Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Muslin Drawers and Compassion -- Nos. 45-51 West 21st Street

Until 1901 the Evangelical Lutheran Church stood on the north side of West 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  Smart brownstone residences lined the street, the last remnants of the block’s genteel history that was quickly coming to an end.

By now Fifth Avenue in the area was commercial and many of the 21st Street homes had been converted for business purposes.  Where the Lutheran Church had been were now two industrial loft buildings stretching from No. 45 to 51.

Meanwhile, further downtown on at Nos. 105-113 Wooster Street was the office and factory building of D. E. Sicher & Co.   The firm had begun in 1872 with three sewing machine operators and grew to be the largest women’s underwear manufacturers in the world.  By now it employed 3,000 workers who turned out “muslin drawers” and other feminine under garments.

When one of the loft buildings on West 21st Street was heavily damaged by fire in 1908, Dudley D. Sicher, president of D. E. Sicher, jumped on the opportunity.  On September 13 the New York Tribune reported that the company purchased both buildings.
Three days later The New York Times added its take.  “The removal of this concern…from Wooster Street to Twenty-first Street is a striking illustration of the northward migration from the older mercantile district,” it said, “and will probably be not without influence in bringing about other removals.”  The article projected that Sicher would spent about $100,000 to renovate the building and install its new factory.

The firm hired architects Goldwin, Starrett & Van Vleck to re-do the damaged building.   Completed in February 1909, it was an exceptionally handsome industrial structure.  Composed of red brick with limestone trim, it rose six floors from the pavement.  Two heavy stone entrances flanked the long salesroom space at street level.  The upper floors were dedicated to office and factory space.  Expansive windows on the second and third floors allowed sunlight to flood into the work areas.  Contrasting with the red brick were carved limestone pediments and window framing, and quoins.  

The New York Times printed a rendering of the building a year before its completion (copyright expired)
Dudley Sicher would earn a reputation through his concern of workers’ safety and conditions.  His input was evident here.  “In these workrooms many new devices will be employed both for disposing of waste materials and adding to the building’s sanitary and fireproof qualities,” reported The Times.
The new building also boasted its own “light, power, and ventilating plants.”

The workers who filled the upper floors of the Sicher Building were mostly untrained, uneducated immigrants; many of them girls in their late teens.  Working conditions for sewing girls at the beginning of the century were often brutal.  As labor unions rose up against harsh owners and managers, strikes crippled production.  The result was often vicious retaliation by management.

Unusual for factory buildings of the time, large windows on the second and third floor gave sewing girls exceptional sunlight.
Sicher, on the other hand, was compassionate.  In 1912 he pleaded with other factory owners to participate in collective bargaining and to recognize the union.  His own workers, accustomed to wages above scale, ultimately refused to join the labor organizations and Sicher’s factory paradoxically became a union shop in principle and an open shop in practice.  He introduced the idea of a company cafeteria and a “clubroom” in which workers had “community sings” to alleviate the monotony of their work day.
In the spring of 1913 the garment industry was hit with a general strike.  Rather than bristle at the workers’ insolence, Dudley Sicher was moved.   Years later he would recall that one of his earliest memories was of his father lugging a bucket of coal up five flights of stairs to keep his six or seven employees warm in the winter.  It was a legacy he would carry with him throughout his life.

On March 26, at a dinner of the Cotton Garment Manufacturers of New York, he read aloud a poem he had composed during the strike.  His hope was to inspire the other members “to recognize their obligations and responsibilities toward their employees.”
Sicher’s poem was entitled “The Dawn of a Better Day” and included lines such as:

Let us wipe the slate of the bitter score,
Let us turn the blotted page,
And grant that we owe our workers more
Than the dole of a “living wage.”
They give us more than their time and skill
In the health and strength they spend,
And earn the right to the kindly will
And helpful hand of a friend.
We must give them more than the coin we pay
Ere we hail the Dawn of a Better Day.

That same year Sicher was overtaken with an innovative and unheard of idea.   Strikes could be avoided, he decided, if the workers were educated.  Paid schooling for the immigrant girls was his solution.
“The idea came to me when the strike was on,” he told a reporter for The Evening World.  He explained that the Irish-American, German-American and “plain American” workers who had at least an elementary education “stuck by us—even sent a committee to assure the firm they had no complaint.”

“But the other girls, who came mostly from the pasture lands of Russia and Siberia, marched out the minute the strike was declared…I found out that the girls who walked out did so because they were undeveloped mentally and took their ideas from the mouth of some fiery agitator.”

Sicher convinced the Board of Education to conduct a test program with sixteen girls.  The first group of eight would attend classes in English, arithmetic, and “mental, moral and physical hygiene” for a week, earning their regular pay.  The two groups would alternate in work and school every week thereafter throughout the test period.

“The idea of the experiment is to help employees to help themselves.  We want to assist them in making their pay envelopes go further.  We desire to help the girls by training them for economic advancement.”

A year later, after the program had become fully-established, Lizzie E. Rector, principal of Public School 4 where the girls were taught, told The Sun ”If the employers of New York city would show the interest in this matter that D. E. Sicher has it wouldn’t require fire years to wipe out the illiteracy in this city.”

On June 4, 1914 Dudley Sicher hosted the first graduation exercises for the factory girls who wore white dresses and, according to a Times editorial, “were as proud as the graduating class at any commencement in the country.”  The excusably-proud Sicher commented, “this is the first attempt of the kind in New York City, possibly in the world and is the beginning of a great movement to hasten assimilation necessary to national unit; to promote industrial betterment by reducing friction caused by failure to comprehend directions and to decrease the waste and loss of wage incidental to the illiterate worker.”

The concept, in 1914, of paying workers to sit in school rooms rather than to sit at sewing machines was revolutionary, in the very least.  But it would not be the end of Dudley Sicher’s forward-thinking ideas regarding his workers.

In April 1917, just days before the United States entered World War I, the American Red Cross spoke to 500 of D. E. Sicher’s employees during the lunch hour.  The girls were invited to enroll in evening classes in hygiene and caring for the sick.

The New York Tribune reported that “Most of the girls, who are nearly all foreign born, accepted the offer enthusiastically.  If this experiment is productive of results, other factories in the city will be called upon.”

Fredericka Farley of the Red Cross told the girls that in “case of hostilities” their services could be invaluable.  “Should war be declared, the workers of factories and, in fact, all groups of trained workers, would be most useful to the government.  For example, this factory might be set to work of supplying the government with hospital garments.”

Dudley Sicher announced that since the course took one and a half hours, he would allow the girls to leave work forty-five minutes early with full pay.   As the country was pulled into the war, the girls received the rank of “nurse’s helper” and were eligible to help in government service for cooking, serving food or aiding the sick and wounded.

By 1918 Sicher had established a school on the factory premises for all employees, male and female.  Every morning for forty-five minutes employees who wished to participate received instruction in speaking and writing English, composing letters, fundamentals of arithmetic, history and civic government, good citizenship, use of the telephone and the telephone book, and finding one’s way around the city streets, among other useful information.  A teacher was provided by the Board of Education and the workers received their full pay for the time.

The New York Tribune praised the in-house school.  “[The worker] learns thrift, and subsequently orderliness.  Gradually he feels the thrill of power that comes through knowledge.  He hears the foreman talking to the boss and understands what is being planned for his welfare and the success of his business.  For the first time he appreciates the fact that he is a necessary part of an organization, and natural pride manifests itself in quicker movements and an eager alertness to get the most out of his particular job.”

War brought with it harder times and in 1919 Sicher predicted “that both merchandise and labor are going to continue to become scarcer for many months to come, and that pre-war prices in almost all liens of merchandise and commodities are not to be looked for for many years to come.”

Hard times did not cause the progressive manufacturer to waiver in his programs.  He continued with his aspiration of educating not only his staff, but the 20,000 immigrant garment workers in the city.

In 1927 D. E. Sicher & Co., the largest ladies’ lingerie manufacturer in the country, was also turning out “wool shawls, such as are now in vogue in this country, ladies’ hand bags, and men’s athletic underwear, both two-piece and union suits.”  That year Dudley Sicher decided to close his factory so he could devote his full energies to charitable causes.

The factory doors would not be closed for another year, however.  “Not until the last of the 500 employees had been placed with other concerns did Mr. Sicher close the factory,” reported The Times.

Dudley David Sicher died at his home at 15 East 80th Street on December 29, 1939.  He had spent the remainder of his life in philanthropic endeavors, donating his full-time positions with several organizations.  The mark left on the garment industry by the caring and compassionate Sicher was immeasurable.

The dignified factory building of D. E. Sicher & Co. filled with a variety of tenants as West 21st Street became decidedly industrial.    Towards the end of the century the ground floor became home to an enormous night club.  Today 20,000 square foot of the building is home to Duvet, a venue space and club.

In April 2011, as the Chelsea neighborhood continued its trendy metamorphosis, the architectural firm of Insite 123 Development signed a five-year least for nearly 3,000 square feet on the fourth floor.

The cast iron ground floor remains unchanged in 2011.
In the meantime, the handsome exterior of the D. E. Sicher & Co. building – where muslin drawers were sewn and immigrant girls learned English—is essentially unchanged.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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