by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The excellent talk and costume demonstration titled “A Changing Silhouette” by Natalie Meyer of the Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles provided a great summary of the transformations in women’s fashion over recent centuries (with some reference to men’s clothing for the 10% of us gents in the audience—though change was generally pretty minimal there).
It was not just that Natalie shared the story of fashion’s alterations (!) over time via a PowerPoint show, which was certainly interesting on its own, but that she then shared samples of women’s clothing, particularly bodices, corsets, and others that were, as she pointedly reminded the audience of about 45 persons, instruments of torture for the sake of the desperately desired hourglass figure with broken ribs and displaced internal organs the price paid for binding girls from as early as age 11 to get the 18-inch waist (yes, 18 inches!) that was considered the gold standard.
That sharing included having several women come up from the audience and help demonstrate some of these pieces and, following on the heels (!) of Edmon Rodman’s show-and-tell and sing-a-long at the end of his great presentation on Los Angeles Jewish history through his artifact collection, this is a a great reminder of why the Homestead looks to engage visitors in various ways, including active participation.
Hearing and seeing what Natalie brought to “A Changing Silhouette” was a reminder of a recent donation that fits (!) right in with the topic, this being the gift by the estate of the late David A. Workman of the wedding dress worn by his grandmother, Maria E. Boyle Workman, in October 1867 and at her 50th wedding anniversary celebration in October 1917—both events being held in the same room of her Boyle Heights house. The donation includes the dress, bodice, gloves, shoes, and silk flower corsage and this seemed like the opportune time to share those with this post, as well as about her history.
Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah) Elizabeth Boyle was born in New Orleans on March 18, 1847 to Andrew A. Boyle, whose story of survival in the San Patricio (St. Patrick’s) Irish colony in Texas during the 1836 revolution there is an amazing one, and Elizabeth Christie. Her mother was born in British Guyana on the northeast coast of South America and her father hailed from Ireland. Andrew Boyle was on a mercantile excursion in October 1849 when his ship sank in the Gulf of Mexico and the news reached New Orleans that all aboard perished and, it was said the shock led to the death of his wife when Maria was just two years old.
Boyle returned home to find his young wife dead and entrusted the care of his daughter to his sister-in-law Charlotte Dardier. In 1851, he journeyed to Gold Rush California and established a shoemaking business in San Francisco and then sent for his daughter to join him after a few years. In 1858, the pair, along with Charlotte, who remained devoted to her niece until her death in 1899, relocated to Los Angeles, after Andrew purchased land on the east side of the Los Angeles River in what was called Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) from the López family which settled that area in the mid-1830s.
Boyle continued operating his shoe business, but also branched out into selling wine, from the vineyards which he acquired, under the Paredon Blanco name. He was also a member of the Los Angeles Common (City) Council and the board of education. Maria was educated at the Catholic girls’ school operated by the Sisters of Charity and a Catholic girls’ college in San Francisco.
As noted above, Maria married William Henry Workman, the nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and owner, with his brother Elijah, of a prosperous saddlery and harness business in Los Angeles. The couple resided at Paredon Blanco until Andrew Boyle’s death early in 1871, after which they inherited his estate.
Four years later, William H., along with the prominent banker Isaias W. Hellman and merchant John Lazzarovich, subdivided the Boyle Heights tract, which grew, especially during the Boom of the 1880s, to be a successful early suburb in the Angel City. William H. and Maria had seven children between 1868 and 1890, including daughters Mary, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Gertrude and sons Andrew Boyle, William H., Jr. and Thomas.
As the Workman family’s financial, social and political fortunes grew during the last few decades of the 19th century, including William H.’s several terms on the city council and his service as mayor in 1887-1888 during the great Boom of the Eighties, Maria not only presided over the household and the raising of their children, but was very active in many social causes in Los Angeles. This continued well into the 20th century, during which time her husband was city treasurer from 1901-1907, her son Boyle was president of the city council for much of the 1920s, and her daughter Mary Julia was a leading figure at the Brownson Settlement House and in Catholic charitable and broader community endeavors.
Maria was not as prominent in the public eye as her husband, son and daughter, but she kept busy with a great many organizations, including the Brownson House;, the Boyle Heights Episcopal Church Guild (although she was a staunch Catholic—another prominent figure was Esther Hellman, Isaias’ wife); St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Boyle Heights; the Cathedral Aid Society; the Catholic Child Welfare League; the Catholic Ladies’ Aid Society; the Ladies’ Benevolent Society; the Hospital of the Good Samaritan; the National Council of Catholic Women; the Sisters of Charity’s Orphans Asylum; and St. Paul’s Hospital and Home for Invalids.
While she was not apparently overtly political, she did participate in some Democratic Party events after woman suffrage was achieved in California when she was in her late sixties and she signed on to a women citizens’ letter in support of bonds for water projects in the early 1920s. Another notable cause to which she was deeply engaged was for the emerging holiday of Mother’s Day in 1909, including the establishment of a fund for “poor and tired mothers.” She was an active member of several women’s clubs, a popular activity for those of the upper classes, including the Friday Morning Club, the Catholic Women’s Club, and the Women’s Athletic Club.
As noted earlier, Maria donned her wedding dress when she and William H. celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in the same room in which they were married in the house her father built in 1860. A photo in this post is of the couple on that day and, while a Los Angeles Times notice about the event didn’t mention her dress, it did have some interesting things to say about the celebration:
One of the best-known couples in the city will celebrate fifty years of life together a week from next Wednesday, when Mr. and Mrs. William H. Workman of No. 357 South Boyle street receive friends from 3 to 6 in the same house where they married, half a century ago. The Workman family is a real pioneer family of Los Angeles, having come where when the town was little more than a pueblo. When Mrs. Workman’s father bought the land where the house now stands, it was considered to be “out in the country,” there were no bridges, no paved streets, no electric light; in fact, very little but wild land. Mr. and Mrs. Workman have seen the town grow to be a mighty city, and have a very lively interest in the growth and welfare of the community.
William H. died in February 1918, four months after the anniversary event, and, in 1921, Maria moved to what is known as the Jefferson Park neighborhood of the Angel City near the intersection of Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard, where her son William H., Jr. resided. Her home of over six decades was acquired as a home for Jewish senior citizens and this became the current Sakura Gardens to Japanese seniors, though the future of the facility and site is being contested as historic landmark status for it is being undertaken.
Even as her level of activity necessarily slowed in her late years, Maria was involved in such activities as Le Salon Francais and a women’s Democratic Party event for former Wyoming Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor in the nation and who served i that office from 1925 to 1927.
She died in October 1933 and was buried on the 66th anniversary of her wedding, leaving her seven children, ten grandchildren (including David, from whose estate the dress was donated) and a great-grandchild. Among the pallbearers at her funeral were attorney and Democratic Party stalwart Isidore Dockweiler, for whom the local state beach is named; lawyer Richard J. Dillon and Frederick M. Keller, whose mother was Maria’s aunt.
Maria Boyle Workman was not as well known as others among prominent Los Angeles women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but she was within the broad circle of those who were involved in clubwork, charitable endeavors and other activities at a time when women were gradually but substantially expanding their public roles. We’re glad to have been gifted her wedding dress as an early item of Angel City women’s fashion, as well as an artifact of her life.