This collection gives an overview of Ruth Originals, one of the first significant female-owned businesses in western North Carolina. Founded by Ruth Combs and Daisy Sample in December 1949, the business began as a cottage industry for the manufacture of specialty children's clothing. The Hendersonville-based business grew into a multi-million-dollar operation before being sold in 1977. The Ruth Originals Collection contains newspaper clippings, obituaries, two sketches of dresses, and several photographs that include images of girls modeling clothing and various people, including Ms. Combs and Ms. Sample.
Ruth Originals Collection
This collection gives an overview of Ruth Originals, one of the first significant female-owned businesses in western North Carolina. Founded by Ruth Combs and Daisy Sample in December 1949, the business began as a cottage industry for the manufacture of specialty children's clothing. The Hendersonville-based business grew into a multi-million-dollar operation before being sold in 1977.The Ruth Originals Collection contains newspaper clippings, obituaries, two sketches of dresses, and several photographs that include images of girls modeling clothing and various people, including Ms. Combs and Ms. Sample.
Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina
This collection is separated into three series and arranged chronologically by year. Series one consists of newspaper articles from 1953 to 1984. Series two contains two sketches that are undated. Series three consists of photographs of buildings, child models, and individuals. Supplemental material includes a short narrative, "Threads of History: The Story of Ruth Originals," compiled by Heather South.
Available for research
Copyright is retained by the authors of these materials, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law (Title 17 US Code). Individual researchers are responsible for using these materials in conformance with copyright law as well as any donor restrictions accompanying the materials.
Processed by Robert Kaplan, January 2016
In December 1949, with determination and $2,500, friends Ruth Combs and Daisy Sample started Ruth Originals, a cottage industry that created clothing for young girls. At a time when women traditionally worked as secretaries, nurses, or teachers, Ruth and Daisy built a business that placed them in positions of authority and creativity. Using their talents, work ethic, and determination to produce a quality product in which customers were willing to invest, they created a children's fashion company that operated for over 25 years.While neither woman knew about manufacturing, they hired experienced people to advise them. They also brought their own talents to Ruth Originals, which strengthened their success. Daisy's husband Harry was named president of Ruth Originals, while Ruth assumed the role of vice president. Daisy served as secretary. However, Harry Sample functioned chiefly as a figurehead with Daisy running the business and Ruth making the creative decisions. Combs and Sample hired Southeastern Factors Corporation to handle the billing, a New York City lawyer to set up the contracts and other business, and Webb Insurance for coverage needs. All helped with advising. Ruth was a skilled designer with an eye for color and embellishments. She had attended the Traphanger School of Fashion in New York, so overseeing the design of dresses came naturally. Drawing from her experience leading civic organizations (such as the Junior League of Raleigh), Daisy oversaw the business side of Ruth Originals. The women trusted one another's decisions which helped bolster their success. The manufacturing for Ruth Originals began in Harry Sample's sisters' home, the First Presbyterian Church Manse, on King Street in Hendersonville. Sample's father had been a minister, and his unmarried daughters had stayed on in the home and allowed Ruth and Daisy to use the space for the business. The dining room table was used as the cutting table, the downstairs bedroom as the sewing room, and the living room as the shipping room. Early on, Daisy's Junior League contacts were used to garner customers. The partners travelled the area, had fashion shows, and took custom orders. The dresses could be tailored by size and styles could be mixed to create the buyers' desired effect. The clothing was designed to be practical; fabrics were easily washable, and had deep hems so they could be let out as girls grew. Combs and Sample purchased a secondhand station wagon and traveled around North Carolina completing three showings of their company's designs each trip. Once orders were received, the women returned home to fill them. Combs created the patterns for the different dresses, which were cut, bundled, and taken around the mountains to "home workers" for completion. Ruth taught them how to complete the special touches for the unique designs. Quality was key to their brand. Once finished, the dresses were picked up from the various seamstresses and the completed orders were packaged and shipped. As Ruth Originals grew, Daisy and Ruth expanded the business plan. In 1952, operations moved out of the First Presbyterian Manse into Hudgins Garage on Main Street. The cutting department further expanded to a building across the street. Combs and Sample hired their first salesman, Peter Mann, who increased the customer base by expanding into Charlotte and the Piedmont markets. Eventually the company would have showrooms across the country with a New York office run by a third partner, Barbara Lee Tribelhorn. With the new office location, the women decided to wholesale and Ruth Originals grew to twenty employees. They also started their first retail outlet store beside the plant. In 1956, Ruth Originals again expanded, moving to a location on Asheville Highway in Hendersonville. Combs and Samples leased a 10,000-square-foot building built for Ruth Originals. Over the next few years the plant grew to 60,000 square feet and eventually included a design room built onto the roof as a separate entity. Called the "Ivory Tower," designers had to walk across the roof to the entrance. Ruth Originals also added a plant in Brevard that employed fifty people and later opened a plant in Forest City. In only seven years, eleven salesmen marketed the line to shops in New York City, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, and Charlotte. Input from the salesmen was important to Combs and Sample, so they invited the sales team to the manufacturing plant to discuss the line and to learn what clients were looking for and which designs would sell best. By the 1970s, Ruth Originals continued to expand and was a major line in high-end retail shops and department stores throughout the country. In 1974 the women had grossed considerable profit and were able to construct a new 110,000 square-foot building off I-26 in Hendersonville. Their retail outlet grossed around $1 million annually by 1974 and the company grossed between $8 and $10.5 million by 1977. Ruth Originals employed 420 people with an annual payroll of $2 million by that time. Twenty-seven years after Combs and Sample started Ruth Originals they decided to sell the business. Absorba Inc. of New York, a subsidiary of French company Poron, purchased the company in 1977. Following the sale, Sample retired. She died Asheville in 1981. Combs continued designing dresses for the company until her death in 1984. The business that thrived under the guidance of the two women with an eye for detail and commitment to quality, did not last long after being sold. The craftsmanship on which Combs and Sample prided themselves diminished under the new owners, and consumers no longer supported the brand. Ruth Originals closed in 1992. The legacy created by Daisy Sample and Ruth Combs is an interesting thread in the fabric of western North Carolina history. Dresses are still passed down through generations, and are kept tucked away in trunks and drawers awaiting the next daughter or granddaughter old enough to wear them. Ruth and Daisy's children and grandchildren still have roots in western North Carolina. From scrapbooks, photo albums and stories, they continue to recall and reminisce about the matriarchs of their families who took a simple start-up from a living room and nurtured it into a major multi-million-dollar brand.
Ruth Originals Collection, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.
Material donated by Ms. Sample's daughter, Mary Ellen Edmonds in 2015.