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Remembering Baltimore’s Industries

By Ramesh Nagarajan | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

“For the kind of a fellow who’s smart and neat A ‘Smoothie’ necktie can’t be beat You can buy a ‘Smoothie’ necktie and wear it every day Take it off and hang it up and the wrinkles go away.”

Nearly sixty-five years after the advent of the wrinkle-resistant necktie, Harry Schreter remembers the glory days of the tie business with a jingle. Schreter’s father, Abraham, immigrated to the U.S. near the turn of the century and worked in a tie factory in Baltimore. Soon he had started his own firm that revolutionized bowties with rubber stays and patented the “Smoothie” necktie. Harry Schreter’s recollection of the family business is part of the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s Video Presentation Project, run by Nancy Perlman, the museum’s research director, and Tina Sheller, a history professor at Towson University, who had her students help gather oral histories.

When complete, the project will feature eight ten-minute videos on different industries in Baltimore. The first presentation, including Harry Schreter’s jingle, deals with the city’s needle trades. Forthcoming videos will trace the industrial history of printing, food processing, metalworking and machines, glass, sheet metal, finance, and pharmaceuticals.

Oral histories of those who worked in the trades are at the center of the project. The videos include photographs, illustrations, and a narrative chronicling the story of each industry. While the clips shown at the exhibits are edited for time constraints, those who are interested can watch the complete footage of any of the interviews on DVD.

“We’re doing these videos to capture the interests of scholars and people who come into our museum,” says Perlman. The Baltimore Museum of Industry, which opened in 1981, aims to provide visitors with a sense of the city’s industrial heritage, including the riches of Baltimore’s tycoons and a laborer’s routine. Exhibits at the museum have school children participate in a cannery, learn about local innovations from Noxzema to the disposable bottle cap, and now, hear from managers and workers who were on the shop floor.

The story of Baltimore’s garment sector echoes that of American heavy industry. The needle trades began around 1820 in the city, but did not emerge onto the national scene until the Civil War, when the production of military uniforms standardized men’s clothing sizes. Entrepreneurial energy combined with cheap immigrant labor led to the industry’s growth.

Baltimore’s specialty was haberdashery. Besides Schreter’s success in ties, other firms--L. Grief and Brothers, Katzenberg Brothers, Beehler Umbrella Company--focused on men’s clothing and accessories. David Grief, whose recollections are included in the museum’s video, boasts that his family’s company never lost money--not even during the Great Depression.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, unions and management vied for control of garment workers. Some of the workforces, like Grief’s, became unionized, while the Katzenbergs’ remained nonunion. After World War II, globalization undercut Baltimore factories and the industry went into a tailspin.

The center of the needle trade in Baltimore was the Loft District, which suffered as the industry shrank. Today, the city and the district, are experiencing a renaissance as technology and tourism replace manufacturing. All that remains of Baltimore’s garment industry is a handful of brand names and memories. “It was not an easy way to make a living--it was very hard--but I enjoyed it and I don’t think if I had my life to live again I would have chosen anything else,” says Grief.