Company Women

Salisbury House graces the crest of a hill just off 42nd Street on Tonawanda Drive in Des Moines.  Surrounded by old oaks and formal gardens, the imposing brick and limestone structure evokes a time and place far removed from twenty-first century life.

For some visitors, a walk up the driveway towards Salisbury House generates a range of responses: gasps, jaws-dropping, and a general sense of awe are often elicited by the majesty of the property.


This is where I get to come to work every day.

My name is Megan Stout Sibbel and I have the great pleasure of taking over the position of Curator and Chief Historian here at Salisbury House.

I first visited Salisbury House on a long-ago field trip during (I think) elementary school.  As with most kids who grow up in Iowa, I am fairly sure we hit the state’s classic field-trip trifecta: Living History Farms, the Science Center, and Salisbury House.

Following that first school-age encounter with Salisbury House, I drifted in and out of Iowa.  A double-major in English and History rounded out a B.A. from Simpson College.  Next up: the Peace Corps.  For a little over two years, I taught English in a small town named Kochkor up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.  Upon my return from the Peace Corps, I eventually landed in a PhD-track graduate program in history at Loyola University Chicago.  The focus of my graduate work and dissertation – public history and women’s and gender history – culminated in the completion of my doctoral degree in the spring of 2013.

Now, back in Iowa, I am thrilled to come on board at Salisbury House.  As an historian, I am continually amazed at the wealth of the collections and the great potential for this museum to garner rightful recognition as a national treasure.

From my perspective, one of the intangible treasures of Salisbury House appears in the how the house and its collections reflect our nation’s broader history.  For instance, women’s entry into the public workforce at the turn of the twentieth century represents an especially rich example of the intersection of Salisbury House with the American past.

The images included below come from a 1916 scrapbook compiled by Carl Weeks, the man who built Salisbury House.  He documented the packaging and shipping of primarily mail-order pharmaceutical products from D.C. Leo & Company, a business that Weeks and his partners originated in 1901.

An essential part of Weeks’ workforce – and the individuals he chose to document in this scrapbook – were women.

By the early twentieth century, the “new woman” in America was on the rise.  Whereas the culturally idealized nineteenth-century woman remained cloistered in the “domestic sphere,” raising children and taking care of husband and home, this situation changed significantly by the end of the century. Increasingly, women found work in the burgeoning manufacturing and mercantile economy across the country.   The women of Carl Weeks’ D.C. Leo &  Company in Des Moines, Iowa, reflected this nation-wide trend.

The scrapbook compiled by Weeks showed the steps involved in the receipt and filling of pharmaceutical orders to D.C. Leo & Company.  Female workers, representatives of this broader cultural shift in women’s labor, appear in nearly every step of the process.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: THE PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS JUST AN AVERAGE MORNING’S MAIL, REMITTANCES AND ORDERS.  The young lady is opening, sorting, stamping each piece of mail matter with “Date Received.”

Opening mail

The woman pictured in the foreground is engaged in typical clerical work.  Only a generation or two before, however, this type of office job would have probably been held by a male worker.


Two at desk

Here again, female workers fill clerical positions for D.C. Leo & Company.


Print room

Here, the women of the company. prepare the labels that were affixed to the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics sold by the company.   More than basic clerical staff, women were involved in the production of supplies for the company as well.

After the labels were produced, other women applied the labels to the boxes and packets sent out from the factory.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: After the labels are printed, and dry, they go to the labelling [sic] table.  At each table, the young lady has an assortment of all preparations, in boxes, on shelves before her.  If the order calls for Cold Tables, she takes down the Cold Tablet container, gets out the required number, and LABELS THEM AS SHOWN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH.


For women entering the workforce in this era, a set of assumptions often underpinned their efforts.  First of all, these positions were generally considered jobs – not careers.  Young, often single, working women, so the theory went, should remain in the workforce only until they found a husband.  Then, it was often back into the home to care for the family.  The women of D.C Leo & Company may have felt the potential pressure of this dynamic.

WEEKS’ CAPTIONFIRST FILLING DEPARTMENT.  This machine counts, fills and boxes a gross of Cold Tablets every four minutes, fifteen gross an hour, one hundred and twenty gross a day.  They are seldom idle…the circular machine in the foreground does the same thing for Kidney Pills.

Group filling

Each step of the process, as documented by Weeks himself, relied primarily upon the labor of women.

The image below is unlabeled, but it appears to show another view of the filling department.  The young woman pictured is filling a number of small boxes with a product from the container above.

Lone girl filling

By 1916, the year from which these photographs date, D.C. Leo & Company had been in business for fifteen years.  Carl Weeks was on the verge of the greatest business success of his life.  The Armand Co., a sister company to D.C Leo & Company, was newly incorporated.  The cosmetics line produced and sold by Armand would make Weeks a millionaire in just a few years’ time; construction on Salisbury House would begin soon after.

This collection of photographs offers a glimpse into the very particular story of the man who built Salisbury House.   Behind the man, however, was a workforce composed of increasing numbers of American women.

2 Responses to Company Women

  1. Martha says:

    Good writing, Megan! We look forward to your next posts and learning more about the Salisbury House.

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