Story of the Week

Posted: 08.26.2014
1950's Designing Women of Packard
By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection

One of the most rewarding things about being an Automotive Historian is that you can always find historical research from the past that somehow today becomes a new, relevant, yet exciting story to share in the present. As a historian, I had some knowledge of Mrs. Dorothy Draper and how she helped create new ideas and fashion trends for the 1952 Packard automobiles. However, I had no idea who MaryEllen Green was. Hopefully, this story can take us back to a place in our automotive heritage where we can remember two very talented women who were able to express their ideas and creativity on paper and impact Packard's automotive styling.

 

From many perspectives of the fashion world, the achievements of Mrs. Dorothy Draper have long been considered legendary. New fashion trends launched throughout the country gave evidence of her rare talent for combining originality with comfortable practicality. Mrs. Draper's journey started when she created and inspired a generation of home improvements back in 1923. She was born to the aristocratic Tucker-man family in Tuxedo Park, located in New York State. Her great-grandfather, Mr. Oliver Wolcott, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

 

Although Dorothy had no formal education or training, she was brought up in a very privileged home that was constantly in touch with the beautiful surroundings of pleasant good taste. Her travels to Europe added to her observations after marrying Dr. George Draper in 1912. Her husband worked as the personal doctor to United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt after being was diagnosed with polio.

 

 

Mrs. Draper continued with great success throughout her career and in 1918 decided to decorate her home to her own taste. In 1923, Dorothy Draper was the first woman to help create and establish the interior design industry with professionalized themes. She was also part of an interior design company in the United States. A woman going into business for herself was considered daring as well as challenging. However, her confidence as well as her good taste and hard work gave her the ability to take control of many and exciting projects.

Mrs. Draper was wealthy and had every social credential. For this reason, all the best hotels in the world came to her for many interior designing projects. Mr. Carleton Varney, an Interior Designer, once said, “As an artist, she was one of the first decorators of the breed and a pioneer. She invented modern baroque. The woman is a genius; there'd be no professional decorating business without her.”

 

 

When Packard Motor Car Company introduced their 1952 model line for the consumer market on November 14, 1951 some of the advertising themes featured a color style fashion key for the 1952 Packard. These models were Fashion-keyed by Dorothy Draper who served as the decorator and color stylist. Dorothy was directly involved with matching beautiful interiors with a lively fabrics and genuine leather interiors for customers. Mr. LeRoy Spencer, Packard's Executive Vice-President said, “The 1952 Packard line, fashion-keyed by Dorothy Draper, internationally famous decorator and color stylist, contains more than 70 mechanical changes and improvements all engineered for improved riding, driving and more.” By 1952, Packard models had done very well in sales and were great looking automobiles. Dorothy Draper was once quoted saying, “Never look back, except for an occasional glance, look ahead and plan for the future. Success is not built on past laurels, but rather on a continuous activity. Keep busy searching out new ideas and experiments. Keep ahead of the times, or at least up with them.”

 

During the 1950's, another talented young lady by the name of MaryEllen Green Dohrs was making her mark in the industrial design world as well. MaryEllen Green was a 1950 graduate of the prestigious art school Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. She was hired immediately upon graduation to work for General Motors because she had a very rare talent.

 

A few years later, Mr. Richard Teague of Packard’s design team called MaryEllen Green Dohrs to ask if she could help create the interior design for the 1955 Packard Caribbean model, which was considered a top of the line vehicle for the Packard Company. The colors were excitingly different and were inspired by America's great trend of travelling. The interior designs created by MaryEllen Green Dohrs had a coordinated monochromatic theme that many consumers loved and are is still very popular today among collectors. Mrs. Dohrs always said that she was influenced by airplane and sports car designs.

Recently, Mrs. Dohrs had the opportunity to speak at the Packard Automobile Club national convention which honors and preserves Packard automobiles and was appreciated by the members. Not only has she made history by being one of the first female industrial designer but she also created and designed the interior of the 1955 Packard Caribbean automobile. Other women who were part of this historical event included Ms. Fran Hale, the Executive Secretary to Mr. Hugh Ferry, Packard President from 1949 to 1952; and Ms. Margaret Dunning, who at the age 103 drives a 1930 Packard model 740 roadster that she purchased in 1948. The theme was “Ladies of Packard”.

 

Mrs. Dorothy Draper passed away in 1969 and is no longer with us. However, her creativity and rare designs along with the talented work of Mary Ellen Green Dohrs will forever be included in our automotive history.


A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Michael Lamm & Dave Holls. “A Century of Automotive Style 100 Years Of American Car Design” 1996. Studebaker-Packard Corporation. “ Ask the Women Beside the Man Who Owns One , A Woman's Place” 1956. “And Now In Your Motor Car: the Magic of Dorothy Draper” 1952.)

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. For further information contact Robert Tate at mcadmin@motorcities.org

If you have a story that you would like to donate to be featured as a MotorCities Story of the Week, email mcadmin@motorcities.org.


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