Fashionable History: Gossard Girls

One of the best parts of being in the vintage blogging community is the people that I get to meet, that I wouldn't otherwise. I was recently contacted by Sandy Arsenault from Ishpeming, MI after she read an old post of mine on the history of Gossard. I wrote about the history of Gossard, because I love vintage (and modern) lingerie and at the time owned one of their early 20th century lace front corsets (I've since sold it). Sandy has been researching the history of Gossard, and specifically the Gossard Building in Ishpeming because, well, her and her husband own it! The Gossard Building in Michigan is one of the many old factory buildings that manufactured the high end Gossard bras, girdles and combinations even after the Gossard company moved from Chicago to the UK. Sandy and her husband bought the building and rent out units to keep the downtown alive with small businesses. In the meantime, Sandy has been shining a light on the wonderful history of the Gossard Girls (80% of the workforce at Gossard was women) that worked in the garment factory that took up all 12,000 sq. feet (plus a full basement, plus a 4th floor built in 1948) of the historic building. By preserving its past, Sandy is honoring the spirit that defined her town, by women for women. It only seems natural that I would continue on this topic and share what Sandy has found with you all! 

The Braastad-Gossard Building

The Braastad-Gossard Building

A brief history:

Ishpeming is primarily a mining town, however, lingerie has also played a huge part in the town's history.  The building was built in the 1880s by the influential Frederick Braastad. The building was a department store at the turn of the century.  Gossard bought it in 1920. When the factory opened, they manufactured the popular front-lacing corsets. By 1929, Gossard was the second largest business in the town. By 1947, the factory had over 600 employees. They had a company issued booklet called the "Gossardian" that included marriages, births, bowling teams, and dance party on the 3rd floor announcements. They even offered free full menu lunch 5 days a week in the cafeteria as a company perk. In 1948, they remodeled the building adding a 4th floor. In 1949, the Gossard employees, went on strike to join the garment makers union. They joined and the free lunches disappeared. The factory closed in 1976 as many factories in America did at that time to manufacture overseas. 

Gossard eye-candy. A vintage ad showing the typical product manufactured during this time. Image via pinterest.

Gossard eye-candy. A vintage ad showing the typical product manufactured during this time. Image via pinterest.

A Gossard Girl- busy at work!

A Gossard Girl- busy at work!

Interview with Sandy Arsenault:

Karen: How long was the Ishpeming Gossard factory in business for? Peak period?

Sandy: Ishpeming Gossard opened in Spring 1920. Closed last day of December 1976

Peak time is late 1940’s early 1950’s with over 650 employees 80% women. Over the 56 years 900 men/women employed.  Mostly single women, newly married women. Once they started their families they stayed home.  Some returned when children got older. Some young girls worked just between High School-College (later years when more women went off to college)  The men made a career with Gossard, as did several women, but a small percentage when you consider the amount of women who did work for the Company.

Karen: What did the Gossard business mean to the town? 

Sandy: Women and girls had a chance to work and help their families.  Local businesses benefited from the extra income of the women as they spent it locally.  Food, clothes, shoes etc.  Plus during the depression, the Gossard women/girls continued to work. At times the sole supporters of their families.  

Karen: Why did you and your husband buy the building? What is the building used for today? 

Sandy: Because my husband is crazy! (LOL) We needed to expand our video rental business that we opened in Fall of 1984.  A large space to fit our needs was located in the old Gossard Building, (then the Pioneer Sq. Mall) that had a newly remodeled first floor with 7 store fronts and a restaurant. The restaurant was closed and many of the store fronts. Paul fell in love with the old building, and being a man who wore many hats-electrical, carpenter, plumber, businessman, you name it, he can do it…  I was busy running the Video Store, and Paul got the units rented and opened the restaurant. We have had many ups and downs, but Paul’s love for the building has kept us going. It took me 23 years to feel the love, but it has hit me, and I’m very interested in the history of the Gossard.

Karen: In what ways are you preserving the history of Gossard in your town? 

Sandy: We have a Tribute Wall dedicated to all the men/women who worked for the H.W. Gossard Co. from 1920-1976 (over 600 names and adding). I have found several artifacts I have put on display, and have received several donations from families of their Gossard working moms, aunts, grandmas, grandfathers etc…  I recently started a Great Strike of 1949 wall which was a BIG deal for women and our community. The Gossard building is on the Historical National Registry. We offer tours and host community events, as this is a huge building! 

The Tribute Wall

The Tribute Wall

Karen: What is your favorite story from a Gossard Girl? 

Sandy: A combination of stories dealing with the fun they had. Gossard had a few love stories as well, that lead to marriage. Quitting time the building looked like an ant hill, with all the women exiting but sounded like a herd of elephants! Gossard had a freight elevator, it was not for usage for the workers. Two large stairways from the 3rd floor to the street and 680 (max in late 40’s early 50’s) or less women leaving at the same time..

Gossard Girls!

Gossard Girls!

Karen: What is it about the Gossard history in your town that appeals to you the most? 

Sandy: The work force of women during the time period it was open. A $1 an hour or less and able to buy washing machines and/or support their household.  Many women became widows during the wars or from mining accidents.

Gossard Girl; Margarete Sippola. Age 94 holding a Gossard shaper. She worked at the Gossard building for 20 years.

Gossard Girl; Margarete Sippola. Age 94 holding a Gossard shaper. She worked at the Gossard building for 20 years.

Karen: Any final comments? 

Sandy: I'm still searching for Gossard information and artifacts to make our building feel and look like it did during its operation, and teach our youth how hard life was for these women. However, they were happy, without all we take for granted, computers were just starting about the time Gossard closed and minimum wage was around $3 in 1975/76.  Only 35 cents or less in 1920. Lots of carpooling and walking-yes uphill both ways (LOL). We have harsh winters. 300-400 inches of snow per year, lots of snowstorms and below zero days.  The Yoopers have a saying “We have 9 months of winter and two months of bad skiing”  These women walked to work, some as far as 3-4 miles away every day.  The building had no air conditioning ever in its history (we do now) and yes we do get summer heat not for long but it can get really hot and humid in July/early August, and I can’t even imagine the heat from the sewing machines/lights and just body heat from each other. I have been on the 4th floor where we do not have air conditioning and can’t believe these poor people worked in that kind of heat 8 hrs or longer a day. I appreciate all these hard working people, and what they had to offer each other and our community.

More Gossard glamour...

More Gossard glamour...

Thank you, Sandy, for preserving a piece of fashion history! I have enjoyed learning more about your town, your building and the Gossard Girls. Especially as my grandparents worked in the mills in Maine and Rhode Island with such similar stories (not lingerie though; shoes and textiles). It's a rich history in America and often forgotten. If I find myself ever in Ishpeming, or nearby, you bet I will visit. 

If anyone would like to learn more about the Ishpeming Gossard building or Gossard Girls, have a look at the Old Gossard site and Facebook Page. Please contact Sandy if you have more information or artifacts to add to her collection and her lovely tribute wall. There is a contact page here. 

xo, Karen

All images courtesy of Sandy Arsenault unless otherwise stated in caption.