Hats off to Perkasie’s Mrs. Johnson

A question came up recently about one of Perkasie’s first businesswomen, and whatever became of Mrs. W. K. Johnson – the Borough’s first French milliner.

It took a little digital detective work to track down Perkasie’s trendsetter of Victorian fashion, but thanks to the Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com websites, we know a lot more about the women’s hat business in Perkasie when hats and bonnets were a big deal in the Borough.

One problem was there were two women with the same name – Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson who resided in Perkasie in 1900. One Lizzie lived in the Victorian Queen Ann house currently being remodeled on Vine and Fifth Streets in Perkasie. The second Lizzie Johnson lived at 118 Fifth Street, several houses down from Trinity Lutheran Church.  Lizzie Johnson on Vine Street made cigars along with her husband Milton Johnson and they moved to Colorado in 1902 to start their own cigar factory. Lizzie Johnson on Fifth Street also married a cigar maker, William K. Johnson, but she ran her own French millinery from the bottom floor of two homes on Fifth Street for nearly 35 years.

On November 7, 1891, the young couple married at the Ridge Valley Church after getting a marriage license in Philadelphia, where they lived. The Johnsons soon moved to Perkasie, which had become a boom town for the cigar business. Over his lifetime, William K. Johnson work at various Perkasie cigar makers as a packer, and he wound up at the H.E. Snyder business in the 1920s.

However, unlike other women who followed their spouses into the cigar trade, Lizzie was a milliner trained in Philadelphia and working at Strawbridge and Clothier in the 1880s and early 1890s.

The craft of millinery arts, or making hats and other headwear, was one of few professions considered as a respectable business owned and operated by women in Victorian society. In fact, the millinery and dress-making businesses were dominated by women, and it was considered an insult in Victorian society to call a man a “milliner.”

Perkasie and Bridgetown had milliners since the 1880s, when Miss Kate Benner and Sybilla Snyder competed against their rivals in Quakertown and Dublin. Lizzie Cressman briefly had her own business in Perkasie in 1889 but was forced to close her shop.

However, in 1894 Miss Kate Benner, Perkasie’s town milliner, decided to move to Philadelphia and she sold off her store and its contents to Cressman. In the Spring of 1895, Lizzie returned to Perkasie as Mrs. W. K. Johnson, opening her store on Fifth Street. Down on Race and Sixth Street, Mrs. A. B. Hunsberger opened a competing shop. A third milliner, Miss Cora Ahlum, joined the hat trade with a store front on Seventh Street.

Within a year, Hunsberger and Ahlum were out of business, with Miss Cora Willet’s New York Millinery moving to Chestnut Street to compete against Mrs. Johnson’s French Millinery. Over the next 35 years, other milliners came and went from Perkasie as Mrs. Johnson conducted her successful shop on Fifth Street. In 1909, the Johnsons expanded the store by building a new home at 115 South Fifth Street, with the lower floor customized for business (complete with built-in mirrors).

Mrs. Johnson frequently advertised her Spring and Fall sales in the newspaper, writing her own advertising copy. In 1901, Mrs. Johnson reminded shoppers that she did a cash-only business. “For there is no hen that scratches for nothing and neither do I,” she warned debtors. And there was the reminder that “there is nothing to make a lady feel more delightful than if she has a beautiful stylish hat to wear on Easter morning.” In 1907, Mrs. Johnson received nearly 400 birthday cards and her seasonal hat sales became an institution.

Johnson’s French Millinery Store, 1929

In 1909, when her new store opened Mrs. Johnson bluntly wrote about the hat business. “We have been in Perkasie for the last 14 years, and in these 14 years we can give you the names of milliners that came in Perkasie and went out again. That shows that our work gave good satisfaction as our business is growing every season so much more. With all the opposition it always makes it so much better for us,” she wrote in her Spring ad.

During the 1910s and 1920s, Johnson faced new competition from department stores with hat departments, and local milliners such as Ada Deily, Mabel Lewis, and the returning Mrs. Hunsberger. By 1934, Perkasie was down to two milliners, Mrs. Johnson on Fifth Street and Mrs. Muth at Ninth and Market streets. A month after her 1934 Easter sale, Lizzie Johnson fell ill at her Fifth Street home and passed away from a stroke at the age of 66.

Living with the Johnsons at the time was Frank Schultz, a nephew of Mr. Johnson’s who was considered an adopted son. In August 1934, Miss Alta Landis acquired the Johnsons’ business and reopened it as the Vogue Millinery Salon. A year later, Miss Landis married Frank Schultz. Eventually, Frank Schultz left the publishing business in Philadelphia to join his wife in running the Vogue Shoppe, one of Perkasie’s more successful businesses.

Today, few people know about Mrs. Johnson as a pioneering businesswoman in Perkasie. In 1923 of the approximately 150 taxpaying retails businesses in town, only three were owned by women. Lizzie Johnson ran her own very successful business for 34 years, leaving a legacy of success for others to build upon.

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