Remnant of city's garment trade, Frank & Sons is still about family

December 30, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The genealogy of the 140-year-old A. Frank & Sons company hangs on the wall of Sandy Frank's office in the photo-portraits of the family patriarchs who ran the company.

"I'm named after him, Samuel, my grandfather," says Frank, looking up at the picture of the mustachioed man on his right. Frank himself has been president of the company more than 40 years now.

"His father was Aaron, my great-grandfather," he says. The "A." in A. Frank & Sons, of course, and the founder, his picture is just behind Frank's right shoulder, a serious-looking, bearded gentleman. The sons were Samuel, Abraham and Meyer. Samuel was the real businessman, surpassing even his father, Frank says.

"That's my father, Henry," he says, shifting to his left to look at the portrait of a smiling man in a gray suit. "He was a fairly prominent person in the city."

His father was also an extraordinary lacrosse player who was captain of the Johns Hopkins University team that won the national championship in 1909. He's in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Sandy, Samuel L. Frank, is on the wall, too, the fourth generation to head the company.

A. Frank & Sons survives today as a small remnant of Baltimore's vast men's clothing industry, which at the end of World War I was second in size only to New York City's. In 1920, 27,000 workers made their living in the menswear factories here. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, 9,363 people worked in 210 Baltimore shops. By 1931, at the start of the Great Depression when unemployment in the nation rose to nearly 16 percent, Henry Sonneborn & Co., the biggest men's clothing firm in the city, folded.

After World War II in 1947, just 75 shops remained; in 1982, eight. Now perhaps four carry on, mostly with government contracts for military uniforms, which oddly had been a mainstay of the industry in Baltimore since the Civil War. Sonneborn made thousands every day during World War I.

But the great names of Baltimore menswear - Sonneborn, J. Schoeneman, L. Greif and Bros., Strouse Bros., and Schloss Bros. - remain now on the old factory buildings converted to apartments and condominiums around Paca and Pratt and Lombard streets, where garment trade once was centered.

The building

A. Frank & Sons carries on at 1501 Guilford Ave., in a century-old factory building that commuters hurrying home to the suburbs from their service jobs in downtown Baltimore can see on the hill just beyond Mount Royal Avenue. Once part of the Crown Cork and Seal Co. - which no longer manufactures anything in the city - 1501 now houses mostly artists in what is called the Station North Arts District. There's only one other small business in the five-story, 150,000-square-foot brick building. Frank is not uncomfortable among the artists. He's a sculptor who studied every week for 30 years with Frieda Sohn, an almost legendary sculptor who taught at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The company continues to survive pretty much on Frank's combination of wit, hard work and artful direction.

"Sandy seems to have the secret to know how to stay in business," says Martin Grand, who just came into the company this year after closing his shoulder pad companies, American Coat Pad Co. and Superior Coat Pad Co.

"Where there used to be a lot of suits - everybody wore a suit - usage of men's suits has gone down," Frank says.

He looks with amused disapproval at this interviewer's jacket-less sweater and shirt.

"You're typical," he says. "And that's what happened to the industry. And whatever suits people do buy - to get buried in or whatever - most of that has gone offshore. So that's down in Mexico and all over, in South America even the Middle East, some in Europe, wherever the labor is cheap enough. Some in Africa, there'll be more in Africa. China, the Far East. It's all over the place but not here."

Still, A. Frank & Sons will celebrate its 140th anniversary in February, somewhat arbitrarily on Valentine's Day.

Aaron Frank had been in the wholesale clothing business for a decade or so when in 1865 he began selling trimmings to men's clothing makers.

"Trimmings are linings and pocketing, but not the shell fabric itself, of the garment. All the other stuff that goes into [the suit]," Sandy Frank says. Philip Kahn called A. Frank & Sons "the oldest lining house in the U.S.A." in his history of the Baltimore clothing industry, A Stitch in Time.

The company pretty much does the same thing today, but with enough other products added to stay in business in an industry that increasingly exists more abroad than in the United States.

Aaron Frank emigrated from Nuremberg, Germany, about 1837.

"We started out, as far as I know, on East Baltimore Street," Sandy Frank says. A big reproduction of a period print of Baltimore Street during that era hangs in the hall leading from his office to the big stock room.

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