Thursday, May 8, 2014

An "Enterprising Woman" worth knowing about

While reorganizing some books onto new bookshelves, I came across a title I'd been meaning to share. It's called Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business by Virginia G. Drachman (2002, University of North Carolina Press), and it's a book I got years ago when an exhibition about these women came to Atlanta. I love to learn about women entrepreneurs, but one story in particular impressed me simply because I'd never heard of this woman before, and Ellen Demorest is a name who deserves a place in tea history.

If you research Ellen Demorest (1824-1898), you're most likely to find her mentioned in connection with the fashion world. In Enterprising Women, I learned that Ellen began her work as a milliner. "Through business connections, she met her future husband, William Jennings Demorest, a dry goods merchant from Philadelphia, who had established a fashion emporium named Madame Demorest's, after his first wife." He was a widower with two young children when he and Ellen married. She would go on to have two more children with her husband, and she became the new face of Madame Demorest's fashion emporium. While she worked on building the shop, her husband started a fashion magazine that also happened to include tissue-paper patterns for fashions. According to Enterprising Women, "Along with the sewing machine, Demorest's paper patterns played an important role in the democratization of women's fashion, making style available to middle-class women around the country." (Image of Ellen Demorest courtesy of the New York Public Library)

So what's all that got to do with tea? Well, says the book, in 1872, "Demorest combined her efforts on behalf of women with her own entrepreneurial goals and launched a new business, the Woman's Tea Company. Its goal was twofold: to make money by importing and distributing the very best tea, and to provide dependent women, primarily widows and single women, with a respectable means of self-support. Tea, after all, was a ladylike and refined commodity suitable for any respectable woman to sell." Ellen and a new friend, Susan King, founded the company and even got the backing to purchase their own clipper ship, the Madam Demorest, which sailed to China to purchase tea. The tea was sold in the fashion emporium, where ladies could sip tea while they tried on dresses. (Macy's? Dillards? Bloomies? Are you listening?) By 1873, their ship was paid for and needy women across the country were selling their tea. The Demorests did not end up making a lasting name for themselves with the paper pattern business. They failed to patent their patterns, and a competitor named Butterick patented his own patterns, which are still being sold today. The Demorests, though, gained lasting fame for their fashions and, of even more importance, Ellen Demorest is remembered for her efforts on behalf of women. Enterprising Women notes that in 1866, one reporter said that Ellen "has proved, in her vast business transactions, the capacity of woman to care for herself; and she has been instrumental in placing many others on the path of prosperous trade which leads to independence." It was fun to learn a bit about Ellen Demorest, and I've just ordered another book about her so I can learn more about the work of the Woman's Tea Company. I'll let you know what I find!


  1. I have always enjoyed stories about strong and enterprising women. So inspirational! It sounds like Avon may have taken inspiration from their successful tea venture as well. Thank you for sharing.

  2. What a great story about an enterprising and inspiring woman!

  3. Oh this is so sooooooo interesting, Angela. WOW. You are so right about remembering this extraordinary woman (and husband!)

    I think it is sad Butterick did that, what a shame they didn't patten their incredible idea.

    I shall think of this gal every time I see one of your tea room in a department store posts now, as they were the first for that as well.

    Well done, ma'am.

  4. This woman was before her time with her ideas.

  5. This was a very interesting post to read. Thank you for sharing about this strong woman.

  6. So very interesting! Thanks for your research too. Just looking at Ellen in that beautiful dress - so interesting Butterick patterns are still available - and I will remember this next time I buy one!


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