Corsets at Chautauqua

Facing Miller Park at the intersection of Pratt and Morris avenues, The Colonnade was the business center of Chautauqua Institution.

The Colonnade as it appeared in 1909. You can see the vine-covered pergola on the right.


Visitors approaching The Colonnade from the south passed through a lovely, vine-covered pergola.

The pergola with The Colonnade beyond it and to the left.


The Colonnade was a busy place. Nearby was the post office, where residents retrieved and sent mail.

The Colonnade itself was a favorite place for friends to gather. It housed a grocery, a dry-goods store, a hair salon, a barber shop, a drug store, and various other merchants.

One retailer that managed to secure a prime location in The Colonnade was an establishment called Spirella Parlour, which was a genteel store name for the Spirella Corset Company.

A Chautauqua post card modified by the Spirella Corset Company to show the location of their shop at The Colonnade, Chautauqua, New York.


The Spirella Corset Company had factories established in Pennsylvania and Canada when they set up shop in The Colonnade at Chautauqua. Wedged between a ladies’ dress shop on one side and the main hall, their’s was an ideal location. The store was staffed by “skillful corsetières” (more on them in a moment).

A trade card for Ball’s “health preserving” corsets, from about 1880.


In Isabella’s time, every woman—and many girls—wore corsets. They were an essential element of a lady’s undergarments.

Trade card for the Bortree Adjustable Duplex Corset by Bortree Manufacturing Company, about 1890.


But corsets did not last very long. Their stays had a tendency to break; and since corsets were worn over only a thin muslin chemise or slip, perspiration and natural skin oils often stained the corset fabric or rusted the stays.

Magazine ad for Warner’s corsets, about 1917.


Corset garter hooks often broke, and their long lacing ribbons often snapped off. For women, access to a store such as Spirella’s on Chautauqua’s premises was practically essential, since the nearest town where a lingerie store might be found was miles away.

Trade card for Dr. Strong’s Tampico Corset.


Once a lady had donned her chemise or slip (sometimes called a shift), she put on her corset. Then she added other layers of undergarments:

Corset cover
As many as 5 layers of petticoats

Over all of that she donned her dress or skirt with shirtwaist.

Doctor and Madame Strong brand corsets touted the medical benefits of wearing their corsets.


This 1908 newspaper ad in the Omaha Daily Bee shows some of the many different undergarments women wore under their clothes.

A woman’s corset was essential; she wore a corset wherever she went, no matter what she was doing.


Of course, The Spirella Company was not the only corset manufacturer in the United States. There were many such companies, each vying for their share of the corset market.

F. C. Corset Company trade card from about 1890.


What set Spirella apart from their competition was that they specialized in custom-made corsets.

In fact, the Spirella Parlour at Chautauqua is the only known retail location for Spirella Corsets in America. Instead of opening stores, The Spirella Company hired a legion of women called corsetières who were sent to customers’ homes. The corsetières took the customer’s measurements and consulted on the correct model of Spirella corset based on the lady’s figure type.

Spirella Corset Company diagram showing the many body measurements their corsetieres took in order to achieve a perfect fit.


According to Spirella’s 1913 customer brochure:

“The secret of being well dressed lies in your figure, and your figure is made or ruined by your corset.”

You can see The Spirella Corset Company’s 1913 brochure distributed by their corsetières to customers. The booklet is filled with nice illustrations of the different models of corsets they offered, and offers guidance on how to select the proper corset based on body type. Just click here.

You can also watch this fun video that shows the many layers of undergarments women wore in the late 1800s and early 1900s:

Did you know . . .

. . .  as essential as a corset was to every woman’s wardrobe, Isabella never mentioned corsets in any of her many books and stories. She did mention shifts and petticoats, but never made mention of corsets.


7 thoughts on “Corsets at Chautauqua

  1. As a former costumer in many historical theater pieces, I so appreciate this! I have fitted my actresses to corsets (and they LOVE THEM!). My favorite corset moment was fitting an opera singer (she was the soprano in Falstaff)…she said “I love my corset. It gives me something to ‘push against’ when I hit my highest notes!” Thanks for this peek at these fascinating, scintillating garments. And of course Isabella never mentioned them! LOL! Scandalous! Wasn’t there a backlash against corsets on health grounds in the late 1800s?
    Wonderful post!

  2. I was born in 1930. My mother was born in 1896. My grandmother was born in 1857. My grandmother always wore a corset. When she needed a new one, a woman came to the house to take her measurements and later returned with the corset. She made sure it fit correctly, and if not, took it back and made the adjustments. My grandmother lived until she was 87 years old, and as I remember had a perfect hourglass figure. Her corsets had a complicated system of hooks and eyes under one arm, running the length of the corset, and I often helped her get dressed in the morning. As I remember, this corset was made with several layers of heavy pink cloth, and there were some stays, probably whalebone. My mother was the first woman in her family to wear a “two-way stretch” girdle instead of a corset. That was considered very modern.

    As a child, I was a little on the chubby side. My aunt, who wore a corset, made a dress for me when I was 9. I remember her poking my stomach and saying, “You will have to wear a corset before you are very old.” I attending high school during WWII, and rubber was scarce. My mother stood in a long line to buy me a “panty girdle” made of synthetic rubber. I proudly donned it and went on the streetcar to school. It came a little above my waist and gave me a slimmer waistline. It was a warm day in May, and the windows were open. Everywhere I went, there was a smell of skunk. My classmates didn’t know whether to open the windows or keep them closed. It seemed like a skunk had been in the flower beds under the windows. As I went from class to class, each room had this strong skunk smell. Finally. the afternoon was over, and a walked the two blocks to the streetcar to return home. To my chagrin, the skunk odor accompanied me on the streetcar. I tore into my bedroom and removed my girdle, yes, it smelled like skunk. “Mother, you ruined me, I cried,” but my classmates never related the skunk smell to me. The next day, my mother took the girdle back to the store. Her money was returned, with only the comment, “Another of those skunky girdles.”

    1. Patricia, I loved reading about your first girdle. I have to wonder what that girdle was made of to give off such an odor! Like the ladies in your family, my grandmother (born in 1898) wore a corset as a young woman until girdles came into style. Both she and my mother wore girdles; my grandmother especially considered a girdle to be an essential foundation garment, and she never considered herself properly dressed without one. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories with us, Patricia! —Jenny

  3. Jenny, that skunky girdle of mine was made of a synthetic rubber that was produced during WWII when rubber was scarce. It didn’t smell until warmed up by a person’s body heat. Obviously, this material was not a success.

  4. I loved reading about the girdles. In the 1960’s in North Carolina women still wore girdles, awful rubbery things that did not smell but very difficult to get in to! My mother and I both had one. Needless to say we didn’t wear them long. I watched the video and I really like the clothes. Very pretty compared to the plainness of jeans and a T-shirt !

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