Clothing exhibit recalls days of immigrant sweatshops

Jacques Kelly

May 02, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Who would have ever thought an old cotton nightshirt, a beige raincoat and some men's cotton socks would be given a serious display at a local historical society?

These garments, all made in Baltimore, are surviving artifacts from a once-thriving clothing industry. Local sweatshops, factories and tailoring rooms once outfitted the South. From the 1880s through the 1920s, men's clothing production was Baltimore's leading industry in terms of numbers employed.

"Threads of Life" is a new and instructive show at the Jewish Historical Society, Lloyd and Watson streets in East Baltimore. The exhibition reveals the Jewish role, from factory owner to buttonhole seamstress, in the local garment manufacturing industry.

The photographs, salesmen's trunks, tailor's shears, sewing machines and World War I uniforms hint at only one aspect of the story the show tells. This is a multilayered lesson in European immigration, labor history, strikes, protests and their ultimate resolution.

The show doesn't favor management or labor. The ills and strengths within the needle trades tested Baltimore's Jewish community. The exhibit and its helpful catalog indicate that factory owner and worker ultimately pulled together.

There are curious and evocative artifacts displayed here, tools of the trade that accompanied 14-hour work days in dim East Lombard Street sweatshops.

From a distance of 80 years, it is possible today to view a 1910 Baltimore-made nightshirt and marvel at the permanence of its yellowing cotton. Or the heavy-grade wool in a 1917 Army uniform made at Pratt and Paca streets. Even a 1950s wooden coat hanger, imprinted with the name of Warner & Co., brings to mind this elegant Baltimore Street clothing store.

Assembling the garments for this display was not so easy as it may seem. While there are many local descendants of the German and Russian families involved with Baltimore's clothing industry, few saved the mass-produced items that were the backbone of the trade. In fact, many families preferred to forget about the pajamas and BVDs that grandmother sewed for small wages.

"And many people told me, 'I gave my old clothes away to Center Stage for costumes years ago.' " said Bernard Fishman, director of the Jewish Historical Society.

He said that if families saved clothing, it was the exceptional piece, such as a custom-made wedding gown.

"The 99-cent washable housedress sold in Woolworth's just isn't around," said Elizabeth K. Berman, curator of the historical society.

And, to complicate matters, even if a 1910 man's suit turns up, its label is often gone. How does a museum establish whether the garment in fact hails from the 400 block of W. Redwood St.?

Also gone are the straw hats made by the M.S. Levy Co., which on summer days in the 1920s were an essential part of a man's wardrobe.

Fishman discovered a dapper Fifth Regiment Maryland National Guard dress uniform coat at Renninger's, the sprawling flea market in Adamstown, Pa. The military garb, perhaps 90 years old, had the label of Baltimore's New York Clothing House still in it.

"Clothing marked with a Baltimore label can be hard to find. Even an old Marlboro shirt in good condition isn't common," he said.

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