DRESSMAKER DRESSMAKER, MAKE ME SO FINE
It was now the Spring of 1867; the War of the Rebellion was over and all the survivors had returned home. I graduated from Bandera Public School, being the only Comanche in the state with a high school diploma. I was certainly proud of myself in spite of the continued antagonism from classmates and many residents of Bandera.
Therefore, seeing my future lay elsewhere, I told my white parents that I was moving to Austin, which was a fast growing city at that time. I could use my dressmaking skills to earn a living, as I had made my own clothes from an early age.
Four days after finishing high school, I saddled Mariposa and rode to Austin. The trip was quite uneventful, except many women did not travel alone back then and I received more than one prolonged stare.
When I arrived in Austin, I quickly found work at a dress shop. Then I paid for a room at Mawmee's Boarding House. My future seemed set at least for the time being.
At work, the owner, Mrs. Talley, was rather abrupt with her seamstresses. Although she knew a lot about making dresses, she knew little about managing people. I quickly made friends with Claudia Escobedo, who had minimal English skills. No doubt Claudia thought I was Mexican, as we would often go to Bell Park after work, and sing Mexican ballads and other songs we knew, and we conversed in Spanish.
Payday was every Friday; we didn't work on Saturday or Sunday. After a month had gone by, I noticed that my and Claudia's pay was less than the two other women working there, although we had a bigger output. So, the next Friday, I asked Mrs. Talley how she determined our pay. She said we were paid by work completed, and I mentioned that I had completed more work than anyone else but my paycheck was smallest of the four employees.
"You're not going to be paid the same as Mrs Olson or Mrs Wenzel. They have been with me longer."
"Mrs. Talley, but I have produced more, whether it was complete outfits or piece work, so I should expect pay closer to theirs. Just how much are you paying me?"
She replied, "I don't pay Mexicans the same as my white workers. You people are used to getting by on less, so, even if your work is the equivalent of theirs, I would never pay a Mexican more than a white woman, never."
My anger flashed and I must have moved into a belligerent stance as Mrs. Talley's eyes got big and she took a step back. I said plainly and loudly, so that everyone could here: "That is the most unfair thing I've ever heard you say. We're paid for our work , but the Mexicans aren't paid the same as the white women?! That is intolerable, Mrs. Talley. You should pay me what I'm worth, and not be looking at the color of my skin!"
The two white women were sitting silently. Mrs. Talley didn't know how to respond to my rebellion, as she was not used to anyone daring to disagree with her. She had no choice but to play her trump card: "That's the way it is. If you don't like it, you can go work somewhere else."
"I don't like it and I'm leaving!" I told Claudia we were quitting, but she bleated like a lamb in danger, that she was lucky to have that job. I put all my things in my purse and walked out. I would never submit to such behavior, such prejudice, such an attempt to cheat someone out of an honest day's pay. I looked back and Claudia was sitting, looking at me, but she didn't pack up and leave. I had not seen the last of Mrs. Talley, though, as she took my expectations of an equivalent wage as an attack on her integrity and she would continue to try to destroy my own dress shops.
My determination at this point was to make dresses cheaper and better than anyone else, even though I was suddenly unemployed. I knew where to start recovering, though.
I walked immediately to Walker's Freight and Supplies, where I had seen some empty space in the front area. It wouldn't be very big but it would do for now.
When I walked in, the men stared at me, as I was entering a man's world. Yes, women sometimes came here to pick up or drop off freight but I was counting on even a few women a day coming in here or even walking by. I wasn't afraid, either; I knew what I wanted and I knew how to ask for it. Comanche girls never showed fear.
"I'm looking for the owner, Mr. Walker."
"Yer lookin' at him, young lady. Ya wanna ship somethin'?"
"Mr Walker, I want to make some money for you," I volunteered.
Naturally that got his attention. He looked at me with a tired "I've been down this road before" look. "You lookin' for a job?"
"My name is Nowena Kennard, Sir. I'm a seamstress…"
"A dressmaker. I know a way to make money for you and I both, and you don't have to do a thing, but sit back and collect some dollars." I gestured with my right index finger when emphasizing "money".
Now he got interested. "Really? Just how do you plan to do that?"
"I noticed you have that part of your store by the front that is unused space. I could use it and pay you for it?"
"Well, I dunno. If and when we need extra storage space, it tends to get crowded here by the door. But what ya want ta use it fer?"
"Dresses. I make formal and evening dress, for men and women. Austin is a growing town and a lot of the politicians and businessmen want to dress their ladies up with fine clothing. I don't need a lot of space as I'm a one-person business. I can put up curtains and keep my work in sort of a "room". I won't disturb your work; most of it is loading and unloading off the back dock anyway." I looked at him and waited for a response.
"Miss, women don't come in here that much, and they don't come in here to buy clothing. You'd be better off renting a store on Lamar Street, and putting up a big sign."
I wisely agreed: "Oh, I plan to, someday. Today, however, my start up funds are very small. I want to grow, and I think I'd get enough business so that I could pay you …say… five percent of my gross income? For starters, anyway."
Mr. Walker sort of laughed and said "You are a determined saleslady, now aren't you?"
I could see he was coming over to my side. "I want to make money, you want to make money; we make money together. "
"But, Miss, what if you don't make any money for a few weeks? After all, a new business takes awhile to make a profit."
"I'll do your books for you every evening after you close, so when you come in the next day, you'll know how the previous day went."
He looked startled. "You know how to keep books?"
"Sure; I learned in high school. I'm going to do the books for my clothing business."
He rubbed his chin, mulling it over. "I ain't never met anyone that done some high school. How far did you get?"
"I just graduated a month ago."
His eyes grew large. "A girl that's a high school grad? Now that's about as rare as a fat stray dog….uhhmm, sorry, I didn't mean it that way."
I laughed gently, "Ha, I know. In addition, I speak Spanish and can translate for you any time, for free."
That was the glue that sealed the deal. He could make more money with less effort and he grasped that. So, we shook hands and I marked off the area I wanted to use.
Next, I went to Bostick's General Store and set up an account, so I could buy my supplies on credit. Then I made a sign "Dresses for the Finest" and put it in the window of Walker's store.
After a slow start, by the end of the second week, I was very busy, working six or seven days a week. I was turning a profit but could not keep up with demand. So, I went by Claudia Escobedo's house and asked her to come work with me. She quickly agreed to, as Mrs. Talley had become more abusive when I walked out. I had made an enemy of Mrs. Talley and when Claudia came to work for me, she told me that she overheard Mrs. Talley say she intended to repay me. Claudia may not have spoken good English but she could understand it.
One day Mr. Walker sat down with me and said "I have something I want to discuss with you. Directly, it's not my business but indirectly it is."
"What's on your mind, Mr. Walker?"
"Well, dint ya used to work for Missus Talley?"
"Aye, Sir, that I did."
"Well, see….. my wife and Missus Talley are friends, and she told my wife that she fired you cuz you ran up huge bills with the general store, and you still owe them money, and that you were always late payin' on the loan you made at the bank, and, one more thing, that you came to work a lot, smellin' like alcohol." Mr. Walker definitely had a puzzled expression on his face.
I guffawed, as it was downright silly. "Mr. Walker, feel free to ask the bank or the general store about payments on my debts; they would be in a position to know, Mrs. Talley wouldn't. As for the alcohol? That's a 'no', also. You can ask any of the other employees at the time." I moved my face close to his. "She can make other personal attacks that might have some merit, but these are totally false."
"Well, Nowena, you see, my wife has been pressurin' me to look into these accusations. I have nothin' personal against you."
I interrupted him: "Haven't I kept my word to you, doing your books and sharing the profits from my business?"
"Yes, yes, that you have."
"I encourage you to check out these accusations, then tell your wife what you find out."
"Sorry, Nowena, I tend to believe you, but I have to live with the wife and I can't be findin' fault with her friends."
"Mr. Walker, I'll be looking for that place on Lamar Street you once told me about, and when that day comes, this situation will go away."
"Well, sorry to have to bring this up. I'll…uhh…I'll tell the wife that I'm looking into it-but don't feel pressured to move!"
"That day has to come, Mr. Walker, we both know it. It has nothing to do with Mrs. Talley."
After 3 months, I realized it was time to move to Lamar Street and open my own business. Mr. Walker was saddened when I told him my plans, as he had profited when I profited. We parted friends.
The new store was named "Dresses so Fine", and Claudia and I stayed busy, making what the public wanted. We even took on Mrs. Wenzel, as she found she could make more money working for me. My idea was this: when you make a dress, you charge what you want; I get 10% of what you charge. This had a double incentive: the employees would turn out good work and on time, and they could charge what the market would bear. Inferior products did not sell well or at all, so we soon had a reputation of making the loveliest women's dresses in town. I also paid my bills on time, and paid off any loans I made, something young people today seem to want to avoid. (these memoirs were written in 1947- editor). So, I also had the reputation of being an honest businesswoman.
It was a great time to be in the clothing business in Austin. The War was over, people were flocking here, and as the state government grew, the ladies demanded fine clothing. For awhile, there was such a shortage of women's dresses that many would go to San Antonio or San Felipe to find something to wear.
It wasn't just a matter of making money for its own sake, but I had to make a living somehow; most of us do. I wasn't married but I still had to eat and have money for my own needs. There was no genius or luck involved; it was the ability to provide something the public wanted and at a price we could both agree to. I was a free woman: free to ride the prairie, free to live where I wished, and free to make my decisions about what to sell and what to buy. It's a good feeling.
In six months, I opened another dress shop, called "Dress Up". I divided my time between the two stores, and had Claudia managing Dresses So Fine. I was barely 18 years old and had a house, two stores, a buggy, and 3 horses. Life was never better. Oh, I stayed busy; no time to sit back and watch others spend their money; I was just doing what I liked doing: making outer wear, and making money doing it.
When Mr. Walker passed away, I bought his freight business and put my male friend Bill Tillery in charge. I made a few minor changes but mainly sought out more routes and made deliveries on time. There was money to be made and I was making it. By the time I was 20 years old, I was the wealthiest independent businesswoman in the entire state! Not bad for a Comanche maiden, was it?
I had met Bill Tillery about 2 years earlier, when he and a small posse had chased me in Llano County (see "The Last Buffalo Hunt" –editor), and he and I were spending time together. Bill knew all the roads and creeks in that part of Texas, and what routes were practical in bad weather.
Mrs. Talley never stopped trying to harass me or hurt my businesses, but she was quite ineffective. She even spread the word that I employed Mexican girls that did inferior work. It made little impact on the public. I even made trips to San Antonio where I bought, then had my Mexican employees make, trajes de charreadas, the beautiful outfits that Mexican girls wore at Charreadas ( Mexican rodeos ). Nothing better than an authentic dress made by those who wear them. I would even wear some of my own, with my boots and sombrero, and of course, everyone thought I was a mejicana. I was not only bi-cultural, I was and remain tri-cultural, although the Comanche ways are long gone and the prairies are now filled with cattle and cowboys. My Comanche way of life is gone forever.