Kalamazoo Corset Company
At the turn of the 20th century, when respectable women risked their health by squeezing themselves into tight corsets in pursuit of a fashionable silhouette, the Kalamazoo Corset Company was the largest employer in the city and the largest manufacturer of women’s corsets in the world. It was also the site of the first major strike by women workers in the Kalamazoo region.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began life in Three Oaks, Michigan, as the Featherbone Corset Company. In 1891, company president James H. Hatfield moved the company to Kalamazoo and soon renamed his business. The factory was located in a four-story building that once stood at the corner of Church and Eleanor Streets. In the late 1950’s the building would serve as a temporary home for the Kalamazoo Public Library while it was constructing its new building. At its peak, the factory produced one and half million corsets a year and employed more than 800 workers, mostly women. They produced corsets using turkey feathers, or featherbone, for ribbing rather than whalebone, a process invented and patented in 1883 by Edward K. Warren of Three Oaks. The Madame Grace and American Beauty corset lines came in many different styles and required 40 specialized manufacturing operations. There were even several promotional songs written about the American Beauty line.
A historic labor strike was begun on 2 March 1912 by 500 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 82 (ILGWU). The issues were poor wages, long hours, unsanitary working conditions and sexual harassment. The union was concerned about the decline in “moral conditions” as the women workers complained of sexual exploitation by male foremen. ILGWU sent Josephine Casey and others from New York to help organize the workers. In a rally speech Casey said, “This is a fight for our rights and I am going to stand by you to the end.”
The picket lines were orderly until tensions escalated, and the owner gained a court order to stop them. The strikers complied with the order and held “silent picketing” or prayer meetings instead. They gained national headlines for their unusual style of picketing. They also boycotted Kalamazoo Corset Company products. On March 30th a parade of 1,500 union workers marched through the city streets showing their support. Picketing resumed and several people were arrested and jailed, including Josephine Casey. By June, newly elected progressive Mayor Charles B. Hays and Reverend Dr. W. M. Puffer presented a compromise proposal to the workers. On 15 June 1912 the contract was approved by the union. While the financial gains were not great, it was still a victory for the women workers who demanded “fair and honest” treatment by their employer.
In 1914 James Hatfield left to open a new company called the National Corset Company (NACO). In 1922 the Kalamazoo Corset Company was renamed the Grace Corset Company. By the 1920’s, as tight corsets fell from favor, the factory adapted its line to include girdles, brassieres, and other women’s undergarments. The company was sold to the Flexnit Company of New Jersey, and ceased its local operations in 1957, thus ending an era in the manufacturing of women’s fashions in Kalamazoo.
Written by Beth Scott, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 1997. Last updated 16 May 2017.
Michigan: Explorations in its Social History
Blouin, Francis X.
“Feeling the pinch” by Karen M. Mason
Historical Society of Michigan, 1987, pages 23-44
H 977.4 B657
Kalamazoo: The Place Behind the Products
Massie, Larry and Peter J. Schmitt
Windsor Publication, 1981
H 977.418 M417
“Dwindling into failure: The ILGWU on strike in Kalamazoo, Mich., 1912″
Havira, Barbara S.
Michigan Academician, volume 20, number 4, Fall 1988.
Copy in History Room Subject File: Kalamazoo Corset Company
“When Michigan molded the nation’s figures”
Encore, December 1993, pages 40-44