Sunday, April 25, 2010

Caroline Hague

In doing family research I've uncovered some stories that my parents didn't tell me, possibly didn't even know. So it is that my great-uncle Adolph C.E. Windmuller, whom my father characterized as a ne're do well, turns out to have been husband of an extremely successful business woman who was renowned as owner of one of New York's most exclusive fashion houses and who was also, at one time, deeply involved in an extensive smuggling ring.

Adolph let his father pay most of the bills while he was alive and then inherited enough that he could live well without exerting himself to do much work. My father said Adolph had almost no contact with his sister, my grandmother, and that he was hardly ever to be seen. As a child, my father recalled glimpses of the man driving around in his Rolls Royce, presumably enjoying his role as a favored member of New York's high society.

So far as I can recall, he never mentioned Adolph's wife. When he married her in 1901 the event generated news coverage in a dozen or so newspapers that can now be accessed via the internet. His new wife was a few years older than he and had two small sons by a previous marriage. Unlike him, she earned a good living as owner of a high class ladies' clothing store in one of Manhattan's wealthiest shopping districts. After their marriage, their names appeared on the Social Register of wealthy and well-connected New Yorkers (as it happens, in fact, theirs are found immediately below those of the Wilson family in the White House).

The woman was Mrs. Caroline (or Carolyn) Hague. She was daughter of a German immigrant named Leopold Thurn and his wife Sidonie. She had a sister named Clara and a brother named Leopold. On her wedding day in 1901, her mother hosted a reception for the two immediate families and a few friends. She was then a widow, Leopold having died in 1898. Sidonie was an assumed name. Her full maiden name was Sophie Caroline Dittmarsch.

Caroline Hague's matron of honor was her sister, identified as Mrs. Patterson. On the death of that sister 40 years later, her name is given as Clara Emile Leopoldine Thurn Wilson, so presumably Mr. Patterson had died or they had by then divorced. The news account of Clara's estate says she left everything to her sister, Carolyn Thurn Windmuller (New York Times Feb 22, 1941, pg. 1).

Caroline was also known as Lilly or Lillie. She shows up as Lillie in the 1880 census and is identified as Lilly Hague in the database of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Before 1914, Caroline used the business name of Mme. Thurn. Her millinery shop was located at 424 5th Avenue, on the corner of 5th and 38th St. This corner, and indeed the whole block, was taken over Lord & Taylor in 1914 for construction of a new flagship department store. From 1914 to 1933, she ran a dressmaking concern called The House of Thurn, a name which gained luster from its association with the German family, Thurn und Taxis, famous for building castles. During that time she called herself Mme. Hague. After 1933, while in her 70s, she worked as a designer for the Manhattan fashion house of Jay-Thorpe and other dressmaking concerns. Throughout these years she was a successful businesswoman.

Under the names Thurn, Hague, and Windmuller, Caroline transacted business that got her name in the press from time to time. She was a self-made person in the classic 19th-century Horatio Alger mode, except, unlike almost all others, she was a woman. She would have faced many hardships on her upward journey and hers would have been much more difficult than those of her masculine peers.

She came from an immigrant family whose business (man and wife) was stated as "Children Furnishing Goods" in the 1880 census. Furnishings in this sense are decorations, trimmings, and notions. She was 15-year-old Lillie Thurn when the census taker filled in the questionnaire for the family. As an adult she earned the reputation of leading figure in the American fashion industry.**

One account says she began in the children's clothing trade in which her parents specialised. Her first venture was the importing of materials for making up these clothes. Succeeding in this, she expanded into making them up herself, both to her own designs and to designs she copied from European models. Her next move was to import fashionable clothes from abroad, and, once again succeeding, she shifted business into design and manufacture of women's fashions.*** She would find her niche at the high end of the business, catering to the blue bloods of America's Gilded Age, their children and grandchildren. The authors say:

One of the infant clients of early days was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Thurn made his first pair of trousers. This, we hasten to confess, was discovered by us, not confided, for this grand old house guards its clients' secrets in the British manner. Even the brides' pictures in the trousseau room are keyed, not marked outright with names, but here, too, our detective instincts helped and we recognized the photographs of Ailsa Mellon of the Pittsburg Mellons and Isabella Rockefeller of the Rockefellers. -- New York is Everybody's Town by Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret McBride (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931)

Some of the challenges Hague would have to face in establishing and maintaining her flourishing business are described in Wendy Gamber's book, The Female Economy. In reviewing that book, Pamela Nickless wrote:

Most proprietors of retail establishments were single women ("man milliner" was an epithet)... Gamber also finds strong evidence of the working class origins of many of the "Madams" and, she argues, dressmaking and millinery was one of the few paths to independence for the working class daughter. Although this seems a very female world, men controlled access to credit and in the case of customers, husbands often decided when and which bills would be honored. Millinery and dressmaking was a risky business and few women became wealthy but many did manage to maintain a "precarious independence." ... A worker might rise from apprentice to shop owner. Gamber describes the transmission of skills and how a young woman, with hard work and luck, might learn a craft and own her own small shop. [But success became more and more difficult at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th and the number of independent shops declined dramatically.] Gamber is careful to note the complex interaction among consumers, retailers, wholesalers and producers in this process of transforming an industry. The development of the department store and the availability of factory-made dresses (altered in the store for the up-scale customer) in the early twentieth century completed the transformation of dressmaking. -- from a review by Pamela Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina- Asheville, of The female economy: the millinery and dressmaking trades, 1860-1930, by Wendy Gamber; series: The working class in American history; Women in American history (University of Illinois Press, 1997)

The business in which Hague was engaged was a complex one. It was seasonal, requiring agility to stay ahead of the fashion curve. More than an unerring sense of style and understanding of fashion, it required excellent financial and managerial skills. I don't know about her access to credit, but she showed unusual business sense in keeping herself independent of clothing wholesalers (all of them men), importing both raw materials and finished goods on her own. By the end of the 19th century she was running a large, complex design, manufacturing, and retail establishment. Businesses of the type she ran kept anywhere from 10 and 70 workers on the payroll; given its prominence, hers probably was on the high end.

The dollar value of her business must have been enormous. Even single transactions could involve extremely large sums. Evidence of this comes from a successful legal action that she took in 1893 against a non-paying customer. In an afternoon's shopping, a woman had bought $1,000 worth of hats at Madame Thurn's and failed to pay what she owed. After considerable trouble, Hague obtained a judgment against the woman. The $1,000 she owned would be worth at least $24,600.00 today, probably closer to $69,000.****

Hague's success is evident in her real estate transactions. When she was forced to close the shop of 5th Avenue, she did not rent, but rather bought a new place. She chose the new location wisely in an area that was about to become equally chic. The new address was 108 East 57th St, near what was then 4th Avenue, soon to be renamed Park Ave.***** Though unprepossessing in 1905, the address would tote considerable caché by the 1930s. Then, the phrase "Fifty-Seventh Street" would convey an atmosphere of "ultra-ultra" ladies' clothing shops.

By the 1930s it was known that one did not stop by one of these shops at the height of the season without being known or having an introduction. Customers were treated royally and the staff were trained to be extremely discrete. A book (MacBride's, quoted above) describes the ambience:

The stately house of Thurn is easily the most dignified institution left in New York. To the right as you enter is the famous stone staircase so often seen in news photographs of the season's fashionable brides both because its curve is perfect for trains and because so many brides get their white satin at Thurn's. In the impressive drawing room upstairs, elegant, gleaming mannequins, some of them Junior Leaguers, saunter past and into the fitting rooms. All the blue-bloods in town come here at some time or other, as do many rich and aristocratic out-of-towners, to put themselves into the competent hands of Madame Hague.
It's interesting to note that even after her marriage to Adolph, she seems to have been the one to make real estate transactions. As for example in 1815 when she rented a summer place in upscale Darien, Connecticut, along the Long Island Sound:
THE REAL ESTATE FIELD New York Times; Mar 18, 1915 Fish & Marvin have leased furnished for the Summer the Colonial House and three acres owned by John D. Crimins at Collender's Point, Noroton, to Mrs. A.C. Windmuller of this city.
She gave up running her own shop in 1933, but she continued to prosper. Working as a designer, in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Depression, she was reported to be making $65,000 a year from "a Manhattan concern specializing in women's apparel" (New York Times, Jul 10, 1937, p. 32).

When in 1914 Lord & Taylor took over her shop at 5th and 37th St, she not only moved her business to the new place she had bought on 57th, but also changed its name. The new name, House of Thurn, was dignified and sounded appropriately exclusive, but it also lacked unpleasant associations with an event that occurred in 1909. In that year Hague had been forced to admit guilt in federal court for having defrauded the government of customs revenue by smuggling expensive French fabrics through US customs. She was fined $7,500 and was not made to serve time in jail. Although other milliners were involved in the "sleeper trunk" scheme by which dressmakers avoided payment of heavy federal duties on imported fabrics, Hague's business was deemed to be one of the largest and most visible. I'll write about the gimmick they used in a separate post.

Hague almost certainly engaged in other forms of cheating to boost her profits at that time. For example, a 1912 article in the New York Times by a designer who worked for her shop admitted to faking labels:

"The support of the press of New York City and the co-operation of the dressmakers and tailors with American manufacturers -- these are the two great things which the movement for American-made fashions needs." James B. Blaine, head designer for Thurn is energetic in his indorsement of The New York Times's competition for American-designed hats and gowns.... Blaine is very frank in admitting the use of the fake label in the American-made gown. "It was a well-known trick of the trade, you understand. We all did it, and many do yet.... When the public got on to the fake French label,... [the Americans would] send their silks to Lyons, brings them back again and sell them plus export and import duties at a greater profit than they could have obtained for them sold as American-made silks." -- IT WAS AMERICA THAT MADE PARIS; Thurn's Head Designer Tells How We Made France a Present of Fame and Fortune. New York Times, December 22, 1912, Sunday, Page 11, 1249 words.
There's much to be said for Caroline Hague's acumen, artistic ability, and spunk. What she achieved is simply amazing, particularly given the special difficulties faced by women entrepreneurs of her time. It's also true that, as an admitted smuggler and probable deceptive merchant, she's not really an admirable ancestor.

The photo below shows a Thurn design from 1921. The ensemble was intended for overseas travel. The accompanying description says: "For her trot-about street dress one may take advantage of fashion's verdict for two-faced fabrics and wear a Thurn gown of dove down satin, the duvetyn face enhanced with embroidery.Circumstances alter wardrobes just as they do every other case in the world. Some plans will call for what might be described as an extensive wardrobe, even for the traveler, while others will permit the shopper to limit her needs to bare necessities. But there are certain fundamentals that almost any sea voyage will demand. After all, life on the great floating palaces is very much that of the everyday routine at a metropolitan hotel. Within the prescribed limits one eats and sleeps and drinks; walks a little, chats a great deal, bridges and teas and dances, and in fact even indulges in the good old sport of shopping. Of course it is life at sea, but life at sea today is very much like life ashore, everything is so up to date."

{source: When She Travels - Fine Women's Fashions for Ocean Liner Travel - 1921

Here are two photos taken between 1939 and 1941 that come in a collaboration between the Works Progress Administration and the New York City Tax Department. Their goal was to collect photos of buildings throughout the city. My source is the NYC Municipal Archives. The first shows the building at 108 E. 57th St.

The second shows 15 E. 57th Street, just off 5th Avenue. That was Hague's third and final retail location.
Chanel now occupies that prestigious location.

This is not the summer residence that Hague rented in 1915, but gives an idea of the wealth of Collender's Point residents.

{source: dariennewsonline}

See also:

Millinery as a trade for women, Volume 5 of Studies in economic relations of women by Lorinda Perry, Susan Myra Kingsbury, and Marion Parris Smith (Longmans, Green and Co., 1916)
A seasonal industry: a study of the millinery trade in New York by Mary Van Kleeck (Russell Sage Foundation, 1917)

*It's possible that Caroline's mother had a second marriage to a man named Thorn after the death of Leopold Thurn because a death notice of 1938 identifies a Mrs. C. S. Thorn as daughter of Charles H. Chrystal:

Chrystal, Margaret R. , suddenly, at her home, 6 Gifford St., Tuckahoe, NY, beloved wife of Charles H., and mother of Mrs. C.S. Thorn and Mrs. F.J. Meyer, Paul and Charles, Jr. Requium Mass Church of the Immaculate Conception, Tuckahoe, Saturday at 10 AM Interment Gate of Heaven. -- New York Times, Nov 18, 1938, pg. 1

Charles H. Chrystal was a lawyer, judge, and local politician who resided in Tuckahoe, NY.

**As an example of Hague's standing in the business, see a report of a liability action she made against the New York Central Railroad. Of witnesses called to testify on her behalf, the reporter said: "An Italian baroness, a New York society matron and leading figures in the women's fashion world paraded to the Supreme Court witness stand Saturday and paid glowing tributed to seventy-one-year-old Mrs. Caroline T. Windmuller's former standing as a stylist." ("Once Style Expert Sues Railroad for $250,000 for Fall at Ardsley," Herald Statesman, Yonkers, N.Y., White Plains, Nov. 27, 1936

***The account says she "went into business as an importer of white goods for children's dresses, fine nainsook, dotted swiss and French piques, which were snapped up by aristocratic mamas who later persuaded Mrs. Thurn to try making up clothes for their treasures. From this the house of Thurn went on to importing and copying children's models and finally to women's clothes and the present business."

**** Here is an extract from a report of the final decision in Hague's suit for payment of the money owed her:

Receiver in a millinery Case One Woman Suing Another in a Jersey City Court An interesting millinery suit was before Vice Chancellor Green at Jersey City yesterday on the application of Mme. Thurn of Fifth Avenue, New-York, for the appointment of a receiver for property at South Orange, N.J., and Wilkes-barre, Penn., owned by Mrs. Margaret Paine, wife of a New-York lawyer. Some time ago Mrs. Paine lived at the Marlborough House, New-York. One day, it is alleged, she went to Mme. Thurn's establishment and bought hats and bonnets. Her bill was $1,000. When Mrs. Paine did not pay, Mme. Thurn brought suit in a New-York court, but Mrs. Paine evaded process by removing to South Orange. Mme. Thurn availed herself of the New-Jersey courts, and then Mrs. Paine went back to New-York. Mme. Thurn's lawyer, William B. Gilmore, learned where Mrs. Paine's property was, and then went into Chancery with the case. It was shown that, besides the house she owned at South Orange, Mrs. Paine received $250 a month from the People's Bank of Wilkes-barre as the income of property she owned there, and Vice Chancellor Green decided to grant the application. -- New York Times, March 30, 1893, pg. 1

The $1,000 debt would be worth $24,600.00 today by the Consumer Price Index and almost $69,000 using the value of a consumer bundle. It would be even more by other constant-dollar measures of value).

*****The real estate transaction was reported in the New York Times in 1905:

Maria W. Burtin has sold to Mme. Thurn the four-story dwelling 108 East Fifty-seventh Street, 20 by 100.5. -- East Side Houses Find Buyers, NYT, Friday, July 7, 1905.


1. My father's sister, Aunt Virginia, worked for Lord & Taylor at the flagship building on 5th Avenue for most of her adult life. My father said she was highly valued there and enjoyed her work.

2. When I was in sixth grade, my best friend Tommy moved from our suburban village in Westchester County to a big house close on Contentment Island, not far from the place Caroline Hague rented in 1915. Thereafter, I would spend a week or so of my summers with him out on the water just about every day.

3. In this post I've quoted from an interesting book by Mary Margaret McBride and Helen Josephy. McBride was a popular radio personality. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say she was the Oprah of her day. She was a talented journalist as well as talk show hostess. You can read about her in wikipedia and quite a few other sources. Before she succeeded on radio, McBride teamed up with another writer, Helen Josephy, to write New York Is Everybody's Town (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931). Subtitled Paris in Manhattan, it was a follow-up to two books the pair had previously written: Paris Is a Woman's Town (1929) and London Is a Man's Town (1930). Their style is informal and urban-chic. The sections on fashion and the dress trade are interesting and informative. Here's an excerpt that gives their flavor:

An effective, though refined, version of the bum's rush is to be expected if one drops in at an exclusive New York dressmaker's unknown and unintroduced, especially in the height of the season.

Not lack of hospitality but the instinct of self-preservation is the basis of this reception. The bug-a-boo of ultra-ultra shops is the copyist who comes in the guise of client and goes away with a dozen smart ideas which eventually will appear as $6.84 dresses in Fourteenth Street.

There is no need to feel insulted when suspected of being a copyist. A successful one is often beautiful, may be in the social register and as likely as not comes clothed in mink and with money enough to buy a dress or so while secretly sketching a dozen others.

Fifty-Seventh Street imports Paris models for ideas chiefly. The clever adaptations of these to American needs by skilled designers and fitters are extremely use-ful to Fourteenth Street.

And that, my children, is the true explanation of why the best houses religiously save their finest models for customers of long standing and show them in the sacrosanct privacy of fitting rooms! ...

Even after the couturier's perfect collection is assembled and adapted, even when he has successfully exterminated all copyists, there remains still the difficult and harassing American clientele.

Manhattan, it seems, is filled with goodlooking society women who honestly believe they should have clothes for nothing because they are "so chic and elegant that it will advertise the house." Then there is the woman who will not buy a dress if copies are being made and the richest one of all who goes into hysterics about prices that would have seemed bargains in the Place Vendome. ...

Workmanship and fit are undoubtedly better at good New York houses than in Paris, but due to higher wage scales and stricter laws governing working conditions, prices are considerably higher.

The older houses are notable for the dignified serenity of their atmosphere. ... At Thurn's a Scotch butler lends atmosphere. Tea or coffee is served at Bendel's. In other houses, cigarettes of a special brand are placed at Madame's elbow and messenger boys are on hand to run errands or to take care of fatiguing telephone calls.

The saleswomen in these houses are solicitous and trustworthy. They usually hold their places over a period of years and learn their clients' needs.

There are certain shops so well-established that their faithful following mostly of the Social Register depend upon the heads for sartorial well-being just as they depend upon the family physician for health.

Unhurried dignity so predominates at Thurn's that the story of a rush job of a few years ago is still told as a curious phenomenon. It seems a girl whose family had long been on the books was selected to be queen of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, and telephoned one after-noon for a royal robe. An all-night session of cutting out and pinning up followed and next morning, a weary fitter and two seamstresses left for New Orleans with a gorgeously-embroidered dress upon which they again worked all night so that it was practically complete by the time they reached their destination.

Two hundred dollars is the rock-bottom price for Thurn gowns, with the exception of an occasional sport dress.

-- New York Is Everybody S Town by Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret Mcbride (G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1931)

4. I haven't intended to violate anyone's copyright in putting together this post; if what I have done has strayed from what's permissible under fair use practices, I'll remove the offending items.


Stacy said...

Caroline was a descendent of the princely house of Thurn and Taxis, confidential couriers of The Holy Roman Empire. The Italian Branch of the family includes the poet, Tasso,and it is a corruption of his name that is found in the Taxis Branch of the family. Caroline was born in New York City to Leopold and Sidonie Dittmarmarsch or (S.D.) Thorn, that is a corruption of Thurn. A previous marriage to Ernest Hague of Paris France, my Great Grandfather, was dissolved in 1896. She then married Adolf sometime later and her two sons are Alfred Hague of Briarcliff Manor NY and Emil Hague, My Grandfather of Meteetse, Wyoming...she did NOT approve of her son moving out West with the common people and made it very well known! His dream was to be a Rancher and a Cowboy, both he did very well. She had a brother, Theodore Thurn of Tokyo and a sister, Mrs.George Wilson of Pennsylvania. When Great Grandmother Windmuller passed away she had a magnificent estate in Colo., Springs, CO. that was split equally between Alfred and Emil Hague. I have a fabulous photo of Grandfather's Stepfather, Adolph and their boxer Aine.

Great Granddaugher Stacy L. Hague

Stacy L. Hague said...

My Father is Vaughn Armstrong Hague, son of Emil Rueben Hague...I suspect Emil came from Emile of which Caroline was fond of and called herself from time to time.

vaughn hague said...

Grandmother"s,HOUSE OF THURN was located at 15 east have a picture of it with her yellow 1914 ROLLS ROYCE SILVER GHOST(Hamshaws Sedance de Villa Cabolette)It was photographed with her and the several members of THE SISTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION on Armistice day 1918,photographed by ALMAN@CO 590 5th ave.N.Y.C..Granmother owned many exotic limozines in her lifetime,MODEL J DUESEBERGS,PACKARDS and such, but for centimental reasons she kept the yellow one till the day she died.Dad hauled it to the scrap yard,he didnt think anyone wanted an old ROLLS.The first one she had a 1908 SILVER GHOST, she left in Paris. Everwhere Grandmother went she loaded her yellow ROLLS on the train and took it with her, even to WYO. to see dad even though there wearn'any roads to drive it on. Adolph Windmuller (Grandmothers escort was a near-todo-well playboy).At the age of seventeen Dad was fedup with N.Y.C.and wanted to seek his forthin in the WEST.Adolph was good harted and loaned him a $20 Goldpiece for his jurney.In the middle of winter 1907 he hopped a freight train out of N.Y.C..He road along side the boiler of the old Steamer to keep warm.He ended up in Cody Wyo.hungrey,cold,broke, and woreout.

William F. St Clair said...


mojeh said...

this s good insight & will
definitely put some suggestions into practice.after reading your article have experiences to work with it.looking forward to more educative post like this.

Anonymous said...

I have many many photos of Grandmother and CE and their life, her life. All the estates, cars, employees, dress shop and family. If you have interest: