Reliving garment industry's heyday New exhibit at Museum of Industry pays homage to city's 'needle trades'

October 26, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Tara Mullligan sat at the 1880s-era foot-powered Singer sewing machine. She pumped the pedal in exasperated fits and starts, but couldn't get a smooth rhythm going.

"I can't get over how hard that sewing machine is to use," said Mulligan, who wouldn't have fared very well as a seamstress in a turn-of-the-century Baltimore clothing manufacturing company, where employees worked 12-hour days and were paid by the piece.

Mulligan tried her hand -- and feet -- at the old Singer yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry's newest exhibit, which pays homage to the glory days of the city's garment industry.

Called the Baltimore Clothing Company, the exhibit re-creates a typical sewing room from 1929 when hundreds of shops and supply houses employed thousands of European immigrants.

"The garment industry was the largest employer in the Baltimore industrial sector from the 1870s to the 1930s, and so we began collecting artifacts as companies closed up or modernized," said Dennis M. Zembala, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry at 1415 Key Highway.

"Until recently, we never had a concentrated effort to do the proper kind of exhibit that the garment industry merited," Zembala said. "In the last capital campaign, we went specifically to raise money to create an authentic garment shop environment."

The exhibit opened to the public during the weekend.

Baltimore's garment manufacturers didn't turn out high-fashion ensembles for well-dressed women of means. That was left to the New York clothing companies.

The "needle trades" in Baltimore, which thrived from the Civil War to the 1930s, specialized in more utilitarian products -- uniforms for soldiers, policemen and nurses; men's suits and hats; and even umbrellas.

In the Baltimore Clothing Company exhibit, working sewing machines from the 1880s to the 1960s line the walls. Pieces of gray flannel and pin-striped cloth for conservative men's suits sit on cutting tables in the center of the room.

Other artifacts include buttons made from oyster shells, bolts of fabric and a desk that once belonged to Jacob Epstein, who during the 1920s ran a dry goods empire called Baltimore Bargain House that exceeded $50 million in annual sales and employed more than 2,500 people.

For Steve Cornely, general manager of the Embroidery Store in Millersville, the exhibit is a vivid portrayal of the garment industry's evolution.

"It's amazing, we're all computer-controlled," said Cornely, whose company specializes in embroidered corporate logos. "This is where it started, running things by foot power."

The beginnings of the Baltimore garment industry can be traced to Fells Point, where immigrant tailors made loose-fitting "sailors' slops" in the years before the Civil War. During the war, some of the sewing houses got contracts to make uniforms for the Union Army.

"That's really when they started to set up large manufacturing operations here," said Ann Steele, deputy museum director and curator.

By the 1970s, when much of the clothing production moved overseas, many of the large Baltimore garment manufacturers had closed.

Contributors to the garment industry exhibit include: Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Haas Tailoring Co., G&G Uniform Co. and Dr. Oscar B. Camp of Severna Park.

The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Camp's mother, Angela Bambace, who worked in the Baltimore garment industry for 40 years and was a vice president and member of the general executive board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from 1954 to 1974.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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