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The 'foremost woman industrial stylist' during the 1930s was born and raised in North Dakota

The work of Helen Hughes Dulany was elaborately displayed in some of the leading magazines of the era and Helen was contracted to design products for some of the largest companies in the U.S.

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BISMARCK — Helen Hughes Dulany, who was considered the “foremost woman industrial stylist” during the 1930s, was born and raised in North Dakota.

As a youngster, growing up in Bismarck, Helen Hughes was a musically talented young girl. Then, she suffered a life-threatening situation from some form of malady just before the start of her freshman year of high school.

During her later adult years, she was frequently admitted to hospitals and was considered “a hopeless invalid by her doctors.” A miracle appeared to happen while Helen was in her 40s and she not only recovered, but became an innovative trendsetter in a highly competitive field.

If there was a serious physical affliction, it also appeared to have taken a mental toll on Helen, who was married and divorced three times. In the early 1930s, she recovered and became recognized for her creative and elegant designs in working with stainless steel and other nontraditional materials. Her work was elaborately displayed in some of the leading magazines of that era and Helen was contracted to design products for some of the largest companies in the U.S.

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The Hughes family, from left, Helen, Frank, William V., Edmond A., George A. and Mrs. Alexander Hughes.
Contributed / Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections / Chester Fritz Library / University of North Dakota
More history columns from Curt Eriksmoen
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Helen’s family was one of the most influential families during the first 50 years of North Dakota statehood. Alexander, the patriarch, built power plants in Bismarck and Fargo that were instrumental in bringing electricity to those cities and surrounding areas. Helen’s oldest brother, George, invented the first practical electric stove and, for many years, was president of the electronics division at General Electric. Edmond, the second oldest son, established and/or expanded power plants, telephone exchanges and waterworks in North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

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Helen Alexandria Hughes was born Oct. 13, 1884, though some sources list Oct. 4, 1885, in Bismarck to Alexander and Mary (Higinbotham) Hughes. She was the youngest of six children and the only girl. At the time of her birth, the capitol for Dakota Territory had recently been moved from Pierre in the southeastern corner of Dakota Territory to Bismarck, which was more centrally located. Alexander was the territory’s attorney general from 1883 to 1885 and he had recently taken up residency in Bismarck.

During her years in elementary school in Bismarck, Helen played leading roles in operettas and was the organist at St. George’s Episcopal Church. Then, in August 1899, a month before Helen would become a freshman at Bismarck High School, the Bismarck Tribune reported that she was on the operating table for two hours and the doctors said, “her condition was worse than expected.” The Tribune kept the readers updated as to the slow recovery Helen was experiencing.

In 1900, Helen, along with her parents and two youngest brothers moved to Minneapolis. Edmond took over the family’s businesses in Bismarck and George managed the Hughes businesses in Fargo.

I suspect that this move may have been made largely because of Helen’s health because Minneapolis had some of the best medical facilities in the nation. During the winters of 1901-02 and 1902-03, while Helen would have still been in high school, she and her parents spent extended periods of time in Florida. Since this would have been disruptive to Helen’s education, I believe that her parents reasoned that the warmer temperatures would be better for Helen’s health.

On May 11, 1904, Helen married Louis A. Laramee, a Minneapolis businessman who made and sold saddles and harnesses. The wedding was held in the parlor of her parents' mansion in Minneapolis and Helen’s priest at St. George’s Episcopal Church was brought in from Bismarck to officiate the ceremony.

On May 15, 1905, Helen gave birth to a son, Harry Hughes Laramee, but soon after, Helen and Louis appeared to drift apart. This became apparent when Helen’s father, Alexander Hughes, died on Nov. 24, 1907, and Louis Laramee did not show up for the funeral. Helen took her son Harry and moved in with Mary, her mother. Ellen, Mary and Harry traveled south to spend each winter in Florida.

Helen met George W. Dulany, a lumber baron from Clinton, Iowa, and the two fell in love. On a trip to St. Louis, Helen obtained her divorce from Laramee on May 10, 1913, and married Dulany the same day.

Dulany was a graduate of Yale University and owned the Eclipse Lumber Co., which ran 37 lumber yards in Iowa. He was active in Democratic politics and one of his close friends was Henry A. Wallace, an Iowa farmer and a former Republican who switched parties. He later served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president. Helen also liked Wallace and kept in correspondence with him for over 30 years.

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On Oct. 11, 1914, Harry became ill and died. The sudden loss of her 9-year-old son took an emotional toll on Helen. She later reported that prior to 1931, she considered herself an emotional and physical “invalid” for 17 years. The emotional blow of the death of her son was the likely cause of bringing on that medical and emotional condition. Helen received some comfort when Dulany decided to move to Chicago in 1920. This was where her oldest brother George lived.

George Hughes had moved to Chicago in 1908. In 1918, General Electric merged the Hughes Electric Heating Co. with the Hotpoint Heating Co. to form the Edison Electric Appliance Co. and named George as president of this newly established company. In hopes of bringing Helen out of her depressive state, Dulany took his wife on a trip to Europe during the summer of 1922. He also took her to the Bahamas in 1929.

During the 1920s, Helen was admitted to the hospital on a number of occasions, often in “near death” conditions. On one of the later hospital stays, “nurses gave her some modeling clay, which she threw on the hospital floor in a rage.” After a while, Helen gathered up the clay and molded it into a statue. She then realized she had a creative talent for making beautiful things.

After her release from the hospital, Helen got her own apartment so that she could put her creative ideas into practice. People were amazed at the look of the apartment and “her designs were featured in magazines such as House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, Creative Design, and Arts and Decoration."

Helen’s designs “fit perfectly with what people imagined a modern home to be in the 1930s; she was the first to use stainless steel for tableware, and her clean, geometric shapes seemed futuristic and efficient.” George hired his sister to create new designs for his electronics division at General Electric and Burlington contracted with her to do all the interior designs and table setting for their Zephyr trains.

She launched Helen Hughes Dulany Studios and business was booming. However, her marriage to Dulany was coming apart and, in 1935, she traveled to Europe and Hawaii to escape from the pressure.

While in Hawaii, she was commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (HPC) to improve the packaging of their pineapples. She came up with new designs which HPC sent to the U.S. Patent Office in 1936. Helen liked Hawaii and decided to make it her new home.

On Dec. 5, 1936, she divorced Dulany on the grounds that he deserted her. In 1937, Helen closed her studio in Chicago and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. On Jan. 22, 1938, she married Atherton Richards, the president/manager of HPC. In 1939, Richards was fired by HPC and tension began to build between him and Helen.

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Because of the aggressive action of Japan, many feared the U.S. would be dragged into World War II and Hawaii was believed to be a target. Helen moved to New York City and was hired by Readers Digest to be a “roving editor.”

On June 30, 1955, Helen divorced Richards on the grounds of “grievous mental suffering.” Helen died on Nov. 18, 1968.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTAHISTORICALFARGO
Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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