In October 1872, the first ship ever owned and managed for commercial purposes by women set sail from New York for Asia. The clipper ship, called the Madame Demorest, that proudly sported a carved image of Nell Demorest as its figurehead and a flag advertising “The Woman’s Tea Company,” was seen off by a crowd of curious well wishers including bankers, merchants, and the press. Ellen (Nell) Curtis Demorest and Susan A. King, who spearheaded the enterprise, had similar beginnings: they both grew up in small upstate towns where at a young age they were aspiring entrepreneurs and moved to New York City to start their own businesses—and both succeeded brilliantly.
Nell Curtis watched her maid cut a dress pattern out of a paper bag, developed the idea of selling dressmaking patterns and built it into an international empire of manufacturing, mail order, emporiums, and magazines. She and her husband, William Jenning Demorest, both proactive social reformers, used their magazines as a platform to advocate progressive issues as well as to promote their products. Author Matthew Hale Smith described the Demorests’ liberal politics in his book Sunshine and Shadow in New York:
When philanthropy was not as popular as now, and when respectable and intelligent colored girls could not find employment in establishments called fashionable, Madame Demorest welcomed them to her Broadway rooms, gave them the same wages, and a seat in the same work-room that was assigned to others. At first, fashionable ladies flaunted out of the rooms, and announced that they would not patronize an establishment that employed negro girls. But they were glad to come back, as they could not get their work done elsewhere. (page 470.)
Susan A. King made her fortune buying and selling real estate. One of her major deals was selling land to Union Theological Seminary in New York, to which she also gave a financial gift. Once she had amassed her fortune, King also turned her attention to philanthropy.
Demorest and King were members of Sorosis, a social club for professional women that was devoted to aiding indigent females achieve financial independence through higher education and employment opportunities. They also founded The House of Mercy for Fallen Women, but they came to believe that instead of charities, it was more effective to offer poor women a chance to earn their own living.
Ever inventive, innovative, and indomitable, Demorest and King decided to set up a business to be run by women. In 1871, King set off on an eighteen-month trip to San Francisco to make business connections for the venture and sailed on to Asia to learn first hand how tea was grown and processed. King fearlessly traveled deep into China’s countryside to deal directly with the farmers and select the choicest leaves in the best growing areas.
For their enterprise, Demorest and King settled on importing fine tea from the East that would be sold nationwide by women. Selling tea, which was a very popular beverage, seemed a “ladylike” commodity in which to deal, and they were convinced that they could obtain a higher quality tea if they dealt directly with the growers than what was presently imported from the East. The two raised a half a million dollars to back the enterprise, purchased an old clipper ship, fitted it to transport tea, renamed it “Madame Demorest” and hired an all female crew for the 1872 voyage that drew a large audience of well wishers.
The Woman’s Tea Company did well enough to recoup all of its expenses, but it was not a lasting enterprise. It was no match for The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, a powerful operation that began importing tea in 1859 and by 1878 had seventy stores. One wonders what Demorest and King might have achieved if they put all of their formidable abilities and energy into managing the Woman’s Tea Company themselves, instead of setting it up for others to run it.
Drachman, Virginia G. Enterprising Women. 250 Years of American Business. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Leuzzi, Linda. A Matter of Style, Women in the Fashion Industry. Danbury, Ct.: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Ross, Ishbel. Crusades and Crinolines: The Life and Times of Ellen Curtis Demorest and William Jennings Demorest. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
The book is replete with interesting information about the Demorests, their business and the estimable people with whom they interacted.
Smith, Matthew Hale. Sunshine and Shadow in New York. Hartford: J.B. Burr and Co., 1869.