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The Dressmaker Chase: Misses Lowry

Here at Fashion Conservatory we harbor a strong desire to highlight those dressmaking women of the past who labored in obscurity. Few of these women will ever have their names known, much less put up in lights, but all have nevertheless contributed in their own way to the wider world of fashion. What better way to pay tribute to them than to tell their stories?

Hello, and welcome to another installment in our series of dressmakers of eras past!

To us it doesn’t matter whether they lifted their needle because they had to in order to survive, or because they had a passion for creating beautiful garments for the ladies in their communities. Bringing their labor to light and calling attention to their stories is a privilege and a joy. All of these talented but invisible women deserve to have their efforts unearthed and made visible again. 

Before we get into our newest story, we wouldn’t want you to miss any of the tales we’ve told in this series about dressmakers of bygone eras. If you enjoy the story we’re about to tell and haven’t read the other fascinating stories we’ve shared, you should definitely take the time to check them out:

Bertha Lucas began her craft in Cleveland, Ohio, at the dawn of the twentieth century. 

The ladies behind the Ogle Gown Company - Emmadean Ogle, Mary Fraser, and Julia Patten - established their dressmaking house in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the early 1900’s. 

Scottish dressmakers Jesse Farquharson and Margaret Wheelock of Farquharson and Wheelock designed for fashionable ladies in New York City and beyond into the Roaring Twenties.

Kathryn Vrooman seriously styled up Chicago from the mid-1920’s and into the 1930’s.

Charlotte Ladislawa (Makowski) Nowicki of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, who designed under the name Charlotte’s Dressmaking Parlors in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

On with our story!

Today we take a journey back to Salem, Ohio, at the turn of the twentieth century. At a home on 246 Garfield Avenue, sisters Charlotte Mary (called Lottie) and Nellie Frances Lowry lived with their parents William and Ella and their grandmother, Ella’s mother Rebecca Garwood. William made a living as a machine molder at the Silver Manufacturing Company, casting machine parts for the company’s agricultural and woodworking machine product lines. 

While William would have been the primary breadwinner for the family of five, twenty-four year old Lottie was employed as well, as a dressmaker. Lottie doesn’t mention whether she was dressmaking for a local firm or making garments on her own account, but she was busy enough to note she hadn’t missed a single month of work in an entire year. If Lottie’s twenty year old sister Nellie was assisting her, Nellie didn’t consider it important enough to list it as her occupation. 

But things were about to change. In the spring of the following year tragedy struck the Lowry family. One day in early May of 1901, Lottie and Nellie's father William was at work when he was suddenly struck down with a pulmonary hemorrhage. He died in the arms of his fellow workmen. He was only 55.

In an age without social security or much of any other kind of safety net, the Lowry family was almost certainly abruptly thrown into dire straits. Their house on Garfield Street had a mortgage; without William’s wage and with four souls to feed, the responsibilities of keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table fell primarily to Lottie and Nellie. Both sisters rose swiftly to the occasion and began dressmaking in earnest before the year was out. They called themselves the Misses Lowry. 

Misses Lowry label from a 1900s dress
 A Misses Lowry label from a 1900s dress, courtesy of the Fashion Conservatory Label Archive.

While it doesn’t appear the two advertised their dressmaking concern in either of the local papers currently accessible online (The Salem News and the Salem Republican Era), there were other newspapers operating in the area which are held in local libraries and archives. It’s certainly possible they may have advertised in any of these. We were able to learn, though, that the sisters placed at least one advertisement in The Salem News - in May of 1906, for an “experienced young lady” to help them sew. Business by that time must have been brisk.

Sleeve detail from a 1900s Misses Lowry dress, courtesy of the Fashion Conservatory Label Archive.

Given their apparent success, then, it might be a bit of a surprise to find out the dressmaking careers of the Misses Lowry would essentially be over by 1910.  

Another set of tragedies hit the Lowry family hard in 1908. In January of that year, the sisters’ grandmother Rebecca Garwood passed away. She was followed in short order by her daughter, the sisters’ mother Ella Lowry, who died as a result of a serious stroke in September. So by the beginning of 1909, the sisters were left alone in their house at 246 Garfield Avenue.

Lottie and Nellie had some big decisions to make after their mother and grandmother had died. Perhaps they still had a mortgage to pay; they certainly still needed to eat. But they were no longer beholden to support anyone but themselves. Not every dressmaker in the profession practiced it because it was a calling. Perhaps it was the only trade Lottie and Nellie were qualified for. Perhaps Lottie had already had a small clientele established when her father died and she and Nellie were able to build it quickly when casting about for ways to support their mother and grandmother as well as themselves. We can’t know. But if dressmaking had been a means to an end for them and not a calling, the deaths of the two women who had depended on them for their livelihoods provided the two sisters with a kind of freedom they likely had never experienced. 

And they took advantage of that freedom. By the end of the next year Lottie and Nellie stepped into the Columbiana County courthouse to apply for their marriage licenses, and on the line for occupation, neither sister listed herself as a dressmaker. Lottie was engaged to William H. Oldham of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Nellie was betrothed to Oscar MacNab of Cleveland, Ohio. The sisters had a double wedding on a crisp January morning in 1910 and held their ceremonies an hour apart - Nellie at 11:45 am and Lottie at 12:45p - at the home of a relative in Salem.

A month after their weddings, the sisters moved apart for the first time in their lives. Nellie went to Cleveland, Ohio with her husband Oscar, and Lottie moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with her husband William. But by 1920, William and Lottie had decided to move to Cleveland and settled into a house together with Oscar and Nellie. Both sisters claim no occupation other than wife and mother; Nellie to her daughters Jane and Nancy, and Lottie to her son William, Jr.

Over the next few decades, the sisters and their families would move from Ohio and on to Illinois, Texas, and Michigan. Nellie died in 1943 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Lottie passed away in 1951 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

As far as is known, after their marriages in 1910, the sisters never worked together as the Misses Lowry again.

by Patricia Browning
​​​​​​​A native of the Midwest, Patricia got her archivist degree in Information Management and Preservation at the University of Glasgow. Her lifelong fascination with research saturates nearly every aspect of her life. These days when she’s not nose-deep in research on vintage fashions and their labels, Patricia can usually be found doing genealogy or working on her pet project on David Tennant’s early theatre career in Scotland.



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Lowery, Lottie and Nellie. "United States Census, 1900," database with images. FamilySearch. Ohio > Columbiana > ED 27 Perry Township Salem City Ward 4 > image 20 of 48; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
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MacNab, Nellie L. and Lottie M. Oldham. "United States Census, 1920," database with images. FamilySearch. Ohio > Cuyahoga > East Cleveland Ward 1 > ED 532 > image 16 of 24; citing NARA microfilm publication T625
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