The First Years at 40 Jackson Street

PArt 3

Worcester corsets in Paris shop windows

From the big new building at 40 Jackson, Corset H contributed to Worcester’s position as a major center for corset production.  We see continued international acclaim for the city’s work in a letter received by Worcester Magazine from “one of our distinguished sons who is sojourning temporarily away from us in … Paris.”  The expatriate in France told the editor:  “I’ve been told that it is the ambition of every French woman to be the possessor of a Worcester corset.  A multitude of other things originating in Worcester and vicinity may be seen in the principal shop windows of Paris.”

Images of the shipping room and the stock room of the new Corset H building from the Worcester Magazine profile of 1910.
Images of the shipping room and the stock room of the new Corset H building from the Worcester Magazine profile of 1910.

In 1912, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Gazette published a notice about a boneless corset which would be approved in 2 years as patent #1085121.  Inventor:  Mary H. Gifford, Worcester Mass.  She submitted a patent application in Canada for a corset in July of the next year (Canadian patent CA150224A, inventor Mary Heintzelman Gifford).  When comparing the waistline of the “Princess Hip” corset she had sold at Royal Worcester when she first arrived in Worcester in 1904 with the waistline pictured in the 1912 patent application, we see in her patent image a more realistic encapsulation of the female body.  

That same year a Boston newspaper ran an ad for Palmer’s Corset Store at 52 Winter Street which pushed a new Corset H model known as the “College Girls’ corset” selling at $1.95 and “Ivy” brassieres, regular $1 and $1.50 styles which were being sold at the sale price of sixty-nine cents.  Brassieres were the next venture for corset makers as their primary products would eventually shrink in size to cover mainly the lower half of the torso, looking more like what we now call a girdle.

Of all its products, the Ivy corset was now the featured attraction for Corset H.  In the 1913 Fall River Daily Globe we see the Ivy dominating their advertising of the period.   “The Ivy clings with the grace of the beautiful vine of which it is the namesake.”   The re-branding possibilities (clinging to a figure, graceful vines, longevity) are plain to see.  Furthermore, Mary’s last name was no longer Heintzelman which was, presumably, the reason for the “H” in the company name. 

In a 1910 photograph of the "form room" at the new factory, notice the "IVY" name and artwork adorning the décolletage of the undraped mannequins.

By 1913, the trade association Corset Manufacturers of America had thirty-six member companies, four of them in Worcester.  New York City-based corset manufacturers led the CMA membership in number with fourteen members but per capita, Worcester beat even New York City in terms of corset makers per square foot.  With increased visibility and success, however, came scrutiny.  In 1913 the state of Massachusetts convened a Minimum Wage Commission to investigate pay rates in selected state industries.  The corset industry was one of them.  The Commission surveyed eight different Massachusetts corset factories for the report.  Unfortunately, the records of the Commission no longer exist and none of the businesses were identified in their findings.  

Woman carrying corset covers made on Macdougal St. to factory, 171 Wooster Street, New York City. Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940), photographer. Photo courtesy of the
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Their report does, however, provide fascinating detail about how the work was done.  It detailed the many occupations at a corset factory, among them: cutting, folding, joining/seaming/closing, goring, putting on belts, steel setting, steel stitching, stripping, back-stitching, first examining and mending, boning, barring/flossing, shaping, binding, cutting ends/end-stitching/finishing, eyeletting and hook punching, top trimming/lace stitching/lace tacking/flossing, stringing lace, hand-sewing, ironing, matching/numbering/measuring/stamping, second examing/final examining/inspecting, clasping/rolling/boxing.  Each job required a different skill set and some merited a higher pay rate.  Because the work of the ironers, for example, required both strength and speed, they were paid at the highest rate in the factory.

Other findings of interest:

  • the report described in detail the three types of sewing machines used (single needle, multiple needle, flossing) to manufacture a corset
  • none of the factories they surveyed in the state manufactured the eyelets, corset laces, steels or wires, hose supporters or other accessory parts of corsets; that tells us that there was a large amount of additional activity in administrative departments such as purchasing, receiving, accounts payable
  • the busiest production season was autumn and early winter
  • the majority of corset factory workers were less than 25 years old
Marie Vancanvenberg, 15 years old. Working on corsets for Madam Claff, 420 Boylston Street. Location: Boston, Massachusetts. Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940), photographer. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The Commission reprimanded the corset industry for its lack of hourly time-keeping records, a deficiency that would be addressed before the next report appeared six years later. Hourly records were available for 121 of 146 women. They had worked more than fifty hours a week but none of them worked as many as fifty-fours hours which was a maximum standard spreading across the country during this decade.

As I dug for information about Corset H/Ivy Corset, I continued to be amazed not only by the absence of Mary but also by the absence of any women at all in press coverage of high level events. In the January 1913 issue of Women’s Wear Daily we see this example: “Corset Men Relax: Shop Talk Tabooed at Sixth Annual banquet of Corset Manufacturer’s Association at the Ritz Carlton last night.” The New York Times also covered the event: “Corset Men Make Merry.” In February 1919 Women’s Wear Daily reported that “Staid Corset Men Loose Strings of Conventionality” at the 12th annual banquet of Corset Manufacturers Association of the United States. Two year later the magazine printed an article about “Corset Men Meeting” at the Waldorf-Astoria. Another dismissal of the female role in this industry appeared in a 1922 issue of The Corset and Underwear Review as it concluded one of its installments in a history of the American corset industry by asking: “Perhaps some of the older men in the trade may be able to help us out with their own stories and reminiscences.” Men dominated the news at the upper echelons of the industry that made a product which none of them wore.

A shift in consumer preference circa World War I

In 1914 a woman named Mary P. Jacob applied for the first U.S. patent for a brassiere. We saw in a 1913 Corset H ad that there was an Ivy brassiere at this time too. Clearly interest in a shift away from the restrictions of the one-piece corset with stays was growing. Brassieres would of course eventually become the female underwear norm. Like the concept of Pangea — the long-ago supercontinent that eventually broke up into smaller parts that we now recognize as Africa, Asia, etc. — the corset was slowly breaking up into smaller parts that allowed the female body greater freedom of movement.

The cutting room at Corset H circa 1910, from the Worcester Magazine profile of that year.

Later that year the Worcester city directory listed 22-year-old Mary’s nephew Allison A. Heintzelman who was working as a cutter at 40 Jackson (the Corset H factory location) and boarding one town over in Leicester where Mary and Arthur then lived. Perhaps the cutting room where Allison worked was just down the hall from the room where the advertising team strategized. Someone in that room that year decided on a logical novelty feature: the Star-Gazette of Elmira NY ran an Ivy Corset ad proclaiming that every woman who purchased an Ivy Corset would also receive “a thrifty little ivy plant nicely potted (the omen of good luck).”

A fine example of the beauty in their ads of this period appeared in the Chicago Tribune in October 1914. Four scantily-clad women primp and preen in a beautiful line drawing surrounded by a border of, of course, ivy. The ad proudly proclaimed that “the Ivy Corset is designed by a woman… the same woman who is the founder and present head of the Corset H Company. Her ability and her knowledge of corset details are unsurpassed. Her artistic skill and practical experience have placed her among the leaders of her profession… The super-current of Fashion and the American woman’s demand for comfort and support are the paramount thoughts on which every Ivy Corset is built.”

An "Ivy" Corset ad from the Daily Chicago Tribune, October 5 1914. This image of American beauty is so detailed that you could describe the type of earrings worn by the woman with the corset you liked best.

Mary H. Gifford of Worcester Massachusetts received approval that year for the patent for a “Boneless Corset” (U.S. patent no. 1085121). 

On the application she stated that:
“The principal objects of the invention are to provide a corset of this character which shall be capable of fitting perfectly without the use of elastic material and which can be made entirely without bones; also to provide a corset for these purposes which can be made of comparatively small pieces of inexpensive non-elastic material, thus materially reducing the expense.”

That abstract shows her expertise as both clothing designer and entrepreneur. She had superior skills in creating corsets plus the innate tendencies toward cutting costs common among successful business owners. Her days at the factory probably consisted of meetings with accountants, design brainstorming, product testing, and ordering and examining fabric samples to be used in the trial-and-error process of new product development.

A valuable asset from her time in New York City might have been connections in the fabric industry there. There was in Worcester at that time only one textile manufacturer specializing in corset fabrics, just opening up at its first location at 72 Commercial Street (see our profile of Sherman Textile at
Harold F. Sherman – Corset Fabrics
Prompt Delivery – Send for Samples

Sherman Textile would serve Worcester’s corset-making community until the mid-1930s. Worcester’s extensive rail system brought specialty fabrics from elsewhere into the city on a regular basis.

NEW YEAR'S 1915:

Business Woman’s Magazine expressed confidence that women are now moving into a “golden age of womanhood” made possible by every business woman “who has made good in man’s world without saying much about it and without relying upon her sex to smooth the pathway for her.” Making good in a man’s world, however, was still difficult for women in minimum wage jobs at that time. Later in January, the Massachusetts Reform Club met over dinner to discuss what they called “social legislation,” namely, the adoption of a state-wide minimum wage act. Professor A. N. Holcombe of the State Minimum Wage Commission told those gathered that “consideration of a minimum wage was an innovation, as was the appointment of a Minimum Wage Commission… The brush industry was the first industry the commission was called to act upon. In this industry two-thirds of the women were not getting an average of $6 a week. … the candy, corset, and laundry industries were being investigated at the present time.”


Canadian factory workers making detonators for shells, 1917. Credit: Scientific American Supplement, March 31, 1917
Women making teddy bears in factory, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
By 1916 the city directory tells us that Mary had moved back to downtown Worcester with Arthur and Allison to a beautiful brick row house at 36 Elm Street. She was once again in walking distance of work. Although I have not been able to confirm this with the property records office in the city, it is likely that she purchased that home. She would live there until 1929.
This would have been Mary's view when she stepped out onto Elm Street from her front door and looked toward Main Street. Across the street a few doors down at 21 Elm street was the shop of another corset-maker Edith Salgstrom. Link below the image.
A recent photograph of 36 Elm Street on a gray day. Photo by the author, copyright 2020.
Later that year, The Corset and Underwear Review ran an article featuring David Hale Fanning’s thoughts on Worcester and its importance in the corset industry. Fanning, the Royal Worcester Corset Company’s “dean of the corset industry,” mentioned Corset H as one of six factories in the city at that time producing corsets. “Probably no manufacturing interest is more closely related to Worcester’s prosperity,” said Mr. Fanning, “than is the corset industry…

There are in this city six corset companies, having their factories and administrative offices here, and, for the greater part, the controlling interest and stock of these six companies is owned by citizens of Worcester.
These corset companies are:

  • The Linehan Corset Company
  • The Massachusetts Corset Company
  • The Corset H Company
  • The New England Corset Company
  • The Maynard Corset Company
  • The Royal Worcester Corset Company 

And they employ two thousand or more people, the greater part of whom
are women. These companies pay taxes to the city of about $9,000 per annum. Their aggregate weekly payrolls are in the neighborhood of $18,000. Worcester corset factories produce about fifteen per cent of the entire output of corsets in the United States.
… It is safe to say that the advertising given to Worcester by its corsets and its corset industries is greater, by far than that given by any other industry within its borders, because the products of these six corset factories are shipped to and sold in every corner of the civilized and uncivilized world.

I hope that the acclaim she received there from the leader of her industry gave her something to cherish during the year 1917. Another possible point of pride was that Allison had achieved the rank of supervisor at the factory. But the year also brought Mary great disruption on both the professional and personal fronts. The U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to conserve steel needed for the war effort. Although we have already seen that Mary was ahead of this news with her patent applications that removed steel stays from the corset, the war would nonetheless impact all business activities in the U.S. and around the world. And on the home front, in the city directory we see the following: Arthur E. Gifford “removed to New York City.” Mary would soon be divorced.