Life is often a juggling act of work, play and family. While current-day clothiers experience the trials and tribulations of being small-town entrepreneurs in the big business of fashion, more than 100 years ago many women were facing similar circumstances, leaning on their sense of style to furnish a living.
In the late 1800s, Elizabeth Cohen had run a millinery store next to her husband’s dry goods store in Detroit. When he died and left her alone with a young family, she consolidated the shops under one roof. Living above the store, she was able to run a business and earn a living while staying near her children.
Cohen leveraged middle-class consumers’ growing fascination with fashion, using mass-produced components to create hats in the latest styles and to the individual tastes of customers. To attract business, resourceful store owners like Mrs. Cohen displayed goods in storefront windows and might have advertised through trade cards or by placing advertisements in newspapers, magazines or city directories.
“While Mrs. Cohen was more likely following fashion than creating it, it did take creativity and design skill,” Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford, said of Cohen’s millinery prowess. “She was a small maker connecting with local customers in her community — a 19th-century version of Etsy, perhaps, but without the online reach.”
And she certainly gained independence and the satisfaction of supporting her family while selling the hats she created from the factory-produced components she acquired. “People can appreciate the widowed Elizabeth Cohen’s balancing act,” added Miller, “successfully caring for her children while earning a living during an era when fewer opportunities were available to women.”
Jennifer LaForce is a writer for The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally appeared in the June-December 2016 issue.
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