From Communes to Commerce Transcript

Feb 14, 2018

The 1970s in Vermont were a time of energy and change. If you were around, you might think of them as the decade of Vietnam and Watergate, of back-to-the-land communes and women’s rights. You might know that over the course of that decade, Vermont finished its long transformation from one of the most conservative states in the country to one of the most liberal. But you might not think of the 1970s as good for business.

Jennifer Kochman: I think on the communes, it was an experiment in “how can we avoid the whole profit thing?”

Duncan Syme: The 1970s were the back to the land sort of, Stuart Brand, kind of Mother Earth News time.

Bridget Downey-Myer: People at that time were looking for things to do to take part in this huge surge that was going on in the country then of radicalization.

Kochman: How can we live in a way in which we basically figure out how to do things for ourselves? So how can we grow our own vegetables, how can we figure out how to be our own midwives?

Peter Cobb: The 60s through the middle 70s, the political landscape of Vermont changed, and for people like my parents – they didn’t like that. I personally didnt care, but my parents and most of their friends felt like Vermont was going to hell in a handbasket.

Downey-Myer: Vermont was seen as a kind of an oasis, a place where things could change. We were a small state, land was inexpensive, if you wanted to buy some land, you could do that.

Cobb: Some of the communes did well. But I think for most native Vermonters, they saw them as intruders, and rich kids playing farm.

Kochman: Vermont is a different kind of state. It’s a different kind of place. You go somewhere else, and it isnt like Vermont. Our old traditions serve as—something like Town Meeting, you know? Maybe that’s the kind of culture that was there that allowed some of these things to happen.

A few years ago, the Vermont Historical Society set out to document some of the thousands of new Vermonters that arrived in the 70s. The recordings describe a decade of beginnings, of reinvention, and of commerce: from the smallest local food co-ops up to huge companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Burton. Today, you’ll hear three stories from businesses that got started in the 1970s right here in Vermont, and how they changed the state and the world.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Amanda Gustin: And we’ve got a whole table of women here to talk about our object, which is – why don’t you start us off, Mary, by describing what we’re all looking at on this table?

Mary Rogstad: We are looking at a kelly green elastic Jogbra with a white elastic trim….it is the last of the original jogbras that was given to us in 2004 by Senator Hinda Miller who was one of the inventors…of the Jogbra.

That’s Mary Rogstad and Amanda Gustin, from the Historical Society.

Amanda: Looking at this, I’m actually struck a little bit by how obviously recognizable it is. I mean, it’s definitely a sports bra.

Mary: This is definitely recognizable.

Amanda: Yeah. I mean it’s not that old as far as these things go.

Mary: Thank you for saying that.

This Jogbra was made in 1979, and it’s part of the first batch of sports bras ever made. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to need one, a brief explanation: when women engage in athletic pursuits, things move. They get in the way. Eventually, they hurt. The Jogbra was the first time that anyone thought to address that perennial problem.

Eileen Corcoran: I think the invention was brought on by necessity in some fashion as well. And that this was invented by women because women understood what they needed in some ways…that this came from things that were meant to support men.

That’s Eileen Corcoran.

Amanda: So I looked it up before we came down here. First jock strap was invented in 1874.

Mary: Wow.

Amanda: Yeah.

Eileen: Yeah.

Mary: That took a long time.

Eileen: I’m guessing there was a lot of individual women making things up that worked for them and using what they could.

Mary: Honestly, things like this weren’t spoken, just weren’t spoken of. In fact, that’s true because I was one of the first users of one of these and was a person that greatly benefitted from Title Nine in so many ways. That when this came around, it was a well-received development in clothing. Now actually as I look at this, these are what women wear in marathoning. This is their top. They have developed into a fashion statement.

It’s almost impossible to imagine women as athletes today without the existence of the sports bra. It’s a concept that’s so simple it seems obvious, but it didn’t exist until less than fifty years ago.

Amanda: How many people under the age of 30 say, really understand that the ways in which they participate in sports from just going out your front door for a run on up to the World’s Cup, are enabled in large part by something as simple as this invention…So I think we can say Women’s World Cup made possible by Vemont.

In fact, one of the women who invented the Jogbra is still very much a part of Vermont life.

Hinda: I live in Burlington Vermont. I’ve raised two adult children here, served in the legislature for ten years, been an entrepreneur.

Hinda Miller grew up in Montreal, part of an English-speaking family that often traveled to Stowe to ski. She moved to Vermont with her parents as a young girl, and went on to graduate school in costume design in New York.

Hinda: My father would always laugh, he said, “Your grandmother came off the boat knowing how to sew, and you have to go to graduate school to learn how to sew.”

She was back in Vermont working as a costume designer for a Shakespeare festival when she had a fateful meeting.

Hinda: My memory was that we were sitting out in front of the Royall Tyler theater, and Lisa came and say with Polly, and she was a runner, and I was a runner.

Lisa and Polly were Lisa Lindahl and Polly Palmer-Smith. Lisa was a grad student at UVM, and Polly was a fellow costume designer.

Polly was not a runner…We connected there. We didn’t know each other. We sort of decided we would design a bra for women runners.

Together, they all began experimenting. They bought a lot of different things – pulling clothes apart and sewing them back together in all sorts of different configurations.

Hinda: I think the turning point was, Lisa’s sister called from California and said, “Why isn’t there a jock strap for women?” I don’t know, that was like, “Hey, wait a second. Maybe that’s all we want to do, is pull everything close to the body like what they do with men. I remember going up to buy all those jock straps at the University of Vermont bookstore.

Eventually, they arrived at a working prototype. Hinda moved to South Carolina to teach costume design, and while she was there, she started trying to marketing their new product.

Hinda: I went into this small store, and I showed the owner, who was a woman, this product. I said, “What do you think of this product?” And she said “What’s it called?” We called it Jock Bra…and the woman looked at me and says, “The women of Columbia, South Carolina, are athletic and they do run, but they do not like to call themselves jocks. I think she said, “Why don’t you call it JogBra?” I said, “Okay.” So I called Lisa and said, “Now it’s called JogBra.”

The Jogbra’s early success came through direct sales. They placed ads in Runner’s World, shipped by mail order, and brought their pitch straight to store owners.

Hinda: There would always be an assistant manager who was a woman. We would say to the owner, “Give it to the woman.” She would run with it, and she would like it, and they would buy their first dozen.

Hinda and her partners were riding a wave of interest in women’s sports brought on by something called Title IX. Title IX was a simple but powerful law that was passed in 1972. It’s just one sentence.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Just one sentence, but its impact was huge. Almost overnight, it meant that any school that received federal aid – pretty much all of them – had to pay attention to women’s sports.

It was so exciting, because sporting goods before that had been tennis rackets, and skis…When women came in, in big numbers, and when apparel companies see big numbers they want to go there with product. …In the beginning, when we went to our first show, which was the national sporting goods show, Nike was beside us with two ten by ten booths, we had one ten by ten booth, Reebok had one ten by ten.

The Jogbra business grew exponentially through the 1980s. Hinda said she and Lisa learned a lot about running a company.

They also had a lot of disagreements, and not a lot of experience about resolving them. Just at the time when they felt like they’d had enough – the underwear company Playtex offered them a buyout.

Hinda: I think we had just had enough. We were burnt out. ..Emotionally and psychologically, we were fried. That’s when we both came together and said yes. You know what? It took more courage to sell Jogbra at that time than it did to start it because we didn’t know what we were getting into, but it released us from an interesting, difficult, and wondrous time.

Hinda stayed in Vermont, and the Jogbra stayed on the market. Today, it’s made by Champion. A few years ago, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History approached her about donating an original Jogbra – just like the one in the Vermont Historical Society’s collection.

Hinda: Now the archives of the Jogbra are in the American History museum, in their exercise area. Whatever the forces are, I believe things come together to do what is needed. Thank God we were chosen with all our ups and downs. We were in Vermont that supported us in ways we didn’t understand and that we were part of a great history of entrepreneurship and job creation in our state.

The Jogbra was a product that responded to a need. More women were participating in sports, and they needed equipment that was designed for them. Other crafty Vermonters saw other needs.

Duncan:  There was an incredible demand for stoves and no supply. Lead time was months, maybe even years, if you could even find one.

Throughout the mid-seventies, the OPEC embargo caused gas shortages across the country.

There were huge, long gas lines. People could only buy gas every other day of the week.

Vermont winters are cold, and dark, and long. So when oil shortages took hold, Vermonters turned back to something they knew very well: wood. Wood had the benefit of being plentiful in Vermont, and it was renewable.

We’d always talked about starting a company together and so we thought, maybe there might be an opportunity in wood stoves.

This is Duncan Syme. In 1975, he and his partner Murray Howell founded a company called Vermont Castings.

Duncan: At the time, I was living in a little shack type place that had a turn of the century Glenwood modern parlor wood stove in it, and it was cast iron. I said to myself, “Okay, this is the way to go, because you can take castings that are designed to fit together, and just put some furnace cement in the joints and just bolt them together and you’re done.” Somebody else will do the castings. This is the way to do it.

Duncan had a background in architectural design, and he looked at a lot of old cast iron stoves. Eventually, he came up with a design for his own, and Murray brought in a business partner to help with startup costs.

Duncan: We had forty stoves…the idea was that we would put them together and sell them and if nobody was interested, we’d have the parts in our barn, we had a farm in Chelsea, VT, and we’d put a few together and eventually we’d get rid of all of them and get the ten grand back.

We thought we’d be okay, we wouldn’t go bankrupt on this thing. Lo and behold, things really took off.

They used that money to buy more stoves, and a small, local business was born.

Duncan: In the beginning, most of the people that bought our stoves were within 100 miles or so and they had cabins and/or houses that they heated with wood. They already knew about that. They’d come to our assembly place, which was in Randolph Vermont, with a pickup truck, and we’d load the stove in and off they’d go.

Pretty soon, their customer base expanded. New transplants weren’t as familiar with wood stoves as the previous generation of Vermonters. So Duncan and Murray had to do a lot of customer service.

Duncan: We would explain to people as best we could, how to do a safe installation and they’d take our advice sometimes and sometimes not.

Those were heady years, and things moved quickly. Startups in the 1970s had a lot in common with startups today: they take lots of work, but also intense camaraderie and a can-do attitude.

Duncan: The vitality and the energy that centers around a startup is phenomenal, because what happens is everybody is imbued with this single common purpose of making it happen.

Vermont Castings had a freedom to experiment – they figured things out as they went along.

Duncan: If you don’t know anything, nothing is difficult, because you don’t know that it’s difficult…You gain experience only because you failed.

Some of their early hits and misses were in marketing. They lost thousands of dollars when a photo shoot turned out to be unusable, but they had the great idea to give their stoves names instead of model numbers.

Duncan: So what does a stove do? It defies anything that nature can hurl at you in terms of adverse weather, cold, snow, and so on. That’s how that name Defiant came up, and then all the other stoves did the same thing. The Resolute was something, it would just press on regardless. The Intrepid was, that’s another name, something that would just go on in spite of any adversity there is.

The stoves got so popular that even Duncan couldn’t get one of his own products.

Duncan: I wanted to get a Defiant to heat the house with, and my partner Murray said, “No, you can’t have one, because we have customers who’ve paid hundred dollar deposits and they’re waiting.” The entire winter of, we’ll say, 1978, I heated with a fireplace…I would come down in the morning and if it were zero outside, the inside of the house would be 28.

Vermont Castings built a national following and became a major source of jobs for the Randolph area. Duncan credits Vermont with helping it grow.

Duncan: There was the possibility of somebody to come to Vermont and find a farmhouse that they could rent for almost nothing. They would have to figure out how to cut some wood for heat.

I think the fact that it was almost an economic frontier opportunity location allowed a lot of dynamic people who wanted to try something different, a place to go and experiment.

Vermont Castings built a bridge between older generations of Vermont natives, and the newcomers that were flooding into the state. They took an old technique and made it new again. So did Judi and Fred Danforth.

Judi: I’m Judi Danforth and I live in Lincoln, Vermont

Fred: And I am Fred Danforth and I also live in Lincoln, Vermont.

If you recognize that name, it’s probably thanks to the company that Fred and Judi started together: Danforth Pewter. They were both artists, and soon after they met, they started experimenting with pewter.

Fred: Judi got an apprenticeship in Canada and we were just falling in love and I followed her to Canada to learn wood turning while she was learning pewter, but the teacher was convincing in getting me to try pewter.

Pewter is a malleable metal that’s used to make all kind of handcrafted objects, from dishes and silverware to decorative figurines.

Judy: Fred’s ancestors were a pewtering family in New England…I remember saying to him, “Gee, do you know that there were colonial pewterers named Danforth.” And he said, “Yeah, in fact I’m a direct descendant.”

So of course he had to try it and the fact that he was interested in working with his hands made it like…at first there was a little shaky confidence, but I think pretty soon getting his hands on the material and a lath and different things like that, it was just like inevitable.

Fred: Yeah, after a short time I was smitten with both my lady and my material.

It was important for both of them to acknowledge the heritage behind the work they did, but to find their own way with pewter.

Judy: We were more, I believe, influenced by our own, or inspired by our own desire to make beautiful functional things for today’s home, in the 1970s, than we were making dusty old beer mugs, which is what people think of when they think of pewter sometimes.

Fred and Judi focused instead on small, charming pieces that showed detail and artistic skill: figurines and household items like picture frames and candlesticks, then eventually buttons, pins, jewelry, and Christmas ornaments. Like Hinda and Duncan, they started small, renting a place in Woodstock for $150 a month.

Fred: The living room of our house became the showroom for the business and we put up a sign, and just as an aside, one of the first investments we made was for $70, we bought a Texas Instruments calculator with buttons. I’m not kidding, this was a big deal. It helped us keep track of our accounts.

Fred: And it was a tiny little workshop and we were so on fire with enthusiasm for doing this, and we were joining a group of craftspeople in Woodstock and across the state who were, at the same time, experiencing a lot of support for their creativity and their hand work. It was a …

Judi: A movement, really.

Fred: A movement, yeah, it was a movement.

They had to make some big decisions about growing their business and growing their family at the same time. They chose to move back to Addison County, away from a thriving retail business in Woodstock, to raise their two daughters.

Fred: One of the aspects of that period was that we were in resistance to the cultural straight arrow process of pursuing your career. We were not into that.

Fred and Judi said that moving was a great lifestyle decision but a crazy business decision. Luckily for them, it paid off. Judi started creating more whimsical designs, inspired by their young children. That led to wholesale licensing agreements with companies like Disney.

Fred: Slowly but surely we found support to help us do all of the steps of the making and eventually the bookkeeping, eventually all the shipping, and that’s how a company grows and it’s true that there was a lot of resistance to that because of that counterculture feeling of the ‘70s, which was, We aren’t gonna go that route, we’re not gonna –

Judi: Not gonna become.

Fred: Be corporate.

Judi: Yeah, exactly.

As they grew, they tried to hold on to the cultural ideals that had nurtured their business.

Fred: You can do it in a different way. I think that we did it in a way that didn’t compromise our ideals, we stuck with our ideals, we had some tough moments over the course of those years, but we were progressive in our policies with our staff.

Fred and Judi made sure their employees got health insurance, that they got support for retirement savings, and even though they both identify as artisans first, they worked hard on the paperwork. Today, Danforth Pewter is entirely solar-powered –

Fred: Our company, we like to brag, is the first solar pewter company.

– and they’re proud and happy to have started and run a business in Vermont.

Judi: We’re passionate about living in this incredible state and it just feels so right. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, raising our family anywhere else.



Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. Our show was produced by Mike Dougherty, Eileen Corcoran, Amanda Gustin, and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Mary Rogstad. I’m Lovejoy.

Thanks to our guests Hinda Miller, Duncan Syme, and Fred and Judi Danforth. The clips from up top came from the Historical Society’s 1970s Counterculture Project.