Corsets, tight-lacing, and the changing role of women in 19th-century Toronto.
“It is a matter for rejoicing that fashion has at last decreed that a slender waist is not indispensable to a graceful figure.”
So begins an 1895 editorial in the Toronto publication Ladies’ Journal, weighing in on an issue which had received considerable debate in Victorian Toronto: corsets and the associated practice of “tight-lacing,” wherein the corset’s stays are pulled exceptionally tight so as to narrow the waist. The editorial suggests that by 1895 public opinion had firmly shifted away from tight-lacing, but notes that there were still some extremes in taste: “Yet there are still some women to be seen who consider the compression of the vital organs no sin and who bind up their yielding ribs into such small compass that the waist measures only twenty or twenty-two inches.”
Over the centuries, corsets had evolved considerably to accommodate changes in fashion and technology. In the 19th century, women of all classes were likely to be wearing some form of corset regularly, although not necessarily the painful, torturous design that popular culture has suggested. In The Corset: A Cultural History, historian Valerie Steele writes that “most people today tend to think of the corset as a waist-cincher … However, the corset also functioned as a brassiere, indeed as a kind of Wonderbra, lifting the breasts, augmenting their volume, and allowing them to blossom in all their splendour and amplitude.”
In the 1850s, a movement for “dress reform” began in the United States. Dress reform was largely connected with the movements for women’s rights and temperance, and decried many of the restrictive fashions of the day, calling for healthier and more comfortable clothing for women. Dress reform tracts frequently condemned tight-lacing, along with skirts and dresses of particularly cumbersome design.
Dress reform appears to have been largely ignored in Canada during the movement’s first few decades, likely because our fashion trends were more closely linked with England than the United States at the time. One of the first dress reform publications to reach Torontonians was an 1876 collection of essays called Dress and Health or How to Be Strong: A Book for Ladies, which was reviewed in Toronto’s New Dominion Monthly. Dress and Health focuses heavily on medical arguments against corsets and tight-lacing. In one essay, a physician notes that the corset, “which within certain limits is not objectionable, is too often an utter abomination … The pressure exerted by the combined action of stays and heavy skirts upon the contents of the abdomen and pelvis is most baneful, and displacement of the womb is one of the commonest consequences.”
Medical condemnation of tight-lacing was common in dress reform circles, although the reasoning involved was often specious. Extreme misuse of a corset could certainly lead to health complications, but Valerie Steele notes that medical knowledge was still quite limited at the time, and that “many diseases were routinely ascribed to the ill effects of women’s clothing,” including tuberculosis, scoliosis, and gallstones.
For some Torontonians, corsets provided a way to earn a living. The first corset-maker listed in a Toronto city directory appears to be Miss Catherine Bondidier, described as a “French stay-maker” located at 85 Queen Street East, in Mitchell’s Toronto Directory of 1864-65. Bondidier later moved to Shuter Street and appears to have remained in business until the 1880s, in some years as sharing the space with Mary Bondidier, also listed as a corset-maker, or with Joseph Bondidier, a tailor.
In 1879, the first large-scale corset manufacturing operation opened in Toronto: the Crompton Corset Company on Jarvis Street. Crompton was initially run by Frederick Crompton and Andrew Telfer, but the two parted ways within a year. Frederick Crompton kept the company name and relocated to 78 York Street, leaving Telfer to run the original factory on Jarvis, which he soon renamed after himself.
Until the First World War, the Crompton Corset Company was Toronto’s largest corset operation. One 1884 source claims the factory employed “350 young women and girls, and a number of men,” producing 8,400 corsets each week for sale in Toronto or shipment to other cities. At this point in time Crompton produced 15 different styles of corset, “in sizes varying from that necessary for a child of tender years to that required by the matron with a tendency to embonpoint.” According to one review of Crompton’s wares at the 1887 Toronto Industrial Exhibition, “the firm and their excellent goods are well-known from ocean to ocean throughout Canada, and have made rapid strides towards the perfection of the corset.”
In 1901, the Toronto Star wrote that “the Crompton Corset Company has high ideals. It does not cater to the cheaper trade in the slightest degree and aims to supply the needs of high-class custom alone.” This reputation may be partly connected with an early decision to avoid the traditional corset materials of whalebone or steel in favour of cords made from Coraline, a material for which Crompton reportedly owned the sole rights in Canada. In 1884, Charles Pelham Mulvany wrote that Coraline was derived from the Mexican plant ixtle, with the cords actually being made at the York Street factory. According to Mulvany, Coraline “has the advantage over all matter of bone or horn in the fact that it is both flexible and unbreakable, and yet of sufficient consistency for all the purposes required.”
Crompton’s operations included a warehouse at the southwest corner of College and Palmerston. A description from a 1918 issue of Construction notes that “the front portion of the main floor is laid out in offices, and the balance of the building [is] devoted entirely to wareroom and working space … Instead of living apartments above the stores on the College Street extension, the space here is devoted to a large modern rest room and lunch room decorated and furnished to attractively fulfil its purpose … thus making it a convenient feature of the company’s policy in regard to the comfort and welfare of its employees.”
Crompton was hardly the only corset factory in Toronto; by the end of the 19th century there were about a dozen manufacturers of varying size listed in Toronto directories. The year 1889 saw the arrival of the Vermilyea Corset Company on Spadina Avenue, run by Madame H.M. Vermilyea who had previously manufactured corsets in Belleville. In a profile of the company in 1891, the Globe wrote that “it is not our purpose to pry into the secrets connected with ladies’ apparel, but certainly it is only reasonable to attribute some of Madame’s phenomenal success as a designer of corsets to the fact that being herself a woman she realizes more completely women’s needs than the sterner sex possibly can.”
In 1890, Vermilyea opened a new factory in the Junction, northwest of St. Clair Avenue and Gunns Road. Vermilyea also opened a “commodious salesroom and corset parlor” on King Street, “where ladies will find comfortable waiting and fitting rooms and can leave their measures or purchase Madame Vermilyea’s corsets.” Without access to Coraline, Vermilyea reportedly favoured whalebone construction, and according to an 1891 Globe article, sales were made by about 150 associates. The article notes that the Junction factory was not yet operating at full capacity, but had the potential to employ as many as 500 if fully staffed.
(Right: Madame Vermilyea. The Globe, July 25, 1891.)
In 1894, Madame Vermilyea sold her Toronto operation to Charles Millward and relocated to Ohio to start a new company. Her name appeared again in Toronto newspapers a few months later when she was charged with having smuggled thousands of corsets into the United States. According to the Daily Mail and Empire, somewhere between 1,200 and 3,000 corsets were illegally brought into the United States by boat near Sault Ste. Marie, and distributed to several towns in Michigan and Ohio.
The garment industry was a notoriously difficult labour environment in the late 19th century, and the realm of corset manufacturing appears to have been no exception. An 1895 Star article described the working environment thus: “During the hot days the girls in the corset factories complain bitterly of the terrible heat which comes from steam-run machinery … Scores of girls are working from 8 to 12 and 1 to 6 without rising from their chairs. One working woman suggests that it might be arranged to occasionally allow some of the girls to exchange work and thus secure the much-needed change of position.”
In the 1889 Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labor in Canada, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Crompton Corset Company testified that the company had opened up another factory in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario in search of cheaper labour, but had been forced to close it. The Berlin employees went on strike, demanding wages on par with their Toronto counterparts, which Crompton refused to give as the company believed the new workers were not yet as skilled as the Toronto staff. The employees of the Telfer Manufacturing Company near Yonge and Adelaide went on at least two strikes in the late 19th century. During the second strike, in the summer of 1890, the Globe wrote that “the girls complain that they are overworked and underpaid. At the best of times they could not make more than sufficient to barely support them, but of recent date they allege that still more work was imposed upon them while no proportionate increase of pay was given.”
In the spring of 1883, a variety of impassioned letters on the subject of corsets and tight-lacing appeared in “Women’s Kingdom,” the weekly women’s section of the Toronto Daily Mail. Some experts now say they are suspect: the flurry of anonymous letters both begins and ends abruptly, and it was not unheard of in this era for newspapers to plant supposed letters from the public to inflate an issue so as to arouse interest and sell more papers. Nevertheless, the letters articulate the extremity of opinion that Torontonians would have had on the subject of corsets and tight-lacing at that time.
The start of the Mail exchange appears to be April 7, when a mother describes her two daughters, ages 9 and 12, whom she has yet to allow to wear corsets “for fear of injuring their constitutions.” But, the letter says, “they are growing up such clumsy girls that I am quite ashamed of them … I would like to know how many inches I could reduce their waists, and whether it would be better to make this reduction all at once, or by degrees.”
Two weeks later, following several letters containing personal success stories of reducing female waists, a letter attributed to a doctor appeared in the Mail. “Medicus” expressed support for a “well-constructed corset,” but added that “any attempt to reduce the waist abnormally by tight-lacing is contrary to all physiological laws.” The doctor’s letter also adds an objection based on purely aesthetic grounds, noting that a “small waist means pot belly. Query – Which is the most fashionable?”
Over the next two months letters on both sides of the tight-lacing debate grew considerably more extreme. Although some of the letters supporting tight-lacing are attributed to men, the majority are attributed to women, frequently priding themselves on how they overcame the initial pain and successfully managed to reduce their waists. A typical letter, attributed to a Hamilton woman, claims that “All who have tried tight-lacing speak approvingly of it. I would not give up my well-made, tight-fitting stays for anything. The sensation of being laced in tight is an enjoyable one that only those who have experienced it can understand. I have been in corsets ever since I was eight years of age…”
Other supporting letters are more severe, advising how to keep young daughters and nieces from cutting the laces of their stays at night. Several suggested whipping as a form of punishment, or binding the hands of the young woman overnight with a handkerchief. In one letter, the writer states that “instead of a silk handkerchief I use a small leather strap, with which I fasten the wrists together during the night to keep the hands away from mischief, and as a punishment I fasten the hands behind the back for the greater portion of each day. I find that a week’s restriction which means a good, wholesome position for the hands, induces respect for the [corset] laces for all time to come.”
The letters in opposition to tight-lacing are a mix of medical opinion and personal experience. One letter, dated June 2, notes that “it is evident from the revelations and admissions in some of the letters that [the Mail] has lately published, that a society for the prevention of cruelty to growing girls would be in order. The mothers who have been detailing the methods they adopt to prevent their daughters casing themselves out of the torture of their corsets ought to be ashamed of themselves.” Another letter in the same edition took a more Darwinian tack: “I have only a word to those who are determined to indulge in such a suicidal practice. Lace quickly and without hesitation and die quickly; do not leave children to inherit your mental and physical weaknesses … Very thankful I am for a sensible mother, who came to our rooms to assure herself that our corsets were very loose; now we have every prospect of living happy lives while too young cousins fill early graves caused alone by tight-lacing.”
In 1895, a piece in Saturday Night proclaimed that “Canadian women—Toronto women particularly—are taking a deep interest [in dress reform], protesting, and even revolting in a quiet way, against ever-changing absurdities of fashion.” Although brassieres and girdles gradually cut into the market for corsets through the first few decades of the 20th century, Toronto directories continued to list around a dozen corset manufacturers well into the 1960s, and indeed, several corset-makers exist in Toronto as of this writing. What changed in the new century was a movement toward freer designs, and an apparent decline in tight-lacing. “One fashion will never return – and that is tight lacing,” said Mrs. Lillian Gibbons in 1938, a representative for Gossard and frequent corset consultant in Toronto’s Simpson’s department store in the 1930s. “Women have too much appreciation for their sense of freedom.”
Additional material from: Canadian Manufacturer and Industrial World (September 16, 1887); Construction (January 1918); Toronto Daily Mail (April 7, April 14, April 21, April 28; May 5, May 12, May 19, May 26; June 2, June 9, June 16, June 23, June 30, 1883); June 26, August 7; 1890); Dress and Health or How to Be Strong: A Book for Ladies, J. Dougall, 1876: Montreal; Jill Fields, “‘Fighting the Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900—1930” in Journal of Social History, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter 1999) 355—384; The Globe (April 27, 1882; July 5, July 28, July 29, 1890; July 25, 1891); Barbara E. Kelcey, “Dress Reform in Nineteenth-Century Canada” in Fashion: A Canadian Perspective (University of Toronto, 2004); Rudyard Kipling, The Story of the Gadsbys., 3rd ed. (National: Toronto.); Ladies’ Journal (October 1890; August, November, December 1895); Montreal Gazette (November 8, 1938); Chales Pelham Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present. A Handbook of the City (W.E. Caiger, 1884: Toronto); Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labor in Canada, (1889: Ottawa); Saturday Night (September 7, 1895); Toronto Star (March 17, 1894; April 27, July 20, 1895; May 22, June 4, 1897; January 4, February 12, March 15, 1901); Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University, 2003).
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