Businesses on Main Street: The Ladies' Hatmaker

Most women living in Iowa in the late 1800s had no trouble finding a new hat to go with a new dress. That’s because almost every town—no matter how small—had a hat store. They were called millinery shops. And women loved to visit the millinery shops!

Feathers, satin ribbons, bits of lace and artificial flowers greeted customers at the millinery shop. It was one of the most important stores for women. Women usually wore a hat or bonnet when going out of the house. Headgear could be purchased at general stores or through mail-order catalogues, but only a few styles were available from these sources. Most women preferred to wear individually designed hats from the local milliner.

A Working Woman

There were few chances for women to earn a living in business. Millinery provided women a chance to do this. The owner of the millinery shop also designed and made hats to sell. The milliner used her creative talent to mix different colored feathers, flowers and ribbons in artistic combinations, while carefully matching the shape and style of a bonnet to its wearer.

Millinery shops were also important because they linked Iowa women with the more stylish eastern cities. Rural Iowa villages might be isolated, but milliners kept current dress patterns and fashion magazines available, so customers could keep up with the latest styles. Sometimes milliners traveled to the East to buy new merchandise for their shops. When they returned they could share tales of their travels with their customers and help the rural women keep in touch with a larger world.

Social Spots

Millinery shops became social gathering spots. There were only a few places in a rural village where women might get together to enjoy conversation. At the millinery shop they could drop in anytime and talk with others who might be there.

The ladies' hatmaker was an important person in small towns and large cities in Iowa. Hats were worn by most women when they went out in public. It became fashionable to wear attractive hats. Hatmaking was one job that was open to women. So the millinery shops found in most towns across Iowa became gathering places for women. They picked up the latest news and a new hat to match a new dress!


  • Christie Dailey, “The Ladies’ Hatmaker,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 3 (February 1982): 10.


Why might the cities in the East have had the newest fashions? Why not the South or West?

Media Artifacts

Investigation Tip: Look closely at photographs for details. Divide the photograph into four areas and write down everything you see in each area. What did you discover?