Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Bit O' Garment District History

Oy. St. Patrick's Day in NYC.

Want to know something I have in common—today in particular—with early 20th-century Manhattan ladies?  We both hate to be caught on the streets of midtown New York City at lunchtime. Today the sidewalks are packed with teenagers and young adults dressed in green, in town for the St. Patrick's Day parade and looking for action. It's a zoo, I tell ya. In 1911, Fifth Avenue sidewalks—and side streets—at noon would have been crowded with garment factory workers, all men, on their lunch breaks. 

In fact, the congestion was actually far worse 100 years ago than it even is today on St. Patrick's Day. I learned this last night at a very informative lecture I went to with Carolyn at the Museum of the City of New York. Andrew Dolkart, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, historian of the Garment District, spoke about how the crowds of garment workers at lunchtime kept the rich women away from the fancy department stores located on lower Fifth Avenue. You see, the garment factories were all originally located close to the Fifth Avenue department stores, making it easier to deliver clothing to the merchants. The department store owners, faced with losing wealthy patrons, banded with other power brokers of the time to convince the garment manufacturers to move their factories, which they actually willingly did.

And that's how the garment district ended up located where it is today. How's that for a bit of trivia?

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's hoping I make it home on the train without getting thrown up on by a drunken teenager.


  1. First - thank you for inviting me to go with you to the lecture. It was really now I know the union side and the real estate side of how the garment district came to be!

    ...and as for St. Patty's Day...*sigh* I know whatcha mean!

  2. My grandmother worked as a secretary for a textile company at Broadway & 41st from the 1930's - 50's. After WWII, they made car seat upholstery. We had yards of upholstery fabric remnants that my mother used to make curtains & bedspreads. I don't know what those fabrics were made of, but they were tough as could be and wore like steel. They don't make 'em like that any more.

    Grandma was still working somewhere in the Garment District when I was little. She sent me knit skirt & sweater sets that her company made. I never visited her at work, but I do remember seeing racks of garments being pushed through the streets of Midtown in the 1960's. I can still hear the rattle that the wheels of the racks made. And being a kid from "the suburbs," it was always fascinating to see clothing on the move like that.

    That's my own little Garment District history. :)


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