Sewing Up Jobs In The Needle Trade


December 30, 1990|By Carleton Jones

From the standpoint of employment, the biggest city industry of earlier days was "the needle trade": the making of what Americans put on their backs (and heads and feet). The clothing industry was not only the biggest employer in and around Baltimore -- it was one of the oldest.

Baltimore's needle-trade shops made uniforms for Lafayette's troops sent from France in the 1770s. And for more than 100 years beginning about 1850, the needle trade was the No. 1 Baltimore employer of refugees from Europe. Employment ranged from about 7,000 up to 25,000. Local pay, though, ranged well below that of most other metro areas.

Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Baltimore cloth mills were producing 80 percent of the cotton duck used throughout the world. All of this business represented trade lured southward from Rhode Island and Massachusetts mills.

The west side of town and the Jones Falls valley, from the very first, were the centers for the giant mills. In addition, there were the storied downtown "sweat shops," where largely female, white immigrant labor did the work of literally clothing America.

The range of products was remarkable.

There were not only cotton items (so easily supplied with raw materials from the Southeast in the 1800s), but fine woolens and select men's suits, special rubberized shoes and boots, and hats by the hundreds of thousands. In the 1920s, the city made $60 million in men's clothing items. Joseph A. Bank, Schoeneman, Calvert and London Fog were among the style lines created locally.

The most famous local name in 19th century dry goods was the John E. Hurst Co., organized in 1857. For about 70 years, until the end of the 1920s, it was the town's largest dry goods sales firm.

Not so lucky was the Weathered family at Dickeyville's Ashland Mills. Their large plant with its 49 power looms and 150 to 200 employ-ees churned out uniform yardage for the army of the Confederate States of America, but failed to get paid for the job. The Daniel Miller Co., the state's No. 3 dry goods house, also absorbed a great jolt from defaults of the Southern trade in the 1860s and went down with $500,000 in obligations.

You could go far in the apparel trade. James "Big Jim" Gary worked at the Weathereds' west-side mill before founding his own plant in 1853 on the Patapsco River at Daniels, near Catonsville. (Later in life he was named postmaster general of the United States.)

Through the decades, the needle trades had a handsome showcase bank, the National Exchange Bank, on a triangular island in the middle of Hopkins Place. The bank is said to have dominated the financing of needle-trade growth in the city. (The bank's unique, decorative building survived well into the 20th century, then fell victim to renewal plans.)

One February weekend night in 1904 someone or something (a cigar ash is the most probable culprit) ignited the Great Baltimore Fire in storage areas of the John E. Hurst Co. The fire swept east through the business district and the north harbor area, destroying 1,500 buildings for a loss of $200 million. The ruined buildings included many of the downtown clothing manufacturers.

Oddly, a significant number of the great west-side needle-trade lofts survive outside the fire area. White elephants for years in the mid-20th century, the huge buildings now have a new role as residential lofts, retailing sites and offices of the University of Maryland professional schools. *

The points made in this column are included in "A Stitch in Time," Philip Kahn Jr.'s highly detailed, illustrated history of the Baltimore needle trade, newly published by the Maryland Historical Society ($25 in hardback).

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