LIMA — In the early part of the 20th century, Lima workers made locomotives and trucks, cigars, gloves and mittens, drain tiles and, at the Lima Manufacturing Co., something called the “Wash E-Z,” which was touted in ads as “the greatest labor-saver ever made.” Lima’s imprint could be found on the transportation industry, energy production, heavy machinery manufacture and even fashion — or, at least, the underpinnings of fashion.
At the Shirr Ruffle company plant in the 200 block of East Spring Street, scores of women and girls bent over sewing machines assembling undergarments to squish and squeeze unwilling flesh up, in, out and into whatever shape was in fashion, which in the years before World War I was heavily bosom-centric.
In a newspaper ad from around 1910, Shirr Ruffle promised a “perfect figure for $1,” adding that “the flat-chested woman was never at so great a disadvantage as in today’s stylish, slender frocks. A high, broad bust and graceful taper at the sides is imperative.” The Shirr Ruffle “bust form,” the ad explained, “perfectly produces these normal beauty lines, fills hollows in front and under arms” and, better yet, “can’t be detected by sight nor touch.”
The workers of the Shirr Ruffle company, made girdles, corsets, bust forms and other lingerie for nearly two decades before the plant closed in the late 1920s. According to a June 3, 1910, help-wanted ad in the Lima Daily News for “girls to run power machines,” workers could “make $10 to $12 per week after trade has been acquired.” While learning, however, the pay was listed as $3 per week.
The founder of the company was a former tailor named Linus T. Furnas, who operated the plant at 211-215 E. Spring St. with his son, Everett. Furnas was born in Pleasant Hill in Miami County in 1852. By 1860, the Furnas family had moved to Iowa, where his father, Dr. William Furnas, died in 1865. Eighteen seventy found Furnas back in Pleasant Hill, working as a clerk in a store. In 1872, back in Iowa, he married Anna E. Tinker and the couple would have three children, two of whom, Joanna and Everett, survived childhood. His mother, Sarah Terry Furnas, died in 1904.
After a short stint as a “custom cutter” in Columbus Grove, Furnas in about 1882 opened his tailor shop on Lima’s Public Square. An April 26, 1884, ad in the Allen County Democrat for Furnas the “tailor and clothier” at 23 Public Square promised to “show you goods and prices that will make you buy” and went on to tout the “$6, $8, $10 and $12 business suits as “positively unequalled, for quality of goods and stylish appearance.” That same year, the shop was moved to 74 Public Square.
During the last decade and a half of the 19th century, Furnas also dabbled in oil and politics.
When oil was discovered in Lima in May 1885, Furnas, like many Lima businessmen, became a partner in oil drilling ventures. An article on July 7, 1886, in the Lima Daily Democratic Times reported “Hopkins, Gordon and Laney & Furnas, have shut down some of their wells on account of the inability to get casing.” Two years later, on Sept. 26, 1888, the same newspaper referred to Furnas as “engaged in the Lima oil field.”
On Dec. 16, 1891, the Lima Ministerial Association invited a “number of prominent businessmen to meet with them.” Furnas was one of those to answer the call. “The original idea was to get say 100 good citizens organized as a body to stand up for good moral government in the city,” according to the Times.
The following March, a committee from the group selected candidates to seek the Republican nomination for city positions. “The name of L.T. Furnas for Mayor was first taken up, and went through with no objection,” the Times reported March 21, 1892. Furnas was beat out for the nomination by William McComb Jr., who went on to become mayor.
On March 6, 1900, fire caused by a faulty flue struck Furnas’ tailor shop, destroying much of his stock. According to the Lima Times-Democrat, the loss would have been worse if not for two women — Lizzie and Vina Flammer — working in the shop at the time. “The two young ladies took what articles they could carry, including all of the suits that were being made, and rushed to Gowdy’s tailor shop and returned for more but could do nothing further on account of the dense smoke,” the Time-Democrat wrote.
Furnas would continue operating the tailor shop until March 1903 when he sold to Nelson Herbst.
The 1906 City Directory shows Furnas and his son, Everett, operating the Apex Skirt Company at 16 1/2 Public Square, while the 1908 directory indicates the company has moved to 211-215 E. Spring St., which would become the home of Shirr Ruffle.
In 1909, Furnas organized the Shirr Ruffle Co., selling the Apex Skirt Co., which continued to operate on South Union Street. In January 1911, the Furnases bought “the large block which their factory occupies on Central Avenue and Spring streets” for $19,000, the Times-Democrat reported. “The company manufactures ladies skirts and white goods of various kinds.” By Jan. 16, 1913, the Times-Democrat was calling Shirr Ruffle “one of the established industries of Lima, and gives employment to a large number, principally girls and women …,” while in a June 4, 1914, ad in the Lima Daily News, Feldmann & Company assured “customers they sell the famous Shirr Ruffles made in Lima, in the newest models.”
On Nov. 30, 1917, Furnas died at the age of 65. He was, the News wrote, “one of Lima’s well-known businessmen” and died at his 909 W. Market St. home, “after a lingering illness of eight weeks.”
The Shirr Ruffle Co. would continue under the leadership of Everett Furnas. In early April 1922 a lightning strike was blamed for starting a fire at the East Spring Street plant. Damage was caused mostly by smoke and water, the News reported April 8, 1922. “A hole was burned through the second floor. Cloth used in manufacturing women’s and children’s apparel was saturated.”
Everett Furnas left the company about 1924 and moved to Kentucky. The 1926 City Directory shows the Shirr Ruffle Co. operating at 127 1/2 Memorial Arcade, an east-west alley between Main and Elizabeth streets behind Memorial Hall. The manager of the firm is listed as Karl Rex. The 1927 City Directory has no listing for the Shirr Ruffle Co.
In 1930, Karl Rex founded the Rex Manufacturing Co. at 355 E. North St. The company installed automobile seat covers and convertible tops.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.