Hats off to 1900s working women
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Feb 13, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Hats off to 1900s working women

St. Marys Journal Argus

Mary Smith, Historic St. Marys

This week’s photograph, taken in 1902, shows the staff of the millinery (hat-making) department at White & May Company, a large dry goods store on Queen Street. The business started in 1890, a partnership between Jeremiah White and W. H. May. Incorporated in 1905, at one time the company operated stores in Ailsa Craig, Park-hill, Milverton, Forest and Strathmore, Alberta, as well as the parent store in St. Marys. Many Journal Argus readers will remember White & May at the northwest corner of Wellington and Queen Streets.

Dry goods stores were important early retail businesses. They sold yard goods, carrying fabric for household needs and for men’s and women’s clothing. They had sewing, knitting and embroidery supplies — thread, ribbons, buttons, needles and pins. They also carried handkerchiefs, stockings and gloves. A large dry goods store employed cutters and tailors as well as dressmakers and milliners to provide more services for their customers.

Timothy Eaton had a dry goods store in St. Marys in the 1860s where apparently his wife, Margaret, set up the town’s first millinery department to attract women customers. The Eatons moved to Toronto and their famous catalogue became a great source for ordering not only ready-made hats and bonnets but also hat trimmings — ribbons, feathers, artificial flowers — for women who wanted to create their own fashion statement. Women with a bit more disposable income would visit a milliner, such as the ones who worked in this special department at White & May, and have a unique hat professionally made to their specifications.

In an era where career choices for women were limited, millinery was a good occupation, providing a chance to display flair and creativity. Of the six women in this photograph, all poised and stylish, two have been identified: Della Treacy is second from the left in the back row and Ada LeGear is on the right at the back. In the 1901 census, 10 more women are listed as milliners. The four unidentified women in this picture may be among them. Others might have worked in rival stores or independently from home.

Fashions changed. After the First World War, hats were simpler and almost all came ready-made although the Eaton catalogue still carried hat trimmings into the 1920s. But millinery as an occupation was no longer an option for St. Marys women.

For more information, register for the Fashion Accessories seminar at the St. Marys Museum, Saturday morning, Feb. 16 by calling 519-284-3556.

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