History

 

 

M.M. 'Pa" Beeman  1910

At the end of the nineteenth century in America, at a dinner gathering, the wife of a Mr. Beaman broke a corset stay causing her considerable embarrassment, and not a little pain, as the broken ends dug into her midriff. She admonished her husband, 'Pa' Beaman, as he was affectionately called, who had become something of a famous inventor. The dialogue must have gone something like "How come the horseless carriage is with us, but my stays either rust or break. DO something; you're supposed to be an inventor"!

 

'Pa' Beaman rose to the challenge and invented the flexible stay in 1904. The potential of this invention was recognised by William Wallace Kincaid and a Mr. Pardee, who launched a corset company in America the same year named after the spiral wound device that 'Pa' Beaman had engineered. Thus was the Spirella Corset Company formed in 1904.

 

 

W.W. Kincaid                            J.H. Pardee

These days, the idea of a broken corset stay may appear fairly risible, however, in the early days of the last century, the construction of one's stays was literally, a life-or-death matter! (Spirella Magazine 1916)

 

 

No risk of imminent mortality for this flexible young lady, and, more importantly, her equally flexible stays! Flexibility played a major role in Spirella's advertising.

In 1906, a sister company in Canada had been formed and three years later, Mr.Kincaid sailed to Britain, recognising a potential market for the company. On 27th May 1910, the Spirella Corset Company of Great Britain was formed and, according to the sales pitch of the time, "English womanhood was born again"!

 

1910

1930

The head of Canadian Spirella, Mr J.H. Moore, was brought over as the first MD. A management team and a group of practical salesmen and engineers were recruited. The factory at Letchworth (north of London) was under construction when Spirella (GB)'s first corsetiere, Mrs. F. Wright, made Britain's first Spirella corset in 1910 in a small construction shed on the site of the factory (see below).

Times were far harder in those days than we can even comprehend in the 21st century, and 20 years of hard work (left - 1910; right - 1930) have taken their toll on Mrs. Wright. Remember that the ethic of 'duty' was fundamental and intertwined with strong religious convictions. The house magazine of the day was highly moralistic in its exhortations to its staff. It was the only way to found an empire; indeed, it was the only way to survive at all. We have become soft and often judge incorrectly these days from our comfortable, over-extended perspective in the 21st Century. 

The two photographs of American corsetieres is a snap-shot of life a century ago. Unlike the false smiles of today, people only smiled where there was humour, and corsets are no laughing matter. Regard the corsetted waists of many of the ladies and the vaguely medical garb sported by some of them in the photographs from Meadville (below). Many would actually be nurses, since corsets were often prescribed for ailments of the back and abdomen, either real or imagined.

 

  

 

In Britain, Letchworth Garden City where Spirella set up its head office, was an alcohol free zone. Alcoholism was a plague in the major cities (as it has become once more today), and the Letchworth residents were empowered to vote on whether the 'demon drink' would be allowed there.

A building was constructed in the style of a public house (pub) complete with amenities such as darts and skittles, but alcohol was not served. The pub was called the Skittles Inn, and the extension at the back, the Kincaid Hall after Spirella's founder. Letchworth allowed alcohol into the city only after 1958 (and now regrets it.)

A Spirella corset from the 1910's. Note the closely spaced front suspenders. I have never understood this feature, but suspect that with the thick stockings of the day, suspender detachment was common and therefore, safety in numbers was required.

 

Although times were especially hard during the years of the First World War, Spirella survived, and in the 1920's, in addition to the factories at Niagara Falls, Oakland and Letchworth, expanded its manufacturing base to Malmö in Sweden (17th Nov 1920), Copenhagen in Denmark, and Berlin in Germany. (The German factory was actually in Düsseldorf).

 

 

 

By 1924, there were factories at Meadville and Cambridge Springs, PA but the Copenhagen offices appear to have vanished. The picture of the Berlin factory is the only one we have ever seen.

 

Often overlooked is the Harlow, UK factory where Spirella made their brassieres (bottom right)

 

 

In Britain, the huge Letchworth edifice (which stands today as Spirella House) was known as Castle Corset. Its importance to the town's economy is well illustrated by the cartoon. Compare the detailed cartoon with an actual photograph of the building complete with the statue of Sappho. Once again, war interfered with production, and the house magazine became progressively thinner in the early 1940's, not recovering its former size until the 1950's. The war-time magazine is full of praise for the soldier relatives of the Letchworth staff. There were many material shortages during the war due largely to interrupted rubber imports from East Asia and the all-consuming need for steel. Corsets became utilitarian, yet highly important to an expanding industrial female workforce. 'Make do and mend' was the watchword and a huge nation-wide campaign to gather steel was instigated. Thousands of women removed the spiral steel bones from their old corsets and girdles and donated them to the war effort.

 

After the Second World War, Spirella opened showrooms at the most prestigious locations in London, as the Oxford Circus premises illustrate. The success was attributable to the ground force of corsetieres, who sold and cajoled their ways through post-War suburbia. The 'double-glazing' salesman might be the unwanted caller of the 1990's, and the 'Avon Calling' lady or Tupperware parties a less irritating diversion of the 1970's and 80's, but neither compare to the army of ladies, who, 'cold-calling' would shed their outer clothes and demonstrate, in a candicity almost unimaginable today, their underpinnings, the mainstay of their profession. Once again, we are victims of moralising from a view-point that is four decades in the future from a war-torn world was both extremely poor, yet demanding of the 'country fit for victors' that had been promised.

 

 

Spirella House, Oxford Street in the early 1950's. Note the beautiful inlaid mosaic pattern on the floor.

 

 

 

In the post-War period, the Spirella vans carried their wares across the country, whilst back in the laboratories, fundamental elements were tested to destruction.

 

      

The Spirella seamstresses from 1962 and 1960. Corset manufacture is highly labour intensive and highly skilled.

 

  

 

Of course the final article was passed under the gimlet gaze of the Senior Spirella inspectors (1962). Failure of a foundation garment, particularly a Spirella simply was not to be countenanced. Such expertise would leave the trade in the 1970's never to return. Within a few years, a huge social change would sweep through the world, the ramifications of which we are still trying to understand.

 

 

Spirella ensured a constant supply of jobs, some as exoteric as 'corset lacer', a profession which stumped the panel of "What's My Line".

The Ivy Leaf Club, which was founded in September 1932, flourished as the sales techniques of the Americans rewarded effort and success with the trappings of the 1960's post-war wealth. The car, central-heating and, just to celebrate the First Man on the Moon, perhaps a colour TV, even if the pictures from the moon were in black and white!

 

The War Years were over. The misery of rationing was finished. Women could look stylish again, and inspired by such sources as diverse as Dior and Jane Russell (albeit engineered by Howard Hughes), the 40-year-old woman could rely on Spirella for her new-found shape. Her Mother could rest assured in the quality of the corsets that she had worn from adolescence, and, if Spirella had their way, the daughters would follow in these corseted footsteps. Alas: it wasn't to happen that way.

 

This picture fascinates me. Is the woman particularly small?  It does not appear so since her waist-line, in relation to the table-top, is the same as for the woman on the left. If so, that corset could be a huge 22 inches long. Judging by the photograph, the width is little less, perhaps accommodating a waist-line of 38 to 40 inches. It would probably fit our good friend Bunty, but for the fact that Bunty was only seven years old when this photograph was taken!

The demise of Spirella is catalogued within this web site and I'll dwell no longer here on this subject. Let us simply return to a time when the corsetry trade was at its zenith and regard a simple photograph (below) taken in December 1957. It encapsulates a time that remains in the memory of few:-

Oliver Philpott, Managing Director of Spirella from July 1957, was one of the many British forces personnel that were captured during World War II. He escaped from Stalag Luft III, in Germany, with three colleagues via the 'Wooden Horse', an amazing and inventive ruse that has generated at least one book and has been the inspiration of several films. My husband admits that such heroic deeds of WWII were the stuff of post-war British boyhood heroism that dominated his school life.

In this picture from December 1957, Mr. Philpott awards an Ivy Leaf long service emblem to a Mrs. Bellingham. The picture is a reminder of the gentleman, and the lady. Historically, we know that the gentleman is a larger-than-life character. (If you have read the book you will understand). Quite obviously, the lady wears her Ivy Leaf emblem like a medal. She is not from the same 'drawer' as her company's MD, yet she is proud, she is discreetly, but well dressed, and her figure, although middle-aged, is a testimony to the excellent qualities of the foundation garments which, no doubt, she had sold in abundance.

It is a photograph from a bygone era. It represents commercial success, however, I feel that the handshake is between two representatives from a world we no longer understand.