Madame Mulvaney: Department Store Employee
The world’s first department store opened in Paris in the 1840s, and by the 1890s could be found in thousands of American cities. These new stores were much larger than traditional establishments and offered an unprecedented quantity of goods at low prices. In the beginning of this new retail boom, dressmakers and seamstresses found lucrative work in department stores.
In Louisville in the 1880s and 90s, Madame Emily Mulvaney headed dressmaking departments at Sharpe & Middleton’s New York Store and J. C. Seashols & Co., both of which were located on Fourth Avenue in a popular shopping district. As manager of dressmaking departments, Madame Mulvaney likely enjoyed a high salary and considerable authority. She travelled annually to Europe and also supervised many seamstresses, at one point finding it necessary to “keep the girls at work until 12 o’clock every night in order to keep up with orders.”
Over time, however, dressmakers found their autonomy eroded in department stores. Buyer and manager functions were split, with dressmakers relegated to a more limited role as arbiters of fashion. Dressmaking became behind-the-scenes work, where workers produced clothing for ladies they would never meet. The work itself was no longer as skilled or creative, with alterations of ready-to-wear clothing taking precedence.