The Baltimore Garment District: Some Years and Some Facts, but Far From All…

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  • The Garment District between1860 to 1920: It’s heyday era. Workers produced three to eight times the value of Baltimore’s next most important industry: canning.
  • 1861: The Civil War. Banks tightened credit, trade between the north and south halted, manufacturing dipped and jobs were lost. Merchants began regaining their strength around 1863.
  • Baltimore was the undisputed center of the umbrella and straw hat industries, following the Civil War.
  • 1870s: Growth, expansion and the innovation of new trades—shoes, shirts, woman’s garments and umbrellas. Factories opened and the population increased.
  • Gans Brothers umbrellas and parasols were popular throughout the United States, Canada and West Indies. The company slogan: “Born in Baltimore—Raised Everywhere”
  • 750 workers a day made 3000 umbrellas and parasols a day.
  • Umbrellas were commonly referred to as bumbershoots.
  • As early as 1894, Baltimore’s Young Men’s Progressive Club, consisting largely of Jewish intellectuals, socialists, Zionists, and anarchists, pushed to unionize. The push spiked after the Russian Revolution of 1905.
  • 1904: 10,000 men’s clothing workers were employed in the district. That year, the Great Baltimore Fire was accidently ignited in storage areas of the John E. Hurst Co. The fire swept east through the business district and the north harbor area, destroying 1,500 buildings for a loss of $200 million. The ruined buildings included many of the downtown clothing manufacturers.
  • Sweatshops— 357 shops were found in violation of city labor laws and 45 were arrested.
  • By 1906: Most men in the United States could say that they, at one point in their life, had worn shirts or underwear made in Baltimore.
  • Factories, where sewed products were assembled, could be found in lofts, alleys, garages or any where there was space.
  • Overalls: Baltimore dry goods houses distributed them by the ton.
  • Erlanger Brothers Clothing manufactured their best-known product, BVD underwear, which did not stand for, as many thought: Baltimore Ventilated Drawers
  • 1909: Baltimore’s local number 4 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called an unsuccessful 26 week-long strike. Total membership in the union went from 2000 to 67,000.
  • End of WWI: 60% of the needle workers in Baltimore were organized. 15% of the laboring class as a whole was organized.
  • In 1916 the Amalgamated clothing workers of America became active in Baltimore
  • and attempted, unsuccessfully, to organize against Geif and Brothers. They did, however, reach an agreement with Henry Sonneborn Company.
  • “Battle of the Scissors”: Union clashing on the cutter floors of the Sonnenborn factory in August 1916, included men snapping at each other with cutting shears. Many were hospitalized, some were arrested.
  • “The cutter,” who guided the cutting machine along the lines of a pattern, was a job traditionally limited to men.
  • By 1917 most large clothing manufactures, except J. Sheenmen, where organized.
  • The oldest tie manufacturer in America, Schreter Neckwear, moved to Baltimore in 1919.
  • The Regatta Manufacturing Company and the Consolidated Gas and Electric Light and Power Company of Baltimore developed a blue daylight lamp enabling pressers to work effectively during the hours of diminishing daylight. The light made it easier to detect scorches on fabric that occurred during pressing.
  • Pressers had what was commonly considered the most exacting of all the jobs. An Electric iron weighed as much as six to twelve pounds. An iron was lifted from 35-75 times for each dress. A busy day meant up to 100 dresses per presser.
  • Some of the employees that lined the Baltimore and Howard Street picket lines in
  • 1930 reportedly carried pistols and blackjacks. That year the International Ladies Garment Workers Union argued that the city had lower wages and poorer working conditions than competing, more organized cities. A general strike lasted 7 days.
  • Men commonly purchased straw hats annually—May 15 being a traditional day of purchase—until their decline in popularity. John F Kennedy was largely blamed for the decline.
  • Trends and what made for trends in men’s clothes in the 1930s: Times of war—military suit cuts; The Depression—quieter shades, two-pants suits and less linen summer suits; Times of high moral among sports fans—suits allowing for more room to move, with more material around the shoulders.
  • The Golf Bow Tie was inspired by President Harding’s golfing bow tie. TheSmoothie Tie buttoned to the shirt and was named after the song “You’re an old Smoothie,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Shir-o-Shakker, a washable tie, was popular among steel workers at Sparrows Point, who wore it on the job.
  • Designers concluded that women began wearing head kerchiefs due to increased exposure to photographs of women living in poverty.
  • Prices following WWII for a men’s suit: 50 dollars, rising to 75 dollars, rising to 100 dollars—thought of by some to be the beginning of the end.
  • In the 1950s, companies Misty Harbor and Gleneagles were responsible for 80% of America’s rain wear.
  • For a coat to receive the London Fog label, it had to pass 32 inspections.
  • 1966: 641,000 employees worked in women’s apparel.
  • In 1974, Robert Redford, playing Gatsby in the classic movie The Great Gatsby, wore a trend setting pastel suit made in Baltimore.
  • In 1976: 560,000 employees worked in women’s apparel.
  • 1976: a Korean importer paid its labor 27 cents an hour. In Baltimore the average was 3 dollars an hour.

Some Baltimore based garment related manufacturing companies, most of which are no longer in business:

UMBRELLA MANUFACTURERS

  • Gans Brothers: Umbrellas and Parasols
  • Polan Katz + Co
  • Beechler (First Manufacturer of Umbrellas in US)

TIES

  • Resisto Ties: Created Ties called “Smoothies” and “Culture of Man”
  • L. Meyers Tie Company (Fells Point)
  • TV. Ties (Located in Fells Point, current company developed by Baltimore sports celebrity Rick Dempsey)

CLOTHING

  • Henry Sonneborn Co. (once the largest men’s clothing factory in the world)
  • L. Grief (once second Largest Men’s clothing factory in the Country)
  • Erlanger Brothers Clothing: Underwear
  • Katzenberg Brothers’: Athletic Wear (TV Hill, Relocated to Georgia in 1998)
  • JoS. A. Bank Clothiers: Suits, Casual Cloths (now outsources its merchandise production and focuses on retail)
  • J. Schoeneman: Coats, Vest, Trousers, Topcoats and Overcoats for Men, Youth and Boys

HATS

  • M.S Levy and Sons: Panama Hats (originally at Sharp and Lombard then Paca and Lombard)
  • Townsend and Grace: Paca Lombard Street Neighborhood
  • Brigham-Hopkins Co.: Located at Redwood and Paca Streets

RAINCOATS

  • London Fog: (Meadow Mills)
  • Harbor Master
  • Misty Harbor
  • Gleneagles

SHOES

Faust Brothers (Original Owners of building in which EMP collective is located.)

Hess Shoes: Closed in 1999 after 127 years, 409 West Baltimore Street. Later focused on retail)

WHOLESALE AND SUPPLIERS

Morton Schenk & Co.: 1927- original building at 412 W. Baltimore Street collapsed in 1998. Supplied buttons, zippers, thread, fabrics and other sewing supplies to clothing manufacturers, tailors and household seamstresses.

RESOURCES:

Brennen Jensen, “Pins and Needles,” City Paper, 1998

Jo Ann E. Argersinger, “The City that Tries to Suit Everybody: Baltimore’s Clothing Industry The Baltimore Book, Temple University Press, 1991

Philip Kahn Jr., A Stitch in Time: The Four Seasons of Baltimore’s Needle Trades, Mary- land Historical Society, 1989

Joann Harris Gabler, “Made in Baltimore,” Baltimore Magazine, 1975

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