In 1861, five young ladies, attendees of a prominent Providence academy for girls, met together for an afternoon of sewing. Unlike many of their classmates, they were concerned with more than the latest fashions, juicy local gossip, and their future matrimonial prospects. With the country ensnared in the Civil War, hospital supplies and handmade comforts for soldiers were in great demand. In Providence, the wartime economy had also made life increasingly difficult for the city’s poor. Motivated to improve their community, the girls began to canvass their neighborhoods for funds and supplies. After an encounter with a crusty Yankee tycoon who declared that the young lady was “positively irrepressible,” the Irrepressible Society was born.
Nineteenth-century Rhode Island was a world dominated by men. Until 1874, married women had no control over their own earnings. Until 1917, women could not vote. Nonetheless, the women of the Irrepressible Society exerted their independence, refusing to allow men to serve in the society in anything other than an advisory capacity. Initially, even married women could not hold offices within the society, reflecting its inclinations as a “spinster society.”
By the early 1870s, the Irrepressible Society had expanded beyond its humble beginning as a ladies’ sewing circle. They even had a coat of arms: two pairs of scissors rampant on a gold field, crowned by a thimble. Now, most of the actual sewing work was done by needy women compensated for their labor by the society. Although the Irrepressible Society’s mission included “charitable work of the city” more generally, they were particularly concerned with the plight of women without means to support themselves. Providing instruction in hand and machine sewing, the society made it possible for disadvantaged women to find gainful employment and improve their lives.
The Irrepressible Society was also remarkably forward-thinking in regard to the its finances. Acknowledging the impossibility of funding their work solely through donations, the ladies of the society endeavored to make it as self-supporting as possible. By 1929, half of the society’s revenue came from the sale of its goods and clothing. Although some items were made available to impoverished residents of the city at little or no cost, the Irrepressible Society also operated a small retail store. In addition, the society cultivated clients who placed large wholesale orders. For example, the Providence Lying-In Hospital purchased thousands of layette bundles for newborn infants over the years.
Part charitable society and part social club, most of the ladies of the Irrepressible Society were members of well-connected Providence families. Fundraising events hosted by the society were the talk of Providence. In 1884, the society hosted an elaborate “Charity Ball” that quickly became an annual winter tradition. Reviewing another society event, a local reporter began thusly: “The tea party of the Irrepressibles – we have been obliged to write that word three times, because our pen would slip into Irresistibles, as anybody’s would after coming from the blaze of matron beauty and maiden loveliness that lighted up the nice old rooms in which this society held its housewarming last evening.”
In 1929, the Irrepressible Society merged with three other social service agencies in Providence to form the new “Bureau for the Handicapped.” Seven years later, the society officially disbanded, turning all of their remaining funds over to the bureau. Although the new agency would continue to provide many of the same services – including job training, temporary employment, and financial relief – the days of the Irrepressible Society’s croquet parties and elaborate theatricals were over.