A group of Chicago businesswomen saw a problem with the range of banking options available to women. Female business owners were denied credit from banks at a far higher rate than their male counterparts. It stifled women’s ability to start, operate, and expand their firms.
The Chicago women reasoned that a bank that specialized in the female market, led by women who knew the financial industry, and supported by female stockholders and depositors, could address that credit gap. The result is First Women’s Bank, chartered in Illinois in July 2021 with plans to open in the autumn. It will be one of the few US banks primarily owned and managed by women, and whose products and services are specifically designed to support women in business.
The new First Women’s Bank has predecessors. Some of them even used the same or similar names. For instance, in the mid-1970s, as throngs of American women agitated for equal rights, female-led groups established: First Women’s Bank, opened in New York in 1975 Women’s Bank, opened in San Diego in 1976 Western Women’s Bank, opened in San Francisco in 1976 First Women’s Bank of California, opened in Los Angeles in 1976 Women’s Bank, opened in Richmond, Virginia in 1977 Connecticut Women’s Bank, opened in Greenwich in 1977 Women’s National Bank, opened in Washington, DC in 1978 Women’s Bank, N.A. opened in Denver in 1978.
Many savings-and-loan associations and credit unions which were owned, managed, and staffed by women also opened in this period.
One of the earliest predecessors dates back a century, to another period when women were agitating for equal rights and seeking opportunities to improve society. It was the need to be useful that impelled Brenda V. Runyon to establish First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee in 1919.
During World War I, Runyon had headed the Clarksville chapter of the Red Cross. After the war ended, she told a reporter, “I found it impossible to settle down to the old life of ease and inactivity. There was the desire to do something for the public good—something worthwhile.”
At the suggestion of a banker friend, she settled on a bank for women. Runyon and four of her friends incorporated the First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee on August 1, 1919, sold stock, and held the first shareholders’ meeting on August 16. Shareholders voted in a board of directors: eight women including Runyon and the incorporators. Following the shareholder’s meeting, the board elected officers: Brenda Runyon, president; Mary Elder, vice president; Love Lyle, cashier and secretary. The group found space in the Montgomery Hotel building, which was owned and managed by Lulu Bringhurst Epperson.
While organizing the corporation and preparing the space, Runyon and Lyle also spent at least three days each week at a bank in a nearby town, learning the trade. They initially did all the work to keep costs to a minimum. Newspapers delighted in reporting that all the bank’s personnel were female, including the janitor.
First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee opened for business on October 6. Lulu Epperson was the first depositor. By 2pm, customers had deposited $20,058.75—five thousand dollars more than the capital raised by the sale of stock.
The bank did not limit its clientele to women and had male stockholders and depositors. It made an effort to “influence women to economize and save their money,” according to Runyon. “We shall try to teach them business methods and encourage them to do things for themselves.”
First Woman’s Bank grew and operated successfully for six years. In 1926, growth slowed and Runyon retired from the bank after a fall incapacitated her. First Woman’s merged into First Trust and Savings Bank. Love Lyle continued as cashier at First Trust.
First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee, the women’s banks formed in the 1970s, and Chicago’s new First Women’s Bank were all founded on the same concept: women helping women. In each period, women recognized a financial problem or need and fashioned a solution that educated women, provided jobs, and increased their participation in the economy.
From the Clarksville, Tennessee Leaf-Chronicle accessed via Newspapers.com “First Woman’s Bank in the State of Tennessee”, 30 July 1919 “First Woman’s Bank in the State of Tennessee, the Charter for which has been Filed for Registration—the Incorporators”, 31 July 1919 “First Meeting of Stockholders of New Bank”, 18 August 1919 “Clarksville’s New Bank Opens”, 6 October 1919
“Story of State’s First Woman’s Bank is Told”, Nashville Tennessean, 21 September 1919 accessed via Newspapers.com
“The First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee: 1919-1926” by H. Bruce Throckmorton. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter 1976), pp. 389-392. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/42623608
“First Woman President of the First Woman’s Bank in the United States” by Vonnie Rector Griffith. Ladies Home Journal, June 1920, p. 149
Harriet White Fisher was a woman of action and independence. When her husband died, she took over running his family’s business, Fisher & Norris Eagle Anvil Works in Trenton, NJ. To make sales calls, she traveled around the country by chauffeured automobile. In early 1908, with the anvil business slow because the country was in a recession, she started a reduced-rate automobile repair business.
It made perfect sense. It allowed her to keep all her workers busy instead of having to lay some off. It generated revenue. There was room in the factory to do the work. And it injected competitive pricing into a business where mechanics, Fisher felt, colluded and were “practicing extortion on the automobilists.”
To oversee the department, Fisher hired an experienced manager, Harold Fisher Brooks. He knew marine engines as well as automobile, so they included motorboat repairs in their services. The business was limited to machinery repair—no painting or upholstery work. Fisher guaranteed the workmanship, promising that it would adhere to Eagle Anvil Works’ reputation for quality.
Fisher invested in some machinery for the repair department and began advertising in the Trenton Evening Times classified advertising pages in late January 1908.
Gasoline Engines AUTOMOBILE Repairs, motor boat engines repaired and installed, by expert machinist and engineer; first-class work guaranteed; no trust prices. Fisher & Norris Anvil Works, Fair Street, Trenton, N.J.
Slow economic times caused Harriet White Fisher to think creatively and act decisively. She found a niche that utilized some of her business assets, required a manageable amount of investment, and was personally satisfying.
Trenton Evening Times 23 January 1908; 21 January 1908; and 21 April 1908 via newspapers.com
New York Times 24 January 1908
Philadelphia Inquirer 24 January 1908 via newspapers.com
The Motor World magazine 6 February 1908 via Google Books
sets off a reaction and causes ingredients to change
gives the signal for something to begin
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a starter.
She’s remembered today as an investigative journalist who detailed the barbarism and hypocrisy that underpinned the lynching of black men. Her articles, pamphlets, and editorials so inflamed white racists that they destroyed her newspaper’s offices and the type that allowed her words to be printed and distributed. But Ida just joined another prominent black newspaper and carried her crusade forward. In her career, she edited at least five newspapers, founding two of them and having all- or partial ownership in the other three.
Words, type, ink, and paper were not her only weapons for fighting racism. She was also a community organizer. With great entrepreneurial spirit, she started the first African-American women’s club in Chicago, the Ida B. Wells Club (which established a kindergarten for black children); the Negro Fellowship League, a settlement house; and the Alpha Suffrage Club, Chicago’s first suffrage club for black women. Nationally, Wells-Barnettwas instrumental in starting the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the first national black women’s organization.
Whether she was starting a newspaper or establishing an association, Wells-Barnett applied an entrepreneur’s zeal to the tasks. She found the people, facilities, and finances with which to build and inspired others to do the same. Her passion for justice was a current that sparked many operations.
Ida. B. Wells-Barnett was honored in 2020 with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Originally published March 25, 2013. Copyright 2020 Ferret Research, Inc.
In 1917, after the US had entered World War I, the American Red Cross put out a call for volunteers to run canteens in France. Mary Vail Andress answered. She easily met the requirements. At 34 years old, she was in good health and on the young side of age the prerequisite. Having operated a school in Paris for American girls until war had broken out in 1914, she already spoke French. She was able to pay all her own expenses. While she had no experience with the American Red Cross (ARC), she knew the service sector: in addition to running her school, she’d also worked for the New York Settlement house. Quickly selected, by late summer, Andress was in France with ARC’s Canteen Corps.
Canteens provided weary soldiers with rest and refreshments. The Red Cross worked with officials of both the French military and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to open, staff, and supply canteens where they would most benefit soldiers: both at railway stations to serve soldiers in transit and, more dangerously, just behind the battlefront. No matter the flag under which the allied soldiers served, they could find hot or cold drinks, sandwiches, candies, chocolates, cookies, fruit, and a place to relax at an American Red Cross canteen.
It took some persuasion for Andress to get an assignment in the field. She initially worked in Paris as the assistant to the director of the canteen service, according to Edward Hungerford in his book With the Doughboy in France (1920). Her desire for more active duty was eventually granted. After completing several short-term jobs at canteens in Épernay and Chantilly, she was assigned to direct a small French railway canteen at Toul, on the Moselle River in northeastern France. She arrived in January 1918.
Toul, because of its location on major rail lines and closeness to battlefields at Nancy and Verdun, was becoming an important military center for transporting soldiers, supplies, and equipment. Later that year it would become the headquarters of the US Second Army. Toul often was the last canteen for soldiers headed to the German front and the first for those leaving the battlefield with injuries or on leave.
It was clear to Andress that the little French canteen at the railway station would need to be re-outfitted to serve more soldiers—many more. She envisioned facilities like those in Paris and Épernay, where she’d been assigned earlier. There soldiers could buy (at minimal cost) not only snacks, sandwiches, and drinks, but also full meals of soup, meat, vegetables, salads, bread, cheese, and eggs. These canteens had sleeping rooms, showers, recreation areas, and rooms for letter-writing or reading. Andress wanted to offer the soldiers stopping off at Toul all these services and comforts. The question was, How?
Her solution was multi-pronged. To give increasing numbers of traveling soldiers easier access to the railway canteen, she moved it into a 50-foot tent in the railway yard. This took copious amounts of persuasion, but Andress kept at it until she secured the necessary authorizations from railroad, military, and Red Cross officials.
She found and rented a three-story apartment house a short walk from the railroad station. This was converted into a rest house. Twenty-five beds for officers were on the first two floors and eight more for enlisted men on the top floor. Food and showers were also available.
The building that became her main facility, the Hôtel de la Gare, was across the street from the train station. Andress rented it and then adapted it for the needs of soldiers. In the basement, she added showers that could accommodate up to sixteen men at a time. The kitchen produced full meals, thick sandwiches, hot dogs, doughnuts, cookies, and coffee brewed in ten-gallon marmites. Soldiers could buy candies, chocolates, and chewing gum, and canned goods like jam. Other items—toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and blades, soap, towels, combs, brushes, handkerchiefs, underwear, socks, sweaters, cigarettes, playing cards, checkers—were also available, some at minimal cost, some given away. There was a writing room with stationery, postcards, pencils, pens, and ink, as well as a reading room with as many newspapers, magazines, and books as could be collected. There were 400 beds plus a system for announcing trains so that sleeping soldiers didn’t miss their departures.
Andress and her growing staff worked tirelessly to get each venue operating. Demand was high. By June, during the build-up for major military campaigns conducted in the summer and fall of 1918, the Toul canteen was serving 3,000 troops a day. Days were filled with cooking, baking, cleaning and—above all—friendly and upbeat conversation with soldiers. Shifts could run ten, twelve, fourteen hours or more. The search for supplies and provisions was endless, keeping Andress’s supply officer on the road between ARC warehouses, French and AEF commissaries, and local markets. A new, enlarged canteen was built in the plaza in front of the railway station and a small one placed in the yard on one of the platforms to serve those not able to leave trains. Sometimes even the nighttime was overactive with the sounds of artillery at the not-too-distant front.
As busy as Andress’s Toul operations were during the war, their biggest test came after the November 11, 1918 armistice. For months, hundreds of thousands of AEF soldiers returned from battlefields, passing through Toul as they headed to French ports and home. Shortly after the armistice, 11,000 arrived in a single day. After that, it averaged 6,000-7,000 daily for months, according to Carter H. Harrison, an ARC manager at the Red Cross hospital in Toul who tells much of Andress’s story in his memoir With the American Red Cross in France.
The Red Cross Bulletin of July 1919, published highlights from a year-end report about the Toul operation, and the article was subsequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. The 1.6 million soldiers who passed through the canteen during the previous eleven months had eaten 1,561,625 well-filled sandwiches, 461,114 doughnuts, and “oceans of coffee, chocolate, and lemonade . . . and pyramids of ice cream” as well as plenty of other food.
The article said that Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, had inspected the canteen and complimented its management. While the article did not mention Mary Vail Andress, the AEF had noticed her extraordinary effort and responsive administration. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her initiative and for displaying “marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.”
In an exceptional salute to her work, Gen. Pershing himself presented her with the medal.
Mary Vail Andress’s Distinguished Service Medal citation:
For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services. On her own initiative she organized and efficiently developed and administered the work of the American Red Cross at Toul, France. Under her wise supervision this work grew from the ministering and supplying of small comforts to soldiers passing through in hospital trains to an undertaking of extensive proportions, which has aided and cheered thousands of men in the service. In the performance of her exacting tasks, she has displayed marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.
Congressional Medal of Honor, The Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal Issued by the War Department Since April 4, 1917 up to and including General Orders, No. 126, War Department, November 11, 1919,Compiled in the Office of the Adjutant General of the Army, 1919 (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1920), p. 840
With the American Red Cross in France, 1918-1919 by Carter Henry Harrison
With the Doughboy in France; a Few Chapters of an American Effort by Edward Hungerford
The American National Red Cross Annual Report For the Year Ended Jane 30, 1918
The Red Cross Bulletin, vol 3: Jan. 7, 1919 p. 7; Jul. 7, 1919 p. 8
Captions are based on information provided by the source and information in The Catalogue of Official A.E.F. Photographs Taken by The Signal Corps, U.S.A., War Department Document No. 903, 1919, accessible via Internet Archive or HathiTrust .
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-16624
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15425 (digital file from original)
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15426
National Archives Identifier: 20803806. Another version is in the collection of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15423
The banking career of Lillian G. Jones was uncommon in many ways.
It started in 1910, when Jones took a job as a stenographer at the New York branch of the National Bank of Cuba. She worked her way up, becoming an expert in foreign exchange. This was a critical area for the bank because of its deep involvement in the Cuban sugar trade. A woman with this kind of expertise was rare. Many of the women who went into banking in the late nineteen-teens were hired—at least in part—because of their extensive social networks; they were then taught the necessary banking skills.
Jones’s work was rewarded when, in May 1916, she was appointed assistant cashier of the Bank of Cuba of New York. (It was the same bank, but renamed to reflect it becoming a state bank). Jones, then in her mid-20s, was one of the country’s earliest female bank executives.
Two years later, newspapers across the country noted how “Wall Street precedence was shattered” when Lillian Jones was appointed the cashier of the bank. The job opening was created when the bank’s cashier, Charles F. Plarre, was called to World War I military duty in July 1918. The New York Tribune noted how the even “the more important” financial posts were being filled by women because of the war. The Associated Press said she was first woman in New York to hold the cashier’s position.
As cashier, Jones was responsible for receiving and paying out the bank’s money, collecting and paying its debts, receiving and transferring its commercial securities, and overseeing the work of assistant cashiers, auditors and accountants, and tellers. The position of cashier is similar to the modern position of controller (comptroller).
Jones’s tenure as cashier was temporary. The war ended in November 1918; Plarre was discharged in January and returned to the bank as cashier shortly thereafter. Jones was again assistant cashier. Her achievement was valued by the bank for in all of its ads her name and title, L. G. Jones, Assistant Cashier, are listed with the president, vice president, and cashier. She also showed that women were capable of so much more than the standard of the day assumed.
Jones’s career was not long. Bank of Cuba of New York closed in 1921 after a precipitous drop in sugar prices caused the failure of its parent, the National Bank of Cuba. She married in 1923. It’s possible that she continued to apply her skills behind the scenes to her husband’s business (real estate), like countless other wives who have worked unacknowledged.
Singer, songwriter, and producer Madonna has been called the “Queen of Pop” and is one of the best-selling female recording artists of all time. The achievements of her long—and still active—career did not help her when her 2015 single, “Living for Love” was rejected for airplay by BBC Radio 1. The reason? The station is working to attract listeners in the age 15-30 demographic. “The vast majority of people who like Madonna, who like her music now, are over 30 and frankly, we’ve moved on from Madonna,” the head of music for BBC1 explained.
One of the hazards of being a popular artist is the loss of popularity, real or imagined. Music distribution companies and promoters make business decisions based on market popularity. Slow sales can mean lost recording contracts and canceled tours, and put a career in the doldrums—or worse—leaving the artists struggling to get their music out to their fans.
While this scenario is very unlikely to describe Madonna’s future, it does describe the careers of thousands of recording artists of the 20th century, especially mid-century when pop music “moved on,” shifting from big band jazz to rock-and-roll. Some recording artists, including pianist Marian McPartland, dealt with the problem by founding a label and signing themselves.
“Marian McPartland has three strikes against her,” wrote noted jazz critic Leonard Feather, “she’s English, white, and a woman.” In spite of these “liabilities,” McPartland, who moved to the US after World War II, created a career as a jazz soloist, bandleader, composer, writer, radio host, and headed her own record business, Halcyon.
Halcyon Records was formed in 1968. McPartland’s recording contract with Capitol Records had ended and she was looking for alternatives. Twenty years before, she and her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, had started a small record company, Unison, to release their work, so the process of producing and marketing was not entirely new to her.
Right from Halcyon’s start, McPartland had several objectives, according to biographer Clare Hansson: “to record herself with artistic freedom, retain executive control over her recorded output, and to record other musicians who were major jazz talents yet being ignored by record companies.” Retaining control over output was especially important to McPartland. “I think the thing that annoyed me the most was seeing albums recorded for the big companies, which, if they didn’t sell immediately, would be quickly taken out of the catalog,” she told an interviewer in 1978. Artistic control and steady sales mattered more to McPartland.
Initially McPartland had two partners, Sherman Fairchild and Hank O’Neal. According to McPartland biographer Paul de Barros, all three put up $500 to give the company working capital and split management and production duties according to their expertise. Fairchild, a very successful inventor and entrepreneur, provided his home recording studio plus administrative support for the venture and an employee to handle distribution (which was to be primarily mail order). O’Neal engineered the recordings. McPartland selected music, worked on album cover design and often wrote the liner notes. She also came up with the Halcyon name and worked with a friend to design the logo. Halcyon’s first recording, Interplay, featuring McPartland with bassist Linc Millimen, was released in 1969 and was praised by jazz critics. Over the next three years Halcyon released several more albums. The partnership ended with Fairchild’s death and O’Neal forming a new recording company, Chiaroscuro. McPartland became the sole owner of Halcyon.
As every small business owner knows, ownership means responsibility. For McPartland that meant she was now responsible for production duties formerly split with two others, plus all the expenses for creating the albums. She rented recording studios and hired engineers in addition to selecting music and musicians to record. She contracted for the manufacturing of the LPs, usually pressing one thousand copies at a time, and arranged for them to warehoused, often in her own home (she bought a big house in the New York City suburbs for this purpose). She handled publicity—getting review copies to critics and deejays to encourage airplay on radio stations—and even invested in a small amount of advertising, running ads in The New Yorker, in 1976 and 1977. She worked out distribution agreements with record stores in the New York City area and, in later years, in Europe, and made sure that orders from individuals and retail outlets were filled, too, sometimes relying on neighbors to do the work when she was traveling. She was the collection agency when retailers were late with payments. McPartland worked these tasks in around her performances, which themselves were a major source of record sales. On the road, she shipped cartons of records to her destination.
McPartland held true to her objectives. Her solo recordings on Halcyon—some critically acclaimed—documented her growth and artistic maturity. She recorded talented jazz musicians who were being passed over by the big record companies. Halcyon released albums of Marian performing with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, and her ex-husband, Jimmy McPartland, as well as solo albums by Dave McKenna and Jimmy Rowles. She even re-released on Halcyon music that the McPartlands recorded in 1948 and 1949 for their Unison label, illustrating her commitment to preserve and manage recordings, including the eighteen albums that ultimately made up Halcyon’s catalog. She felt keenly the art that was lost when recordings—old or contemporary—were no longer available. “It makes it all the more important to have a catalog and keep the catalog up. You know, I wouldn’t take anything out. I still get a number of orders on the first of them. They all sell slow and steady all the time,” she said in 1978. Critics lamented that Halcyon did not have broad distribution throughout the country.
Halcyon Records did not make McPartland rich. It was one revenue stream (sometimes a trickle) in a career that included performing, composing, teaching, and (starting in 1979) a radio program, Piano Jazz, broadcast on National Public Radio. McPartland recorded for other labels during the time she was running Halcyon, including three albums for Tony Bennett’s label, Improv (Bennett had co-founded his own label in 1975). Running Halcyon did have its rewards. “Even if I lost lots of money out of my own pocket, always having a new record is a form of publicity. And it’s very satisfying” she explained in a 1974 interview.
Today many Halcyon recordings are available through Concord Music Group. Thanks to electronic media, McPartland’s fans—like Madonna’s—can see music videos on YouTube and hear her music via radio and music streaming services.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign (1997-2002), used those words to describe 20th century icons—Einstein, Gandhi, Martha Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose images were the other integral piece of the television and print ads. Two of the visionaries in this series were business leaders—Richard Branson (founder Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, etc.) and Ted Turner (founder CNN and TBS).
Businesswoman Josephine A. Roche was not part of Apple’s campaign but the ads’ description fits her, particularly when she took over the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and changed its management policies.
Forty-year-old Josephine Roche took her seat in the boardroom after inheriting 40% of the Colorado-based coal mining company’s stock in 1927. She knew her positions on pressing issues differed from those of the company’s other directors and her late father, the company’s former president. She’d been educated at Vassar College and Columbia University and, in her professional life, had instituted progressive policies within organizations where she worked as an administrator: the US Foreign Language Information Service, the editorial division of the US Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau, and the Denver Juvenile Court System. She expected to be seen as a troublemaker by her boardroom colleagues.
Disputes over working conditions and wages had caused years of labor-management conflicts for all of Colorado’s coal mining businesses. Seen from today, management’s treatment of labor is harsh and unfair. Miners’ wages and hours fluctuated dramatically and they were not paid for time that was integral to the operation but not “mining,” such as loading coal or building support structures. Pay raises frequently were followed by cuts that zeroed the increase. Often miners were paid not in cash but in scrip, which only had value at the company store. Inside the mine, there was spotty compliance with safety and ventilation regulations. Complainers faced instant job loss. These issues, unresolved for decades, led employees to call strikes and for unionization. Management believed in their inalienable right to control their property (i.e., the business). They chose to quash dissent, ruthlessly and unscrupulously, using their economic power to support their business practices, no matter the cost in dollars or lives.
Josephine Roche saw things differently. She believed the company should be managed for the benefit of all stakeholders—employees, customers, managers, and investors—not exclusively for those controlling the capital. She was sympathetic to workers’ demand for union representation because she’d witnessed their deplorable living and working conditions. Her vision for RMFC was farsighted and progressively capitalistic: She believed the company could both make money and improve the lives of her workers and their families.
In order to realize her vision, Roche first needed a majority of stockholders supporting her. According to biographer Robyn Muncy, Roche contacted non-board investors and received enough authorizations (proxies) to fire the current board of directors and re-build it. The president of RMFC was so incensed that he offered to sell his shares to Roche. She borrowed $35,000, completed the deal, and became RMFC’s controlling stockholder.
Roche installed progressive managers to oversee the business, and named herself as vice president (within a few years she became president). She then invited her workers to organize and choose their own representatives for negotiations with management. They chose the United Mine Workers and in the summer of 1928 Roche signed the labor contract she and the union had negotiated. Its provisions—an eight-hour day and six-day work week at $7 per day (the highest coal mining wage in the state), as well as other benefits—won her increased productivity, labor peace, and the support and gratitude of her employees. She needed it.
Her competitors viewed her as a “dangerous industrial radical” according to TIME magazine and started a price war. These coal operators, including Colorado’s largest, the Rockefeller–owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corp., dropped prices 50 to 75 cents per ton so RMFC’s higher labor costs put the company at a big disadvantage. Some operators gave secret rebates to customers. The predatory practices were designed to force RMFC into bankruptcy and rid the industry of unions.
Roche fought back. She met the competition on price, then, to supplement the loss of income, raised money privately. Six hundred of her workers, according to TIME, voluntarily voted to take only half their wages for three months, thus loaning the company about $80,000. The union-led “Buy from Josephine” campaign to increase sales to households, merchants and manufacturers was pumped up. The United Mine Workers loaned her money, too.
Rocky Mountain Fuel Company hung on, even as the Great Depression added more economic hardship and the newly developed natural gas industry competed for coal customers. Roche was forced to lower wages to $5.25 a day in 1932 but opened company property to farming and provided credit at the company store to help offset the cuts. That same year, the New York Times reported that the company’s costs for digging a ton of coal had steadily declined since the 1928 contract took effect and its sales increased. The company was making money because of the joint efforts of management and labor. In 1935, a nationwide poll of 500 business executives named her the top US businesswoman. By then, all the other Colorado coal mines were unionized.
Josephine Roche was crazy enough to think she could change the world. And she did.
“A Woman Unravels an Industrial Knot,” by Louis Stark, New York Times, February 7, 1932
Restless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth Century America by Robyn Muncy
A Wide-Awake Woman: Josephine Roche in the Era of Reform by Elinor McGinn
Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry by James Whiteside
In the 1890s, as today, stores were often packed with shoppers in the days leading up to Christmas, lured by sale prices and special merchandise. At that time, however, the shopping season only spanned the few weeks before the holiday. Merchants often did not have all their holiday merchandise available until mid-December. Shoppers waited until a few days before Christmas—and especially Christmas Eve—to make their selections and have them packaged and sent to the recipient, with delivery expected before Christmas. This consumer behavior put tremendous pressure on retail employees, and interfered with their own holiday celebrations.
It took a concerted social movement to make store management change their policies and for consumers to buy-in. Ironically the change has led to Black Friday and shopping madness on Thanksgiving Day. But the story of that social movement also illustrates what needs to happen in our own time to cause change for modern workers.
The movement was started by a group of middle- and upper-class women interested in changing the working conditions of women and children with jobs in retailing. At the time there was no minimum wage, no maximum number of hours to the work day or week (and, therefore, no overtime compensation), and no limits on child labor. While some labor organizers were working to improve conditions through unionization, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Maud Nathan, and other like-minded women believed in another strategy—the power of the purse. They reasoned that consumer demand dictated the policies of employers and, therefore, consumer demand could force change to those policies. In 1891, these women organized themselves into the Consumers’ League of the City of New York (CLCNY).
Maud Nathan, who became president of the group in 1896, explained one tactic:
The majority of employers are virtually helpless to maintain a high standard as to hours, wages and working conditions under the stress of competition, unless sustained by the cooperation of consumers.
A woman who joins our league agrees to shop early in the day. She does not insist that her goods shall be delivered on the same day, declining to receive anything after 6 pm. This enables the delivery men and errand boys to finish their labors early. A member of our league does her Christmas-shopping early. She avoids shopping in the evening and on Saturday afternoons. She does not even ring up the grocer or the butcher by telephone on Saturday afternoons and order goods.
Another tactic used by CLCNY was to create and publicize a list of merchants who met the league’s criteria for fair working conditions; league members and sympathetic consumers (who may have seen it in the newspapers) would then patronize those businesses. The league actively investigated conditions by visiting stores, interviewing managers, and separately seeking verification or contradiction from workers. The list was called the White List for it was the opposite of blacklisting merchants. Eleven retailers, including Lord & Taylor, were on the league’s first White List in 1891. Four years later there were 31 including John Wanamaker, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and F.A.O. Schwarz.
As the CLCNY investigated and reported on workplace conditions, they realized the particular burden the Christmas holiday, particularly Christmas Eve shopping, placed on workers. After a twelve- or fourteen-hour selling day, shelves needed to be restocked, goods packaged for delivery, and deliveries made (gifts were almost never sent early at this time), keeping employees—including children—working far into the night.
In typical league fashion, Maud Nathan’s CLCNY fashioned a multipronged approach, reaching out to retailers and consumers. It encouraged White List merchants to close early on Christmas Eve. For instance, eight days before Christmas 1898, White-List-member Wanamaker’s started announcing in its holiday advertising that it would close early (at 7 pm instead of 10 pm) on Christmas Eve. The next year, Wanamaker’s ran an ad explicitly stating that they were closing early on Christmas Eve so “the thousands of us who will have helped with your good Christmas can get ready for our own.”
The league also discouraged evening hours during the Christmas shopping season and encouraged merchants to display all holiday merchandise earlier than the few weeks just before Christmas, as was the custom, so shoppers could make their selections early. “We found that just as soon as demand for these gifts was made, supply was forthcoming,” Nathan wrote in her book on the league, Story of an Epoch-Making Movement.
Finally, CLCNY, in its annual appeal to members and supporters, urged them to shop early at the White List stores.
Over the next decade these tactics became a campaign to promote early Christmas shopping.
The league amended its fairness standards to cover the evening hours. To comply, a merchant must “not remain open after 7 pm more than four evenings between December 15th and December 25th,” and not remain open “later than 9 o’clock on these four evenings.” The White List was divided into two categories: “Stores not open in the evening before Christmas” and “Stores open in the evening before Christmas” (in 1908, there were 34 stores closed in the evening compared to 14 open). Members pledged to shop early. The White List was printed in newspapers, magazines, and theater programs.
Nathan made speeches, gave interviews, wrote opinion pieces and letters to the editor. She set up a Committee on Arousing Public Sentiment. They produced thousands of flyers, posters, letters, and postcards with the appeal to shop early. These were distributed through churches and synagogues (some 15,000 in 1907 alone), in schools and clubs. At CLCNY’s urging, they were also used as talking points by clergy and teachers. Women’s clubs signed pledge cards to complete shopping before December 15th. In 1909, from November 30th to December 14th, a 25×30 foot banner was hung over 23rd St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. It read Do your Christmas shopping before December 15th to help the workers in the shops and factories. [signed] Consumers League of the City of New York.
The movement and the Consumers’ League spread nationwide. Habits changed. Merchants displayed their goods in November and, in some cases, October. CLCNY reported proudly in 1906 that “one merchant sent notices in October to all of his charge customers, informing them that his full Christmas stock would be on exhibition by October 29th , and that selected goods would be reserved for later delivery if purchased before December 10th.”
In her memoir, Maud Nathan wrote with pride “No longer do shoppers feel that they must wait until the hurried last days before the holiday. . . .Each year holiday goods are displayed earlier and earlier to meet an ever-increasingly early demand.” If she was here today, she would protest shopping hours on Thanksgiving Day. Or maybe start another movement.
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon was the head of advertising and publicity at New York’s Gimbels department store in the 1940s and early 50s. Her policy was to only hire Phi Beta Kappas for copywriting jobs.
She wrote in her book Macy’s, Gimbels, and Me:
At Gimbels, we offered hard work, stern training, challenge and opportunity, and, ultimately, some pretty handsome cash rewards. But first, training and work. We wanted hustlers and scramblers, the type that takes on tough problems for fun.
There are many people like that, and they don’t have to have college degrees. College degrees do not guarantee brilliance. . . . It is true, however, that college does provide some kind of rough sorting system for brains. It was on the latter theory that we adopted our recruiting policy.
Fitz-Gibbon summed up her hiring policy quoting an old slogan for Campbell’s Soup “To make the best begin with the best . . .”
Her method comes to mind because of the report “Moving the Goalposts,” recently published by the labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies. The firm found that an increasing number of employers demand a bachelor’s degree for jobs that previously did not require it. Burning Glass reached its conclusions by comparing “the education levels of workers currently employed in an occupation – a measure of past employer preferences – with the education levels employers are currently demanding for the same occupation.”
Why the change? The report says there are two common explanations.
Some jobs have become more complex and require more skills.
Employers are being more selective, favoring more highly educated workers.
The hiring practices of Bernice Fitz-Gibbon fit precisely under explanation #2.
Sources Macy’s, Gimbels, and Me: How to Earn $90,000 a Year in Retail Advertising by Bernice Fitz-Gibbon (Simon and Schuster, 1967)
When we want a cup or a package of tea, we can choose from varieties that come from all over the world, like white tea from China—once served to the emperor—or kukicha green tea from Japan. Tea buyers shop throughout the world for the flavors and fragrances that will entice and satisfy customers.
Like her modern counterparts, Susan A. King searched abroad for high-quality, distinctive tea when she and Ellen Louise Demorest went into the business. In 1870, King took the very unusual step of traveling unescorted to Japan and China.
The pair brewed a plan to import tea from Asia and sell it wholesale to female-operated shops around the country. The name of their business, the Woman’s Tea Company, was literal: Demorest served as president, and King served as treasurer. All the stockholders and directors were female. The company had $500,000 in capital, an enormous sum. Both King and Demorest had made fortunes in other industries; this venture was a way for them to help other women gain financial security and the independence that accompanies it.
King and Demorest were well-known names in New York which allowed the plan to coalesce quickly. Demorest and her husband ran one of the top fashion businesses. Her tissue-paper patterns, used by home sewers, sold in shops across the country and in the Demorests’ own emporium in New York City. They also published a magazine, Demorest’s Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. Their nationwide connections with merchants and shopkeepers, as well as ads and articles in the magazine, were great resources for introducing and promoting the company and its tea to customers and vendors.
Susan King was a successful New York City real estate investor. She was a woman skilled in negotiation and finance—which she would need in the import business. For expert advice on shipping, King, no doubt, turned to her brother-in-law, a sea captain named Frederick Gorham.
In the middle of 1870, just as newspapers were publishing the first accounts of the Woman’s Tea Company, King’s plans were well underway. She secured letters of introduction and credit from New York banking and merchant companies to their overseas offices. She then crossed the country to San Francisco, arriving in July. There she did the bulk of her banking, obtaining letters of credit from the Bank of California to the Oriental Bank Corporation, Asia’s dominant financial institution. On August 1, 1870, fifty-three year old Susan King departed on the steamship Great Republic for Yokohama, Japan.
Arriving about three weeks later, she set to work. She met exporters headquartered in the port and sampled teas. She met with the American ambassador as well as Sir Harry Smith Parkes, the British ambassador, who had long experience in the region. “The English Ambassador said it wouldn’t be safe for me to go out in the country, and wanted me to take an escort. But I said what would anybody want with an old woman like me?” King told a correspondent for the Boston Post. Against Parkes’ advice, King hired locals to take her into the countryside to visit growers and sample their teas—she wanted to make an informed decision about the product that her company would sell. King then sailed to China and, again, hired natives to take her to growers. She later told reporters that she’d been farther into China’s interior than any other Westerners, including missionaries.
In China, King found pure, sun-dried leaves that the Woman’s Tea Company marketed as Mandarin Tea. “I got three hundred tons,” she told the Boston Post. In April 1871, the merchant ship Adelaide Carleton, carrying a cargo of tea and one passenger, Susan King, sailed out of Hong Kong for New York. The ship reached the city four months later, on August 18.
The Women’s Tea Company was in business.
Over the next months the tea was packaged, distributed, and promoted. A beautifully-appointed shop was set up in Madame Demorest’s Emporium on Broadway in New York City. The company sold only Mandarin Tea and packaged it in three sizes. Ads listing businesses carrying the tea began to appear in newspapers from Boston, Cleveland, and Omaha.
The wide variety of tea available to us today may help to explain company’s failure to thrive. WTC carried only one tea and it was very different from what most consumers were used to. Consumers had to develop a taste for it (although it was very popular in immigrant Chinese communities, according to King). In addition, Mandarin Tea, at $1.50 per pound, was expensive. The company cut costs by dealing directly with producers, employing its own agent in China (a woman), and purchasing its own merchant ship, the Madam Demorest (captained, on its maiden voyage in 1872, by Fred Gorham, King’s brother-in-law). But company’s initial strong sales weakened and the company eventually closed.
Susan King told a reporter in 1870 “If women can govern empires, as they do in China and England in our day, and did in Spain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia, in the olden times, they ought to have enough talent to sell a pound of tea.” She was right, of course.
Newspapers Daily Alta California, 6 November 1870, 9 Nov. 1872, via California Digital Newspaper Collection Boston Daily Globe, 28 June 1885, via ProQuest Historical Newspapers Troy (NY) Daily Times (reprint of Boston Post article), 17 April 1872, via fultonhistory.com New York Tribune, 18 Aug. 1871, 12 and 14 October 1871, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan. 1873, via National Library of Australia’s Trove newspaper db Omaha Bee, 27 Feb. 1873, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers New York Sun, 11 June 1870, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Cleveland Daily Herald, 14 May 1872, via Gale Cengage 19th Century US Newspapers
Harper’s Bazaar, 23 March 1873, via ProQuest American Periodicals Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, Sept. 1870, via Google Books
US Census records for 1870 and 1880, via Ancestry.com
Passenger List of the bark Adelaide Carleton, 18 Aug. 1871, via Ancestry.com