Friday, July 27, 2012

Mary R. Cass

Recently, the debate over inequality between men and women in the workforce was revitalized, with some economists arguing that it is individual choice, and not institutionalized sexism that causes this discrepancy in pay. Still, even today, there are only 18 women heading Fortune 500 companies, and that is the highest it has ever been. As 2019 and the 100 year anniversary of Women’s Suffrage approaches, this is a good opportunity to look back at some of the pioneers for women in business. One such woman, Mary Cass, rose to prominence as the head of the F.N. Burt box company at the turn of the 20th century. 

F.N. Burt was founded as a printing and label company in 1886, but in the following decades, switched to box making to capitalize on the nearby Hydraulics neighborhood, the manufacturing and shipping center of Buffalo during the late 19th century. By 1901, they had gone from a small, one-press shop with 8 employees, to an enormous facility at 500 Seneca, where they were able to manufacture enough boxes to become one of the leading manufacturers in the country.

In 1909, after two expansions of their factory, the company was bought by Moore Corp, a Toronto-based business-forms company that needed box manufacturing for their own shipment needs. Fred N. Burt, as he turned over the company, recommended that Mary Cass take over managing the company’s factories.
Mary Cass, General Manager of
F.N Burt Box Company
Mary Cass had worked for F.N. Burt since its early days as a printing company, a regular factory girl who joined the company right out of high school in 1891 at its small, one-floor facility at 457 Washington. Her close involvement with the company from its earliest days made her a logical choice to take over the company when Mr. Burt sold it in 1909.

This was almost a decade before Women’s Suffrage would be achieved however. Ms. Cass wasn’t the first woman executive, but she certainly was one of the most prominent, heading one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the country, for an industry that had experienced 43% growth in the decade.

Under Mary Cass, the value of F.N. Burt skyrocketed. She oversaw several further expansions of their factory, as well as the expansion to other factories throughout Buffalo. F.N. Burt became one of the leading suppliers of cases for cosmetics, cigarettes, and other industries. By 1921, the company employed 2,500, and was worth almost $3,000,000.
At a time when most men did not even know how to drive, Mary Cass was an avid motorist. She played golf, and never married, but as a Rotarian article wrote in 1918, she still enjoyed the “womanly” pleasures of dancing, and going to the theatre. While the Rotarian article comes off as a back-handed compliment, the celebrations in Ms. Cass’ honor in 1916 and 1921 for her 25th and 30th anniversaries with the company were far from that. At her 30th anniversary, she was the only woman at the event, and the praise of Samuel Moore, the president of the company, reveals how highly she was regarded; “She is the embodiment of good judgment. The fact that all you men have come here tonight, and many have come a great distance, is tribute enough to her success.”Though she was honored with her inclusion on the 1984 YWCA Corporate Award as a pioneer woman in her field, today Mary Cass does not seem to garner much attention. This, despite all she achieved with F.N. Burt, as well as her role as one of the founding members of the Zonta Club, a women’s advocacy group that began in Buffalo, and today has more than 30,000 members in 63 countries.As we approach the century mark for Women’s Suffrage, it is important to acknowledge not only the women whose activism changed the political world, but the women who embodied this spirit of equality, and forced the world to accept them. Mary Cass’s position with the F.N. Burt Company epitomizes that effort, and she should be remembered as an important figure in Buffalo’s business history, as well as for her role in the Women’s Rights movement.

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