SPECIAL POST! Virginia Art Goods Studios, 1920s-1950s Women-Owned Company

Virginia Art Goods Studios slip cover bag. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. 

SPECIAL POST: Virginia Art Goods Studios – Women-Owned Handbag Manufacturing Company

Virginia Art Goods Studios was a prolific maker of leather and fabric handbags of many different designs, but specialized in an innovative patented “slip cover” style. The company has the distinction of being one of the very few—if not only—women-owned purse manufacturers of the 1920s. 

In 1925, sisters Mamie Rohr (Mamie Eulah Rohr, 1879-1965) and Bertie Rohr Thornhill (Roberta Esther Rohr Thornhill, 1884-1965), established the Virginia Art Goods League, Inc. The name was changed to Virginia Art Goods Studios, Inc. in 1927. There was another member of the corporation, Frances Oglesby (Sarah Frances Wingfield Oglesby, 1875-1961), who wasn’t as well known as the sisters. Their corporate titles, respectively, were president, secretary and director. Bertie’s son J. Steven Thornhill (1918-2005) became vice president of the company in 1945. Mamie and Bertie's sister, Florence M. Rohr (1878-1959) was a schoolteacher. We did not find any evidence that she was employed by Virginia Art Goods.

1940s red wool Virginia Art shoulder bag that came to The Vintage Purse Museum with 1946 ephemera and other items, including the attached glove holder.

Label inside bag above. Bag is lined in plaid fabric.

Trove of items that came with this bag including matching mirror case, paper-wrapped double-sided mirror, two 1946 motor vehicle receipts from Viroqua, Wisconsin and two used tickets to 1946 University of Wisconsin football games.         

Bertie had business experience roasting and bagging nuts, which she sold statewide, and Mamie had been making handbags as gifts for friends when they decided to start their purse company. Their early models were called “butterfly bags,” with a loop in the back in which a handkerchief could be pulled through to form a bow. According to a 1955 newspaper article, they earned $90,000 in their first year of business. (The article indicates they started their business in 1929, so it took some time to gear up after incorporating.) They made many styles of handbags over three decades, and Florida was a huge market for them, particularly with the lightweight, summery slipcover model. One Florida newspaper article said that Mamie enjoyed wintering in Miami, so perhaps she had contacts there to help establish the brand. When it came to publicity, the gregarious Mamie Rohr was at the forefront of interviews and profiles.

The sisters owned a number of US patents in the 1920s-1940s, including one for a “hand bag and hand bag cover,” and multiple others for “handbag,” “cover for handbag” and “launderable hand bag,” as well as 1933 and 1935 Canadian patents for a “sacoche” (satchel). 

Patented slip cover "bracelet" bag by Virginia Art Goods Studios, Inc. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Label inside bag.

Photo of same bag, with the slip cover removed. The linen interior bag is stiffened with cardboard.

Virginia Art Goods Studios retained professional representation as early as 1930 in New York, with a showroom at 303 Fifth Avenue. Many handbag makers (and other types of businesses) were located at this address prior to and during the mid-century. Built in 1909, the structure is 160,000 square feet, 20 stories high and at one point was known as “The Jewelry Building.” The company, however, always had its manufacturing facilities in Lynchburg, Virginia while owned by the three women.

The Lynchburg Museum held a Virginia Art Goods Studios handbag exhibit in 2016, and graciously shared their notes with The Vintage Purse Museum. According to these notes, early in the company’s existence a local department store commissioned the women to create pennant-shaped bags to appeal to college students. Shortly thereafter, the editor of Gifts and Arts magazine wrote an article about the company, which spawned so many orders that Mamie gave up her teaching career, and the women went into full-time production. The company employed 100-200 seasonal employees in the 1930s-1940s, making 125,000 handbags per year. Workers were encouraged to think of themselves as artists and were offered an employee profit-sharing plan as well as stock options. 

Classic black Virginia Art Goods studios handbag with rosette-like applique. From the collection 
of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Gold-stamped manufacturer imprint in bag above.

A notable employee of Virginia Art Goods was Lynchburg native Joseph D. Neikirk (1911-1990), who worked as a sales representative at the New York showroom starting in 1935. It is unknown how long he was with the company; however, in 1954 he began working for the Virginia Military Institute (where he was a cadet for four years, graduating in 1932) as the VMI Foundation's Executive Vice President. After his retirement, he stayed on with VMI as a fundraising consultant.

Virginia Art Goods advertised heavily in the local newspaper, then nationwide, and, in 1931, took out an ad in Harper's Bazaar. There were also at least two ads in Vogue magazine in 1937, in October and December. 

Virginia Art Goods Studios Inc. February 1931 advertisement in Harper's Bazaar. Original ad from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Bertie Thornhill was married to E. (Ethelbert) LeGrand Thornhill, a bookkeeper, for just 12 years when he passed away in 1920. In addition to J. (Jesse) Steven Thornhill, who eventually joined the handbag business, Bertie and LeGrand had a son, John Rohr Thornhill, who died at age 12 in 1923. Bertie—who seldom used her more formal legal name, Roberta—was a member of the Lynchburg Historical Society, Lynchburg Art Club, Community Concert Committee and YWCA board.

Mamie Rohr was a schoolteacher, who, even after her success in the handbag business, made it her goal to help teachers receive recognition and higher pay. According to the Lynchburg Museum, Mamie spent two years at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, received a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University, and taught in the Lynchburg area prior to becoming president of Virginia Art Goods. She was a member of the Woman’s Club of Lynchburg and chairman of their international relations club, member of the American Association of University Women, and member of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Alumnae Association. 

Less is known about Frances Oglesby, but The Vintage Purse Museum discovered that she was a schoolteacher prior to her 1911 marriage to John Oglesby (1864-1950), who worked his way up to become president of the Lynchburg Tobacco Warehouse Company. (Frances’ great-uncle on her mother’s side was John’s father.) According to a 1907 address directory, Frances and Mamie worked as teachers at the same elementary school, which could be how they met.

Virginia Art Goods had a manufacturing facility at 1310 Church St., a residence built by Maurice Moore circa 1869, and once known as “The Folly” for its “improbable” architecture and placement. It is currently a church. On the church’s website, it says that Virginia Art Goods purchased it in 1927 and occupied it until a 1932 fire at a nearby building damaged both structures. The Vintage Purse Museum found a May 8, 1932 newspaper article that says the fire was at the Associated Charities building next door to Virginia Art Goods and that both buildings had extensive damage. According to the article, Associated Charities moved its operations to another location, but Virginia Art Goods planned to repair its building and continue manufacturing there. The church website says that Goodyear Tire bought both buildings in 1940. While there is conflicting information about the whereabouts of Virginia Art Goods over the years, The Vintage Purse Museum discovered a 1940 address directory that showed Virginia Art Goods’ manufacturing location as 1829 14th St. This address no longer exists, but there are several warehouse-type buildings in the general vicinity. It is not known if any of these are the original structure that housed Virginia Art Goods.

The Lynchburg Museum’s notes say Virginia Art Goods had a retail store at 206 Eighth St. We also found evidence (see advertisements below) that they had a shop at 422 Main St. (currently the Texas Inn restaurant), but closed Sept. 30, 1929, perhaps to move to the Eighth St. location. The timing certainly makes sense as 1929 was the year the business took off, so they were likely in need of a larger retail operation.

In 1956, the trio retired and sold the business to New York handbag maker Irving Friedman, with Bertie’s son J. Steven Thornhill staying on as vice president, secretary and general manager. Friedman, according to The Lynchburg Museum, wanted to update the Virginia-based facilities, but was unable to do so, and moved production to New York. We found a 1957 classified ad for a west coast salesman for Virginia Art Goods, but we were unable to locate any further advertisements for bags after that year, so it’s unclear when the company ceased production entirely.

Bertie and Mamie died in 1965; Mamie in January at age 85 in an automobile accident, and Bertie in September at 80 of an unspecified brief illness. After Bertie’s death, the Lynchburg News Advance newspaper wrote an article about the sisters. (Special thanks to the Jones Memorial Library of Lynchburg, which sent the article and Bertie’s obituary to us.) Excerpted from the article (no reporter byline): “(The sisters) were surely the most enterprising and successful women in the history of Lynchburg business and industry, while maintaining a breadth and high level of interest in and aid to diverse city and widespread affairs. They were exemplary leaders at a time when women everywhere were emerging into more active affairs formerly almost arbitrarily restricted to men. The community was strongly served by them, in act and example, in all their interests. (They) should be given some definite, formal and enduring memorial status in the city for their special contributions.”

The Vintage Purse Museum is grateful to Emily Kubota, Curator of the Lynchburg Museum System, Lynchburg, VA for providing essential background information about Virginia Art Goods Studios and to the reference librarian at the Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg. Other information for this article was found in newspaper archive Newspapers.com, genealogy website Myheritage.com, and online documents. This article and photos (except where noted) c2020 by Wendy Dager/The Vintage Purse Museum. 

Sun, Jul 31, 1955 – 41 · The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) · Newspapers.com Wed, May 11, 1932 – Page 8 · The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida) · Newspapers.com Fri, May 31, 1929 – Page 12 · The Bee (Danville, Virginia) · Newspapers.com Wed, Sep 25, 1929 – Page 2 · The Bee (Danville, Virginia) · Newspapers.com Sun, Mar 16, 1930 – 23 · The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) · Newspapers.com

Virginia Art Goods slip cover bag. This has the original base linen bag from the 1930s/1940s. The accompanying original decorative cover was either lost or worn out, so we believe the owner sewed this crewel-embroidered fabric piece and ribbon to it, probably circa 1960s. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Label inside bag above.

Fri, Jun 26, 1931 – Page 11 · The Bee (Danville, Virginia) · Newspapers.com
Vogue advertisement, Oct. 1937, Vol. 90, Issue 7. Screenshot from the LAPL Proquest Vogue archive.

Sun, May 16, 1948 – 5 · The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia) · Newspapers.com
Sun, Sep 23, 1951 – 15 · Kingsport Times-News (Kingsport, Tennessee) · Newspapers.com Sat, May 19, 1956 – 6 · The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) · Newspapers.com