Let me introduce you to Miss Dorothy Shaver. This amazing woman was the first female in American history to manage a large corporation.
Shaver was born July 29, 1893, to Sallie Borden and James D. Shaver in the small Howard County settlement of Center Point. Her mother was the granddaughter of Benjamin Borden, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, while her paternal grandfather was Robert G. Shaver, a prominent Confederate commander and a leader of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. Dorothy’s father was a well-regarded lawyer.
James Shaver took his family to the new railroad town of Mena in Polk County when Dorothy was 5 years old. Her father would later become a chancery judge and was active in local affairs, including serving as president of the Mena School Board.
Dorothy was a good student, graduating from Mena High School as salutatorian in 1910. Her father insisted that she enter the University of Arkansas, fearing that his strong-willed daughter would elope with a young man with “more personality than brains.”
After completing teacher training in two years, Dorothy moved back to Mena, where she took a job teaching seventh grade at the local high school.
In 1914 the school board refused to rehire Dorothy and three other single female teachers. The reasons for this termination were not stated, but as historian Harold Coogan has written, “The four young women had defied local custom by attending a dance, which single women were not supposed to do.”
Dorothy and her sister Elsie left Arkansas in 1916 for Chicago, where they both took art and design classes. After a few months there they moved to New York City, the perfect place for two young creative sisters to make their mark.
She got her start in retailing when Elsie created a doll family which became quite popular. The dolls, which were commonly referred to as “the five little Shavers” and vaguely resembled the popular Kewpie dolls of that era, were described by one contemporary as “unusually artistic and charming rag dolls.”
Elsie was in charge of production while Dorothy handled marketing. The Mena Star newspaper bragged that the Shaver sisters were “building up a most lucrative business and are making a name for cleverness.”
Among the many retailers who sold the dolls was prestigious Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue between the Empire State Building and the New York Public Library. In 1921, Lord & Taylor hired Dorothy, the beginning of a career unparalleled among American women.
She started out as manager of Lord & Taylor’s comparison shopping department, which was responsible for monitoring prices in competing stores. She convinced the store to broaden her mission to include comparing product design and style as well as price.
Soon, Dorothy persuaded management to create a Bureau of Fashion and Decoration which she used to promote modern design in products ranging from women’s fashion to lamps and clocks. Store management was impressed with this young dynamo from Arkansas and promoted her to the board of directors in 1927.
In 1928, Dorothy mounted an “Exposition of Modern French Decorative Art,” which attracted 300,000 visitors and was a publicity bonanza for Lord & Taylor. The same year she created the Contempra Group of International Arts, which she used to design dresses, bags, scarves, suits, and hats for Lord & Taylor. By 1931, she was vice president of the company, with responsibility for style, publicity, and advertising.
In an abrupt about-face, in 1932 Dorothy turned her attention away from Paris to American designers, creating what she called “the American look.” She had come to the realization that “spin-offs of haute couture held little appeal to American women, whose busy lifestyles and tight budgets set them apart from wealthy European shoppers.” Over the next seven years, she introduced the work of 60 young American clothing designers.
Dorothy’s rise to the top was realized in 1945 when the store’s board selected her to become company president, the first woman to head a large retail establishment with a salary of $110,000. In 1948 the Associated Press ran a story noting that she had joined the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Joseph Pulitzer as among the highest-paid people in the nation.
She continued her innovative work as company president, building numerous branch stores in suburban New York City and Connecticut, catering to the previously overlooked teen market, and introducing boutique-type shops that specialized in “niche fashions” such as petite sizes, college clothing, and bridal wear.
Dorothy and Elsie never married. They shared a fashionable Upper East Side home in Manhattan, while maintaining a summer home in the Catskills community of Onteora. Despite her busy life–and the fact that she left Arkansas under something of a cloud–Dorothy never lost touch with the state, and she and Elsie contributed to worthy causes in Mena. In 1950 Dorothy attended a meeting of the Arkansas Society in Washington.
The late Ernie Jacks of Fayetteville, who worked for years with renowned architect Ed Stone in New York, told me that Dorothy and Elsie frequently hosted Stone and other Arkansans at their summer home. Jacks also remarked that Elsie, who was “getting along in years,” had an “inclination to profanity [which] was a thing to behold.”
Dorothy was hard at work on June 26, 1959, when she suffered a stroke, dying two days later. She was buried in Texarkana. Her tombstone lists her birth year as 1897 instead of 1893, which is appropriate since both Dorothy and Elsie frequently misrepresented their ages.
I will be giving a one-hour program on Pioneering Black Doctors of Arkansas via Zoom at 7 p.m. Thursday. It’s sponsored by the Society for the History of Medicine and Health Professions. Access the program at https://zoom.us/97223974167.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column appeared March 24, 2013.