What was the Philadelphia life of my 1910-1912 lingerie dress?
Dougherty Philadelphia tag inside my lingerie dress
The first decade of the 20th century was a dynamic period in American history and Philadelphian history in particular. 1910 was the end of the Edwardian era (but it is reported that Philadelphians were still clinging to it as late as 1915), a time of relative prosperity and opulence. It was just a few years before the start of World War I, which would change dressmaking and Philadelphia fashion forever. Women would finally earn the right to vote by the end of the decade. Since the Civil War, Philadelphia had become an industrial powerhouse with textile and locomotive manufacturing, iron and steel production, shipbuilding, and sugar and oil refining. New Waves of immigration fueled enormous growth- tenfold increase in population since mid-nineteenth century- with almost all coming from Europe. Irish, Italian, Polish, and Eastern and Southern European Jewish immigrants provided cheap labor for industry. The Northern Migration of Southern-born African Americans fleeing racial violence and looking for greater economic opportunities had also begun but would swell in subsequent decades. A boon of public transportation induced the suburban flight of many of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families to the Main Line. Philadelphia was full of many independent, family-owned retail stores, including the giant “Big Six” department stores that lined Market Street, and began to cater to Philadelphia’s growing middle class. Chestnut Street was the other prominent retail street in Philadelphia at that time.
Tucks and some lace are preferable to a mass of cheap embroidery. Lingerie Dresses 1910
Although I do not yet know definitively the actual provenance of my lingerie dress, there is little doubt that Chestnut Street was its domain. After chasing down every prominent Philadelphia Callahan of the era (and with a game-saving assist from my professor), I finally discovered that Henry F. Callahan, acclaimed visual merchandiser and former Vice President of Saks Fifth Avenue, was the donor of my dress. The dressmakers were his mother and aunt, Mary and Margaret Dougherty, who immigrated from Ireland first to Pittsburgh in the late 1880’s. Back in Ireland, the Dougherty sisters had been trained in needlework by nuns. This tradition began as part of a famine relief scheme in the 1840’s and remained part of the curriculum at convent schools in Ireland (TLLM). A loyal client married a wealthy Philadelphian and advised the women they would find success in Philadelphia. They complied and their business grew to distinction, making dresses for the most elite women of Philadelphia. The women sent word back to Ireland to send cousins, nieces, and other family and friends to work in their dress shops.
Older sister Margaret was the visionary personality behind the business, while Henry’s mother Mary supervised the workshops. Callahan describes his Aunt Margaret as a formidable person and a great influence on him. It may be hard to imagine of a single, first generation Irish Catholic immigrant in Philadelphia, but she journeyed annually to Paris, where she would “stay at the Maurice Hotel and have the couturieres bring their models to her … Then she would buy the silks and the laces and trimmings and bring the models back to Philadelphia, show them at a Fall opening.” Just like the finest tailors in France (Perrot ) or even the black public waiters of antebellum Philadelphia (Pilgrim), she exhibited her expertise and wielded authority from her position at the margins of society. She was more than a skilled seamstress and needleworker. She absorbed and transmitted the highest forms of late 19th and early 20th century style.
auditioning a model in Paris, 1910, from Les Createurs de la Mode courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Though I have not yet been able to verify who wore my specific Dougherty dress nor the location of the Dougherty workshop, a dressmaker named Margaret Dougherty is listed in several directories during the time period at 1536 Pine Street. However, there were 2,640 dressmakers in Philadelphia in 1911. Ten of them were named Dougherty. Of those ten Dougherty women, seven were named either Mary or Margaret. This Margaret Dougherty location- whether a residence or a workshop- would put her a few blocks away from the bustle of Chestnut Street, where her nephew said they often walked at night and discussed the window dressings. At this location, she would also be just around the corner from Catharine Brinley of 247 South 16th St., who was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “one of the season’s most attractive debutantes” in 1902 and wore a Dougherty dress currently housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for her debut (Haugland). Miss Brinley’s father Charles E. Brinley was and an Ivy League educated Episcopalian New Englander who was the managing director of the American Pulley Company in Philadelphia in 1902 (Who’s Who).
Around 1911, Mary Dougherty, in her late 30’s, married a newly arrived immigrant from Northern Ireland, Francis Callahan. Callahan convinced Mary to move to California much to the disappointment of Margaret. Mary gave birth to her son Henry in California, but she had great difficulty establishing herself as a dressmaker there. Eventually, her husband left and she moved back to Philadelphia and rejoined her sister in the dressmaking business.
Their reunion was short lived due to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the war, every woman with a sewing machine was expected to put it towards the war effort, making uniforms for soldiers. There were no more trips to France for the latest fashions. Then after the war, the private dressmakers never came back. The transformation to ready to wear was complete.
Image source Seamus Callahan ancestry.com
Of all of the characters involved in the life of my object, it is the donor Henry F. Callahan, who went on to become the most highly regarded window artist of New York department stores, whose life best embodies Philadelphia’s history. In an illuminating oral history collected by New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Callahan reveals his earliest inspirations working in Philadelphia department stores, admiring the elegant debutantes (featured every year in a full page spread) in the Philadelphia Inquirer, his access to the luxuries of Philadelphia high society through his aunt’s and mother’s business, their obsession with the Edwardian period, and his experience of the drama and pageantry of his Catholic school experience at the Waldron School for Boys in Montgomery County.
Henry Callahan was a young window artist at Lousol’s on Chestnut Street in the 1930’s.
Callahan’s first job in the retail fashion industry was in Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier, then Allen’s department store in Germantown. He began to sell his drawings of shoes to various department stores around the city before being hired as a display artist at Bonwit Teller, then B.F. Dewees, and last as display manager at Lousol’s on Chestnut Street. He says he learned a lot of fashion knowledge from the buyers of merchandise at Philadelphia’s retail stores. He was galvanized by their enthusiasm as they highlighted smart details and conveyed how designers had shown the pieces. He put that same passion into building the very best shop windows to exhibit these dresses. His windows got noticed, and his reputation ascended. Callahan said of his days at Lousol’s, “I was proud of being part of a fine store on a fine street.”
At some point in his career, however, he realized if he wanted to be successful he needed to work in New York. After several failed attempts, he was finally hired at Lord & Taylor despite the obvious prejudice against him. When he was interviewed by Lord & Taylor Vice President Dorothy Shaver she said, “Now, Mr. Callahan, you have two strikes against you. One thing, you’re Irish and two, you’re from Philadelphia.”
Callahan went on to become THE visual display artist of 20th century American retail. Saks Fifth Avenue window by Callahan courtesy of Retail Fix.
Callahan says he was not surprised by her view of the Irish because that extended to the Philadelphia fashion industry as well. “Unless you were French or English, it was assumed you lacked a sense of style,” he said. At that time (1930s) all the stores in Philadelphia had fashion coordinators, who were expected to be young women with “a black dress, pearls, a John Fredrick’s hat, and a British accent.”
After his interview with Lord & Taylor, Callahan considered changing his name to Henry Emmet. When he discussed it with his Aunt Margaret, she said, “If you’re going to take this job in New York, you just go there and make the name Henry Callahan mean something, or just tell those people to go to grass.”
The Dougherty sisters buried together with Mary’s son Henry Callahan. Grave at Holy Cross Cemetary, Yeadon, Deleware County, PA. From FInd A Grave
I still have many questions about my dress, and many other leads to follow. This experience, however, has in every way shown me the deep history imbedded in objects that we regularly take for granted. My dress is the center of a network of social, political, and economic ties that bind a city to say nothing of the sexual and labor politics as well as the changing gender roles manifested in its form. With its Irish label and its Irish needlework, it is, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says, “an object that reminds us of the lives we have left out of the story.” Through it, I can tell a small, missing piece of the history of Philadelphia, the nation, the world.
Green, Robert L., Transcript of an oral history interview of Henry F. Callahan conducted 1980 by Robert L. Green, The Oral History Project of the Fashion Industries. Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27 Street, New York, N.Y. 131 pp.
Haugland, Kristina. Email interview by author. Philadelphia, March 20, 2019.
Perrot, Philippe. 1994. Fashioning the bourgeoisie: a history of clothing in the nineteenth century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pilgrim, Dana M. “Master’s of a Craft: Philadelphia’s Black Public Waiters, 1820-50,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (October 2018), 269-293.
Stafford, Hartford. 1920. Who’s Who in Philadelphia in Wartime. Philadelphia, PA: Stafford’s National News Service.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Furniture as Social History” in Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley, eds. American Furniture (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 35-64.
Irish Crochet Lace