Ariadne Lawnin (1840 – 1915), the foundress of the St. Louis Women’s Exchange came from simple beginnings. When three years old, though, her life changed with the death of her father, then, cultivating his one-hundred-acres near Creve Coeur Lake in St. Louis, Missouri. Thereupon, her mother sold the farm and moved Ariadne and her brother to a respectable boarding house, 141 North 13th Street, in the city. Into this same boarding house later came Joseph Montalte Lawnin from Montreal, a self-taught carpenter who was to establish his own lucrative boat building and lumber company in St.Louis. In 1861 he and Ariadne were married.

At that time, an oval portrait of Ariadne showed her russet-brown hair, a square jaw with the hint of a smile, wearing an off-the-shoulder crimson gown.

Besides raising their two sons, Albert and Louis, volunteer activities filled her time: chaperoning young women at boat races on Creve Coeur Lake, heading up the International Tea party held at the Pickwick Theater, and planning the Amory Fete. But serving on the board of the recently founded Women’s Christian Association fueled her passion for boarding working women in safe surroundings, with classes offered in cooking and industrialized sewing. However, this venture eventually folded for lack of financial support.

But Ariadne and her friends were not daunted. Stories of the Women’s Exchanges in eastern cities prompted them to raise the $1,000 needed to set up their own. To accomplish this, they held riverboat races, persuaded local merchants to donate silverware, woodenware, a stove, and foodstuffs to stock the pantry, and more cash. On September 27, 1883, the St. Louis Women’s Exchange opened its doors at 214 North 7th Street, between Olive and Pine, the first of its eventual seven locations.

That first year the volunteers served more than 1,500 lunches to the “industrial women” from factories around the area and reimbursed over $1,400 to its consignors from the sales of their stitching.

Happily, Ariadne’s vision for this fledgling business has inspired her successors—all volunteers—to support The St. Louis Women’s Exchange for one hundred and thirty-three years. We still benefit from the tasty meals and one-of-a kind-handmade goods, now located in the Colonel Marketplace in Ladue, Missouri.

 

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