A recent luncheon at the St. Louis Women’s Exchange, in its seventh location since its 1883 beginnings, piqued my curiosity. The food was unparalleled, but the hand-stitched children’s clothes, especially the red cherry dress—the Exchange’s signature piece for over fifty years—gave me pause. My great niece wore this dress in 2014.

 

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But of more interest than the dress was learning about the history of this movement as researched by Kathleen Waters Sander in The Business of Charity: the History of the Women’s Exchange Movement, 1832 -1900, (1998). Her extensive research, corroborated by copious footnotes, takes the pulse of philanthropic nineteenth-century women, chafing at societal constraints and forming hundreds of social clubs; its networks spawned numerous volunteer endeavors. One of these took place in Philadelphia.

In 1832 Elizabeth Stoot and her sixteen wealthy associates addressed the plight of the “decayed gentlewomen”—women like themselves, but reduced to poverty because of their husbands’ falling on hard times. Their hand-stitched goods, offered on consignment to the Registry as it was then called, afforded them financial breathing space. What appeared to be a charitable enterprise turned out to be a women-run business. And after the Civil War this model was established in over seventy cities and opened to all seamstresses from whatever background.

Next week, we will review the 1883 founding of the Women’s Exchange in St. Louis, the work of Ariadne Lawnin (1840 – 1915).

 

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