by Anne Motto, F.M. Kirby Curator of Collections
February 13, 2024
In 1905, more dressmakers than ever were operating in Morristown. Often working out of their home and sometimes in partnership with their sisters, the approximately 150 women catered to the town’s booming population. By then a millionaire capital of the world, the county seat had grown from 5,418 residents in 1880 to 12,146, providing ample clientele. Mapping their locations and careers through directories and census data reveals clear patterns, many correlating with national employment trends of the time. Morristown’s dressmakers were overwhelmingly single women living by and large in working-class neighborhoods near Washington Street, Speedwell Avenue, Morris Street, and Ridgedale Avenue. Nearly 1/5 lived in the historically Irish neighborhood of Dublin at the foot of Maple and Macculloch Avenues. This is perhaps unsurprising as 48% of local dressmakers were the daughters of Irish immigrants and another 7% hailed from the Emerald Isle themselves. Many also had long careers, although it could be difficult to distinguish true breaks in their career from gaps in the record. Mrs. R.F. Dempsey, whose creations are on display in our current exhibit, is a prime example. No directory or census notes her as dressmaker between the years 1890 and 1910, but five of the six dresses on display – all emblazoned with her label – date to various times during that period. Spanning at least 45 years (1880-1925), her career was certainly a lengthy one, but a small contingent of her colleagues continued on through both world wars, even as ready-to-wear women’s fashions took over the market. The last of Morristown’s class of 1905 retired around 1950, far removed from the era when dressmaking was the third-largest occupation for women, and one-of-a-kind creations were the norm, rather than the exception.
Designed by Dempsey: The Creations of a Morristown Irish Dressmaker will be on display at Acorn Hall through July 14.