Bloomer Girls

Our First Female Operators Date back to 1885

Over 130 years ago, Orra Dowell, Gertie Sawyer, Lillian Dowell, and Nellie Packwood all set out to prove that women could be just as productive as their male counterparts. They also may have been the first female operators of what would eventually become a Caterpillar machine, and they did it wearing bloomers.

What are Bloomers?

Bloomers were baggy leggings for women - usually made of cotton - which gathered at the waist and below at the knees. They tended to scrunch up because they were worn under long, loose dresses. Orra said bloomers were not much of a fashion statement as they were a “conservative dress for a conservative community.” Made by Mrs. Dowell, the bloomers were made of black fabric to make them stand out.

First Female Operators?

In 1885, the Bloomer Girls possibly became the first documented female operators of Holt products. This would have been rare scene for the time as woman had yet to even have the right to vote. They requested the surrender of the combine from their male counterparts who were operating the machine. The Girls wanted to show them that they could run the combine just as well or better. Their wish was granted as the men left from their positions and the women assumed full control of the big harvester. Orra took her place in the driver’s seat and guided the twenty-six head of horses around the field; Gertie attended the header; Lillie was sack sewer; and Nellie tended to the separator. The woman ran the harvester until noon, when they triumphantly turned it back over to the men.

Holt “Mad Men” Capture the Event

The bloomers themselves did not cause talk, but the 50,000 copies of the picture dubbed “Bloomer Girls” sent out by the Holt marketing team of the Girls operating the combine harvester got people talking. In 1950 Orra recalled, “In 1895 Jim Decker from Holt came to our ranch with a combine harvester from Stockton. He operated it around the county on a rental basis with my father driving the horses. Decker noticed how easily we Dowell girls handled horses and decided it would be a good demonstration for farmers to see an all-girl harvester crew operate his machine. A lot of farmers of that day hesitated buying these machines, thinking them too hazardous to operate. Father gave his consent, and mama made four pairs of bloomers from black calico for my sister and me and two neighbor girls – Gertie Sawyer and Nellie Packwood. All four of us knew horses and machinery. We went out the next morning, took over the big machine and operated it until noon. No trouble at all.”

The Bloomer Girls probably did not realize the importance of what they did, but in a small way the walls of gender equality came down in the wheat fields of California that day. To read similar stories from our Heritage Services collection regarding our customers, dealers and employees go to please go to: