How did the red star become part of the Macy’s logo? The answer to that question is revealed in a new book series meant to inspire the next generation of women leaders. Her story and two others – all powerful and savvy businesswomen in the Gilded Age – are the focus of the upcoming Hidden Gems series by business journalist and author Stephanie Forshee.
Meet Margaret Getchell LaForge, Anna Sutherland Bissell, and Maggie Lena Walker whose names may not be instantly recognizable but each has made history in their respective business fields and their stories, according to Forshee, should be told.
Take LaForge, a Nantucket native, who was forged from a long line of women who ran their husband’s businesses while out at sea. She became one of the first female executives in American retail, working alongside Macy’s founder, R.H Macy. This former math teacher was first hired as an entry level clerk and rose through the retail ranks to “second in command.”
The original Macy’s on 13th Street, now part of the New School, has kept the red stars.
LaForge routinely brought ideas which became company traditions, like creative and attention-getting window displays and suggesting that R.H. Macy’s red star tattoo – gotten during his sailing days – be used as part of the company’s logo. That red star made their ads pop in the black and white newspapers at the time. This mother of six is credited with transforming Macy’s into the first modern department store.
As for Anna Sutherland Bissell – credited as being the first ever female CEO – she was married to Melville Bissell, the inventor of the carpet sweeper. In 1889, after her husband passed away, Anna Bissell took control of the company, and was a powerhouse of a marketer, bringing the product to Europe. According to the Bissell website, Queen Victoria insisted that her palace be “Bisselled” every week. Offering her employees pension plans and worker’s compensation, Bissell was seen as a “progressive” who was also active in charities and in her community, while raising five children.
Third in the series tells the story of Maggie Lena Walker, daughter of a former slave, and the first African American woman to run a U.S. bank. As a young adult, Walker helped her mother deliver laundry to their white customers and saw the gap in the quality of life between the races. After receiving her degree, she became a member of the Independent Order of St. Luke’s – a group looking to advance the African Americans in the community. She eventually took a leadership role, saved it from bankruptcy, and subsequently opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank to encourage and educate Black women about finances. Her home in Richmond, Virginia was purchased by the National Park Service and is now a National Historic Site.
So now that you’ve met the women whose lives are celebrated in this collection, now meet its author, Stephanie Forshee, who is quite the renaissance woman herself. A journalist, editor, ghostwriter, songwriter, novelist and now children’s book author, Forshee’s life has taken many turns.
“After college,” she says, “I chose to pursue musical theater. I performed in various regional productions and some musicals in NYC. After being on the road and traveling so much, I wanted a stable lifestyle and pursued journalism. I initially pursued arts and entertainment reporting but ended up writing business features.” It was while working on a story about the history of Macy’s that LaForge caught her eye. “There wasn’t a lot on her, just a few articles,” says Forshee, and so was immediately intrigued and determined to learn more about her. After that research, she wondered about the other “firsts” for women, and came upon Bissell, and then Walker. “I wanted to document these female firsts in the business world,” she says, “and introduce them to girls in the seven to 12 age range and show them strong women who faced remarkable obstacles and who ultimately succeeded.”
Hidden Gems: Margaret Getchell LaForge
The other two in the Hidden Gems series will be released in 2024.
Forshee is also working on a “Business Basics for Kids” which teaches business through the stories of various inspirational business leaders. Due in Fall, 2023.
For more information, visit Stephanie Forshee’s website.
Author headshot photo credit: Andrea M. Nyberg
Illustrations by: Karine Makartichan