Edith C. Salgstrom (1884-1975)
Edith’s story is one of successful Swedish immigration to the United States, female entrepreneurship, and the strength of family-run businesses.
FAmily and Early Years
In late November of 1879 Edith Salgstrom’s parents John and Johanna arrived in the United States from Sweden at the port of New York on the ship S. S. Baltic. An image of the vessel that I was able to find at the Norway Heritage website pictures a not particularly smooth trip across the Atlantic. The ship’s manifest shows John and Johanna arriving with Edith’s three older sisters: Yohanna, Elin, and Beda. After many weeks of travel from their home in Sweden via Liverpool, England and Queenstown, Ireland, the young family would surely have been relieved to arrive and settle into a then-thriving Swedish community in Worcester Massachusetts.
From author Paul Collins:
“… a wave of Swedish immigration and resettlement washed over Worcester, spawning what is today a sprawling tight-knit community around Quinsigamond Village, Vernon Hill, Belmont Hill and Greendale. By the early 1920s, the Swedish-born population of the city and its outlying areas had swelled to about 20,000, and with the second generation also at about 20,000, the Swedes made up one-fifth of Worcester’s total population. Swedish organizations and associations sprang up all over the city… This city that is the hub of Central Massachusetts became home to the largest Swedish immigrant population in the eastern United States.“
The already-transplanted Salgstrom family continued to move, changing addresses numerous times in the 1880s and 1890s until the girls became adults and forged out on their own. Daughters Dacie, Edith C., Mary D., and Anna Elvina joined the family as John moved his young girls from 23 Endicott Street (a classic Worcester triple-decker) (1880) to 82 Ward Street (1881, another triple decker) to 5 Oswald Street (1883) to 3 Thenius Street (1887) to 11 Ames (1892/another triple decker) where he was living when he died on June 27 1918. The family lived in both the southern part of town — presumably for its proximity to the wireworks where John worked — and the Vernon Hill area. As mentioned by Paul Collins (above), both neighborhoods were full of fellow Swedes.
Edith was born on the 3rd of August 1884, most likely at the family home which in that year was at 5 Oswald Street in the southern part of town. The cornerstone for the new Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor was laid two days later. New England Telephone had just begun service in Worcester. Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
On 4 November 1885, “Johan G. Salgstrom,” Edith’s father, took the oath of citizenship to the United States. He pledged to hold no further allegiance to Oscar II (then king of both Sweden and Norway). On that day, Edith would have been just a few months past her first birthday. Perhaps she stood in the window of the family home on a cold November afternoon waiting for her father — wearing his Sunday-best clothes — to return from his visit to the court house to become a U.S. citizen.
I like to imagine a hard-working father of seven young girls bringing his whole brood to the 1892 Fourth of July celebration, on Main Street in Worcester, on a day off from work. He meets his countrymen downtown, joining a celebration of both his Swedish community and his new land. Maybe John and Edith and some of his other girls are pictured in this 1892 photo, waving little Swedish flags as the “Swedish float” passes them on a hot summer day. If Edith is standing there with him, she is only a block away from where she will later run her successful corset-making business at 21 Elm Street in downtown Worcester.
City directories describe John Salgstrom as a “laborer,” “laborer at wireworks, Q” and “sinker” which given his wireworking background was probably this job: “the process of machining cavities into steel blocks for use in moulding.” (familyresearcher.co.uk/glossary/Dictionary-of-Old-Occupations-Index.html) The “Q” after “laborer at wireworks” likely refers to the Quinsigamond factory of the Washburn and Moen wire manufacturing company. Washburn and Moen employed many Swedish immigrants and recruited talent — especially engineers — from that country.
Salgstrom family gathered for these events:
1896 – sister Elin (now known as Ellen) marries Charles Arvid Petterson in Worcester on 15 February
1897 – sister Beda (then a “domestic”) marries Hjalmar Holmstrand (shoemaker)
1901 – death of their mother Johanna 1901.
1914 – sister Anna Elvina (“at home”) marries Frank Richard Baker (electrician) on 15 July
Edith's Career Begins
In the early part of the 20th century, unmarried siblings typically spent their lives in the houses where they were born. My own father’s family embraced this cost-effective, revenue-sharing, and labor-distributed tradition in the town of Amesbury, Massachusetts. While his father married and moved into the house across the yard, two aunts and an uncle lived out their days in the house of their birth where they cooked meals for each other, nursed each other in sickness, piled into the shared vehicle for a Sunday drive, observed and commented on the progress of the nieces and nephews. I’m guessing that Edith, Mary, and later Beda (Daisy lived with them for a while as well) also did all of the above in their house full of sisters.
The city directories show them sharing an address starting in 1904. Edith and Mary lived with each other at several addresses for decades until they sold the property they owned at 77 Fales in 1971. But something was different here from my father’s family’s story. In 1904 at the age of 20, Edith moved out of the family house at 11 Ames Street. She moved with her sisters to the first of multiple Worcester boarding houses and rental properties. Perhaps the death of their mother a few years earlier had taken a toll on their father and the sisters needed – in contemporary terms – “their space.” Maybe they were also making enough money by then that they could take what they might well have considered a step up — and away. Here we watch their journey through the city through addresses and job descriptions until 1918 at the end of World War I:
[n.b. “b” or “bds” means “boards” – paying weekly or monthly rent]
1904 – Salgstrom, Anna E. corset maker b. 13 Kilby; Edith C. corset maker bds 13 Kilby; Mary D. corset maker bds 13 Kilby
1905 – Salgstrom, Anna E. corset maker b. 13-1/2 Kilby; Edith C. corset maker bds 13-1/2 Kilby; Mary D. corset maker bds 13-1/2 Kilby
1906, 1907, 1908 – same as above
1908 same address but they are now described as “stitchers” rather than “corset makers”
1909 Salgstrom, Anna E. stitcher bds 202 Beacon, Edith C. stitcher bds 202 Beacon, Mary D. stitcher bds 202 Beacon
1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914 – same as above
1915 Salgstrom , Anna E. stitcher bds 41 Ripley, Edith C. forewoman 30 Wyman bds 41 Ripley, Mary D. stitcher bds 41 Ripley
1916, 1917 – same as above
In 1904, 20-year-old Edith is working as a corset maker. U.S. Census records tell us that she left high school after her first year which would have been in the late 1880s. In Worcester at that time she could have learned the corset-making trade as an employee of either of the big factories in town: Globe Corset Company (15 Union Street) and the Worcester Corset Co. (precursor to Royal Worcester Corset Company, then located at 49 Hermon). A 1911 Worcester Magazine article details another way that Edith or any other young woman in the city could have learned the corset-making trade. The Worcester Girls’ Trade School offered training programs in sewing that were specific to the corset industry.
“To-morrow the Worcester Girls’ Trade School will begin its work in a two-year course, with seventy-five girls in all day classes in Millinery, Dressmaking and Power Machine Operating… the three skilled trades which offer sufficient opportunity here in Worcester to justify the training of girls for these lines of work… The several sewing courses offered will train girls for the three lines of work which Worcester employers demand. They are: the dressmaker’s assistant who shows special ability in some parts of work, as finishing, making of waist linings, making of sleeves, etc.; skilled hand sewers for fine hand work on finishing of corsets, for which we see almost constant demand in the daily papers; seam stresses who will sew by the day in the homes of their patrons.”
Corset and Underwear Review reports in 1918 that David Hale Fanning of the Royal Worcester Corset Company made a massive donation of $100,000 to the city to help with construction of a new building for the trade school. “Mr. Fanning’s gift,” the trade journal tells us, “comes as a result of a desire on his part to do something for the city and the training of girls in their youth so that they will be self supporting.” Fanning at that point in time was decades into his ownership of the largest corset company in the world thereby putting him in the position of both having a lot of money for philanthropy (for which he was well known) and needing a well-trained work force. The less training that happened on the factory floor, the more productive the factory
By 1915 Edith had earned the title of forewoman at her job at 30 Wyman Street which was famous as the address of Worcester’s oldest corset factory the Royal Worcester Corset Company. It was described in 1905 as “the largest corset plant in the world.” In 1909 Worcester Magazine reported that “Worcester manufacturers to-day are exporting more corsets than the total imports from all foreign countries.” The sisters were riding a wave of corset production into a future that held promise for the enterprising.
Their father John died on June 27, 1918. I can only begin to imagine the many different ailments that would develop from years spent “machining cavities into steel blocks” in hot factories that were probably not optimally ventilated. Long hours, hard work. The sisters by then were obviously well established in their professions, having left their father’s home years earlier. We find Edith and Mary that year boarding in a triple-decker at 26 Fairbanks on Vernon Hill which is located — true to my own family tradition — across the yard from their father’s house. Edith would have probably converged with the sisters at their father’s final address at 11 Ames Street in the heat of the summer in 1918 to sort out his belongings and clean the place out.
The 1920 U.S. Census finds her still at the Fairbanks address and living with Mary, Beda, and Edith Holmstrand who is probably Beda’s daughter.
- Name: Edith Salgstrom
- Age: 35
- Birth Year: 1885
- Birthplace: Massachusetts
- Home in 1920: Worcester Ward 6, Worcester, Massachusetts
- Street: Fairbanks Street
- Marital Status: Single
- Able to Speak English: Yes
- Occupation: Forelady
- Industry: Corsets
- Able to read/write: Yes
- Also at this address:
Beda Holmstrand age 43
Mary Salgstrom age 39
Edith Salgstrom age 35
Edith Holmstrand age 22
For the next 2 years, Edith worked as forewoman at a new address: 40 Jackson Street, headquarters of the woman-owned Ivy Corset Company. In 1923 with years of experience in both making corsets and managing aspects of corset-making businesses she struck out on her own. She appears that year in the business pages of Worcester’s annual City Directory under the heading “Corsets” at 339 Main Street Room 26. In 1924 she moved to room 17: better view? more space? fewer stairs?
Three years later she appears in the 1927 Spring-Summer New England Telephone & Telegraph Telephone Company Directory under the heading “Corset Dealers” at the address she will work from for the next 30 years: 21 Elm Street, a block from Main Street in Worcester’s busy downtown district. You could pick up your new telephone and dial Park-3980 to ask Edith if your custom corset was ready. If the answer was yes, you’d head downtown for your new undergarment, perhaps also stopping in across the street to return some books at what was then the location of Worcester’s public library.
I have been unable to find any photos of Edith’s store. The building was demolished years ago and is now nothing but a ghost hovering over a parking lot. Given her background as a corset maker, though, I’m guessing that she not only sold corsets from other companies but also kept on with her own corset making and had a glass window storefront displaying their featured items. As a business owner, she perhaps no longer had enough time to do the sewing herself so likely had a few other women at the shop with her to help with fittings, customizing pieces, measuring and assembling. Was sister Mary the numbers person: making ledger entries, placing orders, balancing books, bringing deposits to the bank, haggling with vendors?
For over 10 years she walked from Fairbanks Street off of Vernon Hill through Kelly Square and over to Main Street to start her work day, thinking about the day’s tasks on her way across town. Maybe she had on her mind the mid-day appointment with a particularly fussy client. On her walk, she passed Beacon Street just a few blocks away from her old employer the Ivy Corset factory. For many of the years when she worked out of 21 Elm Street, living across the street was her former boss at Ivy Corset: Mary Bowne. Maybe they passed each other on Elm Street heading to their respective jobs each morning. Perhaps both Edith and her sister Mary — described in her obituary as “co-owner of the former Ladies Foundation Garments” store on Elm Street “which she and her sister … operated for 50 years” — were invited over to Mary Bowne’s posh downtown home every now and then for a cup of coffee with the successful corset factory owner. Or maybe not. It is intriguing, though, to imagine the possibilities for intersecting lines among the corset makers in the city.
The 1940 Census brings us to the address where Edith will live for the last 35 years of her life: 77 Fales Street. Now in her mid-50s, Edith finally lived in a house owned by family (her sister Mary). Edith’s name was added to the deed some years later. Mary bought the house from Edward R. and Sadie H. Skinner after securing a mortgage of $3,400 from a local bank. Although the deed was dated April 27, 1939 papers weren’t passed until January 18, 1940. So the Salgstrom sisters moved out the last of a very long string of Worcester rentals in the winter just after the official start of World War II. Although most American newspapers at the time featured daily updates on the dire situation in Europe, the sisters must have walked through the door at 77 Fales on that January day feeling joy, relief, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. They owned every one of the 6,409 square feet of earth that their newly-constructed Cape style house sat on. That must have felt fantastic.
1940 U.S. Census – Mary D. Salgstrom
- Occupation: Proprietor
- Attended School or College: No
- Highest Grade Completed: High School, 1st year
- Class of Worker: Working on own account
- Weeks Worked in 1939: 50
- Usual Industry: R Corset Shop
- Household Members:
Bedda Holmstrand age 62
Mary D Salgstrom age 60
Edith Salgstrom age 55
Winding Down: 1955-1975
The year the sisters closed the Elm Street shop they left America perhaps for the first and only time. Edith C. Salgstrom’s name appears with her sister Mary’s on 1955 immigration lists of U.S. citizens returning to the country from a trip overseas after a layover in Scotland enroute to New York City. The document notes the “ship name” Scandanavian Airlines System. I’ll put my money on their having boarded a cross-Atlantic flight to enjoy a long visit with family in Sweden as a retirement gift to themselves.
The Worcester city assessor’s office has a document from March of 1960 showing Edith’s name on a “joint tenants with the right of survivorship” agreement for the house on Fales. The savvy businesswomen were estate planning. Should anything happen to Mary, Edith gets the house without need for probate court. That document had a precious gem in it for me, the only remnant of the family: sister Mary’s signature. The careful script that must have filled many pages of ledgers over decades of corset sales is the only human trace of the sisters that I have been able to find.
I hope there were twenty years of peaceful retirement for Edith Salgstrom. She passed away on February 22, 1975 — two years after the death of her sister and business partner Mary. From the local paper: “Miss Edith C. Salgstrom 90 formerly of 77 Fales Street died Saturday night in Wayside Nursing Home 751 Grove Street… Private funeral services will be held at 11am tomorrow in Nordgren Memorial Chapel 300 Lincoln Street. The Rev. John A. Nilson will officiate. Burial will be in Old Swedish Cemetery.”
To the end, we see the Swedish community and its role in her life (Nordgren Chapel, Reverend Nilson, Old Swedish cemetery). Just as there were local Swedish bakeries, cemeteries, social clubs, parade floats, were there also, I wonder, Swedish corset shops? Was the shop on Elm Street another gathering place for Worcester’s Swedish community?
Another community she was part of was a professional one: Worcester’s corset makers. Edith Salgstrom was a successful Worcester business owner who used corset-making skills to serve the community for decades. Although neither of her immigrant parents lived to see her success, she would have surely been a great source of pride to them both, neither of whom ever owned their own house or had the social status of a downtown merchant. And as a “corsetiere” she was not just a business woman but also an artisan. Without being able to see any of her product, I must instead imagine her as a creator of beautiful corsets for women who came to Salgstrom Foundation Garments Store time and again for a fitting, for the year’s gossip, for a pretty new undergarment.