Requiem for a fun war and a melting pot

July 31, 1996|By Jack L. Levin

SEVENTY-NINE YEARS ago on April 6 of the fateful year 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. I became aware of it through my first grade teacher, my parents and my older playmates. Uncle Sam and I ran on parallel tracks.

When he appealed for funds to press the war effort, I responded by raiding my Tootsie Roll savings to buy 25-cent war savings stamps in school. I was stirred by the theme, "Lick a stamp and help lick the Kaiser." At the movies, when the Kaiser's scowling face appeared, I hissed and booed as loudly as any other kid.

When the four-minute speaker was introduced by the theater manager, after the piano player's thundering roll, "to bring the message from President Wilson," I whistled and stomped with the best of them. And when he finished his harangue to support the war effort by buying Liberty bonds, I cheered and clapped as lustily as my parents.

When the park band played "Over there," the new hit song by George M. Cohan, I sang every word of the lyrics.

When Mrs. Schmick, our next-door neighbor, bought the rolls of other war songs for her player and permitted me to sit beside her and pump the pedals, which I could just about reach, I was a full participant in the war effort. I remember such tunes as: "Let the Rest of the World Go By," "When Johnny Comes Home," "Smile a While" and "Peg O' My Heart."

When my father read aloud to us a paranoiac's letter to the editor speculating on an imminent invasion of our homeland by the enemy, I grabbed my trusty sawed-off broomstick and rushed outside to join my buddies in repelling the foe. And when the armistice was declared, I felt I had helped to win the war.

Patriotic beehive

But I felt closest to the war effort on my Saturday visits to the Henry Sonneborn clothing factory where my father, an assistant foreman in the labeling department, kept me busy cutting a few labels off a roll. He was one of the 4,000 employees, mostly recent immigrants, who produced army uniforms in World War I. The firm had won the contract because it had been the world's largest clothing manufacturer, producing 3,000 suits a day at Paca and Pratt streets in Baltimore.

That massive 10-story structure, now occupied mostly by The First National Bank of Maryland, today displays a plaque identifying it as a historic site.

I accompanied my father to work and marveled at the beehive of activities. I could see on each floor from the open elevator -- the cutters, sewers, pressers sweating over their hissing machines,

the button-hole makers, the finishers and labelers. Looking down the long aisle in my father's department, I saw a tower of army overcoats advancing toward me and underneath them.

Saturday was the happy half-day. I looked forward all week to lunch with my father at the little restaurant with the paddle-arm chairs, where we feasted on the special of hot dogs, baked beans and lemon meringue pie.

The most remarkable thing about the Sonneborn factory was the high employee morale. From the designers to the label sewers, everyone gave all-out efforts. Many had sons and brothers on the battle front wearing the Sonneborn-made uniform. Some had already received the news of the loss of a loved one at Chateau-Thierry, the Marne or Belleau Wood, where 8,000 American troops had been reduced to 2,000. The clamor of the factory machines seemed to me always accompanied by the bombardment of artillery shells. The Sonneborn factory was my war front.

A simple world

This was a fun war for a six-year-old in a simple world. Everything was good or bad, right or wrong, with no in-between and no on-the-other-hand. And at the movies, watching a western, you could always tell the heroes from the villains by the color of the hats.

Although I did not know it then, the Henry Sonneborn Co., Maryland's largest employer next to Bethlehem Steel, was also Maryland's foremost melting pot for generations of immigrants. It not only converted textiles from many nations into clothing; it melded people.

I enjoyed the babel of polyglot arguments over whether or not to join the newly formed Amalgamated Union. The immediate issues, I later learned, were management's imposition of a speed-up, elimination of less-fit workers, monitoring workers' motions and using women to do skilled work that had been men's prerogative.

Many characters emerged from the Sonneborn melting pot. Jacob J. Edelman, one of the "greenhorns" who got his start in the Sonneborn cauldron as a union organizer, became a distinguished city councilman and chairman of several of its most important committees. He was the cutting edge of the union, its eloquent spokesman and business representative, and under the New Deal, a federal labor referee.

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