Notes on the European and North American Offices

Spirella's History as derived from the British Phone Directories


M.M. 'Pa" Beeman  1910

At the end of the nineteenth century in America, at a dinner gathering, the wife of a Mr. Beaman broke a corset stay causing her considerable embarrassment, and not a little pain, as the broken ends dug into her midriff. She admonished her husband, 'Pa' Beaman, as he was affectionately called, who had become something of a famous inventor. The dialogue must have gone something like "How come the horseless carriage is with us, but my stays either rust or break. DO something; you're supposed to be an inventor"!


'Pa' Beaman rose to the challenge and invented the flexible stay in 1904. The potential of this invention was recognised by William Wallace Kincaid and a Mr. Pardee, who launched a corset company in America the same year named after the spiral wound device that 'Pa' Beaman had engineered. Thus was the Spirella Corset Company formed in 1904.



W.W. Kincaid                            J.H. Pardee

These days, the idea of a broken corset stay may appear fairly risible, however, in the early days of the last century, the construction of one's stays was literally, a life-or-death matter! (Spirella Magazine 1916)



No risk of imminent mortality for this flexible young lady, and, more importantly, her equally flexible stays! Flexibility played a major role in Spirella's advertising.

In 1906, a sister company in Canada had been formed and three years later, Mr.Kincaid sailed to Britain, recognising a potential market for the company. On 27th May 1910, the Spirella Corset Company of Great Britain was formed and, according to the sales pitch of the time, "English womanhood was born again"!




The head of Canadian Spirella, Mr J.H. Moore, was brought over as the first MD. A management team and a group of practical salesmen and engineers were recruited. The factory at Letchworth (north of London) was under construction when Spirella (GB)'s first corsetiere, Mrs. F. Wright, made Britain's first Spirella corset in 1910 in a small construction shed on the site of the factory (see below).

Times were far harder in those days than we can even comprehend in the 21st century, and 20 years of hard work (left - 1910; right - 1930) have taken their toll on Mrs. Wright. Remember that the ethic of 'duty' was fundamental and intertwined with strong religious convictions. The house magazine of the day was highly moralistic in its exhortations to its staff. It was the only way to found an empire; indeed, it was the only way to survive at all. We have become soft and often judge incorrectly these days from our comfortable, over-extended perspective in the 21st Century. 

The two photographs of American corsetieres is a snap-shot of life a century ago. Unlike the false smiles of today, people only smiled where there was humour, and corsets are no laughing matter. Regard the corsetted waists of many of the ladies and the vaguely medical garb sported by some of them in the photographs from Meadville (below). Many would actually be nurses, since corsets were often prescribed for ailments of the back and abdomen, either real or imagined.





                                                                                                                  The interior of the shed


In Britain, Letchworth Garden City where Spirella set up its head office, was an alcohol free zone. Alcoholism was a plague in the major cities (as it has become once more today), and the Letchworth residents were empowered to vote on whether the 'demon drink' would be allowed there.

A building was constructed in the style of a public house (pub) complete with amenities such as darts and skittles, but alcohol was not served. The pub was called the Skittles Inn, and the extension at the back, the Kincaid Hall after Spirella's founder. Letchworth allowed alcohol into the city only after 1958 (and now regrets it.)

A Spirella corset from the 1910's. Note the closely spaced front suspenders. I have never understood this feature, but suspect that with the thick stockings of the day, suspender detachment was common and therefore, safety in numbers was required.



Although times were especially hard during the years of the First World War, Spirella survived, and in the 1920's, in addition to the factories at Niagara Falls, Oakland and Letchworth, expanded its manufacturing base to Malmö in Sweden (17th Nov 1920), Copenhagen in Denmark, and Berlin in Germany. (The German factory was actually in Düsseldorf).




By 1924, there were factories at Meadville and Cambridge Springs, PA but the Copenhagen offices appear to have vanished. The picture of the German factory or HQ (bottom) is Berlin and the one to the right of that is in Düsseldorf.



Often overlooked is the Harlow, UK factory where Spirella made their brassieres (above). On the right is the annex (?) of the Spirella factory at Letchworth with (enlarged below) the lovely sign proclaiming 'HIGH GRADE CORSETS'.



In Britain, the huge Letchworth edifice (which stands today as Spirella House) was known as Castle Corset. Its importance to the town's economy is well illustrated by the cartoon. Compare the detailed cartoon with an actual photograph of the building complete with the statue of Sappho. Once again, war interfered with production, and the house magazine became progressively thinner in the early 1940's, not recovering its former size until the 1950's. The war-time magazine is full of praise for the soldier relatives of the Letchworth staff. There were many material shortages during the war due largely to interrupted rubber imports from East Asia and the all-consuming need for steel. Corsets became utilitarian, yet highly important to an expanding industrial female workforce. 'Make do and mend' was the watchword and a huge nation-wide campaign to gather steel was instigated. Thousands of women removed the spiral steel bones from their old corsets and girdles and donated them to the war effort.


After the Second World War, Spirella opened showrooms at the most prestigious locations in London, as the Oxford Circus premises illustrate. The success was attributable to the ground force of corsetieres, who sold and cajoled their ways through post-War suburbia. The 'double-glazing' salesman might be the unwanted caller of the 1990's, and the 'Avon Calling' lady or Tupperware parties a less irritating diversion of the 1970's and 80's, but neither compare to the army of ladies, who, 'cold-calling' would shed their outer clothes and demonstrate, in a candicity almost unimaginable today, their underpinnings, the mainstay of their profession. Once again, we are victims of moralising from a view-point that is four decades in the future from a war-torn world was both extremely poor, yet demanding of the 'country fit for victors' that had been promised.



Spirella House, Oxford Street in the early 1950's. Note the beautiful inlaid mosaic pattern on the floor.




In the post-War period, the Spirella vans carried their wares across the country, whilst back in the laboratories, fundamental elements were tested to destruction.



The Spirella seamstresses from 1962 and 1960. Corset manufacture is highly labour intensive and highly skilled.




Of course the final article was passed under the gimlet gaze of the Senior Spirella inspectors (1962). Failure of a foundation garment, particularly a Spirella simply was not to be countenanced. Such expertise would leave the trade in the 1970's never to return. Within a few years, a huge social change would sweep through the world, the ramifications of which we are still trying to understand.

Spirella ensured a constant supply of jobs, some as exoteric as 'corset lacer', a profession which stumped the panel of "What's My Line".

The Ivy Leaf Club, which was founded in September 1932, flourished as the sales techniques of the Americans rewarded effort and success with the trappings of the 1960's post-war wealth. The car, central-heating and, just to celebrate the First Man on the Moon, perhaps a colour TV, even if the pictures from the moon were in black and white!


The War Years were over. The misery of rationing was finished. Women could look stylish again, and inspired by such sources as diverse as Dior and Jane Russell (albeit engineered by Howard Hughes), the 40-year-old woman could rely on Spirella for her new-found shape. Her Mother could rest assured in the quality of the corsets that she had worn from adolescence, and, if Spirella had their way, the daughters would follow in these corseted footsteps. Alas: it wasn't to happen that way.


This picture fascinates me. Is the woman particularly small?  It does not appear so since her waist-line, in relation to the table-top, is the same as for the woman on the left. If so, that corset could be a huge 22 inches long. Judging by the photograph, the width is little less, perhaps accommodating a waist-line of 38 to 40 inches. It would probably fit our good friend Bunty, but for the fact that Bunty was only seven years old when this photograph was taken!

25th August 1962: Designers were required since the burgeoning hips of post-woman had yet to stabilise. (They still haven't - Ivy)

The demise of Spirella is catalogued within this web site and I'll dwell no longer here on this subject. Let us simply return to a time when the corsetry trade was at its zenith and regard a simple photograph (below) taken in December 1957. It encapsulates a time that remains in the memory of few:-

Oliver Philpot, Managing Director of Spirella from July 1957, was one of the many British forces personnel that were captured during World War II. He escaped from Stalag Luft III, in Germany, with two colleagues via the 'Wooden Horse', an amazing and inventive ruse that has generated at least one book and has been the inspiration of several films. My husband admits that such heroic deeds of WWII were the stuff of post-war British boyhood heroism that dominated his school life.

In this picture from December 1957, Mr. Philpot awards an Ivy Leaf long service emblem to a Mrs. Bellingham. The picture is a reminder of the gentleman, and the lady. Historically, we know that the gentleman is a larger-than-life character. (If you have read the book you will understand). Quite obviously, the lady wears her Ivy Leaf emblem like a medal. She is not from the same 'drawer' as her company's MD, yet she is proud, she is discreetly, but well dressed, and her figure, although middle-aged, is a testimony to the excellent qualities of the foundation garments which, no doubt, she had sold in abundance.

It is a photograph from a bygone era. It represents commercial success, however, I feel that the handshake is between two representatives from a world we no longer understand.







Oliver Philpot MC DFC

After the 'Wooden Horse' escape he was debriefed by MI9, the escape organisation, and did not return to operations. In 1944 he was appointed a senior scientific officer at the Air Ministry.


The son of a lighting engineer from London, Oliver Lawrence Spurling Philpot was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 6 1913 and educated at Radley and Worcester College, Oxford, where he learned to fly with the University Air Squadron. In 1934 he joined Unilever as a management trainee and two years later was appointed assistant commercial secretary in the company's Home Margarine Executive. He reported for full-time service in the RAF in August 1939 and was posted to 42 Squadron as a pilot officer. This Coastal Command unit was equipped with the obsolete Wildebeeste torpedo-bomber. In June 1940 the squadron converted to Bristol Beauforts and saw action in the Norwegian campaign. On one sortie Philpot pressed home an attack on Christiansand in Norway after his Beaufort had been badly shot up. With his crew dead or dying, he managed to fly back to back to Leuchars in Scotland, where he made a belly landing. On Dec 11 1941 his Beaufort was hit by a German flakship while attacking a freighter at the centre of a merchant convoy. He ditched the Beaufort, which broke in two. Philpot and his crew clambered into a dinghy and were adrift for two nights before being picked up by the enemy and transported to Silesia.


The escape from the prison camp, Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Silesia, in 1943 was based on the ruse of placing a hollow wooden vaulting horse some 100ft from the camp wire. At the outset Flt-Lt Eric Williams, whose idea was inspired by the Trojan Horse, and Lt R M C Codner, Royal Artillery, wedged themselves inside the horse, sank a shaft and began to dig a tunnel. Fellow prisoners staged a keep-fit exhibition which duped their German guards for months. The operation began on July 8 1943, but Flt-Lt Oliver Philpot later joined as third man. Day after day, as PoWs vaulted for two or three hours at a stretch, Philpot toiled at his share of the tunnelling. Then, at 1pm on Oct 29, Codner was sealed into the tunnel. After the evening parade, at which the count was falsified, Williams and Philpot were carried out inside the horse. At 5pm they too were sealed in. Philpot and his comrades waited until it was almost dark and then emerged some 12ins short of the target spot, to find themselves right in the sentry's path. Fortunately the night patrol was late.


Clad in black clothes and face masks, the party made its way into a wood, where it split up: Codner and Williams headed for Stettin, while Philpot plumped for the longer trip to Danzig. Posing as a Norwegian quisling, Philpot prayed he would not meet any genuine Norwegians as he did not speak the language. His cover story was that he was a margarine executive (his own peacetime occupation) on exchange from Norway to Berlin. He carried a small suitcase containing shaving gear and wore a black Homburg, an RAF officer's greatcoat and gloves, new shoes, a pair of Fleet Air Arm officer's trousers and a black civilian jacket. He chewed on a pipe, as an excuse for slurring his speech, and for good measure he sported a Hitler moustache. He bought a rail ticket at Sagan and travelled to Frankfurt-on-Oder. The next morning he caught the slow train to Kustrin, where he joined the Konigsberg Express, went to asleep sitting on his suitcase in a third-class gangway, fell off and exclaimed 'Damn]' But his fellow passengers simply laughed. Challenged by a plainclothes policeman on the train, Philpot fobbed him off with an identity card which displayed the mug shot of a fellow officer. He changed at Dirschau and boarded a fast train to Danzig.


It was 23 hours since he had broken ground at Sagan. He treated himself to a glass of beer in the station refreshment room, took a tram to recce the docks and returned to an hotel near the station, where he was obliged to share a room. The next morning Philpot took a ferry trip in the harbour, where he noticed a Swedish ship loading coal. Later that evening he climbed up a mooring cable and wriggled on to the deck. After lying low for a while he crawled to a door leading to a galley, drank the hot chocolate he found simmering there and stowed away in a coal bunker. Next morning (Nov 2) the ship put to sea. Having waited until the craft was well clear of Danzig, Philpot revealed himself and was invited by the captain to be a guest for the remainder of the voyage. The ship docked at midnight on Nov 3 at Sodertalje, where Philpot spent a night in a police cell. The next day he walked into the British Legation at Stockholm, where repatriation was arranged. Williams and Codner also scored a 'home run' by way of Sweden.

On demobilisation in 1946 he joined the Maypole Dairy Co; two years later he was appointed chairman of Trufood. In 1950 he became office manager at Unilever House, and the next year moved to T Walls & Son as general manager. Subsequently he was a director of Arthur Woollacott & Rappings; chairman and managing director of the Spirella Company of Great Britain and managing director of Benesta (later Aluminium) Foils. In 1962 he joined Union International and from its head office ran eight companies. From 1965 to 1967 he was deputy chairman and chief executive of Fropax Eskimo Frood, later Findus. Finally, from 1974 to 1978, Philpot was managing director of Remploy (who had latterly taken over Spirella).


In his spare time he gave unstinting service to various charities. He was chairman of the RAF Escaping Society, and served on the National Advisory Council on Employment for Disabled People. He was also overseas administrator for Help the Aged, a member of the general advisory council of the IBA and a manager of the St Bride Foundation Institute.


In 1950 Philpot published Stolen Journey. He listed his recreations as 'political activity including canvassing, sculling Boat Race course and return (No 452 in Head of the River Race for Scullers, 1986), talking, idling, listening to sermons, reading Financial Times and obituaries in Lancet'.


Philpot was awarded the DFC in 1941 and MC in 1944. Oliver Philpot died 29 April 291993(1993-04-29) aged 80.



Michael Codner, Oliver Philpot and Eric Williams, the three escapees. Eric Williams wrote the book 'The Wooden Horse'.



Whatever happened to the Spirella Factories?


A gap in our knowledge has always been Spirella in Germany, however, after some judicious trawling through the internet and with the help of Google's 'Peg Man' we have found the following information:-

Although the Spirella literature of 1924 mentions Berlin, this may have only been the head office, for the factory lies in Düsseldorf some 300 miles west. The factory was originally built in 1907 for the company Die Bühne GmbH in Düsseldorf’s Oberkassel neighbourhood. The picture (left) was taken from the north-east in what was then an expansive railway marshalling yard. Today, the area has changed and the marshalling yards have gone. The picture (left) can no longer be reproduced since the north-east flank of the factory is now a narrow alley, the Greifweg (aerial view - right). The view from the south-east (right, recent) shows that the building's exterior has not changed in over a century.

After Die Bühne ceased operations on 7th November 1912, Spirella Gesellschaft took over the premises in 1913 and remained there until 1936, using the factory for the manufacture of corsets in the Spirella tradition. Typically of the Spirella factories all over the world were the large picture windows and ceiling windows. Cutting and sewing requires good light if your seamstresses are to produce top class workmanship.

Today, the factory houses the Julia Stoschek Collection, an international private collection of contemporary art with a focus on time-based media art. The collection opened in 2007 and comprises installations, videos, photographs, paintings and sculptures. Each year a different exhibition presents, documents and makes available to the public different aspects of the collection.


Although we have no memorabilia of German Spirella, we have come across a receipt for a package sent from the Spirella factory in Oberkassel, Düsseldorf to a Frau Marie Siegl of Brunngasse 4, Passau on the Rhine in 1916. The address is now a shopping complex and 'pegman' is not allowed there!





Having researched the German factory of Spirella, we were keen to find out if the factory and shop still remained in Malmö. Obviously (and sadly) they would not be making and selling corsets any more. My husband dived into the world wide web with a will and, although failing to find the factory, did find the original facade of the Spirella shop as the pictures reveal. There on the Gustav Adolfs Torg,  a street famous for its corsetry emporia (note Fox korsetter) lies the Spirella shop, the outlet for the factory. Ironically, the shop is now the home of 'Les Trois Roses' a chocolaterie. Sadly, just when your Swedish woman could well do with a firmly constructed lower foundation, this is no longer available to her. 


Demonstrably the same building (above) in 2012 as the photograph from the Spirella magazine in 1957 (left).





As far as we know, Spirella never had a manufacturing outfit in Holland, but they did have a shop where garments could be ordered and returned for repair. This only came to our attention when we discovered a postcard dated 24th September 1943.


Amsterdam, date as postmark (24.IX.1943)

Dear Madam,

True to tradition, we continue our Spirella service despite the very difficult times and poor supply of raw materials and we give a 25% discount on all Spirella corset repairs during the months of October and November.

We trust you will make use of this offer and will be pleased to see your order soon.

Meanwhile we will provide service of the highest quality,



Van Baerlestraat 156 is still there but in the guise these days of a children's shop.


Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada


Bird Kingdom! At least the architecture has survived largely unmolested apart from the addition of an aviary.

Situated on River Road just north of the Rainbow Bridge, this four-storey all-concrete building was built in 1908 by the Spirella Corset Company as a corset manufacturing facility. At one time the factory employed 250 women. By 1958, the company employed 30 workers and had moved to a smaller facility on Lewis Avenue. In 1958, the building was purchased by the Jacob Sherman, owner of the Niagara Falls Museum, who renovated it extensively adding a five-storey viewing tower, and moved their collection of 700,000 artifacts and over 2000 photographs back to Canada. The Sherman family operated the museum until 1999 when the maintenance of the artifacts and the building became too costly. Most of the museums contents were bought by private collector Bill Jamieson of Toronto. Mr. Jamieson subsequently sold a number of the artifacts including the Egyptian collection which included the remains of the pharaoh Rameses I and a number of other valuable mummies. In 2003 the remains of Pharaoh Rameses I were returned to Egypt. The former museum building was bought in 1999 by Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Larry Van. After $15 million dollars in renovations including a large addition on the south side of the building, the Niagara Falls Aviary opened in June 2003. The aviary features 300 tropical birds from around the world as well as an authentic wooden Java House, hand carved in Indonesia in 1875. There are rumours of a friendly ghost who tidies up and appears in the uniform of a night watchman wandering the floors in the old part of the building.

Niagara Falls, NY, USA

Across the border in New York state (below), there is no such interesting story and the factory has fallen on hard times. It is only the definitive architectural styles glimpsed through the encroaching trees that reveals the once proud offices of Spirella at the corner of Main Street and Bellevue Avenue.

Oakland, California

The fate of the Oakland factory seems to be much the same.


Meadville, Pennsylvania

In Meadville, the elegant offices are long gone and have been replaced by a parking lot. Thankfully, there is a sign (41o 38.324'N  80o 09.139'W) on the corner of Park Avenue and West Cherry Street that recognises the factory and its contribution to the town.