The Garment Industry in Cleveland Federal Knitting Mills Building, Cleveland Ohio
The garment industry in Cleveland started as early as 1860 and reached its peak during the 1920s. The garment industry was stimulated by the need to manufacture uniforms for sailors, slaves and miners and increase mechanization. The establishment of systems for sizing men's and boys' clothing, aided the increase in development, which was based on measurements obtained during the Civil War. The Depression of 1873 contributed to the growth of ready-made clothing. Men found manufactured clothing an inexpensive alternative to custom-made clothing. The ready-to-wear industry also coincided with the tremendous urbanization in industrial cities like Cleveland and the wave of immigrants that came into the country at the turn of the century.
The first wave of entrepreneurs of the garment industry in Cleveland was mainly of German and Austro-Hungarian decent. The system evolved from home sewing to factory production. Garment manufacturing started in the Flats along the Cuyahoga River, but by the 20th century it was concentrated in the Warehouse District. The garment industry also spread to other areas in the city. The Cleveland Worsted Mills (demolished) near E. 55th and Broadway was organized in the 1870s. The Richman Brothers Company, located at 1600 East 55th Street, was one of the largest clothing chains in the nation during the 1950s. Other large firms included the L.N. Gross Company, Joseph & Feiss Company, Printz-Biederman Company, and the Federal Knitting Mills.
Cleveland's garment industry had a long history and a diverse ethnic pattern among its workers. The Jewish community had a great impact on the garment industry in Cleveland as summarized by Sidney Vincent and Judah Rubinstein "In a survey in 1892 the 'Plain Dealer' listed twenty-two local manufacturers and wholesale houses in the clothing industry, all of them Jewish. These firms for the next three decades made Cleveland a rival of New York". By the post-Civil War era, "Cleveland's new masses required garments, and Jews figured prominently among both their makers and their sellers." "Not only was the sale of clothing Jewish, but... its manufacture also." By the second decade of the twentieth century, garment production ranked among Cleveland's foremost industries. Not only were the entrepreneurs in the booming industry predominately Jewish, but so was a considerable proportion of the labor. The Federal Knitting Mills was one of these significant, Jewish owned clothing manufacturers. According to the obituaries of Federal Knitting Mill's long-term officials Herbert Goldberg (whom later changed his name to Goulder) and Louis Seligman (who later changed his name to Selden) were Jewish. Whether the company employees were predominately Jewish is unknown.
The Richman Brothers Company, manufacturers of men's suits, furnishing's and hats, started their business in Portsmouth, Ohio and moved to Cleveland in 1879. The company was the first clothier to open retail outlets selling factory-produced men's clothing directly to customers. In 1969 the company was sold to the F.W. Woolworth Co. of New York. The Richman Brothers building located on East 55th Street is currently abandoned.
Moritz Printz, a native of Austria, who came to Cleveland to work for his brother-in-law David Black, founded the Printz-Biederman Company. Black moved his company to New York in 1894. Printz, his sons, Alexander and Michael, and son-in-law, Joseph Biederman, established a partnership that formed the company. The company grossed $100,000 during their first year of production. The firm merged with the H. Black & Company in 1922. The H. Black Company, a major manufacturer of women's suits and cloaks, occupied the Tower Press building located at 1900 Superior Avenue. Tower Press is an outstanding factory building, designed by Robert Kohn in a Spanish Colonial Style. The company was well known for manufacturing "Wooltex" coats and suits. The firm closed in 1978 and the building has stood virtually empty. The building demonstrates many years of neglect.
The L.N. Gross Company was founded in 1900, specializing in the production of women's shirtwaists. L.N. Gross was a pioneer in the manufacturing process, the first to employ assembly line production. The company eventually closed and the building, located at 425 Lakeside, has been rehabilitated and converted for residential use.
Joseph & Feiss Company, an important part of Cleveland's garment industry, set up a wholesale clothing store in 1907 at 82 Superior Street and moved several times before settling at their W. 53th Street plant. The company was unionized in March of 1934 when the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America organized 1,800 employees after a brief strike. The union and management negotiated a 10% wage increase for the workers. Hugo Boss AG acquired the firm in 1980 and by 1995 the company had 800 workers in the Cleveland area.
The garment industry prospered during World War I, as did union activities. The first trade union for garment workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was formed in 1900 in New York City. Assisted and encouraged by the ILGWU, employees of the H. Black Co. (Wooltex -The Tower Press Building) of Cleveland went on strike in early 1911 and failed. On June 6, 1911 - 1,000 workers at the H. Black Company walked out in a dispute regarding wages and working conditions. A total of 4,000 workers took to the streets to picket for improved working conditions in their factories. The workers' demands included a 50-hour workweek with Saturday afternoons and Sundays off, no charge for use of the machines and materials, and closed shop on subcontracting. The employers rejected all of these. After 4-months of a violent strike, the International union could no longer financially support the strikers. The strikes cost the union more than $300,000 and were called off in October of 1911 without gaining any concessions. A second strike occurred in 1918. This dispute, however was quickly resolved due to the early intervention of Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War and former Cleveland mayor. The strike resulted in better conditions for factory workers. The improved conditions provided meaningful services for the workers including cafeterias, clinics, and nurseries. In addition, workers were encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and theatrical activities. The industry continued to meet challenges from the workforce, and manufacturers continued to be challenged by unions.
Cleveland Worsted Mill Company also witnessed strong union activity. Cleveland Worsted Mill Company, founded by Joseph Turner in 1878 and later reorganized in 1902, was one of the largest worsted mills in the country. Located on Broadway Avenue, the Cleveland plant was closed in 1956 after a bitter strike over union recognition and a desire to secure a contract and a $0.7½ per hour wage increase. The strike of the Textile Workers Union of America ran from August 22nd 1955 to January 18th, 1956, and led to the liquidation of the 77-year-old firm. A fire destroyed the Worsted Mills complex on July 4, 1993. In 1937, the Federal Knitting Mills met challenges from unionization that ended with the foreclosure of the company. With the loss of the Cleveland Worsted Mills in 1993, the Federal Knitting Mills stands as a symbol of the knitting industry and the unionization that aided in the shift of the industry out of the Cleveland economy.