Elizabeth C. Quinlan
The Twin Cities' first fashionista
It was a brown wool dress lined with taffeta. With its long, full skirt, tight bodice, high collar and leg-o'-mutton sleeves, it was the kind of dress a fashionable woman might wear for afternoon tea in the late 1890s. It sold for fifty dollars, and when shop owner Elizabeth Quinlan introduced it to her Minneapolis clients, she made retail history.
Quinlan was the first merchant to sell women's ready-to-wear clothing west of the Mississippi. Before this, women either made their dresses themselves or paid someone to make them. Quinlan's innovation was simply the most notable of the many things she accomplished during her long tenure as one of Minneapolis's most successful businesswomen. She grew up in a working-class home in Minneapolis. At eighteen, she began selling clothes at Goodfellow and Eastman on Nicollet Avenue. Fifteen years later, and by then one of the store's top salespeople, Quinlan left Goodfellow's for a three-month stint at Fred D. Young and Company, the nation's second ready-to-wear shop, newly founded by a former Goodfellow's executive. She stayed at Young's (which in 1903 became Young-Quinlan's) for the next fifty-one years.
For Elizabeth Quinlan, 1911 was a watershed year. A devastating fire necessitated an entire remodeling of her store. Later that year, her partner, Fred Young, died at age forty-nine after a long illness. Quinlan bought his interest in the business from his relatives, thus becoming its sole owner and one of very few women business owners in Minneapolis.
In 1926, when she was sixty-three-years old, Quinlan built the elegant Young-Quinlan Building at 901 Nicollet Avenue, a five-story emporium that combined elegance, luxury, and convenience. The "perfect gem," as Quinlan described it, was widely admired and copied, becoming the template for Neiman-Marcus's expansion in Dallas in the late 1920s.
Elizabeth Quinlan was well known throughout Minneapolis's civic circles. She supported charities and cultural groups and founded the Business Women's Club in 1919. In 1933, she was the only woman to serve on the board of the National Recovery Act, advising on specialty stores and advocating a raise in minimum wage. The Saturday Evening Post devoted a four-page spread to her in 1927, and, in the mid-1930s, Fortune Magazine named her one of the country's top businesswomen. A winning combination of elegant socialite and shrewd manager, Quinlan was once asked if her store was the realization of her lifelong dreams. "No," she answered. "Everyone wants me to say so, but it isn't. Not really. It was just the thing for me to do."
Share your memories on this topic