Park Corset Works and owner Solon Bryant

When Park Corset Works first appeared in the Worcester city directories in 1882, it joined the earliest members of Worcester’s corset industry.  There was at that time in the city only one manufacturer (Worcester Corset Company), one supplier (Washburn & Moen, corset wires), and one corsetiere (Mrs. Alex McGregor) selling their wares to the ladies of the city. 

The business began the way many do:  two people teamed up, one who had a lot of money to invest and the other who had experience that appeared to qualify him for the venture.  Located in the core of downtown, across the Common from City Hall, the business sat in an excellent spot for attracting customers. 

It started with the notions

Solon Bryant arrived in Worcester at a young age from his birthplace of Troy, New Hampshire (born November 30, 1835).  The 1860 U.S. Census shows him living in Templeton, Massachusetts, a 24 year old merchant with a net worth of $500.  Five years later the Massachusetts Census finds him living in Northbridge, Massachusetts, and married to Emma Wellington Fay (married February 10, 1864).

From an 1881 ad for "Solon Bryant & Co., manufacturers and jobbers of corsets … 84 Front Street, Worcester Mass."

Only a few months after his wedding, Bryant was drafted for military service.  His draft record says he was then working as a butcher in Northbridge.  Given the national crisis at that time, the news of conscription would likely not have come as a surprise to the newlywed yet it would have surely been a very sobering moment in his young life. 

At Camp Meigs in what was then known as Readville, Massachusetts (now part of the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston) he became part of the 13th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry, Company G, with a rank of private.  Camp Meigs was also the training camp for the 54th Regiment Volunteer Infantry, the African-American unit famously celebrated in the 1989 feature film Glory.  Bryant was able to serve for a short ninety days at Camp Meigs then head home.  Thousands of others were not so lucky.   

Recruiting poster for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
Civil War era soldiers gathered at the Massachusetts training facility known as Camp Meigs, where Solon Bryant served his ninety day conscription in 1864.

Still living in Northbridge in 1870, his job was then described as “fancy goods dealer” on that year’s Census.  In 1872 we see his first Worcester business Bryant & Wiley operating at 16 Mechanic Street.  The shop  sold “fancy goods, trimmings, etc.”  Two years later, it was out with Wiley and in with Wood for Bryant Wood & Co., operating at the same address.  One year after that, it was out with Wood and then proceeding solo with Bryant Solon & Co. (1875).  In later city directory ads we see yet another incarnation:  Solon Bryant Co., proprietors of the Park Corset Works.  The names kept changing but the business remained at the downtown Front Street location until around 1894.   

Cards from the state of Massachusetts documenting The Solon Bryant Company's organization in 1885 and dissolution in 1894.
Cards from the state of Massachusetts documenting The Solon Bryant Company's organization in 1885 and dissolution in 1894.

By 1880 he had moved to downtown Worcester (127 Beacon Street) where he lived with his second wife Sarah and daughter Eleanor. [First wife Emma had died at the age of 25 in the spring of 1870.]  His line of business was what was then known as “notions”  which included (but were not limited to):  yarn, cotton thread, fasteners, dress shields, handheld mirrors, hair pins, safety pins, braid, thimbles, embroidery hoops, crochet needles, buttons, hair nets, gloves.  A store of that type would be packed with goods, of course; there you would go to browse not 10 options but closer to 910 options for threads.  Ditto for yarn, buttons, etc.  What strikes me from that notions list is that all you’d need to add to it was a sewing machine and fabric and you could put a corset together.  Bryant was onto something.  He had most of the goods.  This would be a logical extension of the existing business.  Perhaps he was able to spirit away some key employees of the Worcester Corset Company to help this manufacturing project succeed.

Stores such as De Graff & Palmer -- "notions" shops -- offered a mix of sewing supplies and personal accessories (gloves, hair nets, etc.). They were most likely the domain of the female.
These three images show many of the items available in a "notions" shop which were ingredients for a corset: thread, garters, pins.
The masthead of the periodical Fabrics, Fancy Goods, Notions in 1905. This was an industry substantial enough to fill a monthly trade magazine.

"the establishment … did a large trade"

Renowned Worcester historian Charles G. Washburn in his 1917 book Industrial Worcester claimed that the Park Corset Works opened in 1868.  The business does not appear in the city directories, however, until 1882, many years later.  That’s a mystery; why would a business take a pass on more than twenty years’ worth of local advertising?  Maybe Washburn was wrong.  Or, did the Park Corset Works exist for all those years as a work-in-progress at Solon Bryant’s downtown retail location? 

In 1901, the Worcester Telegram concisely summarized his local business activity:

“Mr. Bryant for years had a large store from 82 to 90 Front Street, where he sold men’s clothing, fancy goods, notions, furnishing goods and stationery.  He was also part proprietor of the Park Corset Works operated by the Solon Bryant Co., of which G. Henry Whitcomb was president and Mr. Bryant treasurer.  The establishment occupied an entire block and for a time did a large trade.”

The president of Park Corset Works was G. Henry Whitcomb, a prosperous local manufacturer of envelopes whose wealth bought him properties across the United States, including this granite beauty, his Worcester home at 51 Harvard Street.

George Henry Whitcomb’s name first appears in Park Corset Works ads in 1886.  A speculating man, he probably invested in the company hoping to make some good money from the corset trade.  After finishing his studies at Amherst College, he had embraced the field of envelope manufacturing which made him a very wealthy man.  Two years prior to his management role (“G. Henry Whitcomb, pres.“) in Park Corset Works, he incorporated the Whitcomb Envelope Company which he sold four years later to United States Envelope, presumably for a tidy sum.  He then travelled with his money across the United States, investing “a million dollars in real estate in Seattle alone” according to biographer Charles Nutt.  His investments were scattered across regions as far-flung as Washington State, Wyoming, Kansas, and Massachusetts.  I imagine the thrill of his trips around the country — presumably by train — on the eve of a new century, eyeballing areas in remote cities, scouting for opportunities, bankrolling construction in downtown neighborhoods. 

An image of the Park Corset Works building in a 1889 display advertisement features the company’s ornate four-story window-canopied structure presiding over one end of the city’s downtown public space, the Worcester Common.  Known as the Whitcomb Building, it was built in 1877 by Bryant’s eventual business partner G. Henry Whitcomb.   In the image, a young lad plays with his hoop by the front door.  At the foreground, towering over the building, is Worcester’s Civil War memorial.  Its prominence in the image probably speaks to the impact that the Civil War and his service had on Bryant.  At the memorial’s base we see the words “trade mark,” an odd spot for a declaration of intellectual property rights.  If this was their brand logo, it was a busy one.   

Located in the heart of downtown, the Park Corset Works cuts an imposing figure on the opposite end of the Worcester Common in this image circa 1889.
An 1890 product of the Park Corset Works.

By 1894, Bryant’s corset factory and notions emporium had disappeared from the city directory listings.  There were by then three other corset manufacturers in town:   Globe Corset, John E. Lancaster, Worcester Corset.  Seeing the growth of corset making competition and perhaps tired by then of the notions trade, Bryant had decided to shift gears.  He left Worcester for Somerville where he tried his hand at real estate and insurance sales.  He died there a few days before Christmas 1901 (December 21) after what one of his obituaries called “a long sickness.”   In a nod to the importance of (not notions but) corsets to the city, editors of the Worcester Telegram chose this title for his obituary:  “Once Sold Corsets.”