Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices behind Nelly Don

Nell Donnelly Reed: Savvy Seamstress, Brilliant Business Woman

portrait of Nelly Don

Dissatisfied with the poor quality and unattractive nature of housedresses in the early twentieth century, Ellen “Nell” Quinlan Donnelly, a young housewife in Kansas City, began designing more fashionable frocks for herself and other women in her social circle. Encouraged by her friends, she ventured into the George B. Peck Dry Good Store in 1916 with a pink gingham sample dress that she dubbed a “Nelly Don.” She convinced the store’s buyer to order eighteen dozen, and when the dresses quickly sold out, the Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) was born.  Though a savvy entrepreneur, Nell often spoke of running her business as “glorified housekeeping,” and publicity materials for the DGC characterized the factory as a “home.”  Such language allowed Nell to craft a public identity for herself that was as practical and comfortable as the Nelly Don dresses manufactured by her company.

Nell shepherded the DGC through the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, adjusting the seasonal production schedule to avoid laying off workers.  She also divorced her first husband, Paul Donnelly, and married James A. Reed, a former U.S. Senator in 1933.  During World War II, she capitalized on the opportunity to manufacture uniforms for army nurses and industrial coveralls for women working in defense factories. In 1956, at the age of 67, she sold the DGC and retired from business. She devoted the next 35 years to philanthropic projects, the Republican Party, and outdoor sports.  When Nell Donnelly Reed passed away at the age of 102, the Kansas City Star’s obituary dubbed her “the grand lady of the fashion industry.”