Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nelly Don: The Story of Kansas City's Original #Girlboss

A year ago, I had never heard of the brand Nelly Don. It's no longer being produced, and honestly I'm not that particular at looking at labels when it comes to buying vintage. So, an old vintage brand with everyday dresses that were produced in a flyover state...not that thrilling, right? Wrong. So very wrong. This is a tale full of scandal, of mobsters, of a woman entrepreneur in a time when women weren't entrepreneurs. A tale that includes abduction, crooked politicians, and an amazing business model headed up by the ultimate #girlboss, Nell Donnelly.

My husband and I were lucky enough to fall into an amazing rental situation when we first moved to Kansas City, and lived in the Carriage House apartment on the grounds of the Nell Donnelly Mansion for nearly a year. During that time, we had a lot of fun researching the history of Nell and her mansion. We even got to dress up and present on a tour of the mansion where hundreds (thousands?) of guests came to see the home in all its glory and soak up the dramatic history that accompanied it. My segment was all about the Nelly Don fashion brand, and since I'm deeming myself total expert now, I'm going to share the story with you!

Nell was born Ellen Quinlan in 1889, the twelfth of thirteen children, in a small town in Kansas. While at stenographer school, she met and married Paul Donnelly, and he helped finance her way through college (she was the only married woman at the college). After school, made dresses for herself, friends and family, and began getting requests from strangers. Nell talked the owner of a local hardware store into letting her sell dresses there, much to his chagrin. After selling out on the first day, and then growing her operation, she and Paul opened The Donnelly Garment Company in 1919, and that eventually grew into Nelly Don.

Her motto was "women want to look pretty, even while washing dishes." I'm not an early 1900s housewife, but, baby, I can relate. In 1929, she patented the Handy/Dandy apron, a staple for the housewife made in bright colors and floral patterns and that she figured out how to sew using one continuous stitch, which saved the seamstresses lots of time. Time that equaled money. This became a key product of Nelly Don, with consistent high sales.

In 1931, this story takes a dramatic turn! Nell and her chauffeur were abducted just outside her home and held for ransom for $75,000. Nell's husband called his lawyer, James Taylor, and Taylor reached out to his friend James A. Reed, a well-known politician and neighbor of the Donnellys. Reed left an out of town trial to come help with the search. It's been said that Reed had hefty connections in the Kansas City Mob, and apparently threatened to have underground secrets published on the front page of the newspaper if she wasn't returned home with in 24 hours. The cottage where Nell was kept was stormed by gangsters that night and the victims were found at a candy shop outside of the city.

Later that year, Nell divorced her husband, who was now a raging alcoholic with a bad temper. Not wasting any time, she married Senator Reed right after his wife passed away. Since they had been neighbors, it was said they would often sit together in the dog run between their two homes and watch their dogs run. That was our portion of the yard on the grounds, so we like to think we grilled meals and had cocktails right where scandal had been in the making decades earlier. Because...

It turns out Reed had been so vigilant in looking for Nell not as just a friend and neighbor, but he was was also the father of her young child she'd supposedly "traveled to Europe to adopt." Yep, her undercover lover and father of her child had sent out mobsters to rescue her. You can't make this stuff up!

By the time Nell divorced Paul, Nelly Don was a $3.5 million business with more than 1,300 employees. In 1940, Forbes called her the most successful businesswoman in the United States. However, her company was waaaaay more than a money-making machine. She was so incredibly ahead of her time in so many ways. She paid higher wages than her workers could make sewing anywhere else. She was among the first to provide medical insurance, and paid tuition for night classes for any employees who wanted to continue their education, as well as providing scholarships for their children. Nell spent lavishly on the children of her workers, and every Christmas, each child received a personalized gift from Santa. The company owned a home in Kansas City that was used as an event space for company parties and events. Any employee could rent the space free of charge for any type of celebration.

She went out of her way to make her employees more comfortable, making structural changes like adding wooden floors, so workers wouldn't have to stand on concrete, and adding large ceiling fans to keep the temperature comfortable. She provided on-site childcare, a service that's still almost unheard of today. She even established a canteen with free coffee and donuts. Now, that's a gal after my own heart.

In 1965, she retired and sold her company. The new owners introduced the sale of fabric by the yard (which Nell had always been opposed to), and essentially created their own competition. The company went bankrupt in 1978, after having made 75 million dresses, and being recognized as the largest dress manufacturer of the 20th century.

That, folks, is your fashion history lesson of the year. Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know if you have any other questions (What became of Paul? Did the kidnappers ever get convicted?) because there's tons more I couldn't pack into this post that I'd be happy to elaborate on in the comments!

Now that we're feeling the vintage spirit, I've rounded up some of my favorite vintage-inspired dresses below so you can be a styling Nelly Don Doll in no time!


  1. Tell me more! Whatever happened to Paul? What about Reed and Nell's son? Does Nell's family still live in the mansion?

    1. Great questions! Sadly, Paul continued on a destructive path. He ended up marrying a woman half his age, spending all of his money on alcohol and parties, and committing suicide. Meanwhile Nell lived to age 102!

      Reed and Nell's son, David, went on to become an attorney like his father, and also served in the military. He died of natural causes in 1999.

      The family no longer owns the mansion, it's now owned by the CEO of Russell Stover and his wife, who are lovely people and were great landlords :)

      I learned a lot from this book, so if you want to know more, it's a great resource: https://www.amazon.com/Nelly-Don-Terence-Michael-OMalley/dp/159971017X

  2. How wonderful that I stumbled upon this! I've been searching for anything Nel Donnelly since Kurt and I are now renting the carriage house and loving it. We are in love with the history of the place - did you come across any old photos of the home in your search?

    1. So glad you're loving it!! There's a lot about we miss. Unfortunately I didn't find any pictures of the home. Her original home is what's now the Toy and Miniature Museum, so there might be some photos of that home, but I haven't done much searching there. Let me know if you do find any, I'd love to see them! :)



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