Weaving Together a History

by Anne Motto, F.M. Kirby Curator of Collections
March 12, 2024

Piecing together the story of longtime Morristown dressmaker Mrs. R.F. Dempsey (1850-1931) is a bit like attempting a jigsaw puzzle with several of the pieces missing. Fortuitously, the pieces we do have enable us to form a surprisingly full portrait of her life and career for an exhibit of her elegant creations from our collection.

An illustration of 11 Maple Avenue when it was owned by a NYC stockbroker appears in the 1882 History of Morris County.

While the start of Mrs. Dempsey’s career is one such missing piece, the 1880 census (the first after her marriage) already lists her as a dressmaker. An 1886 bill to a Mrs. Maury now held by Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library (DE) also notes her making a “Crinoline Alpaca [dress] with all the trimmings” for the wealthy widow. The daughter of Irish immigrants and the mother of two children, Mrs. Dempsey continued to create dresses out of her home for the area’s well-to-do ladies for at least 40 years. However, the remaining available puzzle pieces reveal a twist to this tale that alters the forming picture significantly. All indications are that her long career as a dressmaker was in fact by choice rather than necessity. Her husband held a steady job as a bookkeeper at National Iron Bank on South Street and was on the board of the Morristown Building & Loan Association. They owned their early home on Morris Street, and in 1901, purchased a large house and property on appropriately tree-lined Maple Avenue. They also kept at least one servant, frequently took a cottage at Asbury Park during their annual summer vacations, and even owned a car by 1912.

The majority of her surviving dresses date to 1905-15 and bear this label.

Perhaps this apparent financial security is why she seemingly never advertised her services, although she did include labels in her creations, marking her work as her own. Her sister and niece, both dressmakers themselves, lived with her for decades and likely assisted in the enterprise. Continuing her career into her 70s, she transitioned to operating her spacious home as an inn in the early 1920s. While her overall output was likely small, today she is nonetheless one of the best –if not the best– represented local dressmakers in museum collections. Five examples of her work are now held by MCHS, spanning from around 1900 to WWI. Together with a sixth c.1890 dress generously loaned by Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, they form the backbone of our current exhibit, Dempsey by Design: The Creations of a Morristown Irish Dressmaker, on display through July 14th.