of World War II until the company’s final listing in the Worcester city directory in 1961, Mary appeared with the same entry each year:
Bowne, Mrs Mary H. pres-treas Ivy Corset Co and pres-treas United Corset Shops Inc.

Although the titles remained the same, her life in Worcester — like the world in general — had changed significantly since her 1904 arrival. As of 1945, she could look overhead during a walk down Jackson Street to watch an airplane on its way to Worcester’s new airport. She could vote. She could serve on the 1950 National Association of Manufacturers’ taxation committee which presented material during hearings Before the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, Eighty-first Congress, Second Session (“Mrs . Mary H . Bowne, president , Ivy Corset Co.”). She could attend a 51st anniversary celebration dinner for the National Jewish Hospital at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, as reported by the Boston Globe in May of 1950. Her fellow attendees were all men. But at least she could be at the table, finally.

In 1961 we see the last city directory entry for the Ivy Corset Company. Mary would spend her final years incapacitated at the Deernolm estate with sister Georgia and niece Martha. She died at the age of 94 on February 2, 1964. Her death notice stated that she had retired from the company in 1956. “There are no calling hours,” the obituary announced. “The family requests that flowers be omitted.” Her ashes were stored at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain where she joined her mother and both brothers.

In 1964, less that 4% of the United States population would choose cremation upon death. That was just one of so many parts of her life that were unusual. She ran a manufacturing facility sixteen years before women could vote. She divorced — then quickly remarried — in an era when that rate was at 10% in the United States. She was a patent holder in multiple countries. Yet in spite of her achievements, she is maddeningly invisible; my inability to find a single photograph of this remarkable woman leaves another mystery. But I have been able to tell much of her story.