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Nelly Don:Self Made, Ready Made…a film and gallery revue

I was tickled to be able to attend a recent showing of the documentary film “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time”, which was accompanied by the exhibit “Nelly Don: Self-Made, Ready-Made”. The event was a collaboration between Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection and State Historical Society, in honor of Women’s History Month. The exhibit is in the gallery of the State Historical Society on the University of Missouri campus, running through May 18th, 2013.
The film was presented by Terence O’Malley, nephew of Mrs. Nell (Quinlan) Donnelly Reed, who was the creator, owner, and leader of the Donnelly Garment Company, producing the label Nelly Don.

Nelly learned her craft modifying hand-me-downs from her older sisters. She was well educated, including college, which was rare for the time. She was not resigned to be a simple housewife, though, and started her company with one dress, a pink gingham frock she made herself. In 1916 or so, after taking the dress to several department stores and being turned down, she eventually landed at Peck’s Dry Goods in downtown Kansas City. Her sales pitch was a simple idea, one that she firmly believed in, that housewives would be happier in their work if they looked better doing it, that they would “do their best when they looked their best”. The “Old Mother Hubbard” styles that were most common for women working in the home were drab and unattractive. Nell thought that a simple, easy to care for frock would boost the spirits and be popular with women. The owner of Peck’s thought he’d prove her wrong, assuming she would fail…he agreed to carry Nell’s dresses. She set up manufacturing in her living room, and with the help of friends and family filled her first order for Peck’s. Much to the Peck’s owner’s surprise, the dresses sold so well he had to call Nell and beg for more immediately, stating he had a near riot on his hands of women wanting the dress…his wife being one of them!

Nell was in business! He husband, Paul, helped her get set up, forming the Donnelly Garment Company, with him listed as the owner, since a women just weren’t the heads of a companies back then. Nell was in charge, though, and ran the business when Paul went off to fight in WW1.

A 20s Nelly Don design:

By 1929, Nell and her company employed 1000 workers, usually operating seasonally for the fall and spring production schedule…then the Depression hit. Nell valued her workers, mostly women, and knew husbands and fathers were loosing their jobs. She developed a new product, allowing the employees to produce year-round, with the Handy Dandy Apron filling the gap between seasonal dress styles.

A Handy Dandy Apron, along with the patent application, hand drawn by Nell.

After surviving the Depression years, Nelly Don continued to thrive…then came WW2. Nell was contacted by the war department, and asked to produce garments for the women involved in service. She refused their initial designs, as they were not functional or attractive. She reworked the ideas with them, and agreed to produce the garments in her factories at cost, adding a second factory in St. Joseph, MO to handle extra manufacturing of undergarments for soldiers. She was later quoted, when asked why she did the work for no profit, that if Hitler won the war, what would her little dress company be worth anyway?
Nell was given an award for quality in her contribution to the war effort.
A few wartime dresses from Nelly Don:

A closeup of the polkadot number, with a later cotton day dress behind.

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit were these swatch books from the company. I wanted to study them page by page…darn glass case!

Quite early in the history of the Donnelly Garment Company, they were able to order their own designed patterned fabrics direct from the manufacturer. The patterns were lovely indeed. Here is an example of one of Nelly Don’s more whimsical patterns, appearing to be an aerial cityscape with an artistic hand.

A Nelly Don ad featuring a patterned dress similar to the one below from the exhibit. (Image borrowed from CoutureAllure.com)

At one point, Nelly Don was producing 7500 dresses a day. Nell set up her factory as an extended family, treating employees with respect, making sure they were happy at their station. She used an assembly line technique, believing that if someone was best at patterning, button sewing, or cutting, then that is what they should be doing. If they didn’t like their station, they would be moved to another. The overall mood of the factory was happy. Nell gave them benefits, sponsored employees and their children’s education efforts, and held games and picnics to keep morale high. When the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union) came knocking at the factory door, the employees rejected the unionization efforts, saying they were happy with the treatment by management, so much so that they created their own Loyalty League. The union tried to create trouble for the company, and the mess was tied up in courts for seven years…with Nell and her employees coming out as the winners.

A few simple cotton dresses by Nelly Don:

Nell based her company on a few key beliefs. Her dresses should be stylish, fitting a variety of women, and they proved quite popular with women of varying hard-to-fit sizes. She wanted her garments to be affordable enough for the housewife’s budget, and made sure her garments were produced so that they could be modified easily in the home. She insisted on giving generous seam allowances and styling so that the bodice could be lengthened or shortened to fit, without messing up the intended look. Nelly Don was one of the first lines to add extra replacement buttons to the inside seam. The belt loop was adjustable on every garment, and every garment had a pocket.
She believed her garments should be made with quality materials and techniques. Many of the techniques were of Nell’s creation, and were so admired that the Singer sewing machine company turned to Nell for advice in making modern sewing machines.

More cotton dresses, circa 50s-early 60s:

Mod influences in design:

Nell was a pioneer in American manufacturing, an admirable woman, and someone whose ideas of manufacturing should be studied and emulated. At one point her Kansas City factory was the largest dress manufacturing plant in the world, and the company regularly out-performed New York garment district production and sales. Nell had an office in New York, and was one of the first tenants to the Empire State Building. The Nelly Don line was carried by 2500 retailers nation-wide.
Nell’s life was certainly an interesting one. Her 25 year marriage to her first husband, Paul, was ended by divorce, with Nell buying out his share of the company. She eventually remarried to Senator James Reed, with whom she had a child while she was still married to Paul (oh my!).
At one point she was one of the most heavily insured women in America, with the beneficiaries being her employees and factory. This notoriety and wealth did not go unnoticed, and in 1931 she was kidnapped, along with her chauffeur George. At the time Kansas City was heavily influenced by the mob..who were not involved in the crime, and not too pleased by not being consulted beforehand. Through Reed’s connections with political players of the time, Nell and George ended up being rescued by the mob, who placed the kidnappers at the police department’s doorstep.
Nell was fiercely loyal to those who helped her along the way. Her chauffeur George was employed with Nell his entire life. She gave generously to the college she attended and the groups with which she was involved throughout her education. She sponsored the creation of the Reed Wildlife Area (Lee’s Summit, Missouri) in honor of her second husband.
She sold the Donnelly Garment Company in the 60s. It did not survive under the new ownership and was closed in 1978.
Nell Donnelly Reed lived to be 102 years old, outliving all of her 12 siblings.