The Evolving Shape of the Women 1900-1920s

The objective of corsets was to improve on the body type of every woman. Emphasis was on the waist. By the 1880s the corset had become an elegant and desirable object in a woman’s wardrobe with much attention paid to its design and execution. Corset makers and manufacturers took great pride in promoting excellent fit in ready-to-wear garments.

The 1890s saw a change in woman from the pampered Victorian Lady to a more adventuresome woman, seen doing things only men had done in the past.  Women were riding bicycles, driving automobiles and playing active sports.  Fashions began to change to accommodate new activities. To that end women’s foundation garments began evolving as well.  The Victorian hourglass bone corset was taking on a new shape with the drop waist and slight hip sway; more about comfort and flexibility.


The 1900s brought Royal Worcester and Bon- Ton Corsets promoting “Princess Hip”.The Style Book for American Beauty Corsets proclaiming “A right fitted corset becomes ancorsets1900s-002.jpg unconscious part of a woman” and assuring that “boning materials, corset clamps, hose supporters, trimmings are carefully selected”.  At the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, a Nemo Corsets ticket depicts two statuesque women flanking a Nemo sign with a caption “Bones and Steels cannot cut through” The reverse promotes Nemo Court – a beautiful exhibit of Nemo Corset Specialties and a lecture series.  A British company, Hahns Corsets presented a music series of various national anthems with promotion for their corsets on the reverse—”Made in England by British Labour—The Elite Corset of Great Britain”.


In the 1910s corsets became a “serious” business.  The Ferris Bros Co in New York had a billhead putting corsets in the fore with an image from a photograph of woman dressed in a corset or waist.   corsets1910sIt also brought the advent of the Corset Hygienist certified in the Anatomy and Hygiene of Corsetry and in individual and surgical fittings—awarded by the Nemo Hygienic-Fashion Institute.  There were also regional and state specific Corset Clubs comprised of traveling corset salesman as evidenced in the Empire State Corset Club Banquet in Rochester, 1916.   In 1917, Warner introduced its Rust Proof corset as seen in the lady’s pocket calendar catalog.


The 1920s brought more customization for beauty and comfort and heightened emphasis on the medical benefit of corsets.  Spirella presented a booklet titled “Selecting the Right corsets1920s-016Corset” with a Corsetiere demonstrating careful measurement, scientific methods for corset selections plus the famous Spirella stays and the introduction of the Spirella brassieres (brassieres invented in France in1889, first patented in the US in 1914).


Nemo Corsets sought the endorsement of Dr. Adolf Lorenz, Professor, University Vienna, an orthopedist specializing in bone deformities.  His testimony proclaimed Nemo’s corsets important to women due to “their prophylactic, curative and corrective properties in giving relief to the contained abdominal and pelvic organs”.


In 1924 Barcley Custom Corsets promoted luxuriousness and the perfect corset boning, as presented in a 94 pp full color catalogue accompanied by a supplement booklet.  That year they introduced the Barcolette, a custom made, corset-brassiere.  Barcley corsetiers were provided with 112 pp instruction booklet a supplement on maternity corsets and a secondary 64 pp booklet on surgical corsetry.   Their final 23 pp booklet for the year, promotes their Wyra Bone accessories showing bandeaux, brassieres, corsieres, diaphragm reducers and other accessories.


For the Spring and Summer of 1924 Formfit Duo Girdleiere produced a 20pp catalogue with emphasis on the new Brassiere Department showing images from photographs of coquettish models wearing various lines including fancy type, staple brassieres, long line models, soft top girdleieres and much more.  This particular company was focused on glamour as demonstrated by a billhead from 1925.


Spencer Corsets produced an 11 pp booklet titles ‘Style is a greater Social asset than Beauty” – a message for the slender girl – the stout woman & the woman who has reached thirty including images from photographs and advise for each group. They also produced “You are Looking Lovely Today!” promoting the Spencer bandeau moving on from corsets…


What will the 1930s bring?


Victorian Vanity – A Collection of 71 mostly Victorian Trade Cards Relating to Complexion Care, Hair Renewers & Whisker Care

This collection of predominantly advertising trade cards demonstrates the emergence of vanity products towards the end of the Victorian era.

The collection concentrates 33 advertisements on hair renewers promoted to cure all hair imperfections. It claimed to return aging hair to its original color, prevent or reverse baldness, keep dandruff away and make hair grow thick and strong. Additionally it was to add luster and was recommended for people of all ages. Products include Barry’s Tricopherous, Columbia Herp. C. Hair Tonic, Currier’s Cocoanut Cream, Hair Vine Nature’s Remedy, Elick’s Hair Tonic, Burnett’s Cocoaine and Hall’s Hair Renewer.

It includes 30 pieces relating to Complexion care – creams, balms, toilet powder, toilet soap, face powder, salves. They claimed to improve rough hard skin, refresh, soothe and heal. Toilet Powder claimed to remove tan, sunburn, greasiness or oilness, unnatural dryness, freckles, redness, pimpms and other skin troubles as well as conceal blemishes of disease. Toilet powder was designed to make the skin graceful and matrons look twenty again. Burnett’s Kalliston Toilet Water made an additional claim of affording instant relief for ‘itching Piles’. American Beauty Cream claims to be made from Cucumber Juice and never spoils! Finally this grouping includes a booklet titled Beauty’s Boudoir – Useful Toilet Hint that also includes testimonials from actresses. Products include Dr. Hebra’s Viola ream and Viola Skin Soap, F. S. Cleaver’s Terebene Soap, Beethanms Glycerine & Cucumber, Hagan’s Magolia Balm, Freeman Face Powder, Cream of Lilies, Elite Toilet Soap, Burnett’s Kalliston and Cologne Water, Field’s Rose Salve, Vogeler’s Fedora Toilet Powder, American Beauty Cream and finally Chaplin’s Liquid Pearl producers of Beauty’s Boudoir Useful Toilet Hints booklet.

Lastly the collection is not limited to female vanity but includes 8 advertising cards for Buckingham’s Whisker Dye with various methods including metamorphic cards of depicting before and after effects of the product always making the man appear significantly younger. The dyes were in black or brown and usually accompanied by promotions for Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer for men to prevent baldness among other things.

The majority of imagery is of physically attractive, affluent people most with perfect hair, skin and features. Additional topics include flowers and children.

Mother’s Helpers – 19th Century Style


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The collection includes 70 pieces of advertising ephemera. The categories include Convenience Food, Cookware, Devices & Appliances, Ironing, Laundry Aids & Soaps, Scouring, Sewing Machines and Sewing Aids, Stoves and Accessories, Sweepers & Vacuums, Wringers & Washing Machines. The materials are predominantly trade cards and flyers with a few catalogues, booklets and a photograph.

• Convenience Food – Processed foods were being introduced as a convenience to reduce preparation time, bringing new tastes and products to those who previously hadn’t experienced the and to prevent spoilage. Includes promotion for David Nicholson’s Liquid Bread, Deep seal Mess Mackerel, Dunham’s Shred Cocoanut, Friends Rolled White Oats, Heckers’ Self Raising Flour, Heinz Pure Foods, Magnolia Hams, National Biscuit Company’s Shredded Wheat and Stickney & Poor’s Pure Spices,

• Cookware – Granite cookware and cast iron pans where the preferred items of the day. Granite Iron Ware was the best product for the “The Little Housewife” so easy and safe that a child could use it, while Agate Iron Ware was considered “The Crowning Triumph” making housekeepers from all walks of life rejoice. The Acme Iron fry pan was constructed of a single piece of iron and available in 6 diameters.

• Devices & Appliances – As simple as a milk bottle holder for the door, a utility kitchen took, a universal opener, a perfection window cleaner or a velvet grip broom holder or as dangerous as a safety window cleaning chair that hung side of the house as a chair to use while cleaning windows. And last but not least the automatic dumb waiter so easy a child could use it.

• Ironing – always a scary proposition as it always entailed heavy hot objects. Mrs. Potts lead the way to improving the process first with cold wood handles for sad irons (irons heated by placing them on stoves), as not to burn one’s hands while ironing followed by the addition of polishing and girls’ irons. Geneva made a product called the “Hand Fluter” used to create and press pleated trim for clothing. Last but not least this grouping includes a trade catalogue for the early 20th century “Modern Ironing” creation by Kero Sene – an array of irons with a lit container of kerosene under pressure attached to the back of the iron.

• Laundry Aids – predominantly starch and bluing in the 19th century. Soaps were predominantly promoted for general as well as laundry and are listed separately. Rideout’s Starch Polish was designed to make clothes “shine” while Muzzy’s Sun Gloss Starch shone so brightly one could see their reflection in the garment. Spanish bluing will not streak.

• Sewing Machines and Sewing Aids – Sewing machine advertising was often presented as before and after images with living a life drudgery or chaos before the new sewing machine. Another method was to show the new machine as a status symbol, shown in elegant or exotic parlors. The final common method was showing the new sewing machine as a means to making the family happy. A different approach is used in a broadside presenting the simplicity, excellence & economy of the Bartlett & Demorest’s Elastic Stitch Family Sewing-Machine. Sewing aids included such items as ready wound bobbins and pattern stamping material and patterns, a collection onto its own.

• Soaps & Scouring – Among the many soap manufacturers of the day were B.T. Babbitt’s Soap for all Nations, Buchan’s Carbolic Laundry Soap, Curtis, Davis & Co. Welcome Soap, Enoch Morgan’s Sons Sapolio, Fairbank’s Glycerine Tar Soap, Hargraves Mfg. Co. Soap Makers, L. I. Fisk & Do’s Soaps, Scourene, Smith Brothers Pure Borax, and Van Haagen’s Toilet Soap. More often than not soap advertising depicted ‘pretty people’ vs. people scouring and cleaning, almost implying a more gentile life if you used their product. The few Soaps that did show washing somewhat glamorized the process. A different approach was taken by Brewster’s Labor-Saving Laundry Soap presenting a large two-sided flyer promoting it ads something new. Wood cuts of two women; one relaxing because she the other “l’ve worked like a Slave—It is the Fault of the Soap! —she did not use the product. The flyer explains the science behind the product and promotes an array of the related products and uses. Finally, this grouping includes a mechanical brochure with a gleeful mother and daughter upon the arrival of their Crystal White Laundry Soap.

• Stoves and Accessories – Stoves were also promoted as luxury items designed to take all of the effort out of cooking. An innovation over wood burning stoves the Florence Soil Stoves, manufactured by Crown Sewing Machines. Stove Polish was promoted to maintain that all important item. Dixon’s Carburet of Iron was so gentle it could be used to clean a child. A less marketed product was the Safety Oil Can, more for household lamps.

• Sweepers & Vacuums – The Goshen Sweeper Co. carpet sweeper was known as ‘the Ladies Friend” but the Electric Household in the early 20th century put an end to that friendship. Pay Dirt, a periodical produced by The Frantz Premier Co. provided information on their electrified wringer washing machines but more importantly the introduction of the vacuum cleaner. This grouping also includes an actual photograph of a child pushing an early electric vacuum cleaner.

• Wringers & Washing Machines – Wringers were often promoted as easy enough for child’s play including those promotes by Empire, Keystone, The A. M. Co. Wringer and Eagle. Conqueror Wringer had a series of trade cards for the different days of the week (ironing, washing, baking) but each with wringer prominently displayed in the home work environment. The Universal Clothes Wringer company designed a metamorphic trade card that depicts an unhappy maid wringing by hand and an unhappy mistress as the clothes weren’t clean. When opened, they are both happy due to the efficient and effective Universal Wringer. C. Gorton’s promotes his grand success of the combined Feed Steamer and Clothes Washer (completely described and illustrated). Finally, a three-fold pamphlet providing an historical view “For Forty-Eight Years American Women Have Approve the Easy Vacuum Electric Washer. Imagery of washing implements from 1877 through 1910 with narrative promoting the Vacuum Electric Washer.womensworkcollage