Mendocino City’s Dressmakers and Millineries

After giving attention to Mendocino’s early tailor, William H. White, a few weeks ago in a Kelley House Calendar column, recognition is now directed to the female side of the trade — the dressmakers and milliners (hat designers) of this town.

Dressmaker and Millinery Artist America Jane Elliott, c. 1868. (Courtesy Hazel Jarvis Edwards, Lloyd Smith Collection in Kelley House Museum)

If a resident was poor or middle class, they may have made their own clothes. But if financial resources allowed there were seamstresses to custom make apparel. I wonder if this classified advertisement in a December 1877 Mendocino Beacon irritated local dressmakers and got them to begin placing their own classified ads in the newspaper. 

“Purchasing Agent–Ladies desirous of having goods purchased in San Francisco can do so by addressing Mrs. W. H. Ashley who will send samples of goods for inspection and approval. Experienced dressmakers here have the advantage of buying wholesale and give their patrons benefits of the same. Send for a circular. 1225 Sutter St. Rm. 51”

In August 1880 merchant Silas Coombs of Little River was offering “nice dress goods” at five cents a yard. In October of 1881 Mrs. M. L. Ferrall and Mrs. Fortsom took out an advertisement offering “Plain & Fashionable Dressmaking on Main St. and in August 1883 Eugene Brown in Mendocino announced he had the “latest dress goods” for local sewers.

One of Mendocino’s most notable (and documented) dressmakers was America Jane Elliott who lived from 1839 to1893, and in my mind was the epitome of a strong and independent businesswoman. She had crossed the prairies in a covered wagon with a sister named Missouri, lived in Sonoma during the Bear Flag Revolt, and married at age 13 to Commodore Cornelius Fulton Elliott. After bearing five children she divorced him, packed up the kids, and moved from Red Bluff, CA to Mendocino in 1873, living on the west side upstairs over the Jarvis & Nichols store on Main and Kasten streets.

In 1881 she appeared first in the Beacon’s classifieds announcing her millinery venture with her eldest daughter Flora and their move from a shop on Lansing and Albion Streets to the upstairs of the post office building in the Jarvis & Nichols store. “Received by steamer, an extensive assortment of winter goods and all novelties in the millinery line” the announced in October of 1882. 

She moved again placing her millinery business to Mrs. Walsh’s house between the priests’ house (Patterson’s Pub) and Mendosa’s store on Lansing in October of 1882. She presided over a prosperous bustling dressmaking business with young apprentices sewing for her, it was reported. “All work is done with neatness and dispatch…Call and examine goods before purchasing elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, back in the Jarvis & Nichols building, her daughter Flora married one of the Jarvis boys, and her son Burtt bought the store in 1916 and ran it until 1959. Between raising kids, working as a dressmaker and running a millinery shop, she married Joseph Burch when she was 39 and later Reuben Cameron when she was 47. In 1885, she closed up her shop on Main Street in Mendocino City and moved with her family to Fortuna in Humboldt County where she died at the age of 54. What a busy life.

Miss A. F. Dibble succeeded to the business of Mrs. Elliott. Her first shop in 1885 was on Ukiah Street opposite the Lisbon Hotel just west of the old Odd Fellows Hall, but within a few years she moved into a new house built by her uncle Charles Denslow on the corner of Kasten and Calpella facing Bank Square (Heider Field). She was busy there until she left for San Francisco in 1899.

Going back to the Beacon and the other dressmakers found, Mrs. M. A. Kerr promised the latest styles of millinery arriving on every steamer from the City with Mrs. Murphey helping her with additions to her elegant stock. In May of 1888 Mrs. M. A. Kopp advertised fashionable dress materials and millinery opposite the Central House (Mendocino Hotel) on Main St. In December 1895 Miss V. A. Perkins was making clothes on the corner of Ford and Calpella streets.

Dressmakers traveled to do their craft. In December 1895 it was reported Miss Etta McGimpsey of this locality was back from Christine (Navarro) where she had been following her trade the last week. By February 1909 Mrs. Jennie Brown, Dressmaker, had a shop on Main St. opposite the steamer berth.

In March of 1913 Mrs. E. A. Triguerio was offering spring hats on the corner of Howard and Ukiah streets east of Dr. Milliken’s residence (Blue Door Inn). Mrs. McMasters “desires a few more engagements” for dressmaking tailored suits, new tonic skirts and plain sewing in October 1914 and Mrs. Nancy Brown on the corner of Main and Covelo would sew “wool dresses only” in September of 1918.

The adventures of these and other early merchants in Mendocino City can be found in the archives of the Kelley House Museum and at their website.