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.
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.
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
Although there is no rule against them, the floor of the Exchange has been better protected against women members than that of Congress.
That’s Eunice Fuller Barnard’s opinion of opportunities for women at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) from her 1929 article “Ladies of the Ticker.” She goes on to describe what seems to be an impossible barrier to women members.
A woman . . . could not just buy a seat. As in any club, she would have to be admitted by vote of the membership committee. And it seems doubtful whether either she or they yet desire her presence . . . .
That barrier worked for almost forty more years. During that time at least one woman was said to have tried to buy a seat. Her bid was ignored. But in 1967 the barrier was finally broken. Muriel “Mickie” Siebert finally had all the necessary requirements to purchase an NYSE seat: desire, established ability and experience, money, and, most importantly, support of two members.
In her autobiography, Changing the Rules, Siebert told how she made the New York Stock Exchange co-ed.
“It took me six months to summon up the nerve to apply.” During that time she considered the risks and rewards, and compared the levels of potential aggravation to satisfaction. “It’s hard to imagine that any man would have been troubled by similar doubts and concerns, but, realistically, I had to consider what I was risking” she said. She was already a very successful securities analyst with a strong client list of institutional investors to whom she provided both research and suggestions about securities purchases and sales.
Siebert, like all other applicants, put up twenty per cent of the seat’s purchase price as a deposit and had arranged financing (using stocks she owned as collateral) for the remainder; found two NYSE members to sponsor her (a difficult task); underwent a background check by a detective agency; and was interviewed by the admissions committee. Parts of Siebert’s application process were not standard. She was required to present a letter from her bank stating that it was prepared to loan Siebert the necessary funds to complete the purchase of the seat. One of her sponsors was asked what he knew about Siebert’s private life. During the admissions committee interview, Siebert reported seeing the committee’s relief upon learning that she would not be working on the NYSE floor.
It was evident that the NYSE did not wish to admit Siebert to the “club,” and it did what it could to dissuade her from completing the process. But the exchange could not ignore her application (as it did with at least one earlier female candidate) and, because of her strong qualifications, it could not afford to vote her down. Why? Because members knew that Siebert would sue and the law was on her side. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed sex-based discrimination, had taken effect in 1964.
Whether or not the majority of members of the New York Stock Exchange desired the presence of a female colleague, they got one on December 28, 1967.
Siebert died in August 2013. In her life, she changed rules and made it easier for women to rise in their chosen professions.
Changing the Rules by Muriel Siebert and Aimee Lee Ball
Finding pieces of women’s business history sometimes requires that you look up.
For instance, in downtown Minneapolis, if you stand on the Nicollet Mall outside the Target store and look across the street, you’ll see the historic Young-Quinlan Building. Look up above the third floor windows and you will see “Elizabeth C. Quinlan”, the name of the businesswoman who built both the building and the business that was housed in it.
Young-Quinlan Company opened its doors in March 1895 as Fred D. Young & Company, selling women’s clothing. Fred Young had left his position as manager and buyer for the cloak department of another popular Minneapolis store to start his own business. Elizabeth Quinlan joined Young in his new venture. She was well-known to customers, judging by Young’s mention her in pre-opening publicity and advertising. In 1903 her name was added to the business.
Young and Quinlan’s great innovation was to stock their shop with high quality, ready-to-wear clothing at a time when most clothing was made individually by dressmakers. The team also benefited from the growing personal wealth and affluence created by burgeoning Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses such as Pillsbury, General Mills, and the Northern Pacific Railroad. To attract upper-income customers, the Young & Co.’s opening day ad announced “the finest line of imported and domestic cloaks, mantles, suits, separate skirts, and waists ever seen” in Minneapolis. According to Elizabeth Quinlan, they sold out most of their merchandise on their first day. And they never strayed from stocking the finest.
By the time the Young-Quinlan Building was opened in 1926, Elizabeth Quinlan had been with the company for more than thirty years. She had been sole owner and president since the death of Fred Young in 1911. The business grew significantly so that by the 1920s, Quinlan saw its need for more space. She purchased the land at Nicollet Avenue and Ninth Street South for $1.25 million; the $1.25 million she needed to erect the building was financed by issuing bonds (which sold quickly because her credit was so good). The elegant new Young-Quinlan building was filled with walnut fixtures, stairs, cathedral windows as well as modern conveniences like a 250-car parking garage and elevators. It reflected the success and taste of Elizabeth C. Quinlan, who put her name on the Nicollet facade, above the third floor windows.
Quinlan sold Young-Quinlan Company in 1945, and it lasted until 1985. The landmark Young-Quinlan Building today prominently houses J.B. Hudson jewelers. Reflected in the glass door into Hudson’s, you can catch Target’s bulls-eye logo. Young-Quinlan’s merchandising innovation of providing women with ready-to-wear clothing eventually revolutionized the apparel industry and led to the rise of mass merchandisers like Target. It’s a glimpse of the future reflected from the past.