The Garment Industry in Northeast Ohio from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
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GARMENT INDUSTRY. As early as 1860 the manufacture of ready-to-wear clothing became one of Cleveland’s leading industries. The garment industry probably reached its peak during the 1920s, when Cleveland ranked close to New York as one of the country’s leading centers for garment production. During the Depression and continuing after World War II, the garment industry in Cleveland declined. Scores of plants moved out of the area, were sold, or closed their doors. Local factors certainly played their part, but the rise of the ready-to-wear industry in Cleveland, as well as its decline, paralleled the growth and decline of the industry nationwide. Thus the story of the garment industry in Cleveland is a local or regional variant of a much broader phenomenon.
The Ironing Department of L.N. Gross Co., ca. 1930. WRHS.
In the early 19th century clothing was still handmade, produced for the family by women in the household or custom-made for the more well-to-do by tailors and seamstresses. The first production of ready-to-wear garments was stimulated by the needs of sailors, slaves, and miners. Although still hand-produced, this early ready-to-wear industry laid the foundations for the vast expansion and mechanization of the industry. The ready-to-wear industry grew enormously from the 1860s to the 1880s for a variety of reasons. Increasing mechanization was one factor. In addition, systems for sizing men’s and boys’ clothing were highly developed, based on millions of measurements obtained by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Eventually, accurate sizing for women’s clothing was also developed. The Depression of 1873 contributed to the growth and growing acceptance of men’s ready-to-wear, because men found in off-the-rack garments a satisfactory and less costly alternative to custom-made clothing. The production of ready-made men’s trousers or “pants,” separate from suits, stimulated during the depression of the 1870s, allowed men to supplement their outfit without having to purchase a complete suit. In general, however, the great expansion of the ready-to-wear industry coincided with and was partly the result of the tremendous urbanization and the great wave of immigrants that came to the U.S. in the last decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th. Industrial cities such as Cleveland also experienced rapid growth, and it was during this period that Cleveland’s ready-to-wear clothing industry blossomed.
The early entrepreneurs of the clothing industry in Cleveland were often JEWS & JUDAISM of German or Austro-Hungarian extraction. Their previous experience in retailing prepared them for the transition to manufacturing and wholesaling ready-to-wear clothing. One example was Kaufman Koch, a clothing retailer whose firm eventually evolved into the JOSEPH & FEISS CO., a leading manufacturer of men’s clothing. The company still exists in the early 1990s, although it is no longer locally owned. The entry-level manufacturer needed relatively little capital to launch a garment factory. H. Black & Co., which would become a major Cleveland manufacturer of women’s suits and cloaks, started out as a notions house. The Black family, Jews of Hungarian origin, decided to produce ready-to-wear clothing based on European patterns in their own home. Later, fabric was contracted out to home sewers and then returned to the factory for final assembly. This system of contracting was widely practiced at this stage of the garment industry’s development, but by the close of the 19th century home work had been generally superseded by factory production. Garment manufacturing started in the FLATS, but in the early 20th century, it was concentrated in what is now called the WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, an area bounded by W. 6th and W. 9th streets and Lakeside and Superior avenues. L. N. Gross Co., founded in 1900, was one such firm in the growing garment district, specializing in the production of women’s shirtwaists. Many women wore suits, and the separate shirtwaist provided a relatively inexpensive way to modify and vary their wardrobe. L. N. Gross also pioneered in the specialization and division of labor in the manufacturing process. Instead of having one person produce an entire garment, each garment worker specialized in one procedure, and then the entire garment was assembled.
As the garment industry spread to other areas of the city, the CLEVELAND WORSTED MILL CO. dominated the skyline on Broadway near E. 55th St. First organized in the 1870s and controlled after 1893 by KAUFMAN HAYS†, the Worsted Mills produced fabric for Cleveland manufacturers, as well as for garment manufacturers in other parts of the country. The company owned and operated a total of 11 mills in Ohio and on the East Coast. During the first 3 decades of the 20th century, the garment industry spread from downtown to the east side along Superior Ave. between E. 22nd and E. 26th streets. The RICHMAN BROTHERS CO. built a large plant on E. 55th. near St. Clair. Founded in Portsmouth, OH, the company moved to Cleveland in the late 1890s, specializing in the production of men’s suits and coats–an activity in which Cleveland was a close runner-up to New York. In order to reduce the risk of large cancellations by wholesalers, Richman distributed its product directly to the customer in its own retail outlets. The plants of other garment manufacturers dotted the east side well into the 1960s, including BOBBIE BROOKS, INC. on Perkins Ave. and the Dalton Co. at E 66th and Euclid. The PRINTZ-BIEDERMAN CO.was founded in 1893 by Moritz Printz, for many years the chief designer for H. Black & Co. Printz-Biederman specialized in the production of women’s suits and coats, a branch of the garment industry in which Cleveland ranked second to New York. In 1934 the company left the St. Clair area to build a modern factory on E. 61st between Euclid and Chester avenues. The large knitwear firm of Bamberger-Reinthal built a plant on Kinsman at E. 61st St.; Joseph & Feiss was located on the west side on W. 53rd St.; Federal Knitting had a plant on W. 28th and Detroit,; and the Phoenix Dye Works was still located on W. 150th St. in 1993.
For approximately 50 years after the 1890s, about 7% of Cleveland’s workforce toiled in the garment factories. The ethnic origins of those who worked in the industry were as varied as the immigrants who flowed to the U.S. in the early decades of the 20th century. Although Jewish workers played a prominent role, other immigrant groups such as CZECHS, POLES, GERMANS, and ITALIANS were also employed in large numbers, and many of the garment factories were located in the ethnic neighborhoods from which they drew their workforce. Small workshops also proliferated in the ethnic neighborhoods, and many garment workers labored in sweatshop conditions. Unlike in New York, however, where the majority of shops employed 5 or fewer workers, 80% of Cleveland’s approximately 10,000 apparel workers were employed in large and well-equipped factories by 1910. Although working conditions were somewhat better in Cleveland than in New York, Cleveland garment workers generally received low wages and worked long hours with few, if any, benefits. Like garment workers elsewhere, they sought to improve their wages and working conditions by organizing. In 1900 a number of small craft and trade unions joined together in New York City to form the INTERNATIONAL LADIES GARMENT WORKERS UNION, and in 1911 Cleveland garment workers staged a massive strike. On 6 June the employees of H. Black & Co. walked out, and up to 6,000 of Cleveland’s garment workers followed them. The ILGWU sent officials from New York to encourage the strikers, but in spite of considerable support for the workers in the community at large, the owners resisted. Attempts to negotiate a settlement failed, and by October those who could returned to work. The strike had been lost (see GARMENT WORKERS’ STRIKE OF 1911).
During World War I, the garment industry produced a variety of apparel for the armed forces, and in 1918 wartime inflation and prosperity prompted the ILGWU to organize another strike in Cleveland, involving approximately 5,000 workers. To avoid the disruption of local production of military uniforms, secretary of war and former Cleveland mayor NEWTON D. BAKER† intervened, prevailing on both sides to accept a board of referees, which gave the workers a substantial increase in wages. This event marked a watershed in relations between management and labor in Cleveland’s garment industry. The threat of unionization and the influence of “Taylorism” or “Scientific Management” persuaded the large Cleveland garment factories to provide increased amenities for their workers, which reached a peak in the 1920s. PAUL FEISS†, of Joseph & Feiss, was a convinced exponent of scientific management, and time and motion studies were implemented in order to make production more efficient and cost-effective. Working conditions also were improved in order to reduce employee turnover and to provide the best possible environment for maximum productivity. The local garment factories began to provide clean and well-run cafeterias, clinics, libraries, and nurseries for children. Employees of both sexes were urged to participate in sports, theatricals, and other activities, and the factory was also a place where immigrants learned English and a variety of homemaking skills. One consequence of paternalism was a brake on the growth of unionism.
The Depression and the New Deal had a major impact on the garment industry. Those manufacturers who survived the Depression were faced with a powerful new labor movement bent on organizing the unorganized garment industry. Bolstered by the provisions of the NRA and the National Labor Relations Act, both the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which represented workers in the men’s garment factories, successfully waged organizing campaigns (see AMALGAMATED CLOTHING AND TEXTILE WORKERS UNION). Some owners acquiesced; others resisted or simply closed their doors. The process of decline in Cleveland’s garment industry began during the 1930s. During World War II, the industry was once again geared for war production. Factories produced uniforms, knit scarves, and parachutes. LION KNITTING MILLS was famous for its production of the knitted Navy watch cap. Following the war, a number of garment manufacturers were unable to adjust to new market conditions and to new price levels. But while some companies fell by the way, new and vigorous garment factories grew, especially in the 1950s. Among them was Bobbie Brooks, founded by MAURICE SALTZMAN†, and the Dalton Co., organized by Arthur Dery. In fact, the Cleveland garment industry was still so large and influential in the 1950s that Cleveland manufacturers were able to convince the Phoenix Dye Works of Chicago to relocate in Cleveland, where many of its customers were located. Throughout the years other businesses ancillary to garment manufacturing also flourished in Cleveland.
Since World War II, the once-vigorous Cleveland garment industry has dwindled considerably, especially since the 1960s and 1970s when the decline accelerated. In some instances, management has transferred manufacturing operations elsewhere while retaining offices in Cleveland. In some cases an entire operation moved from the Cleveland area, usually to the South. Many companies sold off all or part of their businesses or simply closed. The reasons for this shift are complex and varied, some deriving from local conditions and some from conditions that are national or even global in nature, affecting the industry as a whole throughout the U.S.
The garment industry is traditionally a low-paying industry, and rising labor costs aggravated the industry’s problems. Although most of the large Cleveland manufacturers were unionized, unionization itself did not necessarily mean that one company had an unfair advantage over another. The city’s garment unions, however, generally sought and received wage settlements above the national minimum. Labor costs were considerably less in the South, and Cleveland manufacturers as well as garment and textile workers throughout the U.S. faced growing competition from lower-paid workers in other parts of the world. For example, knitwear and other textile products produced in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore could be sold in the U.S. at substantially less than the same products manufactured in this country. Another factor that may have discouraged some Cleveland manufacturers was the changing workforce. Until the 1950s and 1960s, many women workers had a limited number of employment opportunities, particularly the European immigrant women who dominated the workforce of the garment industry. During the postwar period, there was a new generation of women working who had many more employment opportunities at wages much higher than could be earned in the garment industry. However, while labor costs in Cleveland were relatively high in comparison with some regions, there were some industry authorities who contended that additional factors contributed to the industry’s decline. For example, some family-owned concerns were sold or simply dissolved when family shareholders could no longer agree on management decisions. In other cases, the heirs preferred some profession or occupation outside the garment industry.
The apparel industry was also subject to changes in technology and to the rapidly changing conditions of the marketplace. Cleveland firms often did not or could not respond with sufficient alacrity or astuteness to such changing conditions. Cleveland was perhaps too divorced from the center of the market in New York. It lacked a regional market of importance, and thus many manufacturers lost touch with what consumers wanted, and when the competitive price structure changed after World War II, some companies could not adapt to a shifting and rapidly changing marketplace. In the 1980s New York came to dominate the industry as both a marketplace and a manufacturing center, and substantial Cleveland manufacturers must constantly study and test the marketplace trends in New York City. In addition, there are other important regional markets, such as Dallas and Los Angeles, which served to move the focus of the industry away from Cleveland. Perhaps that is part of a larger underlying transformation of the American economy resulting in the loss of preeminence of the older industrial centers of the Great Lakes region and Middle West. On the other hand, Cleveland garment manufacturers who take advantage of new technologies, who learn to cut costs, and who learn to respond effectively to the marketplace may still survive and even flourish.
Kent State Univ.