By Anne Trubek

Say Cleveland manufacturing and many think steel. But there was a large, influential, and vibrant garment industry in the city, too. By the middle of the 20th century, a good percentage of the clothes that Americans wore were produced in Cleveland. At one point, one in seven Clevelanders worked in the garment industry, the city employed thousands of seamstresses and pressers, was second to New York in size and the source of much America’s ready-to-wear clothing. Richman Brothers was once the largest retail manufacturer in the world in its imposing building on E. 55th street. Joseph & Feiss was the country’s largest manufacturer. And there were hundreds of other businesses. They were almost all family run, and they were almost entirely Jewish.

Why have we forgotten this part of the city’s history? Most of the garment businesses were small — Richman Brothers and Joseph & Feiss are the exceptions — and thus lesser known. Nor did they garner the headlines of the New York sweatshops because they had better labor relations, as most of these Cleveland businesses stopped using the sweatshop model by the 20th century.

It might also be that garment manufacturing — unlike steel and other more familiar Cleveland industries — had more diverse owners and employers. It has always been an industry that employed women. It has always been a low-entry business for impoverished immigrants. The vast majority of garment employers in Cleveland were Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe.


Although most think of Jewish immigration as a late 19th century phenomenon, Jews were in Cleveland as early as the 1830s. There were 80 Jewish families in Cleveland in 1850; by 1852, there were 120; and by 1860 there were 1,200 families, or about three and a half percent of the city’s population.

The 1837 city directory lists 25 dry good and clothing stores, seven millinery stores, and four boot and shoe stores, all clustered in the small retail area on lower Superior Street, Water Street, and River Street. By 1840, there were four woolen mills, employing 18 men, and a group of Bohemians on the West Side making blankets.

An air of frontier scrapping defines these early manufacturers and retailers. One store owner, Isaac Isaacs, ran a shop on the corner of Superior and Union Streets. Isaacs he called his store “the largest and most magnificent clothing warehouse in the western country,” and sold ready-made overcoats, pantaloons, pants, vests, and tailored clothes. Rather than describe his wares in dull prose, he wrote ditties he distributed in pamphlets:

First, we’ve coats of all descriptions,
Of every shape and style;
Then, in Overcoats, for Winter,
We have an enormous pile;
And, all who do wear pantaloons
And they are not a few,
Should go to UNION HALL and then
The Stock of Pants there view.
To match the Pants we’ve also Vest…

Not suit you to a T

We have the largest stock of Cloths
That ever did you see
And we have got a cutter good
The best in all the land
Who, at the mention of his name,
Appears with tape in hand
And as with skillful hand he takes
The measure of each line
He soon will cut a suit to fit
The human form divine.

Some traveled around the area with goods sold in the stores downtown. Eighteen-year-old Joseph Hays arrived in Cleveland from Germany in 1856 and sold notions, such as “needles, pins, buttons, tape,” as well as embroidered collars, shirt-bosoms, and handkerchiefs. He once “tramped out Cedar Road,” walking east from E. 9th. Not yet fluent in English, he asked his sister Yetta to write out questions for him: “Do you wish to buy anything? I will sell you cheap. Is this money good? Can I have some dinner? Can I stay over night?”

One day he found himself at the Shaker settlement in Shaker Heights, where men and women were sitting outside sewing and knitting. He asked one German speaker if he could stay overnight there, but was refused. So he walked to a tavern where he found a German-speaking man who helped him ask for food and lodgings. The proprietor charged him 50 cents, which she took in trade. The next day he continued his peddling journey, “tramping out as far as the Ridge Road.”

While Hays’ accounts of 19th century Cleveland may seem impossibly alien to us now, other accounts are resonant. In 1878 Isaac Joseph took a train from New York to Cleveland on December 16:

When I landed in Cleveland and was driven in a hack up Superior Street I thought I had arrived at the North Pole, for the city was buried in snow. It was about 8:00 p.m., and the stores all along the street were still lighted up for business but all the show windows were frosted from top to bottom … At the time of my arrival in Cleveland the city sprawled out in three directions over a very large area and had a population of a little over 100,000. Its principal streets were laid out on a very generous plan, many of them unpaved. There were only a few prominent buildings, they were of a nondescript style of architecture. Those in the business district were of brick three or four stories in height and generally in a ramshackle condition. The streets, however, were liberally planted with trees which somewhat softened the ugliness of the structures. The business activities of Cleveland were confined to two streets: the wholesale portion on Water Street (now West 9th) and the prominent retail stores were located on Superior west of the Square. There were also a few small shops on Ontario Street and surrounding the Square itself.

Cleveland sprawling on both sides of the Cuyahoga River was like a very large overgrown village and only in the Spring was it transformed into a beautiful spot because of its wide streets and wealth of fine shade trees which entitled it to its popular name “The Forest City.” In winter, however, it was wind-swept, gray and dreary. On moonlight nights even the street lamps were not lighted and as the moon does not always shine according to schedule the city was often plunged into absolute darkness. No attempt was made to remove the snow from the streets in any part of the city nor the slush and mud that came with the occasional thaws.

Another man, Louis Gross, remembers his path from Kiev to Cleveland:

Louis was born in 1870 in Monasteristch, Kiev, Russia, a town with several thousand Russians and about three hundred Jewish families. He describes that “there were two classes: the very rich, who were the nobility, and the very poor, who were mostly serfs. The Jews, being a minority and considered foreigners, irrespective of their birth or the length of time they dwelt in the country, were mostly the poor people, not serfs; a few Jews belonged to the middle class.”

His family was poor and new laws were putting ever more restrictions on Jews. In 1885, at 15, traveling with his family, they stopped at an Inn and he was hired as a teacher for two children who lived there in exchange for room and board. That job did not last long — one of the children was older than Louis and resented him — but he got another job through his uncle shortly thereafter. He married in 1888, and then began working at a law office. When the Jewish partner was disbarred, he decided he had to leave Russia.

His emigration story is a familiar one — trying to leave Russia (he notes it is as hard — and illegal — to leave the country as it is to live in many of its cities), the passage in steerage over the Atlantic, and arriving in Brooklyn, where his brother had already settled.

His brother’s family was poor, and they worked in the garment trades. “About that period of 1890, employment was not plentiful or steady. The garment industry had not yet been standardized and, as a result, the earnings were small and not regular.” During the busy season, his brother-in-law made $15 dollars a week as a cutter; in the slow season, $6 or $7. Louis’s brother owned a contracting shop, earning $25 to $30 dollars a week in the busy season. In the slow season, he earned nothing.

Louis tried to avoid going into the garment industry but could find no work as a clerk. He got a job as a cutter. He worked for free for the first three weeks, then was paid $4, eventually being promoted to $8 dollars a week. When management lay off 15 of its 18 cutters, Louis was retained, because he was industrious and efficient. When that job went away, he was hired as a cutter at a higher-end shop for $18 dollars a week. Here, he started to study the industry:

As I look back on the past, I am more than ever convinced that this is one of the main tenets that guided me to success. While I was reluctant to enter into the garment industry and did so only as a temporary means of supporting myself until I had found myself, within a reasonably short time I changed my mind. While I was working hard, I was also thinking hard. I surveyed the situation, observing that this was a new country, with a population of approximately 62 million, and a growing demand for the better things in life; but if anything of a superior quality was wanted, it had to be imported from abroad. The class of goods manufactured here was of the lowest type and done in the crudest manner. I could not help but see that there was a big future for those who recognized these facts and would apply themselves closely to improvement and progress. I saw how wastefully things were being done and how little ambition existed anywhere to improve on those inefficient ways. Right then and there, I determined to make efficiency my life’s work, and I decided that at all times my aim and purpose would be to do everything in my power to help raise the domestic standard and to equal the standards of the old country as to quality and economy.

He saved enough money to bring his wife over, and then worked at his brother’s contracting shop. He worked on the sewing end, and “found that everything was done in the most slip-shod and crude manner,” and he developed a system to increase efficiency, soon outstripping veterans in speed.

At his next job, he was a cutter, and also kept the books. The company thrived despite the national recession of the early 1890s. He was asked to decide upon “the selection of styles to manufacture and the calculating of costs and establishing of prices.” Having studied various aspects of the business, he decided to take a course in designing and pattern drafting. Up until then, he had kept his eye on the market, buying stylish garments and then “ripped it apart, copying the pattern and the style.” He hired a designer to teach him, as there were no schools then. The fee took all his savings. He took lessons at night and Sundays.

He received an offer from another firm, G. Nussbaum. They gave him charge of the plant, and he experimented with making garments in sections, “namely training people to make sleeves, which was much easier than training them to make the whole dress, while others were trained to make collars, and so on, until the whole garment was put together on a similar basis as large industries today manufacture automobiles, etc.”

By working piecemeal, he could hire women, “which was, at that time, considered more economical and, of course, available to a much greater extent.”

We were originally ridiculed by our competitors, claiming that fifteen persons making one garment couldn’t possibly produce as good a garment as one person making it alone, considering that we employed inexperienced people. However, strange as it may seem, it wasn’t long before everybody admitted that we were turning out garments far superior to those produced by our competitors in the old way. It stands to reason that a girl doing nothing else but making one part for weeks and months and, ultimately, years would become more proficient in making that particular part, the same thing being true of the operators on other parts. In due time, many of our competitors instituted the same system. It was a matter of months, not years, to accomplish the above.

He was offered another job, in Baltimore, which he accepted as he wanted to leave New York City’s “teeming crowds and close living space.” The firm was a mess, though, and he returned to New York, took a new job at a lower rank and quickly proved his worth. “I would leave my home every morning at 7 o’clock and would not return many and many a night until 10 and sometimes 12 o’clock.”

He was then offered a job at Weil, Haskell & Company, a large firm that was based in New York City and Glens Falls.

By then he had three children, Rose, Ned, and Bill. He accepted yet another offer, with Strauss, Eisendreth & Drum in Chicago, in 1895. In Chicago, the owners initially refused to adopt Gross’ section system, calling it “too revolutionary,” and 600 workers threatened to strike if it were implemented. He convinced them — and was now making $6,000 per year.

Joseph & Feiss, Clothcraft Bldg., 2149 W. 53rd St.

He left that job (and admits that he had a reputation for “roving” and never settling down), and accepted an offer from the Root-McBride Company in Cleveland. Root-McBride was a wholesale dry good jobber. He was 27 years old.

Jobbers had to make many lines. “I found it necessary to make fifteen or twenty varied lines, namely, not only street and house garments, but the various underthings. Of course, this did not harmonize with mass production, which had been my specialty in the last few years.”

After being assured that people would do business with him, and getting a line of credit from a bank, he went into business for himself.

He began in 1898, and took on a partner, L. Silber, who had “road experience, with a fairly good acquaintance among the merchants throughout Wisconsin and Illinois.” He put in some capital and they became Sibler & Gross. Their combined capital was $9,200 “and our profit, at the end of the first year, after our salaries and all other expenses were deducted, was $8,400.”

Silber died in 1902. He took on another partner, Joseph Dallet, a star salesman, and they became Silber & Dallet. He went into the lace business and became American Lace Company in 1909 and built a plant in Elyria.

The company became L.N. Gross in 1909.

By 1910, the garment industry was the second largest industry in Cleveland. It was the fifth largest center of garment manufacturing in the country, after New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Eight thousand people were employed in garment shops, double what it had been in 1900, outpacing increases across the country and the population of the city.

Of those 8,000, there were more women employed than men. As Edna Bryner explains it in a report she wrote for The Cleveland Foundation, “The making of men’s garments has been more fully standardized and is subject to fewer changes than the making of women’s garments. Into this standardized and systematized work the women have come, until they now outnumber the men. In contrast, the styles of women’s garments are more changeable. Hence their manufacture is not so routine in nature and here the proportion of men is larger than in the older and more stable branch of the work.”

Cleveland companies were making men’s clothes — rompers, Norfolk suits, kneepants and blouses for boys, uniforms for street car men, overalls and blouses, and shirts, suits, overcoats, and raincoats. The men’s shops were small: of the 21 surveyed by The Cleveland Foundation, 14 employed less than 100 workers. Women’s shops tended to be larger, employing 200 to 1,000 workers, and Cleveland ranked fourth for producing women’s clothing.

Making men’s and women’s clothes involved very different methods. The manufacture of men’s clothing had largely shifted to assembly line methods. Because this offered many opportunities for unskilled workers, twice as many women as men worked in men’s clothing stores. By 1910, one of every five women who sought employment entered the sewing trades. With women’s clothes, the contract method was still dominant, and this is one reason the companies employed more workers—and more men, to oversee the small shops.

The contract shops had to accommodate Ohio law, which prohibited houses to be used to make clothes that would be sold unless they had a separate place built following prescribed codes. Thus, as Edna Bryner describes the scene in 1916:

If one will take a Broadway car out into the southeast part of the city, alight from the car on any street in or near the 50’s, and walk for a few minutes he will see a bunch of wires leading to the back of some substantial looking house, and if he follows this guide, he will usually find a home workshop. The home workshop generally employs from 10 to 30 people, and occasionally as many as 75. The employers are usually foreign born tailors who hire their own countrymen as workers.

In the larger shops, the industry was rapidly mechanizing. By 1920 a Cleveland women’s cloak shop was describe this way:

The tracing wheel and scissors have been replaced by the electric knife which cuts two hundred garments in one swift operation. Sixty buttons are automatically attached in a minute. Ten thousand complete and modish garments are finished every day. Eight to ten carloads of women’s coats and suits are daily expressed from Cleveland to a thousand points on the continent.

But this period of rapid growth was also accompanied by a period of worker unrest. Joseph & Feiss subscribed to a theory of scientific management, best known as the assembly line used by Henry Ford to make cars. They used time management studies to maximize worker efficiency. This approach was partially influenced by the rise of organized labor. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) was founded in 1914. They sought to unionize Cleveland’s garment workers. The ILGWU organized a strike at the Printz-Biederman Company in 1904, and a major strike, involving about five thousand workers at 33 companies, defined the industry in 1911.

Joseph & Feiss’ scientific management system made the workplace efficient but gave owners more control over their workers. In response, the company adopted a strategy of paternalism, or welfare. They provided workers with recreational activities. On lunch breaks, men and women (separately) played sports. Workers were offered more breaks and shared in an employee bonus plan.

Printz-Biederman chose a different route to labor relations, called industrial democracy. They organized the workers into a representative government. There was a “Cabinet” of executive officers, and a non-elected “Senate” of lower-level executives and foremen. The “House of Representatives” was elected, and was comprised of workers. Changes in the workplace — such as hourly wage raises, would be discussed by the House of Representatives, then passed on to the Senate, and then to the Cabinet for final approval.

1911 was a watershed year for Cleveland’s garment industry workers. On June 6, workers went on strike, three months after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 135 New York garment workers. The Cleveland laborers protested sweatshop conditions and demanded a 50-hour work week with Saturday afternoons and Sundays off, no more than two hours of overtime per day, double pay for overtime, and a closed shop.

The Cleveland Cloak Manufacturers Association was the owners’ main organization. In 1911 it was comprised of The John Anisfield Company, The H. Black Company, The Cohen Goodman Company, The Greenhut Cloak Company, The Printz-Biederman Company, Schwarz, Huebschman & Forney, M. T. Silver & Company, and The Sunshine Cloak and Shirt Company. They refuted the union’s claims of sweatshop conditions, arguing that Cleveland was leading the nation in worker relations, with a 54-hour work week and half days on Saturday. They claimed Clevelanders, compared to those in New York, who worked six months a year, worked from nine to eleven months a year, and received higher wages.

Violence broke out during the early days of the strike. Two people were killed — a worker and an 11-year-old girl whose father was a garment company guard. The workers held their ground despite the deaths, and in September voted 27 to 1 to keep striking. Manufacturers claimed outside agitators were involved, and the strike limped on.

Women played a large role in the strike: a third of the strikers were women, and they were highly visible on the picket lines, unusual at the time. Most of the workers were foreign born: four out of five male employees and two out of five women had been born outside the United States. In 1911 the most prominent socialist in the country, Eugene V. Debs, gave a speech at Grays Armory.

On October 21, the strike came to an end, without the workers having won any of their demands. It has largely been considered a failure by the workers and a victory by owners, though some argue that less tangible results — greater collective spirit among workers, the visibility of women — could be considered gains. And some companies changed their management practices after the strike.

One worker organizer was Charles Ruthenberg — a Clevelander whose ashes are interred in the Kremlin.

The garment trades were a key fomenter of radicalism. Ruthenberg, the son of Jewish immigrants whose father was a wealthy garment manufacturer in New York, came to Cleveland as a white-collar garment manager. But he supported then-Mayor Tom Johnson’s progressive values, and became a socialist in 1909. At his first socialist meeting in Cleveland, he found only eight people who spoke English, and 18 who spoke other languages, including German, Czech, Polish, and Yiddish. Ruthenberg said his conversion to socialism happened through reading, or, as he put it, “through the Cleveland Public Library.”

Ruthenberg was convicted under the Espionage Act and sent to a workhouse in Canton for a year. While there, he ran for mayor, and received 27,000 votes, over 25% of the total. He was again arrested in the riots of 1919, ran for office several more times, and then eventually became a communist. He helped form the Communist Party of the United States and lived in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. He died at 44, and his ashes were interred in the Kremlin.

Organized labor would eventually make it into most of the garment shops, and by the 1930s both Joseph & Feiss and Printz-Biederman would be unionized, as well as most of the other companies in Cleveland.

By the 1980s, almost all the businesses were gone. Many blame NAFTA. But their skeletons remain.


Anne Trubek is editor-in-chief of Belt.