Nell Donnelly Reed

University of Kansas
Nell Donnelly Reed
Nell Donnelly Reed. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
  • Also Known As: Nelly Don, Nell Quinlan Reed, Ellen Quinlan
  • Date of Birth: March 6, 1889
  • Place of Birth: Parsons, KS
  • Home: Kansas City, MO
  • Spouse: Paul Donnelly (divorced, 1931); James A. Reed (married, 1933)
  • Date of Death: September 8, 1991
  • Final Resting Place: Mt. Washington Cemetery, Independence, MO

Born Ellen Quinlan in Parsons, Kansas, Nell Donnelly Reed was the founding owner of the Donnelly Garment Company. The women’s clothing line became a national sensation. Reed’s was the first company to mass produce affordable and attractive ready-to-wear clothing for women. She was one of many people to capitalize on the garment industry’s move to Kansas City and other spaces outside of the Northeast. The industry was fleeing expensive cities like New York, instead taking advantage of the railways and roads that made interstate commerce possible and, indeed, profitable. These companies sought the cheap land and labor the area had to offer, initially free from union interference. The innovation and glamour of Reed’s professional and social life in Kansas City, especially after her advantageous marriage to former-Senator James A. Reed, is clouded by accusations of her abusive managerial practices and her clashes with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Reed moved to Kansas City in 1905 with her first husband, Paul Donnelly. It was there that she began making house dresses out of her home that were more fashionable and affordable than the premade clothing available to working class women at the time. Reed learned to sew as a child, having created her own clothes from her older sisters’ hand-me-downs, and later attended school at Lindenwood College. She was a talented designer who envisioned the mass production of flattering, beautiful clothing for working class women. After selling a few of her new designs to local stores, Reed decided to open her own shop. This was the start of the Donnelly Garment Company, officially founded in 1916. Her work contributed to the growth of mass manufactured women’s clothing. Until the “Nelly Don” dress, premade clothing had been too expensive for working class women and was an unnecessary product altogether for wealthier women who could afford their own tailored clothing. Reed’s dresses filled the gap in the industry and became wildly popular. Though praised for her innovation and her status as a female entrepreneur who employed many women, Reed’s career was marked by criticism from her own workers as well as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Union officials had started organizing in the Kansas City Garment District to improve sweatshop conditions, increase pay, and fight for the right to collective bargaining. Reed proved to be one of their biggest obstacles.

As Reed became increasingly wealthy, her career was marked with personal and political controversy. She was kidnapped in 1931, a plight that became a dramatic and highly publicized event. Reed’s kidnappers held her for a $75,000 ransom and threatened to blind her. During an era of sensational journalism, local readers familiar with Reed’s business success and social prominence could follow the status of the kidnapping through daily updates in the Kansas City Star. Paul Donnelly called on his wife’s friend and associate James A. Reed, former Kansas City mayor and three-time senator, for help. Using his mob connections, he was able to arrange her return without paying the ransom. Reed became sole owner of the Donnelly Garment Company in 1931 when she divorced Paul Donnelly and purchased his half of the company. In 1933, she married James Reed, with whom she had already had her first and only child three years prior. It is unclear whether the Donnelly-Reed affair was common knowledge, but the marriage enhanced Reed’s public clout and political connections, qualities that enabled the rapid expansion of her business in the face of looming unionization.

Backed by the skill and labor of workers in low-paying jobs with little job security, the Kansas City Garment Industry flourished despite the Great Depression, slowed production, and an impending war. These workers were often immigrants or people moving to cities from failing farms and grueling rural life. The garment industry increasingly expanded to Kansas City and other less populated places of the Midwest and the South because of the growth of unions, increased cost of production in New York, and the increased potential of interstate commerce with new roads and railroads.

As Reed’s company became more successful and nationally prominent, her employees became increasingly overworked and underpaid. Inspired by Henry Ford’s speed-up system, Reed established a piece making process for producing clothing. Instead of producing complete products, the process was split into as many small tasks as possible. This resulted in a repetitive process where production increased but accomplishment was not measured by growing talent but instead by increased speed. Virginia Stroup described her experience with this system:

They first had a rule there, imposed without any agreement with their workers, or without any voice on the part of the workers as to its Justness, that they would fix a piece work price on all garments, and then if a girl could not make an annual minimum average of $15.00 a week she couldn't work there any longer. . . . The trick in this system was that whenever the girls, by the hardest kind of work and after giving up a part of the half hour they had for lunch, were able to average an amount fairly large over the minimum wage, they would cut down the piece work price, which really meant successive cuts in their earnings.

This system allowed the company to manipulate the worth of each task to best exploit and, if necessary, punish her workers if they decided to join the union. Though most women were able, from past employment or work in their homes, to produce complete items of clothing, the workers in Reed’s factories were categorized as unskilled laborers based on the factory’s production methods, not their abilities. This allowed the company to increase their profit while minimizing the compensation and skill of its workers.

Enforcing a system of labor wherein workers did not gain advanced skills or individually produce complete products helped justify a system of fast-paced work and low-paid jobs. The practices of the factory itself also shifted in a way that failed to empower and educate these women workers, because their success was not defined by gaining skill. Instead, upward mobility came in the form of a few management jobs and time-keeping roles gained through expressed loyalty to Reed and the floor managers, not by gaining expertise in producing clothing

This method of production became a major point of contention. Production standards  were set based on the fastest employees, with pay and employment for workers contingent upon meeting ever-increasing production demands. Reed’s employees had no say in how much their particular piece making was worth, and the value could change at any point in the process. Reed required her employees to work long and inconsistent hours, sometimes 60 hours a week during peak seasons, but also laid off workers for months at a time. Like Ford, Reed numbered her employees and established a spy system designed to prevent unionization. Union workers were often forbidden from speaking at all during work, while non-union workers were assigned to track how often other workers went to the bathroom to catch them wasting time or attempting to communicate with anyone. Managers turned a blind eye to physical and verbal harassment of unionized employees, actively working to catch union members in any offense that might justify firing them. As unrest increased Reed bought a second factory down the street, where unionized workers were sent to work in isolation in an attempt to mitigate their contact with other employees who might be convinced to join the union too.

Like the company’s location on the outskirts of what is formally considered the Kansas City Garment District, the Corrigan Building at 1828 Walnut, Reed’s business practices deviated most notably through her unwillingness to work with the ILGWU. Reed created the Donnelly Loyalty League, compelling her workers to purchase loyalty pins (for 35 cents apiece) but forbidding their purchase if workers refused to turn in their ILGWU pins. After she failed to stop unionizing workers, she established a formal company union. Concerned about the impact of a potential boycott of her products, Reed ultimately sued the ILGWU in 1937 petitioning for an injunction to ensure her ability to conduct business without external interference, unencumbered by obligations to her workers.

The suffering of many of Reed’s workers would be captured in multiple detailed affidavits gathered during the court case. Lillian Wales quoted her manager’s response to her decision to join the union: “I would just like to whip you. . . . For joining the union and giving your money to those damn dirty foreigners like Dubinsky to set up there and take you little girl’s money. There is not a girl that has joined this union that is an experienced operator.”

ILGWU Demonstration
ILGWU demonstration on March 17, 1937. Courtesy of National Archives at Kansas City.

Mamie Tubbersing, one of the employees who had been laid off after almost 10 years in a highly skilled position, described being sent home temporarily and never being called back to work after joining the union. When she asked if she could return, her supervisor claimed she had spoken ill of the Donnelly Garment Company and would not be called back. Tubbersing said she had never said anything bad about the company and, when instructed to work at night to meet the production demands, said that workers “owed it to our own personal beings that when we left work to leave it there.” Though Reed was praised for hosting parties for her workers and later providing clean restrooms and healthcare, these types of services were only offered after threats of unionization in order to deflect external interference. Frank Walsh, the defendant lawyer, tried fruitlessly to convey that these efforts were not a sufficient substitute for Reed’s workers’ right to unionize and demand fair hours, wages, and conditions.

Part of the company’s grievance was the boycott that the ILGWU attempted to implement. The union dispersed pamphlets and wrote letters to local stores to inform them of the Donnelly Garment Company’s differences in wage and condition standards from the otherwise unionized industry. Wave Tobin, Manager of the Joint Board of the ILGWU in Kansas City and former Donnelly Garment Company employee, explained in one of the circulated pamphlets:

Our aim is industrial peace. We believe in intelligent co-operation between employer and employee. Such co-operation is essential for the welfare of all factors in industry, including the consuming public and community at large. Peace and harmony prevail in the major part of the Dress Industry and we are eager to extend this co-operation to include your firm. Let us join hands to avoid industrial conflict.

The Donnelly Garment Company claimed in their call for an injunction that these claims were untrue and the efforts to boycott were illegal.

James Reed represented his wife’s company. He constructed his argument in a way that emphasized the need to protect innocent, impressionable white working-class Midwestern women from violent Jewish men from big cities and communist states. He described the union’s infringement on potential corporate profit, industry expansion, and the value of unchecked interstate commerce. Considering the political connections of the Reeds and the paternalistic, welfare capitalist policies encouraged by the Pendergast machine, it is not surprising Reed won the case.

Donnelly Garment Company, Sewing Room
The sewing department at the Donnelly Garment Company, 1937. Courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City.

The court findings state that the “acts and threats of the defendants . . . were acts and threats in pursuance of a combination and conspiracy to injure and destroy plaintiff’s business,” and “that plaintiffs did not at any time discriminate against their employees on account of affiliation with the defendant International[.]” The court ruled that the call for a boycott was illegal and referred to the union as a terrorist organization. It also importantly determined that the case did not fall under the protections of the Norris-LaGuardia Act (a 1932 measure outlawing contracts wherein workers pledged not to join a union) because the matter did not qualify as a “labor dispute.”

Nell Donnelly Reed remained head of the Donnelly Garment Company until she retired in 1956. The business, renamed the Nelly Don Company, filed for bankruptcy in 1978. The loss of Reed’s leadership was not the cause. As the production of clothing followed cheap labor to other regions of the continent and overseas, just as it had done in Kansas City, businesses in the area dwindled and the Kansas City Garment District effectively died in the 1980s. In Kansas City Women of Independent Minds, Jane Flynn refers to Reed as “first and foremost an astute business-woman,” and elaborates on her extensive community engagement. After her retirement, Reed continued to be involved in civic matters and philanthropy throughout her life. She donated land to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which would become the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area. She was the first woman on the board of the Midwest Research Institute and also served on the boards of the Kansas City Art Institute, Starlight Theatre, and Kansas City School Board. Reed died at the age of 102 on September 8, 1991.


This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, through the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council.