Jane Grey Swisshelm

Born: December 6, 1815

Died: July 22, 1884

In 1838 Jane Grey Swisshelm and her husband moved to Louisville. They lived in a boarding house on Walnut Street facing the Ohio River.

When her husband's business venture failed, Jane "grew tired of doing nothing" and approached a dressmaker about getting work. The dressmaker refused at first, balking at the idea of what working would do to Jane's reputation. The dressmaker eventually conceded but only on the condition that the work be sent by servant so that Jane would not be seen coming to and from the dressmaker's shop.

In addition to sewing work, Jane attempted to run a school and while she found "no lack of pupils whose parents were able and willing to pay for their tuition" she was forced out of business for teaching African American students. She withstood verbal abuse and threatening letters, but when her landlord received threats that his home would be burned if he permitted her to continue, all of her students withdrew.

Jane later ran a dry goods store with her husband until her mother fell ill with cancer and Jane returned home to care for her.

I began to make corsets. It was a joy to fit the superb forms of Kentucky women, and my art-love found employment in it, but my husband did not succeed, and went down the river.

A man came to see if I could give work to his half-sister, for whose support he could not fully provide. She was a Fitzhugh,--a first Virginia family. Her father had died, leaving a bankrupt estate. She had learned dressmaking, and had come with him to Louisville to find work, but she was young and beautiful, and he dare not put her into a shop, but thought I might protect her, so she came to live with me.

My husband's trip down the river was a failure, and he went back home. Remembering he had heard me say I could do so much better at corset-making if I could buy goods at wholesale, he sold his Wilkinsburg property and turned the proceeds into dry goods. To me this seemed very unwise, but I tried to make the best of it, and we took a business house on Fourth street. I cut and fitted dresses, and with a tape-line could take a measure from which I could make a perfect fit without trying on. I soon had more work than I could do, and took two new girls, but the goods were dead stock. My Husband was out of employment, and tried to assist in my business. He was out most of the day, and in the evening wanted to retire early. I was busy all day, and could not go out alone after dark, so came to be a prisoner.

(Swisshelm 2004)

Swisshelm also wrote in disgust about the slavery she witnessed in Louisville. She ended up leaving Louisville swearing "that I never would return — never again would try to live in a slave State." She moved on and worked several more careers as a journalist, editor, and Civil War nurse.


"Jane Grey Swisshelm." Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed October 24, 2020. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10750941
Swisshelm, Jane Grey. Half a Century. 2004. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12052/12052.txt.
Swisshelm, Jane Grey Cannon. Crusader and Feminist: Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1858-1865. Edited by Arthur J. Larsen. Minnesota Historical Society, 1934. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gdc/lhbum.00912.