As a housewife, Ellen Quinlan Donnelly Reed was concerned with the lack of style of the ordinary housedress of the 1920s. She went to create a smarter, more colorful style of dress for herself. After attracting a great deal of attention for dresses she made for herself, Reed decided that all women should have the opportunity to share the more stylish clothes.
In 1919 Reed opened the Donnelly Garment Co. in downtown Kansas City, for less than $1,500. Women paid what was considered to be a very high price, one dollar, for the new styles. Nelly Don became one of the largest U.S. dress manufacturers of the 20th century. Nelly Don was headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri and manufactured about 75 million dresses between 1916 and 1978. This company was one of the first companies to to use assembly line techniques for clothing manufacturing. During World War II, Nelly Don was also the largest manufacturer for women's military and work clothing. A documentary film was made about this company titled Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time. Reed was an astute businesswoman who led her company through depressions, recessions, wars and battles with the federal government over regulations. She sought to create better working conditions for her employees. Her company was the first in Kansas City to pay for group hospitalization, provide welfare benefits and make educational opportunities available for workers and their children. She also had survived her own tribulations, including being kidnapped and held for ransom.