Our latest installation of What We Wore, featuring designer Peggy Hoyt. / THF189263
Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments and hats designed by Peggy Hoyt.
Advertisement for Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1923. / THF624600
Peggy Hoyt, from “The Right Angle,” The Christy Walsh Syndicate, 1922. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF626352, detail
Peggy Hoyt began her career making hats as a milliner’s apprentice and went on to become a highly successful fashion designer whose creations would rival those of Paris.
The Early Years
Peggy Hoyt was born Mary Alice Stephens in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1886, to Charles J. Stephens, a partner in a wholesale lumber business, and Carrie Stiff Stephens.
As a child, Mary Alice liked to draw and paint. She had a keen interest in clothes, often designing and making clothing for her large family of paper dolls. When her father’s illness resulted in his inability to resume his business activities, the family’s fortunes declined. A Civil War veteran, Charles Stephens was by 1905 living in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Hampton, Virginia, where he died in 1915.
Carrie Stephens moved with her daughter to New York City about 1900. Here, she felt she would have a better chance to get work that offered more than a bare living, as well as provide educational advantages for her daughter, Mary Alice. Though finding work turned out to be harder than anticipated, Carrie Stephens eventually found a job as a comparison shopper for a large department store. In the years following, Carrie Stephens worked her way up to a position as one of the highest salaried European buyers for the department store B. Altman.
In 1905, 18-year-old Mary Alice Stephens married Frank Hoyt in Monterey, Massachusetts—though the couple separated after only 18 months of marriage and Mary Alice then returned to New York City. Life on a 500-acre farm in the Berkshires didn’t suit Mary Alice—she missed the excitement of urban life. She and Frank Hoyt finally divorced in 1911; she kept her married name.
Becoming Peggy Hoyt
In her late teens, Hoyt worked as an apprentice in a Fifth Avenue millinery (hat) shop. By 1910, with a talent for design, a flair for business, and $300 borrowed from her mother, Hoyt established her own millinery shop in tiny quarters on upper Fifth Avenue, a shopping destination lined with luxurious stores. A year later, the business was successful enough to warrant an upgrade. She rented a larger room in the same building and hired an assistant. By 1915, Peggy Hoyt, Inc. was born.
In February 1918, Hoyt married Aubrey Eads—an officer in the American Naval Aviation Detachment who had recently returned after 14 months in France during World War I. Eads became her business partner.
A Leading American Designer
In the late 1910s, Hoyt moved her growing business into the elegant Phillip Rhinelander mansion at 16 East 55th Street in Manhattan, where she added women’s clothing to her offerings. The mansion, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side shopping area, provided over 27,000 square feet of space with a stately white marble hall and a magnificent stairway. Hoyt transformed the mansion into one of the most exquisite fashion centers in America. The first floor became a reception room, salon, and fitting rooms. The second floor was devoted entirely to millinery. The top floors held workrooms and a lunchroom for employees.
Peggy Hoyt leased the Phillip Rhinelander mansion on at 16 East 55th Street, transforming it into a stunning setting for her increasingly successful salon. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF120772, THF120770
A few years after she moved to the Rhinelander mansion, Peggy Hoyt ventured into theatrical costume design for a brief time. Her elegant costumes for Henry W. Savage’s revival of The Merry Widow in September 1921 were a huge success. The following year, she created costumes for the Savage musical The Clinging Vine.
Program for The Merry Widow. The operetta ran for 56 performances in fall of 1921 at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York. Note the credits for Peggy Hoyt at the top of page 33 (you can click through to our Digital Collections to zoom in). / THF624648, THF624630, THF624638
Hoyt quickly became one of the foremost American designers of gowns and millinery. Her designs were creative and unique, employing her signature pastels, rhinestone ornaments, and handkerchief hems. Hoyt designed each of the hundreds of gowns and hats in her shop, taking great pride in her work. For nearly twenty years, Hoyt dressed a small, but exclusive, clientele in every large American city.
Advertisement: "Peggy Hoyt: New York's Smartest Millinery and Dressmaking Establishment," April 1925. / THF624602
Peggy Hoyt discussed the type of garment, color, style, and fabric with her client, and then sketched the designs. Hoyt oversaw the next steps in the workroom, where staff cut and sewed the garment. Clients had their very own dress form, an adjustable mannequin on which Hoyt’s designs came to life. At the client’s next appointment, the garment was taken to the front of the salon for the final fitting.
A Peggy Hoyt Client: Elizabeth Parke Firestone
Elizabeth Parke Firestone, about 1927. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF119839
Receipt for Mrs. H.S. Firestone, Jr. from Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1934. Gift of Martha F. Ford. / THF626330
Elizabeth Parke Firestone of Akron, Ohio—wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.—was among the wealthy women who frequented Peggy Hoyt’s salon. Mrs. Firestone traveled to New York, where Hoyt would confer with her client and then create the beautiful garments and hats for Mrs. Firestone shown here.
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6688
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928-1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6720
Chemise dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6710
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1931. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6731
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1920-1935. Gift of Martha Firestone Ford and Anne Firestone Ball. / THF17330
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF30500
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1935. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6754
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1926-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6747
An Unhappy Ending
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., box lid, 1925-1935. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF188547
At its height, Peggy Hoyt, Inc., earned over $1 million annually and had hundreds of employees. Yet Peggy Hoyt, Inc.—and Peggy herself—would not survive the depression of the 1930s as the faltering economy brought down the thriving business.
Peggy Hoyt died by suicide on October 26, 1937 (though her family maintained that her death resulted from pneumonia). Hoyt, who had an intense dislike of personal publicity, had asked her mother and husband to honor her wishes for privacy upon her death. At the request of Hoyt’s employees, her husband did consent to a small service at the Little Church Around the Corner (the Church of the Transfiguration) before Hoyt’s body was brought to Detroit and laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetery.
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., briefly continued after Hoyt’s passing, with her mother and husband maintaining the salon until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1939–1940.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Stacy McNally, Local History & Genealogy Librarian at the Public Libraries of Saginaw, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for their meticulous research assistance on Peggy Hoyt. Many thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
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.
The Henry Ford receives inquiries from around the world and from all types of individuals and organizations about the contents of our collections. Recently, we were approached by Christian Dior Couture about the Dior garments, accessories, and drawings we hold. As we investigated and located these items, we digitized many of them, including this 1950s pillbox hat owned and worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone. Now anyone can view dozens of Dior-related artifacts on our collections website. And while we’ve digitized all the Dior design drawings that relate to specific garments in our collections, we hold dozens more Dior drawings, which we’ll be digitizing over upcoming months—so be sure to check back for even more high fashion in our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The collections of The Henry Ford contain hundreds of hats and headgear, most of which are not on public display. We’ve just added a number of hats to our digital collections, including this sailor hat, dating from the late 19th or early 20th century. View over 160 hats and related objects on our collections website.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
One of the most distinctive features of Greenfield Village is the period-authentic clothing worn by the presenters, all created on site by our Clothing Studio. Many of the designs they create are based on objects from our own costume collection, including clothing, shoes, hats, and other accessories. We’ve just digitized a selection of bonnets, including this delicate 19th century example. See detail shots of two dozen bonnets, ranging from the very simple to the very ornate, in our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Walk into Greenfield Village and 300 years of American history is in motion. Model Ts chug along the streets, the smells of open-hearth cooking and canning fill the air at working century-old farmhouses, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and the Wright Brothers Cycle Shop are charged with activity and excitement. And all are waiting for you to step inside, make yourself welcome and experience longtime traditions.
In one quiet corner sits Cohen Millinery, moved to Greenfield Village from its original location in Detroit, Michigan’s Corktown, where it was operated in the 1890s by Mrs. “D.” Elizabeth Cohen. The young widow lived upstairs and supported her four children by selling “fancy goods, dry goods and gents’ furnishings” on the first floor. Cohen became best known, however, for her fabulous hats, which she bought wholesale and trimmed with a wide assortment of silk flowers, colorful ribbons, feathers and even whole stuffed birds.
Thanks to celebrities such as Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, more and more women are experimenting with hats again. But for ladies in the late 1800s, hats weren’t optional accessories worn for fun. A respectable woman never left home without one — the more frills, the better.
“The more you had on your hat, the wealthier you were thought to be,” said Greenfield Village historic presenter Anora Zeiler, one of seven milliners working at Cohen Millinery today.
Greenfield Village guests visiting the charming shop can browse a colorful array of authentic antique hats and other accessories, such as ornate hair combs and hatpins, delicate ladies’ gloves, and men’s suspenders and ties. They can also chat with the milliners — all dressed in period costume — as they layer a variety of adornments on felt or straw hats, always keeping with the style of the 1880s and 1890s.
“We sew on each piece separately and in the proper order, careful to hide the stitches,” Zeiler said.
If you watched any news over the weekend, you probably saw at least a few images of some spectacular hats - from the beautiful to the extreme. Fancy hats have long been a tradition - meant to bring good luck - at the Kentucky Derby.
You don't have to visit Kentucky to see some really stunning hats: Mrs. Cohen's Millinery in Greenfield Village has its share of beautiful one-of-a-kind headdresses right in Dearborn, Mich.
There's always something new to discover when you visit Mrs. Cohen's Millinery shop.
The store was built in Detroit in the 1880s and was run by Mrs. Elizabeth Cohen. She was a young widow who opened the shop to earn money after her husband’s death. She designed new hats and redecorated old ones. She also shared with her customers news about the latest fashions. She lived with her children on the second floor of the building.
The hats that are made and displayed now in the shop are representative of those made during the shop's operations in the mid 1890s.
The presenter at the shop showed off the lovely hat boxes and the display of hats that are for sale.
In years past, the hats made in the shop were sold at the Greenfield Village Store, but this year for the first time they are displayed and sold right from the millinery shop. Guests may choose a hat at the store where they'll receive a sales slip to take across the street for payment at the Emporium. When they present their receipt at the Mrs. Cohen's shop, they'll receive their hat, packaged in a lovely box.
The hats range in price from $40-$65. Girls' hats are $40 and women's hats are priced at $45, $55 and $65, depending on the embellishments. All of the hats are hand embellished at the shop by skilled craftswomen.
Although there isn't a record of what Mrs. Cohen charged for hats, an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog lists ready-made trimmed hats ranging in price from $1.50-$5. (Montgomery Ward's prices were often less expensive than other catalogs at the time.)
If you're not purchasing a hat, there are many hats you can try just for fun. There are also some beautiful hats that are only for display.
There is a display at the shop of boys' hats that were typical for Sunday church-going. The hat this young visitor is wearing is a style that boys wore until they were about 10 years old.
Sorry to say, you're out of luck gentlemen - Mrs. Cohen's shop doesn't sell any hats for boys or men. But, there are some dapper hats for boys to try on for size.
Women of all classes (not just those going to the Kentucky Derby!) wore hats when they were outside. Some women may have only had one or two hats - one for everyday and one for church or special occasions - while wealthy women may have had many. Women of even modest means would buy trimmings or have someone like Elizabeth Cohen refresh their hat’s trimmings to fit current fashions.
Don't miss a stop at Mrs. Cohen's shop when you're in the neighborhood. You may find the perfect hat that's just your size, and if the hat fits ... buy it!
Kristine Hass is a long-time member and frequent blogger for The Henry Ford.