Isabella Frampton Hawken: The Original #Girlboss

In honour of International Women’s Day, we’re profiling Isabella Frampton Hawken, a trailblazing businesswoman who is featured in the St. Catharines Museum’s new exhibit, Leading the Way: Pioneering Women of St. Catharines.

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A young Isabella (standing, far right) is pictured with her parents, brother and sister.

 

Isabella Frampton (1876-1948) came to St. Catharines with her family when her father, Alfred Frampton, was offered a job with the Packard Electric Company. All three Frampton children worked at Packard, but Isabella is especially notable – at only 22 years old, she is as the forelady of the lamp department at Packard Electric in St. Catharines, a department which she later managed.

Only a few years later, in 1907, the enterprising Isabella struck out on her own, establishing the Dominion Electric Company, originally located at 5 Queenston Street, with her future husband, James P. Hawken. At Dominion, Isabella managed the rewiring of burnt out light bulbs, which were sent to her from large cities in Canada and the United States, including New York City. Isabella is believed to have taken out patents on this rewiring process, which allowed the lights of Broadway, among others, to be re-wired or gas filled and sent back to her customers. Her husband, James, worked as a pharmacist and in practice had very little to do with the business – Isabella’s daughter asserted that the business was solely her mother’s enterprise.

Isabella and James married in 1908 – and her name is only listed with the company documents separately from her husband because the partnership was struck prior to their marriage. She is identified in the co-partnership agreement as “Isabella Frampton, spinster.” Due to the laws of the day, it is James’ rather than Isabella’s name that appears on company documents following the couples’ marriage. Isabella’s name doesn’t regularly reappear in records until she is made a widow, following James’ death; in the 1923 edition of Vernon’s City Directory, Mrs. I. Hawken is listed as the Proprietor of the Dominion Tungsten Lamp Factory.

An astute business woman, Isabella Frampton Hawken expanded her business to include a New York location, which would cut her profit losses due to import and export taxes assessed on goods travelling between the US and Canada. The Hawk Electric Co. was established in Lockport in 1925. Unfortunately, a legal loophole made her patents on the rewiring of lightbulbs invalid in the U.S. and after a long court battle, the Hawk Electric Co. was forced to shut down.

At its height, The Dominion Tungsten Lamp Factory had about 100 employees and despite the closure of her Lockport facility, Isabella continued to travel regularly between St. Catharines and her offices in Montreal and New York City throughout her career. Isabella Frampton Hawken died in January 1948 and is buried at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

 

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