Linehan Corset Company &
the Linehan - Conover Company
Into the world of corsets via a flour mill
A young man moved away from his small New England village sometime around the year 1885, heading west for Minneapolis and a job at the Pillsbury Mills, a large processor of midwestern wheat. There were, of course, many flour mills at that time between New Hampshire and Minnesota, but having an adventure in a distant place might have been another of the young man’s goals. Perhaps his father had talked up this line of work, having himself run the packing department of a flour mill before his Civil War service.
That father probably talked a lot, if my impression from his obituary is accurate. He was an Irish immigrant who fought for the North in the American Civil War, an accomplished historian, an author, a musician, a mercantile owner, an advocate for veterans’ memorials, and the insurance commissioner of the state of New Hampshire. John Cornelius Linehan strikes me as a larger-than-life character and possibly the type of parent whose children — if at all ambitious — might have wanted to move out of his big shadow.
John Joseph Linehan, the son, was born in the village of Penacook, New Hampshire, on October 9, 1866. After completing his public school education there, he — like many others in these corset stories — got on a train and headed toward more opportunity. His story provides yet another example of the strong thread of exodus sewing together the corset makers in Worcester. Small town man or woman boards a train at a tiny station in Nowheresville and moves to a population center to find work. Factory jobs become self-employment. Factory floors serve as training grounds for an industry of corsetieres and manufacturing bosses, male and female. Linehan would follow this route.
By 1887 he had returned to New England but this move was to the city of Boston. There he worked as a manager at Brown, Durrell & Co., a clothing store located on Kingston Street in the city’s vibrant commercial center. At Brown, Durrell & Co. he found his life’s calling: selling corsets. Looking back from the 21st century, it seems such an odd line of business for a 19th century gentleman. Yet he was one of many men around the world making their living then from women’s underwear. And so he joined this large industry by running the corset department at Brown, Durrell & Co. until 1894. The store probably stocked many corsets made at the Royal Worcester factory thirty-five miles west, a business with which Linehan would eventually compete.
During his years working in Boston he not only began his career in the corset industry but he also met and married his life partner Elizabeth J. Barrett. Did they meet at the store in Boston, maybe during a shopping trip to the bigger city for Elizabeth? They married in her home town of Worcester in August of 1893.
Just as we see in Edith Salgstrom’s story the tendency to “stick with your own” (in her case, the Swedish community), it was also so for John Linehan. He was the son of an Irishman. He married a woman whose parents (Thomas Barrett and Johanna McGillicuddy Barrett) were both Irish immigrants. He was a member of the American-Irish Historical Society. He ended up in heavily Irish Worcester, Massachusetts. He is buried at St. John’s cemetery in that city surrounded by Irish families: O’Neill, Ratigan, McKenna, Healy, Kenney, McDonald, McGourty, Murphy, McGrath.
The city of Worcester would slowly sink its claws into John Linehan. But before he settled there for good, he worked briefly (1894) for corset manufacturer Birdsey Somers Co. (fka Bridgeport Corset Company) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 1895 city directories show him in Bridgeport working as a traveling salesman for Birdsey Somers and keeping a room in town at the Gaillard Hotel. The following year, with the same job, he lived at 10 Fremont in Bridgeport. Like many others profiled for this project, he would have travelled around the region with a shipping case full of lacy items, flashy fabric samples, and catalogs that promised even more. Was his father sitting on a stool at the Penacook mercantile shop joking with friends about his son, the underwear salesman?
Next he sold in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Baystate (aka Bay State) Corset Company, where he advanced to become a director and stockholder (1897). Baystate was at that time one of the largest makers of corsets in the country. According to the National Register of Historic Places (to which the Baystate Corset Building was added in 1983), “Baystate used the top floor of the building as a cutting room, with the second and third floors arrayed with sewing machines at which its products were manufactured.”
Bringing years of experience to a factory floor in Worcester
He and Elizabeth moved to Worcester around the year 1902 with John still working for Baystate Corset. Having now worked multiple angles of the corset industry — retail (Brown, Durrell & Co.), manufacturing (Birdsey Somers Co.), sales and management (Baystate Corset) — he was ready to strike out on his own. Calling himself a salesman in his first Worcester city directory listing, he was still selling for Baystate but was gathering the necessary resources and staff for his own company, which would open soon.
Once in Worcester, Linehan found many ways to embrace the city. In addition to his role as employer at a small factory, his ten paragraph obituary years later in the local newspaper details his other interests: director of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, director of the Park Trust Company (which later became the Worcester County Trust Company), member of the St. Vincent Hospital Corporation, member of the Young Men’s Republican Club of Worcester. His wife Elizabeth was also very active in the community, serving as director of the Worcester Employment Society, director of the Family Service Organization, trustee of District Nursing Society, and member of the St. Agnes Guild and the Friday Afternoon Club. Although they had no children, their days were full of responsibilities.
As often is the case in anyone’s career arc, Linehan’s first manufacturing facility experience was gained in a completely unrelated field: a flour mill. After that unlikely start for a career in corset manufacturing and after wearing the hats of the retailer, the factory worker, and the travelling salesman, he eventually became the boss. Linehan Corset opened in 1904. Worcester Magazine reported that “medium priced goods will be made” and that the city had been selected as its site “on account of central location and excellent shipping facilities.” Although that publication said that employment would be offered to a hundred people, a Massachusetts labor report at the time put the initial number of employees at thirty. The local paper proclaimed that “his new venture was immediately successful.” He had stepped far out of his father’s shadow.
Linehan Corset joined four other corset makers in the city in 1904. Two of them were factories: Globe Corset Co. (15 Union Street) and Royal Worcester Corset Co. (30 Wyman). Two were solo operator “corsetieres”: Mary A. Costello at 339 Main (part of the Burnside Building profile), Junia Johnson at 4 Walnut. Royal Worcester was by then a global corset industry leader, employing hundreds at its state-of-the-art facility. Worcester offered the new business owner its central location (a short haul to Boston, Providence, and New York City), extensive railroad service and an experienced work force of corset makers who could staff his start-up.
The business opened in the heart of downtown two blocks from City Hall at the corner of Austin and High (12-14 Austin Street). Sewing and assembly began there in a three-story brick commercial building that would, years later, be best known as a regional center for an Armenian political party and an Armenian church. It was known as the Thomas Barrett Block. Its builder Thomas Barrett was an Irishman who had come to Worcester from Castle Island in County Kerry as a 20-year-old stone mason. He became a prominent city contractor after, coincidentally, “a brief attempt at the flour and grain business”.
The Barrett and Linehan families were already linked; John Linehan had married Thomas’ daughter Elizabeth Barrett some years earlier. A single connection between two families often multiplies over the years as ideas are kicked around at family gatherings and plots are hatched. By 1915 the elder Barrett’s son Dr. Thomas J. Barrett, a prominent Worcester dentist, was a vice president of Linehan’s corset company. Linehan had found in the Barrett family a wife, a landlord, and a brother-in-law corporate officer.
In 1907, Linehan Corset incorporated and we begin to see in newspaper advertisements the strategy that Linehan would employ for the run of his business. In The Bangor Daily News in November of that year, a local shop’s advertisement headline screams: “We Are Selling Goods At Positively The Lowest Prices That Have Been Offered You This Year.” There, on the 4th floor at Wood & Ewer Co., jumbled among the bargain basement piles of advertised coats, flannel gowns, sheets, winter gloves, and curtains, we find 75 cent Linehan Corsets selling for 49 cents. “Boned throughout with steel. Have four hose supporters.” You’ll find no Linehan Corset products in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside the exquisitely crafted Royal Worcester corsets housed there. His plan was to flourish as the low price king.
As a member of the Corset Manufacturers Association of the United States during these years, he advocated in Washington for Congress to protect his industry from foreign trade. I have often wondered if the many corset factory bosses in Worcester travelled together to these events and if they gathered socially on a local level. I’ve seen no evidence of a Worcester area corset manufacturers’ group. Some of the factory higher-ups, however, would have been members of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce (as was Linehan) and they would certainly have compared notes on their industry at those gatherings.
Linehan Corset set a corporate goal: high volume of low-cost output. Corset and Underwear Review reported that the company made “a specialty of low-priced corsets retailing from 50 cents to one dollar and giving an unusually large profit to the retailer.” To meet that goal, the factory dangled incentives to its “girls,” such as ten dollars’ worth of gold given to those who made the highest pay on piece work in 1910. Three hundred dollars worth of gold was awarded that year.
“Piece work” — paying a worker by their measurable output rather than by the hour — was taken home to be worked on there, not just by the factory employee but also by any other family members who lived in the home and were able to participate, regardless of age. It often involved many hours of child labor which would not be officially tallied by any manufacturer. Piece work also added the double-edged sword of welcome additional household income and fatigue to the woman who had already worked a full day and was stitching further into the night.
In 1912 the company changed its name to Linehan-Conover Company. The following year, they adjusted the amounts of their authorized capital in advance of a large expenditure: the imminent move to a bigger facility. That same year we see another American department store advertising their cut-rate products. For 50 cents, you could buy a new Linehan corset downtown at Dives, Pomeroy & Stewart in Reading, Pennsylvania. A trade ad announced to the corset world that the newly-formed Linehan-Conover Company had achieved such a level of success that it “has forced us to double our capacity to keep up with the constantly increasing demand.”
A 1914 ad in Corset and Underwear Review offers another statement of their ambition:
“We can give you greater low-priced value in corsets than you can get anywhere else because our entire aim is the production of the best values in corsets at the lowest prices.” Their business plan continued unchanged until the company closed in 1931, as evidenced by numerous ads for bargain basement deals on Linehan-Conover corsets that I found during those years. Signing on in 1914 to their corporate vision was a new sales team in New York, the “aggressive selling staff” of Charles R. Hayes & Co. Comparing the marketing strategy of Linehan-Conover to that of its soon-to-be neighbor on Jackson Street Ivy Corset, we see bullish bargain-driven men on the one hand and Ivy Corset’s appeal to the woman of artistic sensibilities on the other. The robust world corset market was, however, big enough to accommodate both appeals.
For John Linehan, 1917 was an eventful year. As the prospect of a World War loomed over the world, Linehan-Conover proceeded with its business expansion. An existing boarding house at 1 Jackson Street six blocks from their current location was transformed into their new headquarters, bringing them 60% more space than Austin Street (plus a Front Street location they had also been using). Two years earlier, the building at 1 Jackson had been home to sixteen boarders; by the time the United States entered the first world war, it was the new home of Linehan-Conover Company. In addition to moving the factory that year, Linehan served as director of the Corset Manufacturers Association of the United States and as a delegate to the Republican national convention.
Looking at a Linehan-Conover ad — “Built Up to Quality / Not Down to Price” — in a 1917 issue of Corset and Underwear Review, I noticed on the same page an ad for Linehan’s former employer the Birdsey Somers Co. (“factory Bridgeport Connecticut”). Linehan had moved from New Hampshire to Minnesota to Boston to Connecticut to Worcester in a span of seventeen years. That mobility was made easier by rail service in all those regions and encouraged by job opportunities in urban areas. Linehan in 1917 would have travelled extensively, to CMA meetings and Republican party gatherings, leaving from Worcester’s new and elegant Union Station which had opened in 1911. The days of living and working in the same town for an entire life were gone.
World War I through the 1930s
The peace time economy was gone too. In April of 1917, Edgar Conover wrote to a Princeton dean on the subject of the impending war: “I have been trying, as a member of the executive committee of the Worcester branch of the National Security League, to further the cause of preparedness for the last two years and have had a little success in changing the views of a few people.” The NSL was formed in the winter of 1914-15 with the general mandate of advocacy for military preparedness for the United States. Its platform also included opposition to both female suffrage and labor unions, anti-progressive stances that would not have been welcomed by some of his female customers.
Linehan-Conover’s ads during World War I implored its clients to “do your part to win the war” and to “buy buy and buy again” Liberty bonds. When member companies of the Corset Manufacturers Association agreed to “tender their plants to the government for war work,” Linehan-Conover’s vote was part of the unanimous consensus on that measure.
The secretary was authorized to secure from the government detailed information concerning such articles as the government might wish members to manufacture, with a view to producing the maximum capacity that the government may desire to use”
Corset and Underwear Review February 1918
The corset industry adapted to war materials production. Corset factories shifted to production of items as diverse as Medical Corps belts, fencing masks, grenade belts, bomb cases. Conover registered for military service in East Brookfield but he did not serve; perhaps his job at a manufacturing facility that could help the war effort allowed him to remain at home.
Elizabeth Linehan exerted her own sphere of influence during the war. She was director of the Fatherless Children of France Organization. She hosted frequent meetings of the local branch of the Red Cross at their home, which now also included John’s widowed mother Mary. She was area director of the Smileage campaign, “a funding scheme designed to support the Commission on Training Camp Activities’ theater project during World War I. The public purchased coupon books that soldiers redeemed at the government Liberty Theatres, which purported to provide ‘morally uplifting’ and ‘wholesome’ live entertainment primarily, but later included Hollywood motion pictures.” (Sue Collins, Film History journal article).
After the war ended, the factory resumed operations for a decade of full-scale corset production. Linehan soon found another public service opportunity by serving on the 1919 Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board as a representative of the employers. Trade magazines reported that 1921 was Linehan-Conover’s busiest year ever. The company hired a sales representative for the southern states in November of that year and geared up for another capital expenditure, adding a six-story back building to the existing 1 Jackson Street location. Conover travelled to San Francisco to open their first Pacific coast office. We can assume that the company was enjoying a profitable stretch as we see Mr. and Mrs. John J. Linehan, of the Linehan-Conover Corset Co., spending a months’ vacation at the upscale Hotel Belle View in Belle Air, Florida “following their annual custom.”
By the mid-1920s, Linehan-Conover was no longer one of only four corset producers in Worcester. It was then one of seventeen corset-making outfits — both factories and sole proprietors — as well as an industry supplier (Keystone Braiding Company, maker of corset lacings). Business post-war was booming in the city of corsets. I found very little news coverage of the company during this decade. It had settled into the routine of an established business, no need for new buildings or westward expansion. The only newsworthy item appearing during this period is of a playful nature so indicative of the decade. In 1925, Linehan-Conover’s payroll clerk Ruth Bell eloped to Plattsburg, New York, with the secret help of the bride’s grandmother. “The romance,” a Vermont newspaper wrote, “succeeded.”
Perhaps the peace and quiet was too much for Edgar Conover. Leaving Worcester and the partnership in 1927, he returned to Connecticut where he lived the rest of his days in the seaside town of Madison. He continued to work in the industry as president of Corsetry, Inc. of Derby, Connecticut, a business that had begun life many years earlier as the Derby Corset Company (incorporated 1908). He became, according to his local obituary, a civic leader in the town, and died at home of a heart attack in late November of 1956, leaving behind a son, a daughter, four grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.
With Conover gone, the business reverted to its original name of Linehan Corset, continuing at the Jackson Street location. The 1929 Directory of Larger New England Manufacturers listed Linehan Corset in its section of firms with between 100 and 250 employees. The original staffing projection for the old Austin Street shop had finally been reached.
Linehan Corset Company appeared in the Worcester city directory for the final time in 1931. Was the Great Depression its undoing? The company was officially dissolved by the state of Massachusetts two years later. In May of 1935, Linehan entered St. Vincent Hospital — on whose board he had served for many years — where he died in November of that year, unable to recover from the damage wrought by a cerebral hemorrhage. Obituaries for him appeared in newspapers around the region (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont). “He was widely known in the industry,” his local obituary tells us, “and was prominent in civic and fraternal life in Worcester. He traveled extensively before his retirement several years ago and his friendships extended over a wide territory.”