Alice Casneau

Portrait of an African American woman with a high collared dress with embroidery.
Dressmaker and active clubwoman Alice Casneau.

Public Domain

Quick Facts
Dressmaker and clubwoman
Place of Birth:
Date of Birth:
December 1866
Place of Death:
Roxbury, Massachusetts
Date of Death:
March 24, 1953

A successful dressmaker and clubwoman, Alice Casneau had an active professional and public life in Boston during the turn of the 20th century.

Limited documented evidence exists regarding Alice Casneau's personal life. Originally from Virginia, a 1900 Census record shows her living with her family—husband, Elmer Casneau, and young daughter, Pearl Casneau—in Boston.1 By 1900, however, Casneau had already made a name for herself within the community as a dressmaker and a vocal member of Boston's Black community.

In the early 1890s, Alice Casneau joined the Woman's Era Club, a Boston-based Black women’s club that encouraged self-improvement and community work. Along with club president Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and other members, Casneau contributed to the First National Conference of Colored Women of America in 1895. She served on the Committee on Special Work and participated in some of the sessions.2

Also in 1895, Casneau published Casneau's Guide for Artistic Dress Cutting and Making. Her introduction commented on the necessity of this dress-making book:

To the woman of moderate means and to the young dressmaker this book is invaluable. It is sure to satisfy a long-felt want of women in general, and especially those who do their sewing at home or women who anticipate learning the trade as means of gaining a livelihood.3

Casneau's skills in dressmaking and business became so recognized that she spoke at the first meeting of the National Negro Business League, held in Boston in 1900. Giving a session on "Dressmaking," Casneau argued that success in business can only be obtained through hard work, education, and "business courage."4 In this talk, Casneau recounted an instance of her own business courage when she hesitated to meet with a woman who had read her book and asked for lessons without knowing her racial identity. Casneau remembered saying to herself: "If you allow this circumstance to master you[,] you are not worthy of success."5 She went on to tell the rest of the encounter:

I entered that room a woman, not particularly a colored woman. The young girl acted just as I had supposed she would, but it had no effect on me, because I had already fought my battle from within and was prepared to talk so fast about the work, and what she wanted to know, that she was soon relieved of all embarrassment. I...gave her several lessons, have her letter of recommendation, and, best of all, have the strength which comes from a conquest over self.6

Over the following years, Casneau continued to participate in local events, recognizing the role Black women had to play in community activism. She joined the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (also known as the New England Federation of Colored Women's Clubs), giving talks during sessions held in Boston.7 During World War I, Casneau worked alongside Florida Ridley, Maria Baldwin, and others in the Soldiers' Comfort Unit, later the League of Women for Community Service. She also appeared to have an interest in politics during this time, taking a 1918 Parliamentary Law Class at Roxbury High School alongside suffragist Margaret Foley and other local activists.8

While few records document her later work, Alice Casneau remained active in the League of Women for Community Service, as well as other local organizations, for the remaining years of her life.

Alice Casneau died at her home in Roxbury on March 24, 1953.9


  1. The 1900 census marks Elmer Casneau’s and Pearl Casneau’s birth states as Massachusetts. This suggests Alice Casneau had travelled north from Virginia during the years prior to the Great Migration, either on her own or with her family, and she later met Elmer Casneau. 1900 U.S. Census Record, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Boston City Ward 18, Precinct 3, Enumeration District Number 1424.
  2. “Best City in the World,” Boston Globe, July 09, 1895; “Three Sessions,” Boston Globe, July 30, 1895.
  3. Alice A. Casneau, Casneau’s Guide for Artistic Dress Cutting and Making (Boston: Brooks Bank Note Company, 1895), accessed March 2021,
  4. “Proceedings of the National Negro Business League,” National Negro Business League (Boston: J. R. Hamm, 1901), accessed March 2021,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Colored Women’s Clubs,” Boston Globe, September 25, 1899; “Colored Club Women Meet,” Boston Herald, September 25, 1899; “Quarterly Convention Held,” Boston Herald, February 12, 1898.
  8. Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 241, n. 109.
  9. “Death Notices,” Boston Globe, March 26, 1953.

Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: January 22, 2024