Ask the average Arkansan about the state’s retailing giants and he or she is most likely to bring up Sam Walton or might possibly mention William Dillard. In any event, Dorothy Shaver won’t be part of that dialogue. And that’s a shame, because she deserves to be in the conversation.
So, just who was this mysterious and accomplished Arkansan, an individual described by biographers as a “phenomenal female entrepreneur” and a “Renaissance woman?”
Shaver was the first female in America to run a million-dollar corporation. Her leadership savvy as president of Lord & Taylor resulted in the Associated Press recognizing her as the country’s Outstanding Woman in Business in both 1946 and 1947. Her annual salary in 1947 was $110,000 — rivaling that of leading Hollywood stars (or roughly equivalent to $1.3 million in today’s money). Her social circle included Thomas Watson (head of IBM) and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A life fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, she received honorary doctorates from half a dozen colleges and universities (and has been herself the subject of at least two doctoral dissertations). She spoke out against the reprehensible character-smearing antics of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and worked throughout her career to improve race relations. The governments of France and Italy bestowed prestigious awards on Shaver. Although she lived most of her adult life outside the state’s borders, she had this to say about her native state: “I have always been very proud coming from the state of Arkansas.”
Shaver was born in southwest Arkansas’ Howard County on July 29, 1893, at what she called “a little wide place in the road.” In Center Point (population 300), to be exact, and, in a remarkable coincidence, only a dozen miles north of William Dillard’s birthplace in Mineral Springs. She came from a prominent family. Her mother’s roots could be traced back to colonial America, and her father was a respected judge. She could claim the editor of the Arkansas Gazette as one grandfather and a legendary Confederate general as the other. When Dorothy was five, the family relocated to Mena — about 60 miles north of Center Point — where her father felt economic opportunities in the flourishing railroad town (population 3,400) would be better. Her original family home, a stately two-story structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now occupied by the Carriage House Inn (701 12th St.; rates run $90-$100 per night).
Dorothy, or Didi as she was known to her two older brothers and two younger sisters, enjoyed an all-American childhood. She played baseball nearly as well as her brothers, regularly visited the Mena Public Library, sang in the Episcopal church choir and was popular among her peers. One young man, a boy deemed by Judge Shaver to have “more personality than brains,” was especially smitten with Miss Shaver, a situation that didn’t sit well with her parents. Graduating from Mena High School (she was the school’s salutatorian) on May 16, 1910, she followed her father’s request and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, putting about 150 tortuous miles between her and her would-be suitor, ending the romance. Years later, Dorothy admitted it was a fortuitous intervention.
Upon completion of her sophomore year at the U of A, Shaver moved back to Mena and began teaching in the community’s elementary school. But she and three of her young female colleagues lost their jobs in 1914 when they attended a local dance, apparently unchaperoned and contrary to the conservative school board’s expectations. She then spent a year teaching in Prescott before returning to Mena where she taught during the 1915-16 term. She and her sister, Elsie, then moved to Chicago. While Elsie enjoyed growing success as an illustrator, Dorothy enrolled in the University of Chicago, studying English literature. After receiving a $600 payment for her work on a catalog for Marshall Field’s, Elsie impulsively decided to relocate to New York to pursue her career, and Dorothy accompanied her. Using much of Elsie’s windfall, they bought first-class tickets on the next train out of Chicago and headed east. Dorothy later told a reporter, “I just came along for the ride, and because New York sounded fabulous and exciting.” It proved to be a good decision.
With the two sisters struggling to survive when their money ran out, Dorothy suggested that if Elsie could create a series of dolls, noting the popularity of the Kewpie toys, she’d handle the promotion. Elsie soon produced a set of five whimsical rag dolls with cloth bodies, hair made of yarn, and large, black, sad eyes, dubbing them the “Five Little Shavers.” Samuel Reyburn, a Little Rock native who’d moved to New York and was president of the Lord & Taylor department store, was related to the Shaver family and stopped by to visit with the sisters at their parents’ request. Dorothy showed him the dolls. Taken with their imaginative look, Reyburn directed his associates to help the Shaver girls get their dolls in production. With Dorothy in charge of marketing, sales took off, particularly with the Lord & Taylor connection. But after three to four years in the doll business, Elsie was ready to concentrate on her painting. The sisters closed down their company. Dorothy needed a job.
Impressed with her drive and determination, Reyburn hired Dorothy in 1921 to run Lord & Taylor’s Comparison Bureau — a small and rather insignificant group more or less charged with spying on the merchandise, prices and promotions of competing stores. Dorothy did as instructed but found the industrial espionage business a bit distasteful and largely a waste of time. “Why not forget about competitors,” she wrote, “and concentrate on improving our products?” She was soon given additional responsibilities and found herself in charge of the Bureau of Fashion and Decorating. One of her first changes was to hire a staff of women with “taste and flair” to serve as personal shoppers for Lord & Taylor’s clientele, a service that eventually evolved into an industry standard.
Trips to Europe became a part of her routine, especially to Paris to see what was going on with clothing designers and manufacturers. The prestige given to the top design houses caught her attention, planting an idea that ultimately resulted in Lord & Taylor’s sponsorship of a group of young American designers. In fact, it was Dorothy who coined the phrase, “The American Look,” to denote a unique style created for American women by American designers — clothing that was simple, functional, fresh and affordable, yet stylish.
Shaver rose rapidly through the ranks at Lord & Taylor, receiving promotions to Vice President of Style and Publicity in 1931 and to corporate vice president in 1937. One of Lord & Taylor’s 1938 promotions illustrates the Shaver approach. An unusually warm autumn had slowed sales of winter merchandise. Shaver’s answer was to create an artificial blizzard in the main storefront windows, using bleached cornflakes, Epsom salts, beer froth and fans, accompanied by appropriate sound effects. Crowds gathered on the Fifth Avenue sidewalks — and in the store as well, doubling the sale of fur coats and long underwear.
One of her most significant contributions was the annual Lord & Taylor American Design Awards. Beginning in 1938, the ceremonies initially recognized clothing, shoe and textile designers, but the criteria were expanded over the years to include other individuals who’d contributed to the growth of the country. Later recipients included helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky, physicist Albert Einstein, city planner Robert Moses and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. These eagerly anticipated luncheons, held at the Waldorf-Astoria, attracted 1,800 of the city’s top movers and shakers.
During World War II, Shaver also contributed to the U.S. military. Serving as a special consultant to the Army’s Office of the Quartermaster General, she coordinated efforts to redesign uniforms for the Army Nurse Corps Gathering feedback from nurses and determining suitable materials, she produced a series of flattering and easy-to-keep uniforms appropriate to the wide-ranging settings where the women were stationed.
When Lord & Taylor’s Walter Hoving retired as president in 1945, the all-male board of directors convened to anoint his successor. Allegedly congratulating themselves for choosing “the best man for the job,” they announced their selection: Dorothy Shaver. Placing a woman in this prominent role created quite a media stir, to include front-page coverage in The New York Herald Tribune while Life magazine produced an eight-page spread titled “No. 1 Career Woman.” Noting that Shaver’s $110,000 salary was only 25 percent of that of her good friend Thomas Watson of IBM, the author of that 1947 article wrote this:
“It would not occur to Miss Shaver to make an issue of the obvi-ous example of sex discrimination in a system which confers upon the male business executive rewards four times greater than those fixed for the senior lady business executive. But as the general leveling between the sexes proceeds, inequities of this sort will clearly come in for drastic correction.”
The board made a wise choice in Shaver. She led the business to one record-breaking year after another. Under her guidance, Lord & Taylor did something no other department store had ever done: open a branch store. The first, in Manhasset, N.Y., was wildly successful, and six more suburban stores would follow.
Customer comfort was one of Dorothy’s priorities. At her direction, Lord & Taylor installed the first store lunch counter in the city. She put in a soup bar in the men’s department, added a tearoom for the women, and created a milk bar — with a nurse on duty — where kids could enjoy milk, ice cream, fruit juice and an abundance of toys while their parents shopped. She established distinct specialty shops for teens, petites, brides and mothers-to-be.
Shaver realized that her employees were Lord & Taylor’s No. 1 asset. The company began offering medical coverage to its staff in 1948. Pension plans, staff bonuses and profit-sharing plans soon followed. Employees had access to their own recreation floor, a center with a snack bar and game room. It also included a library, operated by a full-time librarian, with 1,800 books and two dozen magazine subscriptions. And the Lord & Taylor cafeteria, offering affordable meals subsidized by the company, was available for both executives and hourly workers.
Shaver was also a believer in good corporate citizenship. “Today’s business leader cannot justify his existence by profit statements alone,” she said. “He must also render service to his local, national and world community.” It was a philosophy she practiced daily.
But she was not all work and no play. Hardly. She frequently enjoyed games of badminton with her sister and friends. During her many travels (she went to Europe at least 18 times on business), she often included art, theater and dance experiences. She and her sister, Elsie, visited Russia in the early 1930s, long before it became a legitimate tourist destination. She learned to snow ski, did some mountaineering and even lived on a chartered boat for half a year. And she had some success at the gaming tables, once using $3,500 from a night’s winnings at Monte Carlo to buy a pair of antique bronze French andirons for her Manhattan penthouse near the East River.
Following a series of strokes, Dorothy Shaver died on June 28, 1959. She’d been vacationing at her summer home in Tannersville, a small town about 120 miles north of New York City in the Catskills. She was 65. Her death and career were covered in a front-page article the next day in The New York Times. Shaver’s funeral service, held at St. Thomas Protestant Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, attracted over 1,000 mourners, including such luminaries as Eleanor Lambert (fashion publicist), Edward Durell Stone (architect and a fellow Arkansan), Stanley Marcus (president of Neiman Marcus) and Arthur Hays Sulzberger (publisher of The New York Times). Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt eulogized Shaver in her daily newspaper column, describing her as a woman of “ability and charm, and those who worked with her found inspiration and comfort in her vitality and imagination.”
Her body was returned to Arkansas, and she was buried with other members of her family in East Memorial Gardens in Texarkana. Elsie, Dorothy’s devoted companion for 63 years, presented her older sister with one last favor, making sure the gravestone indicated that Dorothy was born five years later than her actual birth date.
Now, to get back to that earlier question: Who exactly was Dorothy Shaver? She was, as The Times once described her in a headline, the “Arkansas girl” who entirely on her own merits rose to the very top of one of the most competitive fields in American business. Her national importance is evident by the 27 bulging boxes of Shaver’s papers, correspondence, articles, photographs and recorded material held in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. As the author of one dissertation wrote, “She shattered the glass ceiling before the term was even invented.”
Shaver worked hard, treated her colleagues and competitors fairly, readily embraced new ideas and made this country a better place. In short, she was an example for all of us, men and women alike, to follow.