As doctors in the late 1800s, brothers Dr. Lucien and Ira De Ver Warner became concerned with the use of the corset in women’s fashion. The corset was a piece of underclothing meant to give women an “hourglass” figure desirable at the time. But the tight, uncomfortable steel-and-bone contraptions could be painful, break ribs and they often caused internal injuries.
The Warner brothers preferred that women stopped wearing these devices completely, but that wasn’t likely to happen. So Lucien, who had quit his job to lecture on the adverse medical effects of the corset, invented a more flexible version, using “Coraline” plant fibers and an ingenious design for wearers to achieve the same shape without the organ-shifting and nerve-deadening pain.
Ira’s wife tried out this garment, and gave her seal of approval. So, with only $2,550 the two doctors started a business producing and selling “Dr. Warner’s Coraline Health Corsets.” They were an immediate success.
In 1876 the brothers moved their operation to the corner of Atlantic and Lafayette Streets in Bridgeport, where they could be part of one of the nation’s most productive centers of industry. Over one thousand employees crafted 6,000 corsets on a daily basis, quickly becoming the largest and most popular corset manufacturer in America. They quadrupled the size of the factory as they grew, and as a side project manufactured “base balls” for the new American game just gaining popularity.
The Warners’ employees included large numbers of immigrant women, and the company provided for them by opening the Seaside Institute on the opposite corner of Lafayette and Atlantic Streets. Opened in 1887 in a ceremony featuring the nation’s first lady, Frances Cleveland, the Institute provided housing, a restaurant, a library, and classrooms where these women could learn the English language and civics in order to become Americans.
By 1894, the Warners were millionaires and friends with some of the most powerful people in America, including John D. Rockfeller and Theodore Roosevelt. When they retired, they left the company in the hands of their sons, who took it to even greater heights of success.
The popularity of corsets declined in the early 20th century, and in 1914 they bought the patent for the brassiere from inventor Mary Phelps Jacob, becoming the first to manufacture it on a large scale.
Later in the 20th century, the company turned its attention to modern underwear, swimwear, and other apparel. Renamed Warnaco, it moved its headquarters away from Bridgeport, closing down the last factory outlet store in the city by 1996.
In the 21st century, the old Warner Brothers Factory was transformed into Manhattan-style condominiums called The Lofts on Lafayette.
Want to learn more about The Warner Brothers? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:
— Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City. By Eric D. Lehman (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.)
— A History of the Old Town of Stratford and City of Bridgeport Connecticut, Volume 2. By Samuel Orcutt. (1886)
The Warnaco Group Inc. — Company History”. Funding Universe. The Gale Group. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/The-Warnaco-Group-Inc-Company-History.html.