PULLMAN, Wash.—Lucy A. Stevenson would have been considered a woman ahead of her time for owning a dress- and hat-making business in 1901. That she started the business at age 60 in turn-of-the-century Issaquah, Wash., put her in the ranks of women making history in even rural corners of the world.
“She was an early feminist who insisted that her shop be separate from her house and titled in her own name, radical for the time,” said Linda Bradley, a professor in Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.
Bradley and students of her class, “Costume, Design and Museum Management,” are introducing others to Stevenson’s remarkable life in a new exhibit during Women’s History Month in March at WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.
An opening reception for the exhibit, titled “Pioneering Businesswoman: The Journey of Lucy A. Stevenson,” is planned at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 7, on the ground floor of Glenn Terrell Library. The exhibit will be in place through April 4.
Alumna helps with research
Stevenson’s great-granddaughter and WSU alumna Loralyn Young donated most of the exhibit items and helped students with the research, including what women’s fashions and retail shops were like in the early 1900s. For Young, this came naturally. After graduating from Washington State College in 1964 with a degree in English education, she enjoyed a long career as a librarian in Seattle.
The work on the exhibit is a way to honor another aspect of her great-grandmother’s legacy: a love of learning passed down to Young’s mother and children.
“Lucy was my mother’s favorite person: she would be ecstatic knowing Lucy was part of WSU,” Young said. “Lucy and Mother had energy, creativity, needle arts and gardening in common. My mother believed strongly in higher education and wanted to attend college; she sent all four of us to WSU.”
Life takes a detour
Stevenson was born Lucy Whithead in Stroud, Pa., on March 9, 1840. According to one family story, she was apprenticed to a tailor when she was 13 or 14. Until 1870, Stevenson led a conventional life, marrying Depue Miller and living in Jackson, Kan., with their young son, Howard.
But her husband’s death five years later and a chance encounter with a Civil War soldier led Stevenson down an extraordinary path. James Stevenson called on his future wife in Jackson, asking if she had a map of Kansas. She didn’t, but their conversation made a deep impression on James.
He knew very little of the widow, not even her first name. But on March 9, 1876—Lucy’s birthday—he wrote her a letter asking for her hand in marriage. The couple had one child, daughter Willa, in 1878.
Pluck and drive
The family trekked across the United States to Issaquah in 1900. Something in the working-class town—maybe its possibilities, maybe the turn of the century—inspired Stevenson to build her store and begin selling her custom-made dresses and hats to local residents. A hint of Stevenson’s pluck can be seen in one of her needlework samplers, which reads, “We Trust in God, but Sell for Cash.”
Stevenson continued to run her shop until 1912; it isn’t clear why she closed her business. She died on Jan. 16, 1918, at almost 78. Though an entrepreneur for a short time, the resourceful dressmaker has had an impact on her family through her drive to do things her own way.
“It is through my mother that I learned so much about Lucy’s life,” Young said. “I’m very glad and pleased that Lucy’s things have contributed to education. I hope the students have had as much fun with this project as I have.”