Today I give you the rest of the story. We haven’t even gotten to the confession part yet! But first, a little more background. If you haven’t read the first half of the story, start here.
When G. Lynn Sumner helped to create and release this story for the women’s periodicals of 1919, this was a gamble. No one had ever tried to sell with a story before. Today it’s become so commonplace that we view it as cliché. Back then, however, it was new.
And how did it work? Over the next few years, running these full-page story advertisements, the company brought in over 12 million dollars… from a product that cost its purchaser $61. However, that $61 had the buying power of nearly $1,000 in 2021 dollars. So this was no small investment for a person who wanted to either cut costs or start her own shop as an entrepreneur.
But how did it work for the women who sent their money to this school? Was it a waste of their time, energy and resources? Actually, the program really did work. One of their 1920s newsletters, sent to students and graduates of the program, lists several Apprentice Wanted ads from graduates who set up dressmaking shops in their own towns and now needed extra help. The newsletters also printed real letters from students that told of how much money they saved on clothing. Some families saved from 1/3 to 1/2 of their annual clothing budget by designing and making clothing at home.
Even though these stories were fictional, and the women reading them probably knew the magazine ads weren’t true, the stories spoke to felt needs of the readers: an inability to fit in; loneliness; desperation over finances; feeling less-than or socially inept. In the world right after World War I, where sickness seemed to go wherever it wanted and prices continued to climb, these feelings were real and tangible. And in some small way, the Institute provided a glimmer of hope.
Enough of the numbers. On with the story.
Never will I forget that Wednesday evening. It was the most wonderful of our lives! We had never seen our Cinderella looking quite so sweet, so beautiful. And such a dinner as she gave us! After dinner she took us all through her new home and then, gathering us before a great log fire in the living room, she told us her story:
“Of course you all know what a wretched, forlorn creature I was when I first came to the office, she began. That is all past now and I have blotted out of my memory the heartaches of those first cruel weeks when my shabby attire made me a fit subject for ridicule.
“I had never known what it meant to have stylish, becoming clothes. My home was in a little cross-roads town in Iowa. My mother died when I was a mere child and my father brought me up in a good, substantial home, but with never an opportunity to get out and see how other girls lived. I had no chance to learn the things about clothes that would have been familiar to most girls of my age.
“Two years ago father died, and when his affairs had been straightened out there was only a few hundred dollars left. So I went to Benton City and took stenography at the business school there. As soon as I had finished my course I came here and within two days had secured a position at Warners.
“And now for my confession. At the office for the first time in my life I realized how different I was from the other girls. I saw that I was not one of you. I did not know how to make myself attractive. And i felt it. At first I was tempted to give up and go back to the little country town i had left. But one night at the boarding-house a young woman whom i had to secretly admired, but never spoken to, slipped her arm through mine after dinner and said, “Come up to my room, child. I want to talk to you.
“Once in her room she looked down at me with the kindest smile, and said, ‘I am Louise Stewart. I have the little dress-making shop on Wilcox Square that you pass on your way to the office. Two years ago I couldn’t sew a stitch. Today folks say I’m the best designer and dressmaker in this city. And I learned all about planning and making fashionable clothes – right in my own room evenings.’
“‘I have seen you going to your room every night,’ she continued. ‘How would you like to use some of your evenings learning to make stylish, charming dresses for yourself, garments that will be a delight to wear, wonderful dresses, waists and suits that will surprise your friends.’
“‘Oh, tell me how!’ I fairly gasped.
“‘Sit right down now,’ she said, ‘and write a little note to the Woman’s Institute and simply tell them that you would like to learn to make your own clothes.’
“She gave me the address and told me this great Institute had developed a wonderful plan by which any woman or girl, wherever she might live, could learn right in her home or boarding place, in spare time, to make all her own clothes and hats.
“‘You may doubt your ability to do it,’ she said. ‘Never fear. So did I. But come into my shop someday and see the dresses I make!’
“I hurried to my room, wrote the letter, and mailed it at the corner 20 minutes later. And that night I dreamed I was making and wearing more beautiful clothes than I had ever seen on living people, and that every one liked me!
“In a few days an attractive, illustrated booklet came, telling me about the Woman’s Institute and its 45,000 members. The booklet contained many wonderful letters from these members praising the work of the Institute and telling how easily they had learned at home to make their own clothes. There were letters from housewives, business women, girls at home or in school, girls in stores, shops and offices. And there were, oh, so many letters from mothers who poured out their thanks because the Institute had taught them how to have dainty clothes for themselves and their little ones at a mere fraction of what they had cost before!
“Many others wrote that the Institute had made it possible for them to take up dressmaking and millinery as a business. Some now have important positions in big, fashionable city shops; others, like Louise Stewart, are making money in cozy, exclusive shops of their own. Still others have secured good-paying positions as teachers of sewing and dressmaking.
“The Institute members, I found, are of all ages. There are girls of 15 or 16 and women of 50 or 60. The majority live in the United States, but there are hundreds in Canada and in foreign lands — all learning dressmaking or millinery at home just as successfully as if they were together in a classroom!
“Well, when I read all those letters and then read in detail about the plan by which the Institute teaches, I knew that, what all these other thousands of women and girls could do, I could do.
“So, without telling anyone, I joined the Institute and took up dressmaking. I could scarcely wait until my first lesson came. And when at last I found it on the table in the hall one night, I carried it upstairs to my room and opened it as if it were a love letter! Turning the pages, I looked at the wonderful pictures! There are nearly 2000 in the dressmaking course alone and they illustrate perfectly just exactly what to do.
“And the delightful part of it is that almost at once you start making garments. Why, that little blue organdie waist you admired so much I made from my third lesson! The course can easily be completed in a few months by studying an hour a day. I found my couldn’t help learning rapidly! The textbooks seem to foresee and explain everything. And the teachers take just as personal an interest as if they were right beside you.
“And what was most important to me, I learned not only how to make every kind of garment, but I learned what colors and fabrics were most appropriate for me, how to develop those little touches that make clothes distinctively becoming to the wearer. My course opened up a whole new world to me. When, after just a few lessons, I finished my first dress and stood before the mirror, I hardly recognized myself. I was tempted to wear it the next morning to the office, but I determined to keep my skill a secret until I had enough new things made so that I would never need to wear the old ones again.
“The lessons followed each other so naturally that I was soon working on difficult dresses and suits. Gradually, I learned to copy models I saw in the shop windows, on the street, or in fashion magazines. Every step was so clearly explained that the things I had always thought only a professional dressmaker could develop were perfectly easy for me!
“Luckily, I began my studies in the summer time and by fall I had more and prettier clothes than I had ever seen before in my life, and they cost me only one fourth of what ordinary clothes would have cost ready made. I couldn’t possibly have had them any other way.
“A little while after starting the dressmaking I had taken up millinery, too, and soon I was making and trimming hats such as I have been wearing lately. And so, just a few months from the eventful night when Louise Stewart told me about the Institute, I walked in on you that morning — in the results of my evenings of delightful secret study.
“My wedding clothes! You girls saw them before dinner – did you ever see any more beautiful? Well, I made every stitch myself — a whole section of my course was devoted to complete directions for planning and making a bride’s entire outfit. I didn’t have the least bit of trouble – even with my wedding dress.
“So that’s my confession. The rest of my story you know – what a wonderful change this made in my life – how friends and happiness seemed to follow close upon the change in my appearance that lead you to call me Cinderella. I adore that name! The whole thing is like a fairy story! But of one thing I am sure — I owe it all to the Woman’s Institute. “
The page goes on to explain how the reader, too, can see the same or similar results as Cinderella if she will only take the time to complete the tiny interest form at the bottom of the page. Many women did. And many learned to sew their own clothing. Foundation garments like corsets were still purchased, and stockings were bought ready made, but the Institute told its students how to make every other article of clothing they needed, from underwear to a wedding trousseau. And the women, by and large, learned the skills they set out to master.