The Bon Ton School of Corsetry

A school & sales force training tool of the Royal Worcester Corset Company

What was the school of corsetry?

Worcester hosted well over a century of corset making activity, beginning just after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s and reaching into the 1980s.  But what about the process of learning how to make one, how was that happening?  Were mothers teaching daughters?  Was there a school where you could learn the trade?  Was the education happening on the factory floor?   My digging into this topic led me to the discovery that the city’s most prominent corset manufacturer also ran a school.  The Bon Ton School of Corsetry took its name from one of the Royal Worcester Corset Company’s most popular products:  the Bon Ton corset, patented in 1875, trademark registered in 1876.  The Bon Ton School granted “Graduate Corsetiere” certificates to thousands of students over the decades it was in business.  In so doing, it advanced the fortunes of Royal Worcester by creating credentialed sales staff who were familiar with its products and could increase the company’s sales.  Once Bon Ton shifted to a correspondence school format, its graduates worked all over the world.
1917 Bon Ton corset ad - ebay
1925 Bon Ton corsets ad - actress Sylvia Breamer

There were other schools of corsetry in America. In July 1922, the trade publication Corset and Underwear Review (CAUR) listed in its buying guide twelve other training programs, located in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York. That list of schools was called a “classified index,” from which I conclude not only that the entries for those companies were paid advertisements but also that there were likely many more such schools nation-wide.

One example is the International School of Corsetry, run by the International Corset Co. (Aurora, Illinois). Another is the Kabo School of Corsetry whose classes were held at Kabo’s Chicago factory. Although these “schools” covered many corset-related topics (more on this below), they seem to have been designed primarily to be sales mechanisms. The idea was that the saleswoman student would take the class, return to her downtown corset shop, and push the goods of the manufacturer who ran the school, whose diploma she now proudly displayed on the wall behind the register in the store. After a week of corset schooling, that manufacturer would of course be the company with whose inventory the enterprising sales woman would be most familiar.

“The interest of the school is not, of course, confined to its pupils. When one of them graduates, a letter is sent to her employer, giving complete data as to the course she has taken and pointing out different ways in which her newly acquired knowledge may be used to the advantage of the store.”

1916 Corset and Underwear Review “What a School of Corsetry Can Accomplish”

This diploma was awarded sometime after 1920 when Helen Place Geer became director of the Bon Ton School. These were displayed in corset businesses worldwide, giving the shop that hung them an air of greater authority. Image courtesy of WPI Archives & Special Collections, George C. Gordon Library
A class photo of the 1916 July graduates from the Kabo School of Corsetry in Chicago, Illinois. Note the marketing on the mannequins: the brand name Kabo features prominently below the neckline where it will not be covered up once the mannequin is corseted

What would you learn at a week-long corsetry program? An article written by a retail merchant who attended one such training event in 1916 offers a glimpse. His participation seemed motivated by curiosity about its content and a desire to be convinced of its virtues before paying to send his sales staff there. “Being a mere man,” he commented, “I was not of course initiated into all the esoteric mysteries of corset fitting.” From that comment, although it was intended as a humorous aside, I think we can safely conclude that all the students of these corsetry schools were female. He also reported on what was taught:

“The school has a regular curriculum, the thorough mastery of which, as I can personally testify, demands ability of no mean order. The student learns from touch of the actual materials and from sight of the actual processes just how corsets are made, she learns how corsets should be repaired, how they should be altered, and how they should be cleaned – all this beside learning the one important lesson of how they should be fitted.”

“The advertising of the corset department is taught: how to make the best use of newspaper space … how to organize and make an effective style show, how to best use telephone calls and the moving picture theatres…”

“Under the heading of alterations, the student must be able to build up the top of a corset, shorten bones, change boning, change or shorten front clasp, make a corset smaller or larger, take up darts in abdomen or in bottom of skit, put in gores in skirt or bust, shorten or lengthen supporters, insert elastic in skirt at bottom of back.”

1916 Corset and Underwear Review “What a School of Corsetry Can Accomplish”

When was the school in existence?

I have not yet been able to pinpoint exactly when the Bon Ton School opened. The earliest newspaper mention I find of it is in an advertisement from 1912. Anderson’s Daylight Store in Owensboro Kentucky hosted a special demonstration that year with Madame Macheca, “direct from the Bon Ton School of Corsetry.” The last mention I find of the school is in the year 1935. Without any corporate records, it will be difficult to determine its beginning and end dates.

This postcard shows the staying power of the schools of corsetry across America. Here, we see a 1948 trip to Chicago for Indiana store owner Mrs. John Henriott. The curriculum by then would have been vastly different from that of the courses described below by a 1916 participant, who was instructed in shortening and changing corset boning.
An early mention of the Bon Ton School of Corsetry appears in this ad for a shop in Kentucky in 1912.

Where did the training happen?

For the factory-hosted corset schools, students travelled to Chicago or Aurora (Illinois), New York City, Detroit or Kalamazoo or Saginaw (Michigan), Bridgeport (Connecticut), or Worcester (Massachusetts). Before switching to “correspondence” training — students receive course materials by mail — Royal Worcester held what they called a “convention” in the years before World War I, a multi-day event that was heavy on training. See image below (“to: Mr. Merchant / In Every Town / United States”) for an example of the marketing used to attract participants to the Salon de Bon Ton event in New York City in 1919. Under the leadership of Sara E. Conklin (more on her below), the Bon Ton School shifted to the correspondence school format.

Who is working at the Bon Ton School?

Madame C. V. Macheca, in the years 1912-1913, travelled across the American south and west as a “noted corset demonstrator” for the Bon Ton School of Corsetry.  She is the earliest Bon Ton School employee that I have been able to identify.  In eight local newspaper display advertisements during those two years we watch Madama Macheca travel with her case of educational materials to the following locations:  Memphis TN, Knoxville TN, Waco TX, Guthrie OK, Tulsa OK, Columbia TN, El Paso TX, Houston TX, and Owensboro KY.  I picture her stepping down off the train in March of 1912 after many hours of trying to sleep sitting up, looking from the platform for a friendly face to help with her baggage in the oppressive heat, arriving at the last border town before Mexico, ready to deliver her pitch. 

Adele Mahone‘s first newsworthy appearance was in a 1912 article announcing her move from California to Oregon. Mahone clearly shared Macheca’s spirit of adventure, leaving her job with the “Moss glove house” in Oakland, CA, to accept a position with a Portland, OR, mercantile firm. In 1917 she visited a Nebraska store in her capacity as corset expert and “instructress” at the Bon Ton School of Corsetry. That same year she also visited Chicago and Tennessee retailers as a Bon Ton School representative. Here was another woman unafraid of either change or endless travel. In the 1920s, she shifted to a job with the Modart Corset company which described her in one advertisement as a “recognized authority in the science of corsetry.” As a Modart specialist she travelled to places as far-flung as Ohio, Quebec, and Iowa and was by 1923 head of its corsetry school. In the late 1920s, she continued work as an educational director but no longer with corsets, giving lectures on the fundamentals of correct dress for the Ever Ready (rubber) Products company. The last mention I find of her in news articles was in a 1934 Sacramento, California piece describing her talk on brassieres at the city’s Weinstock-Lubin & Co. store.

The Bon Ton School's representative Adele Mahone travelled between the years 1917 and 1934 to a wide range of North American destinations sharing her expertise on corsets and brassieres.

Ella Claussen‘s work for the Bon Ton School overlapped with the early years of Adele Mahone’s tenure there, from 1917-1919. Claussen’s name appears in dozens of advertisements of that era. “Miss Ella Claussen of the Bon Ton School of Corsetry” travelled through Oklahoma, Kansas, Ohio, and Indiana, touted at each stop as a corset specialist. One of the ads mentions her arrival “direct from the Salon du Bon Ton, Chicago.” Royal Worcester had a significant presence in Chicago for many years and I have wondered how extensive the facility was there. The Salon du Bon Ton locations might have served as regional home bases for these midwestern, southern, and western instructresses, as well as providing a central spot for classroom work.

In 1918, Miss Ella Claussen "an expert corsetiere direct from the school of corsetry" was in Newton Kansas, ready to answer any questions. Beyond the practical, this ad also assures you that you will be au courant: "neither Paris nor other centers of fashion have produced corsets more modish than these"

Sara E. Conklin spent many years in the New York/New Jersey region designing and selling corsets before landing the job of director at the Bon Ton School of Corsetry. One of her obituaries says she began her work at Royal Worcester in 1915. I find the first Bon Ton School of Corsetry ad featuring her name in 1919. It includes a photo of the thoughtful Conklin seated at her factory desk. Her position at the time was at a high enough level in the company that she had her own private secretary (Miss Nellie M. Wheeler), quite an accomplishment in that era. I think of factory owner Mary Bowne at Ivy Corset that same year and wonder if these two met and talked shop. 

I don’t know exactly when she arrived in Worcester for this job. City directories show her there only in 1919, listed as a saleswoman boarding at 1 May Street. By then, she had likely already been in the city for some years, though, as I have read numerous tributes to her dedication in setting up the Worcester Business Women’s Club. That same drive, however, led to an early death.

In April of 1919 she oversaw yet another successful annual convention of the Bon Ton School in Worcester. Store owners, buyers, and corsetieres from the region participated in the event. The school at that time had 1,200 students. Two months later, Conklin died suddenly during a visit with her sister in Hackensack, NJ. One obituary said that “her sudden collapse is believed to be the result of over fatigue.” Later that year, David Hale Fanning donated $500 to the Worcester Business Women’s Club which was earmarked for use in furnishing a room in memory of Conklin.

Helen Place Geer took the reins of the Bon Ton School from Sara Conklin in 1920. She worked for some years as an instructor at the May Manton School of Dressmaking and was described in ads at that time as a New York dressmaking and fashion expert. In November of 1915, for example, we see her arriving in Lancaster Pennsylvania presenting on “how to make your own garments.” With the untimely death of Sara Conklin in 1919, David Hale Fanning was probably flooded with applications for the directress position. Geer’s years of instruction, travel, and fashion expertise qualified her for the job.

Taking the place of the late Sara E. Conklin, Helen Place Geer became "directress" of the Bon Ton School in 1920.
A 1915 ad in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, newspaper finds Helen Place Geer running a school of dressmaking. That skill set would readily convert to her work in corsetry that would follow.

David Hale Fanning is someone not yet mentioned but likely the light bulb of the entire corsetry school idea at Royal Worcester. According to a 1919 article in Corset and Underwear Review about the Bon Ton School, factory owner Fanning was “personally interested in this phase of the work.” Eight years earlier, he had bankrolled the construction of a Girls’ Trade School in Worcester; see part 1 of the Edith Salgstrom profile for more information. Worcester Magazine in 1911 describes the power machine component of the Girls’ Trade School courses in relation to corsetry training:

“The courses in power machine operating will prepare girls for work in the muslin underwear factories, shirtwaist factories and corset factories, where conditions are good, employment steady and wages above the average. The possibilities of power sewing machines seem to be almost limitless in variety of work for which women have special talent.”

Worcester Magazine, 1911

When considering Fanning’s motivations, he obviously would have benefitted from a well-trained work force at his factory. The word paternalism also comes to mind, although his expression of it extended only to women. He had worked with a predominantly female work force for decades. He was married with two daughters. For him, being surrounded by women seems to have contributed to a genuine interest in improving their lives. There are many examples of his desire to provide safe, even attractive work spaces for his employees. A glimpse at the furnishings of one of the rest rooms at the factory circa 1921 reveals a room that would have fit into any high-end hotel of that era. Was he an early feminist? Or, was his motivation the desire for a happy and thus productive work force? Are the two schools of thought necessarily mutually exclusive?

Worcester's young women entered the city's first Girls' Trade School in September of 1911. The building was located near downtown on State Street.
In a 1921 profile of the company, The Outlook includes a photographs of the employee rest room and says: "There is nothing like it in any other factory in America."

Why a corset school?

As previously mentioned, the training program was sold as a great advantage to retail establishment owners. After the 1919 Bon Ton School of Corsetry convention held at the factory in Worcester, Corset and Underwear Review exclaimed that:

“the instruction which the girls receive at these conventions can be turned into profit immediately for the merchant, the business of several girls jumping 100 and even 200 per cent in actually known cases”

Run as a correspondence program, it offered even more value to the shopkeeper — Royal Worcester’s main client — because that format cost the merchant nothing. Tuition was free and enrollment was not restricted to stores that carried Royal Worcester corsets. The only expense was the cost of postage and a few envelopes. In-person training held at distant factories meant the store owner had to pay for his sales staff’s room and board for as long as a week, as well as their transportation expenses. The mail was the way to go.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The training also benefitted sales clerks who could, upon certification, ask for a higher rate of pay if the training translated to increased revenue at the shop. The man quoted above who attended the training session in 1916 and wrote about his experience for Corset and Underwear Review gives an example of this scenario:

“I have known storekeepers who did not desire for their saleswomen this sort of training — even as a gift. Had they been honest about it, their defence would have been: ‘If they know more, they’ll want more money — and we don’t want to pay it.’ “

1916 Corset and Underwear Review “What a School of Corsetry Can Accomplish”

For the saleswoman/corsetiere, we must also consider the confidence factor.   This level of training for a woman who had perhaps been learning the trade from only one knowledgeable person in her life up to that point, this would have given her a higher level of on-the-job confidence.  “Yes,” she could say with no hesitation in her voice, “I’ll have those adjustments done for you by tomorrow afternoon.” 

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

For women in Worcester, there was an added advantage to taking the Bon Ton course. It might have helped them get a job at the Royal Worcester factory or at any of the other corset makers in town. As she made the rounds looking for work, she could start her interview with these words: “I am now a certified graduate corsetiere.”