BMI Audio Guide: Garment Loft – Overview

BMI Audio Guide: Garment Loft – Overview


What do Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill
Clinton, golf champion Tiger Woods, and actor James Earl Jones all have in common? They all purchased suits manufactured right
here in Baltimore from a hometown business, Haas Clothiers. It is not surprising dignitaries would come
to Charm City to buy their clothing. After all, Baltimore was known as “the city
that tries to suit everybody.” Baltimore was one of the top five U.S. centers
for the production of clothing in the early 20th century. During WWI, it employed more workers than
Bethlehem Steel. How did Baltimore get started in this business? In the 19th century, visiting sailors purchased
“slops,” loose-fitting, one-size-fits-all clothing–hand-made and affordable. During the Civil War, Baltimore produced uniforms
for both the North and the South–fitting for a state that bordered the Mason-Dixon
Line. These were the first standard sizes. After the war, demand for off-the-rack clothing
grew. By the end of the 19th century, small shops
often located in East Baltimore rowhouses hired workers to assemble men’s garments. Pay was low in these sweatshops and conditions
were miserable. Gradually, work shifted to loft buildings
in downtown Baltimore, where large companies used modern machines and employed more than
3,000 workers. As you step into our Garment Loft, you will
see a typical cutting table. Cutting tables could be 100 feet long and
have as many as 80 layers of cloth. Cutters outlined the pattern on the fabric
using tailor’s chalk. They cut out each part of a garment using
large shears. Two pairs of these shears are on the sewing
machines behind the cutting table. The invention of the vertical shear, the silver
machine with a maroon band, made it possible to cut out large quantities at once. It wasn’t usual to use 6,000 yards of material
each day. For the next step, pieces were sent to the
sewing room where as many as 400 operators sewed the suit together. Using an assembly line, an operator sewed
one seam and passed the garment on. They could make 7,000 woolen suits a week. By 1900, electric sewing machines were replacing
foot-powered treadle machines. We have both machines in our gallery. The mural behind the sewing machines shows
the workers at Katzenberg Brothers, creating the Mary Garden line of ladies’ apparel. In 1933, Mary Garden was a popular opera singer. Just like today, product endorsements were
an important sales strategy. The other mural shows the Henry Sonneborn
Clothing Factory in 1910. More than half of the workers were women,
mostly young girls. They earned meager wages, generally between
$6-$8 a week. Cutting, designing, and pattern-making were
skilled positions and available only to men, who made over $20/week. The only time that women were allowed to have
skilled jobs was during WWI when the men went off to war. Recycling is not an exclusive 21st century
idea. The bin found at the end of the cutting table
contains buttons made out of oyster shells from Baltimore canneries. Close to the button bin is a counter with
irons. The early irons were placed on stoves to heat. Later, gas irons and electric irons were used. Pressing machines completed the process. Conditions were rough. Windows were kept closed even in the summer,
so that the fabric wouldn’t be soiled by the soot in the air. Workers brought their lunches in metal pails
to keep out bugs, rats, and mice. Factory life was hard. Six days a week, ten hours a day, no benefits,
no complaints. To help ease working conditions, labor unions
vied for membership in the early 1900s. The United Garment Workers of America, or
UGW, represented skilled workers and was considered a craft union. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America,
or ACW, was open to all and was especially appealing to new immigrants. In 1916, both unions came to blows in what
became known as “The Battle of the Scissors.” In order to produce more uniforms for the
war, new immigrants were hired. They joined the ACW and some were even trained
as cutters. Cutters from the UGW tried to physically block
the new cutters from the ninth floor cutting room at Sonneborn’s factory. Black jacks, iron knuckles, and clothing shears
were used as weapons and the riot police were summoned. Fighting spilled out into the street and 12
men were arrested. Eventually, the ACW won out. Starting in the 1920s, clothing production
in the area declined and eventually manufactured shifted to other locations. So, where do we stand today? Most companies have closed or moved off-shore. Smoothie Ties is gone. Beehler and Gans Umbrellas–gone. Haas Clothiers was bought out and moved. Baltimore never regained its position in the
clothing business. A few recognized clothing manufacturers remain. Under Armour has offices in Baltimore, 180s
and Maryland Clothing Manufacturing produce clothing for the military. Today the Baltimore garment district has been
transformed into an area of loft apartments and condos. Theaters, restaurants, and retailers are populating
the area. Baltimore remains a city that suits everyone,
but in a different way–perhaps more “suitable” for the 21st century.

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