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.
Anne Trubek is the founding Editor-In-Chief of Belt magazine and publisher of Rust Belt Chic Press. She has published articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired, and has appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, The Diane Rehm Show, and Talk of the Nation. She is currently writing The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury USA, Fall 2014). This article originally appeared in Belt magazine and is reposted with permission from the author and publication.