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Pins and Needles

Once the City's Largest Industry, Baltimore's Rag Trade is Stitched Into a Corner

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Employees operate a computerized cutting machine at Haas Tailoring's Belair-Edison plant.
Beata Carnahah custom-cuts fabric at Haas Tailoring.
"We're certainly not any smarter than those companies that have gone out of business," says Marc Seinfeld, vice president of sales for 101-year-old Haas Tailoring. "We're just stuck with what we do best."
"I guess it just wouldn't look right to open up a Brownie vest and see 'made in Malaysia,'" says G & G Uniform Co. chief Robert Willingham, whose East Baltimore firm has made Girl Scouts and Brownie clothes since 1924.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/7/1998

At its peak, it employed nearly 27,000 Baltimoreans--almost one-third of the city's industrial workers. Today, it puts Tiger Woods in sharp suits and Girl Scouts in green dresses.

When people reflect on Baltimore's industrial heritage, they tend to think of the heavy stuff: ships, steel, copper smelting, perhaps canning or food processing--big-shouldered work, replete with smokestacks, boilers, pipes, and pollution. But from the Civil War through the 1920s, the needle trades--not the manufacture of sewing hardware, but the production of stitched-together items, from clothes and boots to umbrellas and luggage--led Baltimore's industrial undertakings in both number of employees and revenue. In menswear, a city specialty, Baltimore was second in prominence only to New York.

You don't have to tell this to Dennis Zembala. As director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, his job is to show and tell the city's labor history. With a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, Zembala, who holds a Ph.D. in history, is preparing his Key Highway museum to revisit the needle industries. An exhibit taking shape in a 1,200-square-foot corner of the museum will shed new light on Baltimore's rag-trade days.

"It was the city's largest employer--few people realize that," Zembala says, "While we always had a garment shop as part of our core exhibit, we felt we needed to do a better job of it. We went out and raised the money and are doing it."

Visitors to the exhibit, which opens Oct. 23, will step into the year 1929 and a detailed re-creation of what was once the largest menswear factory in the world: the Henry Sonneborn Co., whose 10-story loft building rose up from the corner of Pratt and Paca streets in 1906.

"This will be the employees' entrance," Zembala says, sweeping his arms as he steps into the simulated factory (which, at the moment, is rife with the sound of power drills and hammers building the exhibit). "The shipping and receiving areas are over there; fabric is brought in here. On the far side there's a mural showing the cityscape in the loft district. The clothing designers and office workers will be in the corner."

When Zembala looks at the unfinished attraction, he sees not a disheveled work-in-progress but a detailed slice of the past--a place that will teach history, and some of the practical economics of manufacturing.

"It's going to have an interactive component--a living-history experience that we're focusing at high schools," he says, with growing enthusiasm. "The kids will come in and actually make a vest."

But beyond the economics and artifacts, Baltimore's garment trade has a rich social history. It was largely founded and fueled by immigrants, and--unlike other industries--women made up a large part of the work force. For garment workers, it was a route to the middle class. For those who toiled in filthy sweatshops, it was an oppressive force that kept them in squalor.

"When people don't have many skills to offer, they can be exploited and they have to work for the lowest bidder," Zembala notes. "If they have a skill they can offer, than they can negotiate."

(For a more compete lesson on the darker side of the garment industry, visit the exhibit Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820--Present, on display through Dec. 1 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.)

Today, of course, if you walk into your closet to examine the clothing labels, you had better take an atlas with you. More than 60 percent of clothing sold in the United States is made overseas.

But the local garment industry isn't entirely ready to be relegated to Zembala's museum. Against heavy odds, clothing is still made in Baltimore, often by century-old firms that have found ways to weather the import invasion. Tiger Woods wears Baltimore clothes; so do Johnnie Cochran and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. And if you know any Girl Scouts or Brownies, you see the fruits of Baltimore's needle labors on a regular basis.

At the tail end of the Revolutionary War, a group of Baltimore women gathered in a ballroom to sew uniforms for the French troops Gen. Lafayette was leading in support of American forces. In a sense, this was Baltimore's first clothing factory. But it wasn't until the middle of the next century that the industry began to aggressively develop.

German Jews, who brought tailoring skills to these shores, were among the early pioneers of the garment trade. Tailoring was one of the few livelihoods they'd been free to pursue in Germany, where Jews were subject to harsh social restrictions.

Some of the greatest names in Baltimore clothing began humbly. Take Henry Sonneborn, who arrived here penniless in 1849. Starting out as an itinerant peddler, he worked and saved and opened a small shop in West Virginia. It soon spawned a national chain. He subsequently brought the rest of his family over from Germany and set up shop in Baltimore.

Fellow German Levi Grief, who would launch what for a time was the country's second-largest men's-clothing company, arrived here in 1852. He was 14, and possessed a pocket watch and some pocket change. He too made good with a small business in West Virginia, then relocated to Baltimore to open a furnishings shop in Fells Point. By 1858 he had graduated from making crude overalls for sale in his own shop to creating tailored suits to sell wholesale to other vendors.

Because of its location, Baltimore enjoyed heavy trade with the South. The Civil War temporarily closed this market, but the conflict brought unforeseen benefits for the industry. The sudden need for clothing manufacturers to produce thousands of military uniforms led to the development of standard patterns and sizes. Uniforms brought uniformity to the industry, essentially birthing the ready-to-wear market.

The midcentury invention and perfection of the sewing machine also gave the industry a major boost. By 1870, Baltimore's status as a sea- and land-transportation hub had attracted many sewing industries. Some 7,000 Baltimoreans were employed in the men's-clothing business that year. The industry soon began to develop and centralize around a distinct "garment district," west of downtown. Four- and five-story brick, loft-style factory buildings began to rise within a several-block area roughly bounded by Pratt, Howard, Baltimore, and Paca streets. The production of sleepwear, underwear, and other cotton goods was soon added to the mix. The Rosenfeld & Steppacher Co., which would become the Faultless Pajama Corp., opened in 1881, and the famous BVD brand of underwear was first made here in 1885. (The initials stood for Bradley, Vorhees, and Day, but some snickered that it meant "Baltimore Ventilated Drawers.")

It wasn't just clothes that made Baltimore's needle name. The city was once so closely associated with the manufacture of umbrellas that an unfounded myth had it that the devices were invented here. This was largely due to the Gans brothers, who opened a large umbrella and parasol company here in 1870. "Born in Baltimore, raised everywhere" became their company slogan. Soon, other umbrella-makers established themselves here. As the popularity of wearing straw hats in the warm months grew, Baltimore soon became the center of this industry. (The city's more southerly location probably contributed to its luring this segment of the hat trade from Boston, then the country's top producer of toppers.)

Throughout the 19th century, immigrants continued to stream through Baltimore's Locust Point terminal, and the needle trades absorbed a good portion of the flow: Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Lithuanians, and others. Russian Jews, driven from their homeland by Tsarist oppression, were a particularly large (and destitute) faction. Those who didn't find work in the factories often fell victim to garment contractors who hired the hapless new arrivals to perform piece work in shabby tenements for slave wages. By century's end, laws were enacted to control the more egregious aspects of this practice, but the sweatshop remained a scourge of the industry. (Immigrant-staffed garment sweatshops are still occasionally uncovered in New York and Los Angeles.)

At the turn of the century, the number of Baltimoreans cutting, sewing, pressing, or otherwise toiling in the needle trades had swelled to 10,000.

Trained clothes maker and merchant Jacob Haas emigrated from his native Germany in 1897, lured to Baltimore by its reputation for quality tailoring. In a few short years he had his own storefront tailor shop on South Broadway. In 1898, a young Joseph A. Bank wet his feet in the clothing business when his grandfather, Charles Bank, hired him to cut out trousers in the family pants shop.

A century later, these names are still alive in the Baltimore garment business--though finding them can be a challenge.

SourceOne, a company launched in April to oversee production of Jos. A. Bank's clothing line, is located in a low-slung cinder-block building tucked behind Reisterstown Road Mall. Haas Tailoring resides on Sinclair Lane, its understated facility facing Dumpsters lined up behind a Belair-Edison shopping center.

SourceOne has 380 employees in Baltimore, Haas Tailoring 160. Tucked away though they may be, they are the largest clothing manufacturers in the city--sole survivors, in a sense.

After some 50 years of creating much of its own product, Jos. A. Bank has left the menswear-manufacturing business to concentrate on its 101 retail stores and mail-order business. SourceOne (a subsidiary of Liverpool, N.Y.--based Joseph J. Pietrafesa Co.) has taken over Bank's facilities; through a long-term supply agreement, it will continue to create Jos. A. Bank suits, slacks, and sport coats as well as menswear for Polo, Brooks Brothers, Today's Man, and other brands.

SourceOne plant manager Doug Baer, a 35-year veteran of the clothing trade (including 27 years with Bank) credits the early adoption of technology for the factory's survival.

"We have all the latest cutting, examining, and fusing machines and an up-to-date [computer-assisted design] system," he says. "There's not much hand labor anymore."

While the new machinery can reduce labor costs, the equipment itself is expensive to purchase and maintain. The Bank suits it helps produce sell for about $500. Essentially, making clothing in the United States can only be economically justified when the finished product is priced high enough to absorb the extra costs.

"We do a portion of the Joseph Bank work in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica," Baer explains. "The high-dollar stuff is done here in our factories, the lower-end stuff is done over there."

SourceOne's Baltimore employees are members of the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees. Domestic employee pay starts at about $320 a week, plus benefits. The overseas workers earn less than half that amount and get few benefits, if any.

The situation is somewhat different at Haas Tailoring, now under its fourth generation of family management. (John Haas, grandson of founder Jacob, is president; his son Matthew is a vice president.) Haas has never been heavily involved in the ready-to-wear trade, focusing instead on made-to-measure clothes: Customers enter men's stores around the country, choose the style and fabric they'd like for a new suit, and the store then sends this information (along with precise measurements) to Haas, where the garments are created, usually in about four weeks. Prices range from $600 to more than $1,000.

"We're certainly not any smarter than those companies that have gone out of business," Marc Seinfeld, vice president of sales, says. "We just stuck with what we do best. We're not small, and we're not large. Being middle-sized gives us the ability to launch products quickly and serve a lot of different niches."

Haas makes the uniforms for each West Point graduating class, and blazers for country clubs. It's even made the coveted green jacket given to winners of the Masters golf tournament. But the made-to-measure market remains its bread and butter.

"We're probably the largest made-to-measure house in the country," Seinfeld says. "I know we're the oldest. We've made clothing for presidents, military leaders, TV and movie stars, and many famous athletes--a virtual who's-who of prominent men of the 20th century."

Along with Woods, Cochran, and Schwarzkopf, Haas' customers have included George Bush, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and Scottie Pippen. Of course, these luminaries probably don't know their suits came from Baltimore. Though Haas has a small retail outlet connected to the factory, the bulk of its clothes leave the facility wearing other company's labels (usually the name of the store where it was purchased).

To tour these facilities is to see the new face of garment manufacturing. In a small, windowless room at SourceOne, a trio of workers sit before computer screens concentrating on what, at first glance, seems to be an endless game of Tetris. They are actually carefully arranging the 27 or so pieces that make up a suit so as to make the most efficient use of units of cloth. The difficulty of the work is compounded when the fabric is plaid or striped, since the individual pieces have to be cut out in such a way that they line up correctly when sewn together.

When the pieces are arranged in the optimum manner, a key stroke sends this information to a high-speed plotter, which draws the shapes onto rolls of paper as a backup in case a mistake is made. More importantly, the information is routed directly to an automated cutting machine.

For generations, clothing patterns were traced onto bolts of cloth with a wax marker, then cut out with hand-operated electric saws. SourceOne's $250,000 automated cutter largely does away with this skilled-labor-intensive work.

"It used to take 35 minutes to lay out and mark a suit, and an hour to cut it out," Baer says. "This equipment will draw the patterns in four minutes and cut it out in seven."

Haas also utilizes a computer-driven cutter, but reflecting the more tailored nature of its products, it still does some hand cutting. (The manual cutters wear chain-mail gloves; the spinning blade can easily slice off an unprotected finger.) Haas even has some workers hand-sewing button holes and other features.

While Haas' Baltimore operation is all under one roof, SourceOne trucks cloth cut at its Northwest Baltimore facility to a five-story brick building on North Avenue for assembly. The suit pieces begin on the upper stories of the building and move downward through the floors. Sewing machines whir, sputter, and grind as legions of workers perform more than 200 different operations until a ready-for-the-rack suit emerges near the ground floor loading dock.

Most of the line workers at both companies are middle-aged women, an ethnic jumble of Caucasians, Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans. Through the help of the Jewish Vocational Services organization, SourceOne has helped newly arrived Russian Jews into the industry.

Union-management relations are, by all accounts, pretty good--both sides realize that the domestic garment industry is in a tenuous situation, and no one wants to rock a boat that's barely afloat. Seinfeld is proud to say that Haas has never had layoffs--but the company isn't exactly growing either. SourceOne may add a second shift to boost weekly production from 550 coats and 750 pants to 630 coats and 900 pants. But caution is the first order of business here.

"Our survival here in Baltimore depends on how well we can service the higher-price retailers," Edward Jecelin, SourceOne vice president, says. "We're still new."

Early in this century, Baltimore's five biggest clothiers were the Henry Sonneborn Co., Strouse Brothers, Schloss Brothers, L. Grief & Brother, and J. Schoeneman. Business was good. When Sonneborn's mammoth factory opened, it employed 4,000 workers and turned out 3,000 suits a day. World War I brought lucrative uniform contracts that added to the industry's fortunes.

Oddly enough, though, the general prosperity of the "Roaring '20s" wasn't enjoyed by the needle trades. Some firms overheated production during the war and had trouble returning to peacetime operations. Suit prices rose while customer demand dropped. The manufacturers reacted by laying off employees and cutting wages. This didn't sit well with the workers, more than half of whom were unionized.

The city's needle-trade workers had begun to organize during the previous century, when a number of labor groups sprung up (including the somewhat ill-named "Working Girls Society.") The unionization of Baltimore's clothing factories, while marked with strikes and rocky at times, wasn't rife with the mob violence seen in other industries. And Baltimore didn't have any tragedies, like the fire that engulfed a New York shirt factory, killing 200 women. (Management had blocked off the building's fire exits to prevent union infiltration.) Indeed, the labor groups battled each other almost as much as they did the factory owners. In 1914, conflicts within the United Garment Workers of America union led to the creation of the rival Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The rivalry between these two groups came to a pitched, bloody battle for dominance in the Sonneborn factory in 1916. (In 1995, the surviving garment and textile labor groups were stitched together to create the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees.)

The industry recovered from the rocky 1920s just in time for the Great Depression. Few companies were immune to the economic collapse. The once-mighty Sonneborn firm was forced to dissolve in 1931. But some of the family-run garment firms that ambitious immigrants had founded in the previous century disappeared for noneconomic reasons. In many cases, the founder's offspring--now firmly enmeshed in American society--opted to pursue professional or even artistic careers.

World War II, which resurrected so many other industries, didn't substantially benefit Baltimore's clothing makers. The federal government--preferring that Baltimore's swelling work force concentrate on making ships, airplanes, and munitions--awarded most of its military-uniform contracts to clothing makers in other cities. Business remained on a downward spiral.

In the postwar years, Baltimore's umbrella industry was perhaps the first needle trade to be drubbed out of existence by the flood of cheap imports. But the city made another successful stab at capturing the foul-weather market, this time with raincoats. Using textile technology developed during the war, local firms made Baltimore the center of the U.S. rainwear industry in the '50s and early '60s. Leading the pack was Londontown Manufacturing, with its well-known London Fog line, but brands such as Misty Harbor and Gleneagles were successful as well.

The '60s and '70s were marked by corporate mergers and acquisitions, and many of Baltimore's clothiers fell into the hands of out-of-state owners. (Jos. A. Bank was owned for awhile by Quaker Oats.) A push was on to consolidate operations and close outmoded facilities. The pursuit of lower labor costs led many manufacturers to relocate to the South and, ultimately, overseas. And all the while, changes in social mores were leading many to reject dressy clothing for a life in T-shirts and jeans.

Some Baltimore clothiers were severely burned by the fickle nature of fashion. Belmont Clothing Co. made a fortune selling zoot suits in the 1940s but went out of business when the bottom fell out of the baggy-suit trade. Some 20 years later, the Raleigh Manufacturing Co. cranked out Nehru jackets, only to lose a bundle when the lapel-less outfits from the East went from hip to has-been. Long before either of these fashion flip-flops, one of the mainstays of the city's needle trades, the straw-hat industry, came crashing down: May 15--the traditional "straw-hat day," when men would put away their felt hats and take up straw ones--stopped being acknowledged back in the '30s.

The raincoat business ultimately dried up too. Londontown is still based in Eldersburg, but the last Baltimore raincoat factory closed last year. Today, perhaps 2,000 Baltimoreans are employed in the needle trades, and that's a liberal estimate.

The final remnant of more than 100 years of Baltimore neckwear manufacturing is on the second floor of a nondescript warehouse across from the Parrot Island restaurant and bar in Fells Point.

"I'm the last one," says Joseph Zentgraf, a 28-year veteran of the tie trade. "I'm a Baltimore boy. I've seen it come and go--all the way from being a busy industry to dissipating overnight. In the last few years, the neckwear industry has really taken a hit. If there's anybody else making ties in Baltimore, I don't know about them."

Zentgraf, through merger or acquisition, has brought together the frazzled remains of the city's tie industry. The sign out front says resisto ties, a firm that began in 1890, but it will soon be changed to read l. mayers, an 88-year-old company with which Resisto recently merged (and under whose name Zentgraf will now operate).

"My accountant calls me a survivalist," Zentgraf says of his ability to weather the volatile business.

Most of his company's business now comes from the custom-tie market. "We make ties for restaurant chains, universities, the Marine Corps, you name it," he says, walking alongside rolls of cloth emblazoned with various logos and names--everything from the Maryland Club to NATO. The cloth is custom-embroidered (or otherwise patterned) in mills around the world and shipped to the Fells Point shop to be cut and stitched into ties.

During a late-afternoon visit only two workers are still sewing, stitching labels on the backs of ties via a pedal-activated electric sewing machine. The firm employs 15 nonunion sewers who earn between $6 and $10 and hour, depending on their ability. Zentgraf points out that neckwear-manufacturing equipment is specialized--it can't be readily used to make pants or shirts. (He says one device that simply puts liners inside ties cost $110,000.)

Changing tastes makes retail "the dangerous side" of the business, Zentgraf says. "If you don't go in with the right goods you can get killed. The widths and patterns are changing every damn two months."

His inventory crowds the rear of the small factory--brightly colored ties spilling out of a jumbled array of long cardboard boxes. He sells primarily to smaller men's shops and other stores that are often overlooked by tie makers. "The big guys--the Wal-Marts--they don't care about us," Zentgraf says. "They go overseas with their big orders. We emphasize 'made in America,' which still means something to some people--but not many."

Small though it may be, the new L. Mayers Co. hopes to turn out 2 million ties next year (still less than half the city's tie output in the '30s). "Things right now are looking pretty good," Zentgraf says. "But then, growth scares the hell out of me."

While the Baltimore tie business has congealed into one operation, the Baltimore uniform industry has fared somewhat better. About a half-dozen local firms are making uniforms today--for the military, police departments, and organizations and agencies. Amid the abandoned and boarded-up rowhouses crowding one of the more squalid sections of the city's east side, half the country's Girl Scout uniforms are born.

Like many of the old firms, G & G Uniform Co. was originally located downtown in the garment district. It made the move to its current three-story factory on East Oliver Street 15 years ago. President Robert Willingham inherited the business from his late father, who had worked there for 40-some years. (The elder Willingham had inherited G & G from the childless couple that founded the company in 1920.)

Though it makes uniforms for Red Cross volunteers and blouses for Cub Scout den mothers, the company has specialized in Girl Scout and Brownie goods since 1924. The modest factory turns out some 70 different scouting items: dresses, vests, jumpers, T-shirts, blouses--millions of pieces a year that have kept the small business alive.

"I guess it just wouldn't look right to open up a Brownie vest and see 'made in Malaysia,'" Willingham says. "It is the Girl Scouts of America."

Willingham says he'd "be out of business in a minute" if he tried to make girls' clothing for the open retail market. "Unless you have a real special niche, you can't compete for the Wal-Mart and Target trade." And because his service-organization-oriented products are less expensive, he can't justify investing in computerized equipment. The cloth spreading and cutting is done by hand. But then, putting together a cotton vest or skirt is markedly simpler than creating a tailored suit.

"Other companies are looking for tailors," Willingham says. "I'm looking for production workers."

His 80 or so unionized employees earn $6.50 to $7 an hour, plus benefits. "They work hard and it's not a lot of money, but it's better than McDonald's," Willingham asserts. (Many of his employees come from the beleaguered environs, where jobs of any sort are scarce.)

Like many in the Baltimore rag trade, G & G Uniforms is in a holding pattern. As long as the Girl Scouts survive (and continue to desire American-made goods), so will the company. But opportunities for growth are scarce.

"In my 15 years in the business, I've seen an awful lot of [garment makers] close," Willingham says. "I've never seen one open."

It's quiet among the brick canyons of the garment district today. The unbroken whir of mechanical sewing equipment no longer drifts from windows. Rumbling trucks no longer deliver bolts of cloth or pick up racks of jackets, dresses, and pants. Many of the lofts are still there, though--handsomely constructed buildings sprinkled with terra-cotta detailing and classic architectural ornaments. Once called "skyscraper factories," their open floor plans and plentiful windows have encouraged adaptive reuse. A former underwear factory is now the Greenehouse, a swanky residential complex. The Marlboro Shirt plant is the Marlboro Square Apartments. The erstwhile largest menswear factory in the world has been scrubbed up to house offices for the First National Bank.

You have to look closely for evidence of the district's former days. Some gold window lettering on an empty Baltimore Street rowhouse reads park royal straw and felt hats. Fading painted billboards advertise Applefeld Clothing and the Baltimore Clothes Hanger Co. Harry Guss Inc. still sells remnant fabric bolts from a creaky-floored storefront on Baltimore Street.

What life the district has now comes from the nearby medical and law schools, whose facilities, labs, and offices are slowly spilling into the shadowy loft blocks. Many economists would argue that this is as it should be. Our economy is maturing, they'd maintain--manufacturing wanes and is replaced by service industries and high-tech "factories," staffed with educated workers hunched over computer screens or biomedical equipment. That opinion is not universally shared.

"I think we made a terrible mistake in eliminating a lot of our labor-intensive jobs," says Peter Nadash, a vice president of the garment workers' union. "They have always been a way for immigrants to achieve economic and even social mobility in our society, and we continue to get immigrants to this country."

Whichever side of the debate one takes, one things seems certain: The city's garment trade shows no signs of regeneration. Baltimore--which once billed itself as "the city that tries to suit everybody"--suits a select few today. The local needle industries have gone from rags to riches . . . and back to rags.

To learn more about Baltimore's rag-trade days, pick up A Stitch in Time: The Four Seasons of Baltimore's Needle Trades by Philip Kahn, which was a primary source for this article. Kahn, who was born into a garment-making family (his father was known as the Overcoat King), spent his retirement assiduously tracing the industry's history, publishing the results in 1989. He passed away this past spring at the age of 80.

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