Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Exceptional American of the Day: Dorothy Shaver

In May 1914, scandal hit the bustling railroad town of Mena, Arkansas. Four single female teachers had attended a dance unchaperoned. The board of education was in a tizzy. They had little choice but to not hire the teachers back the next year. Community standards had to be upheld.

Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to Dorothy Shaver, because it forced her out of the cocoon of the Southern conformity and into the big city. Shaver at 21 was booted out and on her way to become the first woman president of multi-million-dollar company.

While Shaver was dancing the night away in Arkansas, the granddaddy of retail in New York -- Lord and Taylor -- rolled the dice on a new location for a store by becoming the first upscale retailer to open a store on Fifth Avenue on February 24, 1914. The retail outlet was in its 88th year, as Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor formed their eponymous store in 1826. As Manhattan grew and ladies had money to spend, the retailer grew, as did competition. Retailers have to be flexible. The Fifth Avenue was the store's fourth location, having begun on Catherine Street, before moving to Broadway at Grant Street in 1861, and then in 1870 to Broadway at 20th Street as part of the Ladies Mile of retail shops.

While Lord and Taylor worked to make the Fifth Avenue location work, Shaver and her sister, Elsie, left Arkansas for Chicago, where Shaver attended the University of Chicago to study art. If she had a plan for her life, it was not apparent at that time.

Born on July 29, 1893, in Center Point, her family had some prominence. Her maternal grandfather was the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, and her paternal grandfather was a prominent Confederate officer. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was an artist. Teaching school was a pathway to landing a husband in her social circle.

But the scandal forced her to leave all that behind in 1916. And art study really didn't cut it for her other sister. They moved to New York City, where they were two girls from Arkansas. Shaver later told interviewers that she only went along to chaperon her younger sister.

After a while, they made and sold rag dolls that looked like kewpie dolls. The sisters did not need the money as their family supported their gallivanting ways. The sisters called their dolls the Five Little Shavers. These dolls became very popular among the workers at Lord and Taylor. Company president Samuel Rayburn took notice of the dolls and the women who made them. Instead of chasing them off, he offered them jobs -- as spies.

Lord and Taylor paid Shaver and her sister to shop at its competitors. The store called the operation the Comparison Bureau. By 1921, Shaver was in charge of the bureau. Three years later, Shaver set up the Bureau of Style. Lord and Taylor had an artist on its staff who understood fashion and women. It was the Roaring '20s. Anything goes. The schoolteacher from Arkansas wanted to rise to the top. And she did. She set the pace for style and fashion at Lord and Taylor, and Lord and Taylor soon set the pace for style and fashion in New York.

The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris greatly impressed her. Three years later, she convinced Rayborn to have the store host its own Exposition of Modern French Decorative Art, which featured not just fashion, but home furnishing and appliances.

In 1932, Shaver she created a program, “The American Look,” to promote the work of American designers such as Neysa McNein, Ralph Burtin, and Katherine Sturgis. The University of Chicago which is known for its school of economics and its birth of nuclear fission in the Manhattan Project had also produced the woman who was the vanguard of high fashion.

Shaver pushed the store to offer personal service and quality, rather than focus on lower price. Going upscale was a risk, but the rewards were handsome, even as the Depression hit retailers in the 1930s.

The company's success brought he own success. In 1927, Lord and Taylor added her to its board of directors. In 1931, they made her a vice president. In 1937, they made her the first vice president. In 1945, they elected her company president, Walter Hoving, paying her an annual salary of $110,000. This caught the public's attention and imagination. A woman president of a store that serves women! What a brilliant innovation. In 1946 and 1947, the Associated Press named her the outstanding woman in business.

Her rise to the top was not due to her sex; it was due to her value as an executive. Like her mentor Rayburn, Shaver tried to stay ahead in retail. She succeeded where competitors failed by opening a second store in the suburbs. She worked with Raymond Loewy, the leading industrial designer of the time, to create the shop. This relationship between Loewy, and Lord and Taylor continued long after she died.

In 1959, a series of strokes disabled and then killed her on June 28, 1959, at her home in Tannerville, New York. She had never married but was forever the big sister to Elsie, to whom she left her multi-million-dollar estate. In a final girlish prank, Elsie marked 1897, not 1893, as the year of her birth on her grave marker.

The woman banned from Arkansas for dancing went on to New York City and set the fashion world -- and the upscale retail industry -- on its ear. All it took was hard work, innovation, and an eye for fashion.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.

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