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.
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.