by Nancy Bertrand
Recognized by the Harvard Business School as one of the 20th century’s “Great American Business Owners,” Elizabeth Eaton Boit began her life in 1849 in Auburndale, Massachusetts. The second of six daughters of James and Amanda Boit, Elizabeth graduated from Lasell Seminary in Auburndale at the age of 18. Later that year, she began work at the Dudley Hosiery Mill in Newton Upper Falls. The year was 1867; the role of women as ‘mill girls’ was well established, and immigrants swelled the ranks of women workers. Power looms had been established that would allow one girl to work four different knitting machines. Elizabeth’s first job at the mill was clerical. She accepted the position of timekeeper in the sewing or finishing department. Hardworking, intelligent and devoted to her job, she was soon promoted to assistant forewoman. In five years time, she was given full charge of the finishing department where the Dudley Mill turned out merino shirts, hosiery and ‘drawers.’
When her boss, H. M. Scudder, left the Dudley Mill to begin the Allston Textile Mills in Cambridge in 1881, Elizabeth was appointed superintendent of that mill, and became the first woman to hold an administrative position in a textile factory. In this capacity, she hired young Charles Winship, a co-worker at the Dudley Mill, to be the foreman of the knitting department. Allston Mills successfully manufactured hosiery and ‘scarlet-wool goods.’ In seven years, it was sold, and Elizabeth, ambitious for a business in which she would hold a personal financial interest, invited Charles Winship to join her in a partnership. Elizabeth was 39 years old and she was about to establish the firm of Winship, Boit & Co., which created the Harvard Kitting Mill in Cambridge. One year later, in 1889, the young firm would move to Wakefield, taking up one full floor in the Wakefield Building, built by Cyrus Wakefield about 1870 and still standing today on the corner of Main and Lincoln Streets.
Producing a high quality of knit goods (specializing in a finely woven undergarment called ‘Merode’), Harvard Knitting Mills was a great success. Elizabeth managed the finances of the firm and oversaw the overall administration; Charles Winship attended to the knitting and production areas of the mill. Devoted to her employees’ welfare, Elizabeth instituted a profit sharing plan open to all employees and concerned herself with health care programs, healthy working conditions and housing for her workers. Considered a maverick in advancing the condition of women workers, she was concerned that her female employees would be able to open bank accounts in their own names. Her concern led to her nomination to the board of directors of the Wakefield Cooperative Bank, where, in 1902, she was the first woman in the nation to hold such a position.
As its success grew, Merode was advertised nationally and was sold in Lord and Taylor stores throughout the country. Despite the business’ demands upon her time, Elizabeth Boit developed an interest in her town. She owned real estate on Richardson Street, where she would build apartment buildings as convenient homes for her workers. She also became involved with the Wakefield community, actively involving herself with the Wakefield Home for Aged Women, which would rename itself in her honor in 1922. She was also active in the Ladies’ Aid Society of Massachusestts and in the Kosmos Club.
In 1913, she built herself a home: the compound of three stucco English cottage-style houses on the corner of Prospect and Chestnut Streets. Miss Boit and her longtime companion, Emma May Bartlett, occupied the main house; a niece and one of her sisters lived in the other two houses.
The Harvard Knitting Mills, in its heyday, occupied an acre of ground immediately beside the depot of the Boston and Maine Railway Station. In the 1920s, though, due in part to the change in women’s fashions, the knit-goods industry went into a decline. Although the firm’s profits went down, Winship-Boit resisted the national trend of laying off workers and/or cutting their salaries. Consequently, the company began to fail. With the coming of the Depression, things became worse. Elizabeth, who had fallen ill and was bedridden, would never know that the mill hours had been cut. In order that she would be shielded from the condition of the business, Charles Winship would have the mill whistle blown at the regular times so that Elizabeth could rest easily, not knowing that her beloved business had fallen on desperate times.
A remarkable woman, Elizabeth Eaton Boit died at her home in 1932, having lived a life characterized by her business success, but also by her compassionate care of her employees, and her commitment to the community she called home.