19th Century

The ‘Downs Self Adjusting Corset’

Sometimes having friends who point out things that you might be interested in is fabulous.  And sometimes it is…dangerous.

Like when you are just going along, minding your own business, not finding things that you don’t need to buy on Trademe, and then a friend emails you and says “Just saw this auction and thought of you!”  And the auction is corset advertising cards from the early 1880s.  And you say “thanks, but I really don’t need them”.  And you keep saying that.  And then somehow  (you really can’t explain it, it was like an out of body experience) you end up buying them.

So now I am the proud/slightly ashamed owner of two ‘Downs Self Adjusting Corset’ trading cards from the early 1880s.

The first one features a fashionable (albeit slightly garishly clad) lass and her pug on a quest for a Downs self adjusting corset’:

'Downs self adjusting corset' 1880s advertising cards thedreamstress.com

And the second one features a smug miss who has already achieved the goal (an accomplishment which  has inexplicably earned her a pair of over-the-sleeve bracelets and an ermine trimmed robe – because this is 1880s advertising and nothing makes sense).

'Downs self adjusting corset' 1880s advertising cards thedreamstress.com


The backs of the cards are identical, and extol the virtues of the Downs Self-Adjusting Corset: its ‘scientific and sanitary principals’ and the way it combines ‘Beauty of form, COMFORT, HEALTH and DURABILITY’ (because logical capitalization and punctuation is another thing that doesn’t exist in 1880’s advertising).  Oooh, and it comes with optional shoulder straps and skirt supports!

'Downs self adjusting corset' 1880s advertising cards thedreamstress.com


I’ve done a bit of research, and while there isn’t much written on the Down’s corset, they did a lot of advertising in the 1880s, touting the corset as ‘The Best, most Healthful and Comfortable corset on the market” which “adapts itself to the various positions that the body assumes in stooping, sitting or reclining” and “gives perfect ease in all positions, affording great relief to the wearer.”  The magic construction that allowed this to happen?  “Silk elastic gores (covered with fine muslin) above and below a corded waistband.

In looking at the illustration of the corset, the elastic gores are quite visible, as is the shaped straight (rather than spoon) busk, the corded bust, and corded front panel, as well as the lines of boning on either side of the elastic panel.  It’s quite a clear illustration, and I think I shall have to give my own version of the Downs’ Self-Adjusting Corset a go!

'Downs self adjusting corset' 1880s advertising cards thedreamstress.com


If you are wondering about the trading cards themselves, they are quite small – 5″ high by 3″ wide, and have some pencil marks on the back.

I wonder how they got from Allen, Michigan to New Zealand?  Quite possibly the Trademe bought them on e-Bay recently, marked up the price and put them up for sale on Trademe – it happens.

I’m unlikely to ever own an original 19th century corset, but I’m enjoying adding these to my PD corset box, and building a little collection of corset paraphernalia!


  1. I think it’s fascinating that the card about the woman who has found the corset hides her corseted figure with the big robe. Not exactly before and after pictures as you are used to them today.

    • Agreed. The really interesting thing about these corset trading cards is how few from this company depicted something that had anything to do with a corset at all. These two show adult, Western women who are presumably wearing corsets, but most of the Downs corset cards show small children, animals, or women in kimono – all quite unrelated to corsets!

      • Not unlike a lot of advertising today! I’ve seen pictures of polar bears or dandelion puffs advertising coffee, cars, and other unrelated things.

        Feminine hygiene products seem to have especially strange and irrelevant imagery. “Oh, I’m just lying here by this pond draped in silk and cradling a bunch of flowers.”

        Advertising is so weird.

  2. Well obviouslt she’s wearing gold and ermin because she feels like a queen in her corset. lol!

    I’ll be interested how your version works out…it sounds like it might be quite practical.

  3. Neat! I do hope you recreate a corset like this. I would love to see how you interpret the drawing and what materials you use, etc. And I’d love to know if it is comfortable and actually adjusts to your positions as it claims. (Can’t say I quite believe the advertising there. It is still a corset. I have an 1890s style one I made with elastic gores over the hips, and it is comfortable, but still a corset.)


    • What materials I would use would just be whatever I could get my hands on here :-p I don’t actually find corsets uncomfortable (as long as they are well fitted) – just differently comfortable to jeans a T-shirt! So we’ll see how this goes!

  4. I have to say it all sounds too good to be true…comfort, self adjusting, yada yada. Perhaps this was before the truth in advertising laws!

  5. Kirsten says

    Just thought I’d mention that I live just 52 miles from Allen, MI and it’s known as the”Antique Capital of Michigan”.

  6. Kirsten says

    I live just 52 miles from Allen, MI and thought you’d like to know that it’s known as the “Antique Capital of Michigan”.

  7. It would be fascinating to see you make one of these. I wonder if it was really as comfortable as the advertising claimed? It does seem quite a different type of construction from what was normally used in the 1880s.

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