The parent company of the last surviving clothing manufacturer in Rochester has filed for bankruptcy. Hartmarx warned Hickey Freeman’s 500 workers there could be layoffs.
In 1899, Jeremiah Hickey and Jake Freeman raised $40,000 to found Hickey Freeman. They opened the Clinton Ave. plant in 1912, where it remains today.
Hickey Freeman is a reminder of Rochester’s history in the clothing and textile industry. Fueled by immigrants who settled on the northeast side, the garment trade was a large employer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It also played a large role in the labor movement.
The following is a synopsis of the city’s history in clothing manufacturing, taken from a volume in Rochester History, written by Blake McKelvey:
Jehiel Barnard was the first tailor to arrive in Rochester in 1812. By 1834, there were 20 tailors. In the 1840s, when Rochester’s population hit 24,000, German immigrant Myer Greentree set up the first mens suit manufacturing shop. By 1848, there were at least 30 shops where suits were made and sold, most located on Main and Front streets. These were small stores and many workers finished garments at their houses. Most of the workers were Jewish immigrants.
In the 1850s, the sewing machine led to large-scale production. By the end of the 1870s, the clothing shops employed 2,700 people and were centered on Mill St. Only Rochester’s shoe industry exceeded the clothing industry in sales. The city was the sixth largest clothing hub in the country.
The clothing industry spawned factories making neckties, mittens and buttons. In the 1880s, many of the manufacturers moved to big buildings on St. Paul St. The Rochester clothing industry was not producing as much as New York or Chicago, but was known for high-quality products. By 1900, there were more than 500 clothing shops employing nearly 9,000 people. They included Hickey Freeman, Stein Bloch, and L. Adler & Co.
Workers, however, struggled. They included children. Many of them were crowded into unsanitary sweatshops, mostly subcontractors of the big firms. By the 1890s, unions were starting to take hold. There were lockouts, boycotts and strikes. There were agreements and companies that broke the agreements. Labor strife never ended.
In 1911, a scathing state investigation shined harsh light on the clothiers. The report made news all over the country:
New York New World...published an article…’In the model city of Rochester, where civic pride is eclipsed only by the pursuit of the almighty dollar, girls sit in unsanitary and unventilated rooms for ten hours a day stitching garments…” A stinging restatement of the charges appeared in the Toledo Blade, which concluded sneeringly, “Possibly it may not be denied that ‘Rochester Made Means Quality.’ But in light of the factory report, ‘Rochester Made’ means disease, dirt, poor air, poor light and the exploitation of the flesh and blood of children.”
In 1913, the workers, many of whom now included Italians, voted to go on strike to get an 8-hour work day, 10-cent raise and overtime and holiday pay. When the strikers saw a light on at dusk at a factory on Clifford St., one through a rock through the window. The owner fired into the crowd, killing 17-year-old Ida Braiman.
The 1913 garment workers strike was on. The strike lasted a couple months, cost several million dollars and resulted in a 52-hour work week with five no-work holidays, time-and-a-half overtime pay and no discrimination toward striking workers.
In the coming years, the big firms, including Hickey Freeman, appointed labor management experts.
The Great Depression forced a number of factories to close and thousands lost their jobs. Hickey Freeman would not lay off workers and took a 16.5 percent hit in profits. By 1935, there were five factories left: Bond, Michael Sterns, Hickey Freeman, Fashion Park and Timely Clothes. World War II kept the plants busy. They employed 9,000 workers.
In 1960, when McKelvey wrote his history, he said the clothing industry was “remarkably stable” and the fifth largest in terms of output in the country. The industry employed 7,900 people making 15,000,000 suits and coats a year.
In the 1970s, most of them closed. Only Hickey Freeman remained. If it doesn’t survive, the final chapter of Rochester’s clothing industry will be written.
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