“I am now a large capitalist!”

Lavinia Goodell, August 15, 1870

Lavinia Goodell made history as one of the country’s first women lawyers, but what if she had pursued a different career, such as millinery store owner? Although that might sound far-fetched, it’s not. Thanks to recently discovered family letters, we have learned that before Lavinia decided to study law, she gave serious consideration to going into the millinery business.

Stock photo of 1870s hat

In the summer of 1870, Lavinia was working at Harper’s Bazar magazine in lower Manhattan. (Learn more about her Harper’s career here and here.) Her parents had recently moved to Janesville, Wisconsin and were living with Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost’s, family. Lavinia was renting a room from a German family on East 23rd Street in New York. One of her fellow boarders was a young woman named Miss Woodford, who was a trained milliner.

In an August 15, 1870 letter to her parents, Lavinia wrote:

How should you like to have me come to Janesville to live? It may never come to anything, but I have a plan in my head. It is briefly this: To take Miss Woodford for a partner, and come out there and set up a millinery and fancy goods establishment. Miss W. is a practical milliner of some years experience, and has about $1500.00 ahead. She thinks seriously of going into business for herself and would like to have a nice partner – like me! She would just as soon go to Wis. as anywhere, having no ties to attach her to any particular place. I am now a large capitalist, as you know! And I have a strong impression that I could make the thing go.

Lavinia’s August 15, 1870 letter to her parents

Lavinia asked her father or her eldest nephew, William Goodell Frost, to provide information about Janesville, including the city’s population; how many inhabitants were wealthy or well off; and what would be the prospects for the type of store Lavinia and her friend were contemplating. Lavinia said if Janesville was not a good site for the store, they night try Chicago, Beloit, or Milwaukee. She said:

Miss Woodford would do the millinery & I the trading & bookkeeping. Of course I don’t think of an immediate change, not before next spring. Mr. Harper won’t be home till Oct., & of course I should consult him before deciding on any change. I should want, if I could, to make an arrangement by which I could come back here if I wanted to. One of my cousins, or some friend, might perhaps take my place with the understanding that I could have it back any time, if I wanted…. I should hate to give up my place here absolutely. My idea in making a change would be more independence, more money & to be near you…. I should want to decide this fall whether I was going to do it or not & then I could study up at bookkeeping, etc. preparatory. It is an idea which struck me a few days ago. Miss W. is pleased with it (I proposed it to her) & would be ready to fall right in with my plans. She thinks if the opening is good there is no doubt but we should succeed well…. She is not particularly educated or intellectual, but has good common sense & principles & understands her business.

A week later Lavinia wrote to her parents again and was still very enthused about the possible millinery venture. She wrote, “Miss W. & I are thinking quite seriously of that project of which I spoke in my last.” She said, “Miss W. is ready whenever I am. She possesses a practical knowledge of such things, which I don’t. Is honest, prudent & sensible. I think we should do well & so does she.”

The last mention of the partnership came in Lavinia’s August 29, 1870 letter to her parents in which she said that Miss Woodford was in a hurry to know what Lavinia was going to do since two other ladies also wanted her to go in with them, but these other prospective partners could not furnish much capital. In this letter it became clear that Lavinia was not eager to leave New York but her primary motivation in considering a Janesville store was that it would place her in close proximity to her elderly parents. She wrote:

I do not think it would be best to leave Harper’s, unless to go into business for myself. Here I am permanent; have got accustomed to the work & have overcome all obstacles & got things now so that it is very easy and pleasant; have a kind “boss,” and a comfortable income. It would be a pity to leave it for a position which might be unpleasant & transitory. If I went into business for myself, I should be careful first to see that there was a reasonable chance of success. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t try. If there was, I should be gloriously independent & after a while it would be easy & lucrative. I might give up the present enterprise  & yet go into one a few years hence, when I have more capital, if a door should open. My only object in the present enterprise would be you. I am happy and comfortable and contented here; have an easier time more than before in years. And my present work is more in accordance with my tastes and abilities than the proposed business.  

Perhaps writing this lengthy exposition weighing the pros and cons of a partnership with Miss W. made Lavinia realize that being a partner in a shop would not really suit her. The subsequent letters that have survived make no further mention of the venture, although Lavinia does mention Miss Woodford multiple times and clearly remained on good terms with her. One year later, when her sister’s family needed to relocate, Lavinia moved to Janesville to live with them and soon thereafter a door did open for her: she began the course of study that would put her on the path to becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to William and Clarissa Goodell (August 15, 1870; August 22, 1870; August 29, 1870).

Leave a Reply