Clothing factories once thrived across central Pennsylvania
Sarah Perony was 17 years old in 1934 when she applied for work at the new garment factory setting up shop in Altoona. Puritan Knitting, a Philadelphia company, was moving into the former Schwarzenbach-Huber silk mills at Eighth Avenue and 25th Street.
“My mother was a widow with three children,” Perony, now 96, recalls. “I was the second oldest, and we needed money.”
For Altoona, Puritan Knitting was the beginning of the garment industry, which marked both its heyday and decline in the 20th century. A reminder of its existence, the large vacant warehouse building close to Union Avenue and the former Bon Secours Hospital is up for sale or rent.
“Yes, that’s where I worked,” Perony said. “When I first went there, they sent me to this lady at her house, so I could learn how to do pockets. Then I went to sweaters. When the war started, we were making Army jackets and shirts.”
Many towns had
Altoona isn’t the only community with a building that once housed an active work force of mostly women who made their sewing machines hum.
In Gallitzin, S. Liebovitz & Sons Inc. started a shirt factory in August 1921 on the third floor of the Victoria Theatre. That building has since deteriorated and is slated to be torn down, borough Secretary Irene Szynal said.
The company’s successors, Publix Shirt Corp. and Eaglewear, were located in a large building on Donough Street. Eaglewear employed about 200 people at one time during its 10-year ownership that ended in 1991, when that factory closed.
The building now houses R&M Apparel and employs about 25, depending on work orders.
“We rent about half the building,” plant manager Shelly Garman said. “We customize our own line of sportswear. We also do embroidery and screenprinting.”
Garman said she loves to sew and work with garments, but business can be tough.
“In this industry right now, we’re not competing with anyone local,” Garman said. “We’re competing with the imports.”
Patton was home to the Van Heusen Shirt Factory building on the 200 block of Beech Avenue. After the factory closed, the DeGol Organization bought the building in 1996.
Mike Gelormino, 79, of Patton, worked at the factory as an industrial sewing machine mechanic.
“I worked there from 1951 to 1957, then I got drafted and went into the service for a couple of years,” Gelormino said. “Then when I got out, I went to work for a dress manufacturer in Ebensburg that made exclusive dresses.”
In those days, Gelormino said, there were factories in almost every town, and it seemed someone was always hiring. As operating costs began to increase and garment factory jobs moved to other countries, Gelormino said he was faced with having to find another job in the 1990s.
“One by one, those factories couldn’t hang on, and they shut them down,” he said. “I was about 60 years old so I went on to get a CDL [commercial driver’s license] and then went into driving truck.”
Inside Altoona’s Puritan factory
Perony, who feared that Puritan wouldn’t hire her at age 17, told them she was 18 and had experience.
“I had been working for three or four months with the WPA [Works Progress Administration],” she said. “We were making dresses for poor people, and that’s how I learned the sewing machine.”
Perony said Puritan was a good company to work for, and they had plenty of work.
The company expanded its basic sweater line in 1938 by adding woven sportswear for men.
During World War II, Puritan produced 2.5 million Army fatigue jackets and more than 1 million high-neck G.I. sweaters, earning the Army-Navy Production Award (the “E” Award) for excellence in production of war equipment.
Perony, who said she was a supervisor by then, said she recalls being proud of the award.
“We all pitched in to make jackets for the boys,” she said.
But the war years were an emotional time, too.
“A lot of the women had husbands and sons in the service,” Perony said. “And we had music playing all the time, which the company allowed. But when these sad songs came on, like [Bing Crosby’s ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas”], I had women asking if they could turn the music off. It was tough.”
Puritan continued to enjoy success in Altoona after the war years.
In 1955, it became the first U.S. manufacturer to purchase full-fashioned knitting equipment, which allowed a garment to be knit-to-size as opposed to being cut and sewn.
Puritan’s work force grew to more than 1,000 employees, making it Altoona’s second largest employer, according to company history compiled in 2007 when Puritan was inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame.
Irene Szynal of Gallitzin said she got an office job with Puritan in 1959, immediately after graduating from high school.
“We would carpool from here, about three or four of us,” she said. “And we carpooled not to save gas or money, but because we didn’t have cars.”
Szynal said she worked for Puritan until 1963, when she left because she married and started a family.
“It was a good job,” she said. “I had fantastic bosses.”
Same industry, but
In 1971, Szynal said she wanted a job to help make ends meet while her husband, a miner, was on strike. She applied at the Publix Shirt Corp. in Gallitzin and intended to stay about six months. She ended up working there for 18 months before getting a a job with Gallitzin Borough.
“I was a collar closer,” she said, explaining that she would attach a label to the inside of the shirt collar, then sew the collar shut.
“Some people did sleeves, some people did the pressing, and there were pocket people, too,” she said.
Joan LaToche, also of Gallitzin, said she worked for Publix in 1965 while she was a senior at Gallitzin High School. The company had a lot of work then, and she went in after the school day ended.
“I did pressing, which was hard work,” LaToche said. “It was a lot of standing.”
Joan Kowalski, 79, of Gallitzin, said she started working in 1955 for Publix.
“When I first started there, we made dresses and culottes,” Kowalski said, referring to calf-length or knee-length trousers designed to resemble a skirt.
LaToche and Szynal, who are active with the Gallitzin Tourist Council, take care of a collection of photographs, booklets, framed documents and other shirt factory memorabilia on display at the Gallitzin Tunnels Park and Museum on Convent Street.
In the collection is a booklet that details the introduction of a newspaper that shirt factory personnel started publishing in 1937 and sold to employees at 2 cents per copy. Its motto was: “As ye sew, so shall ye rip.”
“It was primarily to serve the factory, but soon became the town newspaper,” the booklet states.
The museum collection also includes the charter granted on Nov. 24, 1933, to the Gallitzin chapter of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. There are also large ledger books from the 1940s, showing the names of employees and the union dues they paid.
“We were always a union shop,” Kowalski said, even after Eaglewear bought the company in 1981 from Publix. That move saved the plant from closing then but forced all the employees to reapply for their jobs. Some were hired, and some weren’t, Kowalski said.
Under the new owners, production increased and the work force grew to more than 200 employees, according to a 50-page yearbook that Kowalski and co-workers produced to detail the last decade of the shirt factory industry in Gallitzin, from 1981 to 1991.
But the threats to the industry didn’t go away and in 1984, the Gallitzin workers rented a bus and traveled to Harrisburg for a rally protesting the increase in imports that were taking jobs from the clothing and textile industry.
“We sang songs, listened to speeches and cheered when boxes of imports were thrown in the [Susquehanna] river,” the yearbook states. “Of course, they were taken out after the crowd left, but [it was] good symbolism.”
Kowalski’s poetry is on display at the museum, too. In “Shirt Factory Girls,” which she wrote in her earlier years as a factory worker, she advises readers not to downgrade the job that left employees covered in dust, lint and grime.
“…there’s hardly a family around here, for miles, hasn’t needed that factory sometime,” her poem reads.
Those who worked in the local garment factories remember making quality goods.
The items made at the Puritan factory in Altoona carried the Puritan name and were sold in department stores and men’s clothing stores throughout the country. The garments were sold locally through Gable’s, Bon-Ton and The Young Men’s Shop, according to company history.
After Warner Brothers Co. bought the Thane and Puritan companies in 1964 and formed Warnaco Corp., the Altoona workers produced special clothing lines for celebrities including Andy Williams, Gary Player and Johnny Carson.
In the late 1970s, when Larry Bloom of Altoona was in charge of the men’s sportswear division at Warnaco, the company introduced and created men’s sweaters for the world-famous Christian Dior brand.
Warnaco still employs people at its distribution facilities in Duncansville and at the former Butterick plant in Altoona. According to ABCD Corp. in 2011, Warnaco had 260 employees locally.
The Gallitzin factory manufactured shirts under several quality labels including Gant, Pierre Cardin, Evan Picone, Ruff Hewn, Outer Banks, Saks Eagle and Izod.
“We made shirts, under Publix, for Macy’s,” Kowalski said. “But they all went through the same inspection process for quality. I know, because I was on quality control for a while.”
Shirts made in the Van Heusen factory in Patton carried that name, another label associated with quality.
Remembering past days
Kowalski said Gallitzin remains a great place to live, even though it doesn’t have the factory jobs it once had.
“The nicest people in the world worked in the factory,” she said. “Some left, and some still live here.”
She said she thinks what has happened to the garment industry is sad. Crystal Brands Inc., which acquired Eaglewear, was intent on closing the Gallitzin factory after acquiring it, she said.
“They wanted to put our work overseas, and they
didn’t want us as competition,” Kowalski said.
Gelormino said that when he was an industrial sewing machine mechanic, he could have gone anywhere for a job but had no reason to leave Patton because he could always find work.
“Back then, the world was better and the country was better,” Gelormino said. “I’m not too happy about or too sure of what’s in store for this generation.”