Warren County Historical Society Presents …
October 1, 2014
The McMullen-Leavens Company
The History of the Shirt Factory
In September 2014, Queensbury Historian Marilyn Van Dyke was invited to speak about the history of the Shirt Factory for Community Day, a day of celebration and open house at the local landmark. Dr. Van Dyke has given us permission to reprint her speech here.
It is a privilege to be speaking in the gallery of the Shirt Factory today and to be able to talk with you about the history of this important building – what happened here and how the manufacture of shirts and dresses under the McMullen and Leavens Company became a major manufacturing industry for Glens Falls for over 94 years. The building has many memories for many people who labored here. We are still hearing their stories.
The shirt industry came to Glens Falls before the end of the 1800s. Shirts and attachable collars were the vogue for working men. The Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company at the southwest corner of Glen and South Streets was a modern facility for its time. It had a high-tech laundry, electric lights and sewing machines driven from shafts powered by overhead belts.
Glens Falls was ideal for manufacturing at the turn of the century as it had all the basic ingredients needed for production – water in the Hudson River and the Champlain Canal, a railroad, newly established electricity, and access to material goods. In addition, the sewing machine had been perfected and was reliable.
The population of the city and area rounded out a stable work force in women who at that time operated out of their homes doing piecework. It was inevitable, given the right leadership that the industry could and would thrive locally.
The Joseph Fowler Shirt & Collar Co. on Glen Street (1890). Walter P. Leavens and J. Robert McMullen worked here as young men and learned the shirt-making industry. After fire destroyed the business, the two started the McMullen-Leavens Company. (Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum).
On April 22, 1902 a fire on the west side of the city demolished the Fowler Shirt Company and the BB Fowler Department Store. Insurance covered the loss. Ephraim Potter, architect was engaged to rebuild the factory.
Enter two promising young men, James Robert (called JR) McMullen and Walter P. Leavens, both of whom were working for the Fowler firm at the time of the fire.
J.R. McMullen (circa 1939) Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum
Walter P. Leavens (circa 1890). (Photo courtesy of the Folklife Center, Crandall Public Library).
JR was the son of Arthur and Catherine McMullen. His father was born in Ireland and died in 1930 in Glens Falls, having fathered a large Irish Catholic family. Arthur McMullen seems to have made his fortune in the lime industry in this region as director of the Keenan Lime Co. in 1899-1900. He was most likely associated with John Keenan, another Irish man who built the company out of Smith’s Basin. Upon his death his will asks that his heirs keep his holding intact. Thus, Thomas A McMullen, JR’s brother spent his career with Keenan Lime Co.
At this time their family lived in a generous though unpretentious home at 104/148 Ridge Street, a few doors north of the fire station. The family at that time included two unmarried sons, J R and Thomas, an unmarried daughter, Mary, as well as Emma and Anna before their marriages, and Anna later a widow.
The McMullen’s later lived on upper Glen Street in a home built in 1932 housing Mary and later Anna along with JR when he was in Glens Falls. JR McMullen never married.
Walter P Leavens was born May 30, 1871 in Glens Falls, the son of JR Leavens born in Luzerne, NY and Lydia Kipp of Glens Falls. Both JR McMullen and Walter P Leavens attended Glens Falls Academy at the same time. . JR went on to further his studies in business at NY Business College.
Both men served apprenticeships at the Joseph Fowler Shirt Co., Leavens in production in the factory and JR in practice in NY City. Joseph Fowler died in 1896. At the time of the fire, both men owned shares in the Fowler Shirt Company.
For a while, the factory operated on the third floor of the Robertson Building at 153 Maple Street. Architect Ephraim Potter was engaged to rebuild the factory building. McMullen was incorporated on May 2, 1902 just a month after the fire with an equal capital investment of $13,000 ($117,000 today) or 130 shares of stock. McMullen and Leavens was born with each partner wanting a factory directly on the railroad. Seventy-one Lawrence Street was chosen, opposite the RR depot with its own RR siding. Orders for materials could readily be received in boxcars and unloaded directly into the factory basement with the finished shirts leaving in express cars to mills and seaports across the United States. The site was purchased from Mary Ann O’Leary. A four-leaf clover found on the land became the logo for the McMullen shirts and dresses.
The Warren County Historical Society owns an original sewing machine from the McMullen-Leavens factory. Here it is shown on display at our offices for an open house several years ago. (Photo in the collection of Warren County Historical Society).
Potter’s designed factory would be 2 buildings built without steel beams – – a laundry in the rear, a 3 story building on Lawrence Street with lots of windows for sunlight – which was prized. . A truly finished basement would have electricity.
One floor of the McMullen-Leavens factory before renovations were begun. After changing owners several times, the factory ceased operation in 1996. (Photo in the collection of Warren County Historical Society).
In 1910, an addition would double the factory space as the building took on an L shape. The laundry building in the rear offered 23,000 square feet. An elegant entrance with a gate was developed on Lawrence Street. This faced the passenger station on the opposite side of Lawrence. Gardens in the yard were featured on postcards.
Women came to work in the factory. Fowler Shirt had 800 women employees with only half in the factory. They worked out of their home on piece meal work. Now Industrial sewing machines called for women to be in the factory engaged in coordinated (or assembly line) production.
In the new McMullen facility, working women now could purchase manufactured clothing, foods at grocery stores and look to childcare in public schools. It was truly the beginning of women in the work force. By 1939, some 750 employees were making shirts and dresses for McMullen and Leavens.
The third floor cutting room at the McMullen-Leavens factory. Here fabric was cut with a hand knife or with a pressing (cutting) machine but cutters, all of whom were men. Then women bundled ‘like’ fabric and sizes and sent them down to the sewing room. (Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum).
The story is told that Walter (or Puffer as he was called) had a punctured ear drum and could blow smoke out of his ear, amusing his friends. He had the stone entrance to the Glens Falls Country Club built and is remembered for that.
Walter married Beatrice Cheney and they had one daughter, Caroline. Walter died on October 11, 1922, leaving JR in charge of the future of the company. Beatrice sold her 50% interest in McMullen’s which she had inherited and resigned from the Board. Caroline married Hubert Brown and had two sons, Philip Cheney Brown and Andrew Leavens Brown.
Let’s take a look at the factory layout which was rational and reflected strict organization of workflow for maximum efficiency. Incoming bolts of material, arriving at the loading platform were sent down a chute to a basement in which they were stored in what was in effect a treasure house of raw materials.
When a bolt of cloth was to be used, it was placed on a freight elevator and sent directly to the third floor. The third floor was the domain of the cutters – always men who were paid on an altogether higher scale than the women were paid. On the third floor the fabric would be spread on a long table, strategically stacked and marked in such way as to utilize the material most effectively, without waste. Although in later years machines were introduced, the classic method of cutting was by means of a sharp knife, accurately and skillfully wielded to go through multiple layers of valuable material precisely and without error.
Once cut, the piece went to the second floor that was the domain of the sewing machines. The machines were arranged along two sides of a table, each machine taking its power by a mechanical clutch from a shaft running the length of the table. A single electric motor at the end of the table drove the shaft. This was similar to the earlier Fowler factory.
The second floor sewing department had hundreds of women putting the shirts together. (Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum)..
From the second floor sewing room, garments went to the laundry and pressing area. Finally finished garments made their way to the packing and shipping departments on the first floor, from which they passed to the loading platform to be dispatched to the world. JR spent most of his time in the factory inspecting in the shipping department ensuring that the quality of the product was maintained.
The first floor pressing department ironed the apparel, sometimes starched, boxed and readied for shipping. (Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum).
The finishing department at the McMullens-Leavens factory (1930). (Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum).
Also on the first floor, the shipping department readied the
garments for transport to New York City,
Chicago, and other major retail centers with some
to international destinations as well.
(Photo courtesy of the Chapman Museum).
For more information on the shirt factory business, read “The McMullens-Leavens Company” by Thomas K. Simpson, published in 2004 by the Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls. Copies of the book are available at the Chapman Museum.
Our thanks to Dr. Van Dyke for permission to use her speech and the Chapman Historical Museum and Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library for the use of the photos.
© October 1 2014, Warren County Historical Society