Book Chronicles Life of Oswego’s 19th Century Female Entrepreneur

The story of Madame Malvina Guimaraes

The story of Madame Malvina Guimaraes

OSWEGO – The Oswego County Historical Society hosted its annual meeting presentation on May 19 in the banquet hall of the historic Oswego Elks Club. Keynote speaker Ann Callaghan Allen presented “The Extraordinary Life and Tragic Death of Madame Malvina Guimaraes.”

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The story of Madame Malvina Guimaraes

“Madame Guimaraes is a legendary woman in Oswego history, with a rags to riches tale. Over time the life of Madame Guimaraes has been filled with local lore and now the real story is surfacing,” said Justin White, OCHS board trustee and Oswego County Historian.

He first learned about her life at a young age when he was researching the history of the Oswego Elks Lodge.

It was the last place she owned and lived in,” he said.

Her iconic monument, located at her final resting place in Riverside Cemetery on the outskirts of town, “is in total disrepair,” he added.

“I retired from teaching in the Department of Communication and Film Studies at Le Moyne College in December and this (book) was a great project to keep me busy and out of trouble,” the author told Oswego County Today.

Were Malvina Guimaraes alive today, she would likely be a part of the #MeToo movement, Allen said.

“But, in the late 1800s, there was no platform, virtual or otherwise, for a female victim of a power struggle with a man to find allies and gather support,” she said. “It is difficult for many 21st Century women to conceive of a time when women in business, women entrepreneurs, women in any power position outside of the home were a rarity. In the 19th century world, however, this was very much the situation.”

Malvina Guimaraes, wealthy and successful business entrepreneur, was a rarity in Brazil, in Portugal, and in New York.

She made her fortune as the first person to introduce the sewing machine, then a transformative device for women, to the South American market.

The Guimaraes' plot at Riverside as seen in March of this year.
The Guimaraes’ plot at Riverside as seen in March of this year.

“I credit long-time community activist Ruth Sayer for turning my passing interest in Madame Guimaraes into a full-fledged research project,” Allen said. “Ruth came to Oswego from North Carolina as a young teacher intending to stay just a year or so. Instead, she met and married Oswegonian Frank Sayer and made Oswego her home. Not only did she make a home here, but she immersed herself in the life of the community, dedicating her time and talent to the city’s historic and cultural resources.”

Among Sayer’s many civic involvements was the historic Riverside Cemetery.

“Ruth lamented the deterioration of the Guimaraes’ plot at Riverside. (The lavish monument was made in Portugal in 1877, shipped to the United States, and installed at the cemetery on East River Road.) It was, she said, ‘a historic site that should be repaired and preserved,'” Allen said. “So, I began to read more about Malvina.”

And though many of the stories published in the years since Madame Guimaraes’ death perpetuate the notion that her fortune came through Singer, Allen said.

“One story talked about the probate of her estate. It involved a legal battle that lasted nearly 13 years and accumulated the most paperwork to that time assembled in a New York court,” Allen said.

She found the original documents from this court battle in a large metal box housed in a closet in the Oswego County Surrogate’s Court office.

Proceeds from the book sales will help restore Madame Guimaraes' monument.
Proceeds from the book sales will help restore Madame Guimaraes’ monument.

“They included sworn testimony, letters, first-person accounts of Madame Guimaraes and the struggle over control of her fortune from those who knew her, as a person, as a businesswoman, as a beloved sister and aunt,” Allen said. “I let their voices, as much as possible, tell the true story of Madame Guimaraes.”

Allen’s book highlights Guimaraes’ extraordinary accomplishments, as well as her impact on the city of Oswego in the latter part of the 19th century. It also details the struggle over the control of her fortune that contributed to her tragic death.

“Her final home was the Oswego Elks Lodge historic house,” said White. “The Lodge has generously supported the launch of the Guimaraes restoration project.”

The net proceeds from the sale of the book will go to a special account at Riverside Cemetery to restore the Madame Guimaraes’ monument.

Books are available at the rivers emd bookstore in Oswego, at the Richardson Bates House Museum, also in Oswego and they will be for sale at the June 10 tour of Riverside Cemetery.