The Woman’s Exchange of Houston was part of a national movement to provide consignment houses to sell the handmade goods of women in need of income. Selling handiwork, edibles, and other items through the Exchange allowed women to circumvent the social prejudice against women working outside the home. Organized on March 12, 1887, the Exchange’s first officers (many married to prominent Houston citizens) were: Jane Connell, president; Harriet Louise Fitzgerald, vice-president; Catherine Thompson, treasurer; and Laura Bibb Foute, secretary. The first members of the board of managers were: Adele Briscoe Looscan (chair), Mrs. S. K. McIlhenny, Jessie Briscoe Howe, Sarah Elizabeth Bryan, Frances Maria Dillingham, Mrs. M. B. Richardson, Mary E. Dumble, Sara E. Labuzan, and Annie E. Sydnor.
What became the Woman’s Exchange Association of Houston opened on November 11, 1886, at 120 Main Street. It first began as a source of income for Laura Bibb Foute, the wife of William H. Foute, Houston’s superintendent of schools, who had fallen ill in 1885. She rented an apartment “convenient to business,” told women she knew of her plan to open a commission house to sell handiwork made by women, and asked for their help. From November 1886 to February 1887 Laura Foute ran the Exchange but, in the interest of devoting her time to publishing, asked the members to form an association to run the Exchange.
In January 1887 The Ladies’ Messenger began publication, with Laura Foute as editor. One of the objects of The Messenger was to bring the Woman’s Exchange to public notice and to advertise the items for sale in the Exchange. The first merchandise list, published in January 1887, included ladies’ and children’s underwear and aprons, pillow shams and bolster cases, hand-painted or embroidered table scarfs, chair tidies, and sachet-bags, knitted slippers, and patterns for rugs. Consignors did not have to reside in Houston. The Exchange received items from Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, California, and Mexico.
It was also possible to sell non-handmade items that would bring income to consignors. Ten percent of all sales went back to the Exchange, but rent and other expenses were paid for through the subscription fee of 25 cents per month, paid by the women who composed the membership. Members also held events such as teas, lunches, and raffles to benefit the Exchange.
The Woman’s Exchange also functioned as an employment agency for “all classes of female workers.” Between the years 1887 to 1892, 213 women were found work as cooks, housemaids, seamstresses, etc., or filled orders for “flowers, fancy work and edibles of every kind.”
The Exchange did not meet with universal support. An article in the Messenger stated that some, “dreading contact with discordant elements,” for which they were reminded of their noblesse oblige. That most of the members were upper middle class is evident as there was low attendance at meetings during the summer months, some members were still out of town as late as October. However, those who participated in activities, such as instructing in free sewing classes, did have contact with those outside of their social circle. Due to the economic panic of 1893, consignors were also made members and asked to submit monthly dues. Though it was never stated, it is safe to assume that the organization was for Whites only. Although there were items on consignment from residents of Mexico, which seems to indicate openness to non-Whites participating to a small degree.
In 1889 members decided to open a regular restaurant at the Exchange room and “place a lady in charge of same.” It is unclear if this was immediately implemented, but a 1901 ad in the Houston Post assured an A1 meal for 25 cents at the Woman’s Exchange, and in 1904 Mrs. Cooper, the former manager of the Woman’s Exchange Dining Hall, opened the Oriental Dining Parlors at 1005 Capitol.
The location of the Woman’s Exchange varied throughout its existence but remained downtown, the last address was 616 Fannin. By 1894 salaried employees ran the Exchange. Carrie Cumming Heavin, who started as a clerk at the Exchange in 1890, retired from its management in 1904. At that time the Exchange appeared to have become a self-sustaining business that no longer required the support of a membership and was offered for sale that same year. Thereafter the Exchange passed through the hands of at least seven lady entrepreneurs before being taken over by Ida and Helen Sweeney in 1920. The Woman’s Exchange was listed in the Houston city directory for the last time in 1928.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Betty Trapp Chapman, Houston Women: Invisible Threads in the Tapestry (Virginia Beach: Donning Company Publishers, 2000). Laura Bibb Foute, “A Woman’s Exchange of Texas,” Gulf Messenger, October 1892. Galveston Daily News, November 11, 1886; April 28, 1888; March 15, 1894. The Ladies’ Messenger, January 1887; May 1887; January 1888; February 1889.
Benevolent Organizations and Programs
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Texas in the 1920s
Upper Gulf Coast
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
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