With Fifty Shades of Gray all the rage, it’s hard to imagine that a little over 100 years ago, corsets were the undergarments of fine upstanding women across the country. That’s right, the average middle and upper class woman from the Victorian era into the post WWI time period was sporting some type of tight-laced undergarment. And many women of the day were wearing ones made right here in Jackson, Michigan
In the early 1900s, Jackson was home to as many as 16 manufacturers of women’s corsets with the majority of the factories located on Cortland and Pearl Streets. It is believed that the Jackson Corset Co., founded in 1884, was the largest manufacturer of corset and waist garments in the US, employing nearly 300 people in 1895.
The corset industry was also a major player in the now mostly forgotten history of invention here in Jackson. Two of the most popular corsets made in America during this period were not only made in Jackson, they were invented here. Moses Bortree founded the Bortree Corset Company, which started churning out his own design, the Duplex Corset in 1875. By 1880, production had risen from 50,000 corsets to 300,000 corsets per year. In addition, the only corset company headed up by a woman, Mrs. C.A. McGee, was also producing her patented invention the Coronet Corset.
The corset industry also created numerous employment opportunities for women. While still paid nearly half of what men were being paid for the same job, at $0.40 to $1.30 per day, corset-makers were among the highest paid women in Michigan. Stats from 1910 show that nearly 1/5 of all industrial workers in Jackson were women employed by corset manufacturers.
As fashions changed, the elastic girdle quickly replaced the corset to achieve the coveted narrow-hipped and narrow-skirted silhouette that was becoming popular by the end of WWI. By 1920, the majority of the corset manufacturers in Jackson had closed their doors. The three which remained in business quickly changed their business models to focus on other undergarments, nightwear and prosthetics.
Corset manufacturing in Jackson is just one of the many creative industries that made its home in Jackson during its heyday. As our city continues to reinvent itself, and as DIY culture continues to prosper across the former industrial Midwest, harkening back to our creative roots is one of the best ways to help us see what could still be ahead of us.