Sunday, February 7, 2016

How Crawford County Forever Changed Women's Undergarments

Lady Mary Crawley's corset in an early episode
Change stands prominent as the obvious theme depicted in TV’s historical drama, Downton Abbey. The show begins famously with news of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 and spans to 1925 where it will close out its sixth and final season. Most familiar with this period recognize the breadth of change that took place between those years and the lasting impact yet to come in the decades that followed. While there are almost innumerable aspects of this that could be analyzed through the story of the Crawley family and their house staff, the increasing freedom for women is consistently at the forefront of a larger majority of plot lines.

The topic of women’s growing independence could alone be scrutinized through varied contexts, and in fact, has already been visited in an earlier Crawford Messenger post dealing with women’s right to vote and to hold public office. Another representation of change for women can be seen, quite literally, in the evolving fashions highlighted throughout each season. Fashion offers one of the clearest expressions of women's growing freedom, and no item of apparel better represents this than the corset.

The rigid and uncomfortable corsets of old have come to symbolize the constrictive views and expectations reserved for women through the 1800’s and into the next century. In Downton Abby, the corset does have a small part in symbolizing the old verses the new as Lady Mary, the epitome of the strong, independent woman, dons the traditional undergarment (although not historically accurate, some say) in preparation for a formal dinner. (It’s somewhat ironic to learn that Dame Maggie Smith whose character, the tradition-bound Dowager Countess, fakes wearing a corset, while Michelle Dockery as the progressive-minded, Lady Mary, claims the corset has its benefits.) However, the ill-fitting nature of the corset would change forever at the turn of the century thanks to Meadville inventor, Marcus M. “Pa” Beeman.

The Obvious Flexibility of Spirella Stays
The catalyst for such change occurred during a dinner party in 1904 after his wife, Martha's corset broke, causing a bit of scene not to mention a great deal of discomfort for her both physically and socially that evening. Embarrassed by the event, Martha challenged herr husband to find a solution that would prevent this from happening again. What Beeman developed was a new type of stay built from steel wire, spiraled in a lattice shape which ultimately provided corsets with the flexibility and comfort is so badly needed. Thus a random wardrobe malfunction is responsible for one of Crawford County’s most unique and widely recognized business The Spirella Corset Company.

Within a few short years demand was such that Spirella would be the major industry of the area, employing, by one estimate, as many as 1 in every 12 local residents. In its first year the company was made up of 3 managers, 8 employees, with 6 machines in a 1380 square-foot building at 912 Water Street in Meadville. By 1912, Spirella occupied over 180,000 square feet of space in buildings all over the city with thousands of employees world-wide.

Note: If you cannot read the information on the infographic below, CLICK HERE. When you see the image click on it again to make it expand.         

As an added treat, check out the Spirella Training Manual and the Spirella Guide, both from 1913. And where was the company located in the Meadville area? Go HERE to see.

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