Learning About My Ancestor’s Business

charles-anthony-stevens-cropUndated photo of Charles Anthony Stevens at home (in the family's collection)

In 1886, my great-grandfather Charles Anthony Stevens (1859–1932) opened a small retail shop in Chicago. At first, Chas. A. Stevens sold silk fabrics and notions to local women who made their own clothing. The shop was known in particular for its selection of black silks, made popular by Queen Victoria’s perpetual mourning attire. Business was successful and the store grew rapidly. By the early 1890s, Chas. A. Stevens had begun manufacturing and selling ready-to-wear women’s clothing in addition to fabrics, serving a nationwide market.

Despite the nationwide expansion, Chas. A. Stevens only ever had the one store location in Chicago. Curious about this, I wondered whether the company’s growth might have had something to do with national advertising.

I started my research by searching for Chas. A. Stevens ads in newspapers, using the free public database Chronicling America. I also visited a number of libraries, where I could access national subscription sites like Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and the Early American Newspapers Collection. I also searched through women’s magazines using the ProQuest Women’s Magazine Archive database available at my local library, as well as the public Cornell University Digital Library.

I was stunned by the number of examples I found nationwide over the course of many years. In the national women’s magazines, I found a steady stream of advertisements promoting the store’s offerings to an increasingly fashion-conscious audience.

The Delineator, April 1892, Page 1 (https://digital.library.cornell.edu/)

In Chicago area newspapers, I found many advertisements aimed at building the brand’s local reputation.

stevens-ad-2Chicago Herald, 3 August 1890, Page 16, Columns 4-6 (Early American Newspapers Collection)

Outside the Chicago area, the advertisements I found suggest that readers could either purchase merchandise through a catalogue, or contact the company to purchase products via mail order.

The Laclede Blade (Laclede, Missouri), 30 September 1905, Page 6, Columns 4-5 (Chronicling America)

Then my research turned up something that surprised me. Beyond direct advertising and sales, Chas. A. Stevens used an unusual method to grow its business nationally: it recruited independent saleswomen to represent the brand in their local market. These woman entrepreneurs were given exclusive rights to advertise and sell Chas. A. Stevens products within their local areas, with a low barrier to entry and a discount on their first set of fashion plates and samples. Chas. A. Stevens used ads like the one shown below to attract these agents.

stevens-ad-4Ladies Home Journal, April 1900, Page 40 (ProQuest Women’s Magazine Archive)

To date, I have identified 480 women who worked as Chas. A. Stevens local selling agents. I was thrilled to find out that so many women were empowered to run their own businesses in connection with my great-grandfather’s store, and I wanted to learn more about them.

My research revealed that at least 66% of these agents were married, and at least 22% were single during the time that they advertised their agencies. I was not able to discern the marital status of the remaining 12% based on their advertisements, so further research may be needed.

These selling agents employed a variety of business models. Some operated out of storefronts, typically situated in their local town or city center. These stores were sometimes exclusively dedicated to the Chas. A. Stevens business, while others combined selling Stevens wares with other businesses, such as selling dry goods or millinery. Other agents used public locations—like hotel lobbies or empty retail spaces—as temporary business fronts, promoting their appearance as a kind of pop-up similar to the way Halloween costume stores are run today. Still others ran their businesses directly out of their homes, or visited potential customers’ homes to privately showcase their Chas. A. Stevens fashion plates and samples. Whichever model they employed, these women were typically extremely committed to their businesses, often advertising their Chas. A. Stevens agencies over spans of many years. Here are some examples of advertising from long-time selling agents:

Mrs. Susie Townsend, of Centralia, Kansas, who advertised her agency from 1901 to 1911:

The Centralia Journal (Centralia, Kansas), 22 September 1905, Page 8, Columns 1-2 (kansashistoricalopencontent.newspapers.com)

Miss Colburne, of Barton, Vermont, who advertised her agency from 1903 to 1911:

stevens-ad-6Orleans County Monitor (Barton, Vermont), 13 April 1910, Page 8, Columns 5-6 (Chronicling America)

Mrs. Alice Cape, of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who advertised her agency from 1902 to 1910:

Iowa County Democrat (Mineral Point, Wisconsin), 12 April 1906, Page 4, Columns 3-4 (Chronicling America)

Mrs. Creed Bobbitt, of Leon, Iowa, who advertised her agency from 1902 to 1909:

The Leon Reporter (Leon, Iowa), 25 March 1909, Page 4, Columns 5-6 (Chronicling America)

The women entrepreneurs who sold Chas. A. Stevens products nationwide were professionals, not just dabbling in business. They invested substantially in the fashion plates and samples they used to promote new products each season. Like the store itself, they advertised the arrival of these tools of the trade each season to create excitement for new trends and increase demand. To provide a sense of scale of this activity: of the 480 women agents I have identified so far, 38% published ten or more advertisements in the publications I have searched.

These women also invested in their own professional development—for example, by traveling to Chicago to attend the National Dressmakers’ Association conference, and to learn about the operations and culture of the Chas. A. Stevens store. This helped the women selling agents to develop their professional skills and build credibility with their customers.

Chas. A. Stevens proudly advertised that it had agents in every state, and I am determined to find them. By searching national newspaper databases I was able to find at least one agent in all but four states, but my findings were by no means comprehensive. I am now supplementing my research using state digital newspaper archives, which contain titles not found in the national databases, and which often use different algorithms to produce search results. Despite many hours of work on this project, I have still yet to find any Chas. A. Stevens agents in Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, or Hawaii. If you are aware of any Chas. A. Stevens selling agent advertisements in those states, or if you have any research suggestions, please comment on this blog post so that everyone can learn from your insight.


Further Learning

External Database: NewspaperArchive
Access one of the biggest collections of newspapers from all over the world with your American Ancestors membership! NewspaperArchive is an online database of billions of newspaper articles and obituaries spanning from 1607 to 2023.

Free Guide: Getting Started With Newspapers in Family History Research
Newspapers are an incredibly rich and sometimes overlooked source of genealogical information. This free download which will provide you with valuable insights and techniques for researching your family history using newspapers.

Online Research Workshop: Using Technology in Family History Research
Join us for this three-day interactive online experience to learn how to further your research with technology. You’ll benefit from lectures from our expert staff, real-time demonstrations, one-on-one consultations, and lively Q&A sessions.

Mary Stevens Hunt

About Mary Stevens Hunt

Mary has been interested in the intersection between American history and her family history for more than 30 years. Her recent retirement from a corporate career jump-started a number of genealogy research projects that she hopes to develop into published works. Prior to her corporate career, Mary earned a bachelor's degree in Human Biology from Stanford, and an MBA from Kellogg.View all posts by Mary Stevens Hunt