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).
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.
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.
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.
"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.”
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.
I have found one image of a Park Corset Works product, a corset promoted in their 1890 city directory advertisement. I’m not entirely sure but it appears to be fastened with a long row of snaps up its back side. That seems to me to be most decidedly a two-person operation and thus a design flaw. Perhaps the designs of their corsets fated the business to an abbreviated run. Other corset makers in the city (Royal Worcester and Ivy Corset, for example) celebrated the strength of their designs and designers in their ads and both enjoyed many decades of prosperity.
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.”