Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ellen Curtis Demorest

Demorest's fashion plate

Born this day in 1824: Ellen Curtis Demorest (1824–1898), businesswoman who introduced mass-produced paper patterns for clothing and who promoted business opportunities for women

Ellen Louise Curtis was born in Schuylerville, New York, in 1824. Inspired by a fashion show in nearby Saratoga, 18-year-old Nell (as she was called) set up a millinery shop. Business was brisk, and eventually Curtis set up her business in New York City. There she met William Jennings Demorest, a widower with two children. The two were married in 1858 and had two more children.
After watching her maid use brown paper to cut a crude dress pattern, Nell Demorest hit upon the idea of creating simplified but accurate mass-produced paper dress patterns for home use. Mr. Demorest marketed her dress patterns by publishing Demorest’s Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. Each issue contained fashion plates and a tissue-paper pattern. Patterns were also distributed through a large network of agencies. The popular patterns became ubiquitous in American homes.
Nell Demorest was also the owner and operator of the Emporium of Fashions on Broadway, a private dressmaking and millinery shop with a wealthy clientele. From the Emporium, Demorest presided over American fashion. Her biannual openings were major social events, and her paper patterns put cutting edge fashions in the hands of ordinary American women.
Demorest kept abreast of the latest fashions with regular trips to London and Paris. She brought back designs to model the patterns on, and her sister Kate adapted the patterns to suit American tastes. At its height in 1876 the business boasted 1,500 agencies in the U.S. and abroad and sold 3 million patterns. The Demorests also operated several related businesses.
Demorest used her business to advance employment opportunities for women. She employed more than 200 women in her fashion business, which hired white and African American women on equal terms. Through fiction and articles the pages of Demorest’s Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions she encouraged women to join the business world. 
In fact, the Demorest family was very reform minded. Mr. Demorest had been an abolitionist and was active in the temperance movement. Nell Demorest founded an early woman’s club that engaged in social welfare work. She was a treasurer of the New York Medical college for Women and chair of a temperance shelter for women and children. 
Demorest never patented her pattens, and eventually competition cut into her business. She sold the pattern business in 1887. Demorest and her husband devoted their later years to their reform work.

Demorest's fashion plate

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  1. Demorest and real estate moneybags Susan A. King started a business called the Women's Tea Company. They bought a ship so that they could import tea. (They were the first Ladies to own and operate a ship for commercial enterprise.) The purpose of the company was to give jobs to gentlewomen who had fallen on hard times. Selling tea would give them dignity and independence. The business was modestly successful.

  2. Hello -

    I am researching information on the maid that is always mentioned in accounts of Demorest's work, but never mentioned by name. Would you have any leads about her? Thank you.
    Lisa Shepard

    1. Hi, Lisa,
      Sorry about the delay in replying. (The mail account was messed up, so I'm only now getting many of the comments!) I can't remember offhand if I came across the name of the maid. These are the main sources I used: Croly, Jane (1829 - 1901). (1998). In The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women. Retrieved from
      CROLY, Jane Cunningham (Dec. 19, 1829-Dec. 23, 1901). (1971). In Notable American Women: 1607-1950. Retrieved from
      Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Jane Cunningham Croly", accessed December 17, 2012,

      I'd be interested to know what you find out. Good luck!

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