Society and Brownie Queen

Recently I  wrote a blog about the Original Brownie, claimed to have been invented at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago. Having pioneered Brownies as gifts here in Australia, we were loving the idea of a woman behind the original brownie and equally loving that a woman was directing events at the Columbian Exposition in the late 1800’s. So we set out to explore a little more about Bertha Palmer: the woman behind the brownie.

A woman ahead of her time, Bertha Palmer was not only the force behind the delight but was also a philanthropist, champion for women’s rights and later an entrepreneurial Florida property and resort developer.  Although she hailed from a wealthy Southern family and later married the wealthy merchant Potter Palmer, she demonstrated from an early age an understanding and natural flair for business.

Unlike many women of her time, it is said that she would freely engage in business discussions with her husband and his associates. In her words “I was not a suffragist! I simply felt that intelligent women could work with men to achieve their
goals. I preferred diplomacy to balance the social and working worlds. Both my father and my husband had encouraged me to learn about business….”

Decades before women had the vote, Bertha campaigned for women’s rights and equality and it is reported often made her grand home available for feminist meetings.

She was a true leader and, in many ways, a visionary.  Instrumental in the setting up of  the Chicago Women’s Business Club in 1888 to help women entering the workforce, Palmer also served as vice-president of the Civic Federation. She was both well respected for her intellect and yet equally known for her haute couture and her joie de vivre.

Bertha Palmer

photo courtesy of

When Chicago won the honour to host the World Columbian Exposition she and her lady friends reportedly became fixated with creating the most memorable experience. They wanted to out-do the Paris Exhibition of 1889 which had the now iconic Eiffel tower. Chicago would have the giant Ferris wheel and an amazing exhibition of works by women. Bertha was chosen as President of ‘The Board of Lady Managers’ and in this role she hand picked 117 women to work with her on the project. She was reported as saying, “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus” Bertha proclaimed, “is the fact that the government has just discovered women.”

Bertha went on a mission to Europe raising donations for the Exposition and  created a whole building dedicated to 47 nations of women and their industry and achievements including the Hambell cake and egg beater and a little more novel a dress stand that could be converted to a fire escape!  In her preparation for the event, Bertha was proactive encouraging all women to submit their work to the Exhibition. Echoing over a century ahead of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” concept, Bertha gave all women the advice to “Keep up with the procession, and head it if you can.”

What an amazing combination and life  – Bertha Palmer, key driver of the original brownie was both Societal and Brownie Royalty.

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