Mission & History
In the late 19th century, there were few options for women who were truly destitute. Women who needed to work to support themselves and their families had little opportunity in a male dominated work force. In 1883, Mrs. Ariadne Lawnin, a prominent St. Louisan known for her concern for less fortunate women, mustered several of her prominent female friends and founded The Woman's Exchange of St. Louis, as a support for hardworking women with little opportunity.
After months of planning, soliciting donations, and hosting fundraising events, The Woman's Exchange of St. Louis opened its doors in September 1883 at 214 North 6th Street. The location served as a marketplace for women to earn a livelihood through the sale of their handmade goods, and The Woman's Exchange quickly became a destination for shoppers seeking high quality merchandise. In addition to the marketplace, the Exchange opened a tearoom serving inexpensive meals, a resource library housing 950 volumes, and offered instruction in cooking, sewing, needlework, chair caning, and other domestic arts. Working women could purchase a nourishing meal for four cents, attend classes, or simply enjoy a quiet place for relaxation and companionship.
The May 20, 1883 edition of The Missouri Republic, in an article on The Woman's Exchange, wrote of these founding ladies: “Starting out upon the principle that there could be no greater charity than helping those who try to help themselves, the ladies are bound to succeed if the earnestness of intent and never failing attention to detail can guarantee success.”
By 1884, The Woman's Exchange of St. Louis was operating with twelve women on the Board of Directors. Each Board member was required to serve a minimum number of volunteer hours in either the shop or tearoom. The Exchange had also moved to its second location, at 617 Locust Street.
The Exchange Today
In 1974, The Woman's Exchange moved to its current location on Clayton Road in Ladue. Here we practice our mission in much the same manner that we always have. Today, we are still governed by a volunteer Board of Directors that dedicate over 5000 volunteer hours annually to the operation of the organization. We still provide support, training, and materials at or below cost to our consignors. While society has become friendlier to women in the workplace, many women and men want or need to earn income from home due to physical disability or difficult family situations. The Exchange houses, displays, and sells their beautiful handiwork, paying back 70-100% of the selling price to the consignor.
Through the years, the need has not subsided for an honest exchange of talent for income. The Woman's Exchange of St. Louis had paid millions to hundreds of dedicated consignors for their deserving work. You can learn more about our consignors and how the Exchange has impacted their lives on our Consignor Story page.
“The mission of The Woman’s Exchange of St. Louis is people helping people,” said President Candace Williams. “We have a strong history of adapting to meet the needs of our consignors and our faithful patrons. The new location and planned improvements will allow us to strengthen our mission-related business lines and move forward to remain the largest and most thriving Exchange in the country. I would like to thank all of our board members for their hard work, support and dedication to making this move possible.”
As part of the planned move, The Woman’s Exchange launched its second-only capital campaign in its 130-year history. We intend to raise $700,000 for this, the seventh move of The Exchange.
Please view and share this great slidshow of our St. Louis Woman's Exchange!
The Woman's Exchange has also expanded our charitable services and practice of our mission. In 2006, the Exchange commenced its new Immigrant Training Program, assisting the newest members of our community in finding gainful employment. Program participants receive on-site skill training and experience, assistance in improving their English language skills, and ultimately, assistance with future job opportunities, all within a friendly, supportive environment that eases the transition into American culture.
In January 2013, The Woman’s Exchange of St. Louis held an open house in its new location at The Colonial Marketplace to celebrate its plan to move to The Colonial Marketplace of Ladue located at 8811 Ladue Road. This new space will increase the size of The Exchange from approximately 4,000 square feet to more than 6,000 square feet, a thirty-three percent increase. The additional space will allow the Exchange to provide opportunities to more consignors; showcase more consigned goods; and provide dedicated sewing space for consignors to use. The expansion of and improvements to the kitchen area will allow The Exchange to extend additional opportunities to baking consignors. The new location will house The Exchange's headquarters (offices, board room and storage space), tea room and gift shop.
By this time hundreds of women had officially become consignors with The Woman's Exchange by submitting a sample of their work to the Board. The Board evaluated the merchandise to ensure it was of high quality, carefully made, and attractive to customers. Once approved, consignors could both stock their items in the shop and accept special orders. Consignors were responsible for the cost of their materials, but the Exchange would purchase high quality materials wholesale and sell them to consignors at or below cost. Potential consignors whose wares did not meet the necessary standard could improve their skill through the classes taught at the Exchange.
The Exchange continued to practice the mission of helping others help themselves in this manner for over 120 years. The organization moved again in 1898 to the corner of 10th and Olive Streets, in 1899 to the North Grand area near Vandeventer Place, and in 1917 to the first of two locations on Euclid Avenue in the Central West End.