Ellen Louise Demorest
Ellen Louise Demorest is not a common household name but as sewists we have all used her best invention regularly, the mass-produced tissue-paper patterns with variable sizes. She is acclaimed for her exceptional fashion sense as well as her uncommon business sense. She is a woman who radically changed the fashion industry in the 1800’s by bringing current French couture to the American middle-class woman.
Ellen Curtis (Demorest) lived from 1824-1898. Her early employment began as a milliner making and selling women’s hats in Saratoga Springs. After some success, she moved to New Your City where she met her husband, a dry goods merchant. They opened the Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashion. There they sold perfume and cosmetics, ready-made undergarments and provided custom dressmaking for the well-to-do clients. Most notably she sold her magazine with paper-patterns stapled inside each issue.
Madame Demorest had many innovative products that she sold in her Emporium. To name a few, she had comfortable corsets, affordable hoopskirts and a sewing machine that could sew backwards. Her greatest claim to fame was the "Excelsior Dress Model" drafting system that was a mathematical system to print various sizes onto one pattern. It is unclear if Ellen Demorest or Ebenezer Butterick was the first person to invent the mass-produced paper-pattern, but we do know that Mr. Butterick patented his patterns and Madame Demorest did not.
In addition to the Emporium, Madame Demorest published her own fashion magazine, “Madame Demorest's Mirror of Fashions”. Each issue had sewing advise, fashion tips, a monthly column, “What Women are Doing”, and a trendy pattern stapled in the center for the home sewer. The magazine is said to have reached over a million customers across America and Europe.
After her career taking off in the 1860’s she also branched out with a network of shops nationwide called “Madame Demorest’s Magasins de Modes.” In the mid-1870’s she had 300 shops that employed nearly 1,500 sales agents that were mainly women. She preferred to employ women and encouraged racial integration by providing all workers the same wage, workspace and benefits regardless of sex or race.
The business hit its peak in 1876 when over 3 million patterns were sold that year alone. By the 1880 things began to slow and eventually the business was sold in 1887. The Demorests turned their attention to social causes that had inspired their careers along the way. Ellen increasingly supported women’s causes and both were advocates of abolition with equal rights for all.
So, one could say that Ellen Demorest was the 1800’s version of an Influencer, she was only missing the camera and internet. Her patterns have made sewing at home simple and affordable. Every time I get a new pattern, I will think of Madame Demorest and say, “Thanks!”
Image: Demorest trade card. Image Source By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons used under public domain
Image: Demorest's illustrated monthly and Mme Demorest's mirror of fashions, 1865 April. Image Source By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons used Under public domain
Image: A cover of Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly from 1865, featuring styles in ladies’ wear as well as stories and songs. Published by William Jennings Demorest.