Kane County History: Corsets Doing Big Business in Aurora? Scandalous!
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
What is a corset?
Bet you are thinking of a cage-like Victorian thing, creating the wasp-waist essential for fashionable women in bustle skirts and leg-o-mutton sleeves.
But conforming the human body to various ideals of beauty is an ancient practice. Body shaping probably originated in Greece at least a couple of thousand years before the Common Era, and it has been practiced, whether through corsetry or other forms, in most cultures and eras since then.
And it has been not just for women. Men, too, have sought the aesthetic and health benefits of body support and compression.
Throughout history, some body shaping was directed toward allowing women to wear the fashion silhouette of the moment. But there was something more pernicious, as well, which grew unchecked throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was the notion of *ideal proportions*, an artificial concept which, conveniently enough for the corset-makers of the Industrial Revolution, was hard to find in the world of real women, but which could be achieved by purchasing underclothes. Advertising provided attractive illustrations of ideal proportions, while manufacturers created dozens of lines of garments, each intended to correct the particular figure faults of the customer.
It was a perfect set-up for the growth of an industry.
At first, most clothing, whether undergarments or top garments, was made by hand at home, either by the housewife or a hired seamstress.
It was very labor-intensive, taking 14 hours to make one man’s shirt by hand. A woman could be employed full-time if she worked for a large family. Other women worked together in factories, creating garments by hand.
That is, until the sewing machine came along.
Invented in the very late 1700s and perfected by 1860, the sewing machine was intended more to help grow the garment industry than to be a useful household appliance. Industrial machines were large, strong, and long-lasting, with interchangeable parts. Production time for a man’s shirt fell to just one and a half hours.
Demand for cotton and metal soared. Teen girls and young women flocked to new jobs at factories, where they earned 10 to 20 cents per piece. The American consumer discovered that, with low prices for mass-produced clothing, he or she could now afford to own more than two dresses or pairs of pants at a time.
And women could hope to inexpensively improve, or at least conceal, their imperfect bodies.
Corset-Making in Aurora
As a manufacturing town with a relatively large labor force, Aurora attracted many businesses, 20 of them clothing manufacturers.
It was to be expected that someone would see Aurora as a likely location for the production of undergarments. In the end, three companies did.
The first, in 1883, was the Chicago Corset Company, enticed to town through the influence of Aurora developer and investor Otis Noyes Shedd. The company was looking to expand, and built a large new plant, four stories high, on the east side of Aurora, at the corner of State and Claim streets.
With 200 employees at first, the operation grew until, in 1890, it employed 600 and boasted a monthly payroll of $12,000. A decade later, 700 workers were turning out about 4,000 corsets a day of the popular Ball and Kabo brands, and Chicago Corset claimed to be the second-largest corset manufacturer in the world.
Combined with the output of other corset companies in town, this led to the claim that Aurora was the “Corset Capitol of the World”. Operations were moved back to Chicago in 1906, and the Aurora Automatic Machinery Company (later Thor Power Tool) took over the building.
The city’s second corset manufacturer was the Aurora Corset Company, which organized in 1895.
That year, Aurora Corset moved into (and later expanded) the old Aurora Watch Company factory at LaSalle & Bluff, an elegant building designed in 1885 by the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan. In 1907, the company purchased the building for $30,000.
At its height, Aurora Corset employed about 400 people, turning out Henderson & La Princesse corsets. In 1943, the upmarket Form Fit company in Chicago took over the manufacturing facilities and produced ladies’ underwear there until 1959.
Later, the building housed a furniture factory. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, but burned down on December 17, 1989. The site is now a park.
A third corset company was formed in Aurora in 1907, on the heels of the departing Chicago Corset Company. Charles H. Shopbach, who had been in Aurora for 24 years as the manager of the Kabo brand of Chicago Corset, stayed on to try his luck with his own company, which he named International Corset and located on the third floor of the Chapman Block in downtown.
Meeting with great success, in 1912 he built a new building at 132 Union St., which he subsequently enlarged. The company produced the La Camille, La Senorita and NuControl brands until 1952, and became known as a specialist in the fuller figure.
Shopbach produced some of his own designs, and held the patent for the Concealace corset for all figure types.
The Shifting Winds of Fashion
Manufacturers had long made health as well as beauty claims for their corsets, but after the turn of the century, society was moving in a different direction. There were new theories about health, as well as a willingness by both men and women to reveal more of the body than was permitted by the all-encompassing layers of earlier fashion.
It was not that women became suddenly comfortable with their natural bodies, or shunned what was considered current in fashion. And it was not that diet and exercise became tools to achieve health and beauty.
Women still wanted undergarments to help them cope with their perceived inadequacies, but they no longer favored the stiff and heavy Victorian constructions of canvas, whalebone, and steel. Manufacturers moved in the direction of the girdle and the garter belt, and the factories of Aurora were simply phased out.
The American woman’s search for self-confidence and beauty was undergirded, if you will excuse the pun, by the undergarment industry. Corset factories appeared in Aurora in a predictable response to market demand, and just as predictably faded out of the picture as the market changed.
During the period of 1883 to 1952, millions of undergarments were created here, thousands of women and girls were employed, and the local economy grew strong on profits. The Corset Capitol of the World may indeed have been in Aurora, IL.
SOURCE: Aurora Historical Society
About the Aurora Historical Society
In continuous operation since 1906, the Aurora Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the Chicago area. Come tour the 1857 Tanner House, visit changing exhibits at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center or make an appointment to do research at the History Center. aurorahistory.net
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