Enoch: Margaret Donaldson, inventor and businesswoman

Published 11:00 am Saturday, March 18, 2023

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By Harry Enoch


When studying our state and county histories, men are credited for almost everything. That isn’t to say women haven’t had any accomplishments worth noting, but the men who penned the history books often overlooked them. So we should make every effort to incorporate their stories into the written record. With that in mind, Margaret Donaldson (1875-1959) is the chosen topic for this essay. She deserves to be remembered.

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In 1915 Margaret Donaldson of Winchester, Kentucky, applied for a United States Patent for her invention of “new and useful Improvements in Underwaists.” That improvement in child undergarments was not her most noteworthy achievement, however. She used her invention to raise $25,000 in capital from six local investors who incorporated as the Premier Manufacturing Company in Winchester. That amount is equivalent to $670,000 today. The stockholders were Robert P. Taylor, a cashier at Clark County National Bank; Victor Bloomfield, a merchant; Thomas W. Brock, farmer; W. Leslie Cotton, an officer in the Winchester Overall Company; Green Garrett, Clay City lumberman; and John H. Hardwick, Powell County Judge and partner of Garrett.

Margaret received U.S. Patent No. 1,210,773 on January 2, 1917, and assigned it to the Premier Manufacturing Company of Winchester. The company rented the third floor of the Perry Building (now the Winchester Sun building), hired 25 women and installed 25 “power machines” to produce underwaists of Margaret’s design. Cotton, the general manager, reported that they needed to expand the operation as they could not keep up with demand for their product, which they marketed as the “Premier Athletic Waist.”

So what in the world are “underwaists”? An Internet site on historic clothing defined it this way: “Underwaists were a type of support garment. Underwaists (sometimes called panty-waists) were worn by younger boys and girls to support additional underwear (such as bloomers or panties) or outer clothing (such as trousers or skirts). These bodices tended to be worn by boys only until about age 10.”

The business was so successful that a Lexington manufacturer, Gus L. Heyman, bought out the stock of Taylor, Brock and Garrett then reorganized the company. At that time, in November 1917, there were 40 machines in operation. The following January the company relocated to Lexington, where they operated 65 machines in a building on Upper Street between Main and Short. Vic Bloomfield, W. L. Cotton and Miss Margaret Donaldson retained their interest in the company.

In December 1919, the Lexington Herald reported that the former Winchester company “is rapidly becoming one of the largest garment manufacturing houses in the South.” Production at the time was 2,100 garments daily, and their entire output had been sold through 1921. After a fire in 1923, the company moved into a new three-story brick building on West Short Street. In 1927 the company moved to Chaffee, Missouri.

Margaret was a daughter of Francis H. Donaldson, a native of Scotland, and Mattie Clay of Paris. Her father made a fortune in the cotton business in Mississippi, where Margaret was born.

After her company moved to Lexington, Margaret returned to Paris and managed the Bourbon Antique Shop for many years. She died in 1959 and is buried in Paris Cemetery. Margaret never married.