Abandoned underwear factory in PA

Merit Underwear Company, Shoemakersville Pennsylvania
Date added: January 05, 2023 Categories: Pennsylvania Industrial
First floor of middle addition looking northeast (1995)

The Village of Shoemakersville developed along a transportation route, the Schuylkill River, as settlers (mostly of German extraction) moved inland from Philadelphia in the 18th century. In 1766, Thomas Wright and George and Henry Shoemaker purchased land which now comprises Shoemakersville. Early development hinged around transportation along the river and later the Schuylkill Canal. A number of early residents were boatmen on the canal. As development in the region continued, coal mining was taking place north of Shoemakersville, and runoff from the mines was polluting the river with pieces of coal and coal dust. This pollution reached the point where it became profitable to extract the coal from the river. This was the start of Shoemakersville's industrial activities. As the area continued to develop and transportation improved, clothing manufacturing became the major industrial base for the community.

In the late 19th century, the textile industry came to cities like Reading because of the willing workforce residing in close proximity to developing textile mills and easy transportation to major markets. As the industry grew, towns such as Shoemakersville became the choice for establishing mills for much the same reason. The Merit Underwear Company is quite representative of this trend. The Merit Underwear Company was organized in Shoemakersville by several industrious individuals who lived in the community, had a desire to start a business and knew there was a ready labor force available. Shoemakersville also had easy access to Reading and larger markets. The Merit Underwear Company which specialized in ladies fine gauge, lightweight underwear had one line, the "Verna", which became internationally famous. This accomplishment demonstrated that a small company, in a small town had the ability to produce a quality product and have it reach the world market.

By 1913, the Borough of Shoemakersville had become home to four garment manufacturers as a result of the availability of labor and the proximity to transportation to major markets. The first company was the Globe Underwear Company located at 338 Main Street. Globe manufactured heavy fleece-lined underwear and specialized in men's and boys' underwear. The company experienced growth and expansion similar to the Merit Underwear Company. The building is still standing and garments were being produced there through the 1980s.

The second garment company to open in Shoemakersville was the Robert P. Miller Company located at 327 Main Street which began operation in 1906 on the third floor and part of the first floor of the building. This company manufactured cotton half hose and ladies' cotton hose. By 1911 the company was manufacturing cotton knit underwear. The company had 50 employees into the 1990s and was manufacturing ladies and misses vests, men's and boys' athletic shirts, men's tee shirts and turtle neck shirts.

The third company in Shoemakersville was the Burkey Underwear Company at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The company began operations in 1907 and manufactured men's shirts on the second floor of the building. The first floor was used as a laundry. In 1911 the company began the manufacture of cotton underwear. In 1922 the building was leased to the Keystone Washing Machine Company for the manufacture of washing machines. This business continued until 1931. From 1935 to 1937 the building was used for the manufacture of paper boxes. In 1938 the building was sold to the Merit Underwear Company and converted back to underwear manufacturing.

The Merit Underwear Company was organized on October 28, 1912, with a paid capital of $10,000 by Edward T. Williams, Samuel E. Unger, Howard Seiger, and Benjamin M. Bhaer all of Shoemakersville and David V.R. Ludwig of Reading. The company started business in March 1913 in a building formerly used as a stable and workshop with one knitting machine and four sewing machines.

In April 1916, Mr. Ludwig and Mr. Bhaer retired from the partnership. Due to increased business the building was no longer adequate, and a new two-story brick building was erected in late 1916 to the front of the stable and workshop building. This building, found on Noble Avenue, is the present-day structure. The business continued to grow and prosper, and in 1921 the stable and workshop was demolished, and a 71' x 52' addition was built with two stories and a basement.

By 1927, the company had grown from 20 employees to 114 and had 51 knitting machines and 51 sewing machines. In 1928 a second addition was added to the rear of the first addition. This addition was two stories in height.

In 1929, the company erected a row of 14 houses known as Merit Row, several blocks away on Main Street between 8th and 9th streets. These houses were rented to employees. These houses have since been sold as individual dwellings to residents of the Borough.

The business prospered due in part to the first World War and favorable economic conditions. The prosperity justified the 1916 expansion which constructed the original building. The continued prosperity of the company and the economic conditions of the 1920s brought about the second and third expansions which resulted in the construction of the additions giving the building its present day appearance.

Through the years, production of underwear increased, and other product lines were added such as polo shirts and pajamas. Colored yarns were used to knit designs in brightly colored cloth. Expansion was necessary, and other sites were acquired. In 1934, a former candy factory located at 16 East Noble Avenue was purchased and used as a garage and for yarn storage. This building was also used as an outlet store beginning in 1965 for the ladies' and children's sportswear the company had started to manufacture.

The Burkey Underwear Mill, one of the three other mills in the Borough, was purchased in 1938 and converted back to underwear manufacturing. The building was known as No. 2 Mill and was used for storage after manufacturing ceased in 1965.

At the peak of operations, both mills in Shoemakersville owned by the Merit Underwear Company employed a total of 205 persons. In 1933-34, the Company added a line of knit sportswear.

Interviews have revealed the original owners were quite industrious and built the original building and additions themselves using employees of the Merit Underwear Company. This is a common denominator in the construction and is reflected in the similarity in style and detailing of the original building and additions.

After Mr. Unger's death in 1938, the company continued to operate under Williams and Seiger. Mr. Williams died in April 1947, and the company was again incorporated under Mr. Seiger.

Mr. Seiger was born in 1878 and married Lizzie Strausser on October 27, 1900. They had one daughter, Verna. Mr. Seiger conducted the undertaking business in Shoemakersville from 1900 to 1923. He also sold furniture from 1909 to 1926. These activities took place in the same building as the Merit Underwear Company. One of the lines of fine gauge lightweight underwear was marketed under the name "Verna" (named after Mr. Seiger's daughter) and made internationally famous because of its fine quality. Mr. Seiger died on January 8, 1953.

In 1961, all stock and possessions of the Merit Underwear Company were acquired by Flagg-Utica Corporation including the "Verna" brand of fine gauge ladies underwear.

From 1962 to 1978, the same products were manufactured, and ninety people were employed at the Noble Avenue Mill. In 1979, Flagg-Utica was sold to the Koffman family. By this time, the mill had become a knit sportswear company and had discontinued production of ladies underwear. In 1985, the company began to market screen-printed novelty women's tops bearing designs obtained through licensing agreements. The operation continued until the early 1990s.

The Merit Underwear Company building has an open floor plan allowing room to maneuver around the cutting tables, knitting machines, and sewing machines. The building is also characterized by large windows which provided natural light. Garments could easily be moved from one process to the next during production. The machines were located on the second floors of the original building and middle addition and the first floor of the middle addition. The finishing area and shipping and receiving were located on the first floor of the original building with storage located in the basement. This arrangement provided a smooth flow of raw materials to finished product through the building. For its time, the Merit Underwear Company building was a flexible manufacturing space, providing a lot of natural light. The building reflects the general appearance and trends of mill architecture from this period. This general design and layout is substantiated by other mill buildings in surrounding communities including the City of Reading.

Building Description

The Merit Underwear Company property is located on a level lot at East Noble Avenue and Franklin Street in Shoemakersville Borough, Berks County, PA. There is one building on the property. The earliest portion is a brick, forty-by-one-hundred-foot, two-story manufacturing facility constructed in 1916 to the front of a wooden building used as a stable and workshop. Its scale, enhanced by two smaller additions to the rear, is larger than the architecture of surrounding residential buildings. The two-story building is a vernacular, early 20th-century industrial appearance. The first of two additions was constructed in 1921 and the second was constructed in 1928. The first addition replaced the stable and workshop.

Shoemakersville is a small Borough on the Schuylkill River about 12 miles north of Reading, PA in Berks Co. It has less than one square mile with a 1990 population of 1,443. Noble Avenue which runs east-west through the Borough is developed with residential buildings. The area where Noble Avenue intersects with Main Street is developed with commercial buildings and the area where Noble Avenue intersects Route 61 is developed with stnp commercial buildings. The remaining area of the Borough is mostly residential in character.

Noble Avenue, in the area of the Merit building, is lined with older developed properties. Many of the homes date from the mid 1880s to the mid-1930s. Some of the more modest homes are of a late Federal vernacular style more common to the rural areas of Berks County. Other homes are large and of the more flamboyant style found in Reading. These styles include Queen Anne, Italianate, and American Modern Movement Four-Square. Most homes are single-family detached. Some are semi-detached dwellings reflective of the urban influence. A few of the larger homes have been converted to apartments.

Buildings range from two to three stories and many are two and one half stories. There is a mixture of frame and brick masonry buildings. Many buildings incorporate both. The mixture of building size, style and materials reflect the level line of Noble Avenue.

The Merit Underwear Company Property is slightly over one-quarter acre in area. The irregularly shaped site is located on the north side of Noble Avenue with Franklin Street to the east, Sixth Street in the rear, and a residential property to the west. The property is one hundred eighty feet deep along Franklin Street and two hundred fifteen feet deep along the adjacent residential property. It has sixty feet of frontage along Noble Avenue and sixty-nine feet six inches along Sixth Street. The property contains one building: a two-story manufacturing facility. The front of the property is defined by a level lawn to the front of the building. The building covers 90% of the site and access is directly into the building via three doorways from the surrounding streets. The building is on a corner lot.

The Merit Underwear Company Property is composed of a two-story former manufacturing facility and two additions laid out in a linear fashion on the property from front to rear. The entire original building and middle addition, which is two stories in height have a raised foundation that forms a full basement with half of its height above grade. The rear addition is two stories in height with the first story being the same height as the raised foundation portion of the basement and first floor of the other portions of the building.

The brick walls of the original building, which is forty feet wide and one hundred feet long, are load-bearing and support wooden beams spanning the building. The beams are supported by wood columns. The beams are spaced ten feet on center spaced from front to rear. The original building is divided into nine structural bays along its one-hundred-foot length. The building is expressed on the exterior by brick pilasters.

The base and cornice are flush with the pilasters. The transition of the base and cornice with the wall is by means of a three-step corbel. The resulting effect is one of a recessed panel between pilasters. The red brick is of running bond. All openings have arched lintels of triple-coursed rowlock bricks on the first floor and double rowlock bricks on the second floor.

The first floor was accessed by a double man door located in the front or south face of the building. This door allowed public and employee access to the office and finishing area of the underwear manufacturing facility. A loading dock was located at the northwest comer of the original building. The dock is now approximately centered on the right side or east face of the building. The dock provided access to the finishing and shipping area of the first floor by means of a double man door. Another double-man door, located immediately to the left of this door, was an exterior entrance to the freight elevator.

With the exceptions of a row of columns, a stairway at the south east corner that connects the basement, first and second floor, and the elevator tower at the north east corner, all floors are open and without partitioning. A water tower which was part of the original building was located over the roof of the freight elevator. The water tower was used for the sprinkler system in the building and was removed in the early 1940s.

A two-story 1921 addition located at the north end of the original building is fifty-two feet wide and seventy-one feet long. The addition has brick load-bearing walls and support wooden beams spanning the building. The beams are supported by centered, wood columns. The beams are spaced ten feet on center from front to rear. The addition is divided into seven bays, along its seventy-foot length. The building is expressed on the exterior by brick pilasters.

The base and cornice are flush with the pilasters. The transition of the base and cornice with the wall is by means of a three-step corbel. The resulting effect is one of a recessed panel between pilasters. The red brick is of running bond excepting a header course every seventh course in the area of the raised foundation. All openings have arched lintels of triple-coursed rowlock bricks on the first floor and double rowlock bricks on the second floor. Access to the addition is from a single-man opening in the basement and a double-man opening on the first and second floor from the original building. The addition has a smooth transition on each floor as the finished floor elevations are the same height. These areas contained knitting and sewing machines used in the production of ladies underwear.

With the exception of a row of columns and a stairway centered on the north wall that connects the first and second floor, all floors are open without partitioning. The addition was built to reflect the design and style of the original building in appearance both inside and outside.

A two-story 1928 addition is located at the rear of the first addition. This addition is irregular in shape. The addition does not have a basement and the first floor is the same height as the raised foundation portion of the first addition and first floor of the first addition. The second floor of the rear addition is the same height as the second floor of the first addition. Transition between floor levels is by means of steps from the basement and first floor of the first addition. The second-floor levels of both additions are of the same finished floor height.

The addition's walls are load-bearing brick. The exterior is a plain running bond brick wall. There is no expression of the structure on the exterior except for some irregular spacing of windows. All window openings have arched lintels of double-coursed row lock bricks. There is a brick smoke tower at the northwest corner of the addition.

The first floor of the addition is the boiler room with access through an at grade double man door at the rear or north wall of the addition. This door provided access to the coal storage area for the stoker boiler heating system. The second floor of the addition is partitioned to provide offices, a tool room, a locker room, and restroom facilities.

The south elevation or front face is divided by pilaster into three bays, although the actual structure is of two equal bays. This elevation has a brick parapet wall which reflects the arched pitch of the roof. A concrete landing and steps are centered on this elevation. There is a double-leafed door with nine lights in the upper half and a cross-buck pattern in the lower half of each leaf. There is a 12-lite transom above the door opening.

The east side elevation or right side of the original building and first addition is a pilastered, recessed paneled wall that contains ten lite awning style windows in the raised basement portion of this elevation centered under each panel. Each panel flanked by a pilaster contains a set of nine over nine double-hung wood sash windows with a six-lite transom window over each double-hung window. These panels incorporated the first and second-floor windows. A loading dock of concrete is found at the northeast corner of the original building. There are two double-leafed doors with transoms above. These doors mirror the door opening on the south elevation.

The west side elevation reflects the pattern of the east side elevation with the exception of not having the loading dock and doors. Windows are found in the place of doors on this elevation. Additionally, the first addition is wider than the original building but is still only two bays wide. This additional width has allowed for an additional panel flanked by pilasters to be incorporated into a small south elevation. There is a parapet wall at the rear of the first addition which reflects the arch pitch of the roof and the parapet wall on the south elevation of the original structure.

The north elevation or rear of the building is plain in fenestration. There is no parapet wall and the addition has a flat roof. The windows on the second floor are a set of six over six double-hung units. The first-floor windows are two over two double-hung units. The double leaf door reflects the other exterior doors except the transom is only six lites rather than twelve lites. This addition was built to reflect the style and appearance of the original building and first addition though without the attention to detail on the exterior because of its location, size and use as boiler room and coal storage.

The building has been vacant since 1994.