By Suzanne Norquist
Born on March 6, 1889, Nell Quinlan was the twelfth of thirteen children. Her father, an Irish immigrant, worked for the railroad. Her humble beginnings didn’t stop her from building a fashion empire—the largest manufacturer of women’s clothing in the world for a time.
At age sixteen, she met and married Paul Donnelly, a shoe company employee. He helped her pay for schooling at Lindenwood College. After that, their lives followed the expected pattern, with her staying home while he worked.
Most women didn’t want to ruin their good clothes while doing housework, so they wore unflattering sixty-nine-cent dresses. Not Nell. She designed her own cute house dresses with colorful fabrics and frills. Her friends asked her to make dresses for them, too. She had found her market.
She gathered her courage and presented an assortment of samples to George B. Peck Dry Goods Company in downtown Kansas City. The buyer ordered eighteen dozen dresses to be delivered in two months. As a result, she bought a couple of sewing machines and recruited some neighbors to make them. At one dollar each, they sold out immediately.
Her business thrived, and within a few years, she had eighteen employees and a quarter of a million dollars in sales. In 1919, she and her husband, Paul, incorporated the Donnelly Garment Company. He was listed as president, but it was her business.
Throughout the 1920s, the company grew. Durability, attractive designs, and a good fit defined “Nelly Don” clothes. They were constructed with deep hems, adjustable waists and shoulder straps, and belts with sliding fasteners. Each customer could find a perfect fit. Throughout the decade, she expanded her line to include clothes for working women, sportswear, and dresses for a night on the town.
In the depression, her company remained successful. During World War II, she created designs for women in manufacturing jobs on the home front and women’s military uniforms. By 1953, the Donnelly Garment Company was the largest maker of women’s clothing in the world.
She cared about her employees. During the depression, she changed from a seasonal job model to providing full-time jobs for women whose husbands were out of work. Her company was the first in Kansas City to offer health insurance. Nell paid tuition for night classes, and she set up a scholarship fund for employees’ children. Her factories had hardwood floors instead of concrete to make work more comfortable.
Despite her generosity, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) targeted the business. They insisted her workers join the union. However, her workers weren’t interested and declared an oath of loyalty to her. Union pressure persisted through the 1930s and 1940s with a lengthy legal battle. Finally, the company won in a Supreme Court decision in 1947.
In 1956, Nell sold her interest in the business, which continued until the 1970s. She remained active in the community until her death at age 102.
Although Nell’s business story is that of success, her personal life included the kind of intrigue no one wants. There was a scandalous divorce from Paul Donnelly and a remarriage to her neighbor Senator James A. Reed. The child she and Paul had adopted was later revealed to be her biological son with Mr. Reed.
Before her divorce, someone kidnapped her and held her for ransom. Her business had made her a wealthy target. Her neighbor, Senator James A. Reed, told the Mob (as in mobster, gangster, organized crime) if they didn’t locate her, they would find it difficult to do any business in Kansas City. (It was the 1930s). The Mob found her and rescued her from the kidnappers, who were arrested and sentenced.
Despite her personal drama, Nell Donnelly Reed is an inspiration. She saw a need and filled it, creating a fashion empire in the process.
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.