Troy and Collars
How Two Young Men Founded a Little Business That Became a Big One. Quality Principles That Counted Heavily in Giving Their Names Lasting Distinction and Putting Troy on the Map
BY EDWARD MOTT WOOLLEY
THIS is no era for industrial selfishness. A business has no right to exist unless it wields all its influences toward building up other institutions—toward the development of men who in turn will be factors in constructive Americanism.
This narrative of Earl & Wilson tells a human story, but its purpose is still bigger. It aims to present in true perspective a picture of a modern manufacturing house which believes in America and in service to its fellowmen.
IN THE erstwhile days of Troy—now famous as the Collar City—a young iron worker fell in love with a maiden of that Hudson River town; and thus began the story of a great industry. Melancholy sentimental interest always forms an undercurrent in the long-ago beginnings of a business that outlives its founders. So it is in this case. Though the young man and girl are gone, their romance will live; it is stamped upon the city in which they loved and struggled and built up a great industrial house, Earl & Wilson.
Jefferson Gardner was the young woman’s father—one of the first collar manufacturers in 1 roy, operating a little shop on the lower floor of his home. Records show that in 1837 Ira Perego, a men’s furnishings merchant in New York, gave Mr. Gardner a web of linen for use in making collars. Here in Troy collars were cut with shears and given out to the industrious women of the community for stitching. Jefferson Gardner then took his product to New York in bushel baskets.
In those practical days young men learned trades; toil and grime did not frighten them. Thus William S. Earl, known as Billy to his friends, had taken to iron-molding. His marriage to Miss Gardner took place in 1848. Incidentally, some years before, the girl had laid the first sidewalk in Chicago, of loose boards over which she picked her way through the mud to church.
Shortly after his marriage Billy Earl went to work as a collar-cutter in the Gardner shop, and in 1850 he and his wife started a shop of their own across the way, opening into an alley.
The business grew and in a short time young Earl was a leading citizen of Troy. But an ill fortune drew him elsewhere—into business misadventures. Almost penniless, he and his family returned to Troy. Next day, tin dinner pail under his arm, Billy Earl went to work in one of the little collar plants which were beginning to sprinkle Troy.
In New York City lived Washington Wilson— young, handsome, and a brilliant salesman; a typical city man, with rather deep knowledge of people and things in general, albeit he had accumulated four thousand dollars in debts. Perhaps these obligations represented experience destined to be of value.
Mr. Wilson was connected with a business that brought him often to Troy, where through mutual friends he fell in with the Earls. They discussed possibilities in collars, and in 1867 started a little shop under the now historic name, Earl & Wilson. Mr. Earl had saved a few hundred dollars and his partner raised a like amount. Mrs. Earl herself aided in supervising the shop.
The two partners, of opposite types, balanced each other. Earl was essentially a manufacturer. He made good collars because by no possibility could he make any other kind; his was the mathematical, accurate mind. Things that did not measure up to his innate standards of perfection were actual torture; Quality from the start was his ideal.
Wilson agreed, but turned his own energies to the selling end, where his genius was irresistible. It was he who conceived the plan of a retail price for collars based on quality. Earl & Wilson were the first to adopt the twenty-five-cent collar as a Quality product. On this basis the firm established its goods—on the principle that Service, not Price, benefits the people.
At first most of the sewing was done in private homes, but by 1869 Earl & Wilson had twentyfour machines, and employed forty women in the factory and three hundred outside. Mr. Wilson opened a sales room in New York, and that year their total sales were $98,000.
So the business grew, until in 1876, foreseeing something of their future romance, Earl & Wilson built a great factory in Troy, all of which they hoped ultimately to occupy. For the time being they took a single floor, subletting the others to seven manufacturing concerns. People called them reckless and visionary, but to-day the Earl & Wilson plant embraces not only this whole great building but others as well—and still the crowding demands for their products ever necessitate more room.
KILIAEN VAN RENSSELAER, a Dutch patroon, once owned the site of Troy and all the land for miles about. Later the farm where now stands the Earl & Wilson factory commanded an annual rental of three and threequarters bushels of wheat and two fat hens.
To-day the whole world knows not only Troy but the House of Earl & Wilson.
Troy, a city of 80,000—20,000 wage earners— is one of those towns synonymous with their products. In the public mind Troy means collars—just as the name Earl & Wilson does. Some names dominate by the very force of suggestion. Incidentally, Troy means laundries, for here originated the steam laundry.
To-day Troy makes more than ninety per cent. of all collars worn in the United States, millions of dozens emanating from that city annually. Nor is this due to a collar trust—there isn’t any. Troy is filled with collar factories wholly independent.
Old-timers remember the vogue for paper collars that once swept the country. Men prophesied the doom of the cloth collar; but the world always comes back to quality goods. In the Earl & Wilson plant may be seen a huge press that some concern, long since defunct, used in stamping out those funny paper collars.
Here in Troy, and throughout the adjacent country, has grown up a large community of collar-makers. For the same reason that Akron is the rubber city, Troy is headquarters for collars —and for shirts as well. It is easy for workers in these lines to find employment, and for manufacturers to get help. The collar trade descends from father to son, and from mother to daughter and granddaughter—sometimes three generations together making collars and shirts. Besides, several thousand workers stitch collars at home—the companies supplying machines and motors. They told me in Troy that many a mother puts her baby to sleep with the song of the sewing machine. Yet no sweat-shops disfigure Troy—none of the conditions that prevail in large cities.
I WELL remember how my Grandmother made Granddad’s shirts an inch or two bigger than he wanted them; and quite distinct in my recollection are his remarks when he couldn’t get his collar on. Grandmother soothed him: “Just be patient until wash day; the shirt will shrink to fit.”
To-day the Earl & Wilson Test Room, on an upper floor of the Troy factory, looks after shrinkage, so that every man may have a shirt made not shrunk to fit. Here I saw the Manager of Tests measuring samples of shirting before and after washing—measurements mathematical down to decimal points. Any shrinkage more than normal foredoomed the fabric to rejection.
Later, down in the basement, I noticed great tanks of water in which collar fabrics were being shrunk before going to the cutters.
The Earl & Wilson laundry, by the way, is worth a story in itself. With its ponderous washing machines, dryers, starchers and ironers, it could easily do the laundry work of 10,000 households.
The Test Room looks after colors as well as shrinkage. Triplicate samples are taken from all shirt fabrics, and two sets of these swatches are given the third degree. I followed one set to the laundry, where for two hours the samples were swashed and soaked, and swashed again, with strong laundry soap. Then I watched the second set put through a process including not only soap and water but certain cleansing chemicals sometimes used by laundries. Both sets were then taken back to the Test Room and pasted in a great scrap-book alongside the third clipping from the unwashed fabric.
On comparison in the sunlight, one sample showed a slight fading in the purples. “Out it goes,” said the Manager of Tests.
Before quitting the Test Room I witnessed the performance of a machine for determining the breaking point of cloth. In a way it impersonated Dad or Uncle Bill—or perhaps yourself— in the ceremony of struggling into a shirt.
“ Men are mere brutes when dressing to catch a train,” said the test man. “Their shirts must have tensile strength both ways. Otherwise unprintable words—and lost customers!”
It is not often, however, that manufacturers of poor-grade shirtings offer their wares to Earl & Wilson. This Troy Test Room is famous among makers of shirt and collar materials.
Then we moved along to a device that was stoically untwisting thread into strands—nosing into its very make-up and inner secrets. All these machines are somewhat insolent and lacking in sentiment. Chemicals, without regret, discover whether “silk” is wholly silk or part cotton.
In these ways the Earl & Wilson Test Room— standing everlastingly for Quality and Reputation—is a Service rendered both dealers and consumers. Quality means Economy to the public, and Successful Merchandising for the dealer.
THROUGH labyrinths of sewing machines and collar-making devices of strange varieties we went; up and down aisle after aisle where endless rows of women, and here and there groups of men, were working. On every floor new batteries of machines and fresh battalions of shirtand collar-workers greeted us.
In one department we paused to watch an amber-haired girl who seemed to be displaying extraordinary dexterity for our entertainment. My guide declared, however, that she always worked that way.
“It’s her pace,” he volunteered; “she can sew on more buttons in half an hour than your wife could sew by hand in a day.”
She was working with buttons that had the eyelets in a shank—using a machine which had caused the inventor sleepless nights. Yet he solved the trouble in so clever a way that workers now take it quite for granted.
“Nothing to it! ’ quoth she.
I’ve been thinking ever since of her remark— nothing to it! Marvels of mechanics and production get to be quite commonplace; yet the brains and money that have gone into this sort of public Service are stupendous.
Earl & Wilson, while not concerned directly with the development of sewing machines, have been leaders since the days of Mr. Earl himself in the invention of devices which make the present industry possible. Our great-grandfathers did not have the collars we know to-day; they wore stocks, or perhaps fluted ruffles. Earl & Wilson invented the high turned-down collar which worked revolution in neckwear styles. Many special machines essential to modern collar making were originated and built at the Earl & Wilson factory—among them the stamping, turning and shrinking machines.
In the old days a vast amount of individual labor was required, for one thing, in turning and stitching raw edges; now machines do this work in perhaps a single second.
Our grandmothers used to say that the worst job in making shirts was the neckband; but this operation holds no terrors for the Earl & Wilson factory, where special machines do it without complaint or apology. One impressive thing is the swiftness and apparent ease with which each job swings along.
Farther on was an aisle of shirt-making machines, going with the gallop and gusto of soldiers on the double-quick.
Still farther along, at a sewing machine, we paused to pay respects to a white-haired woman who had been with Earl & Wilson forty-odd years. Her face brightened as she told us that Mr. Earl himself employed her. “A fine man,” she said, “who always gave us girls a Square Deal!”
FOR many years Mr. Earl himself received the work done by outside stitchers, his microscopical eye searching out defects. He was the plan, policy and mainspring of the factory —always on guard against the slightest letdown in perfection.
Later when shirts became part of the product, the same quality trade-mark covered them. Washington Wilson created this design; his own handwriting and character live in the trademark
To-day the Earl & Wilson House is the lengthening shadow of its two founders. They died many years ago, but their influence is as strong as when they went away, close together, on their long journey.
In 1873 Gardner Earl, a son, was admitted to membership, and in 1881 Arthur R. Wilson, a brother of Washington Wilson, came in. A nephew, Franklin H. Wilson, afterward became a firm member.
In 1887 Earl & Wilson once more tied the pedigree of the House to the early collar-making traditions of Troy. Edgar K. Betts, a merchant who married another daughter of Jefferson Gardner, took charge of the manufacturing. His son, Edgar H. Betts, is now president.
Thus the House of Earl & Wilson takes pride in its relationship to the men who ran that first little collar shop many years before the Civil War.
A YOUNG retail merchant in a western town, eager to increase sales, was inclined to plunge, without considering whether certain lines were adaptable to his trade. But the Earl & Wilson salesman covering this territory was conservative; he reflected the policy of the House —against selling goods that might stay on a merchant’s shelves.
This is the sort of Service for which the Earl & Wilson policy stands. Its philosophy is not merely to sell merchandise. To help men to success is a bigger, more satisfying motif.
The Company has branch establishments in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles; but these are more than mere conventional branches.
Once a young executive in a Chicago department store dreamed a daring thing. He went to the senior partner and thus expressed himself:
“Our store needs atmosphere.” Shortly afterward began the era of “drawing room” stores.
The Earl & Wilson House wants its Branch offices to possess this same atmosphere of men, with red blood of fellowship. The Company is content to grow from Service rendered—not from cold, bald merchandising. It expects all members of its organization to live the fundamental principle that the business can never be truly successful unless it attracts—as a magnet. Customers must feel from within the impulse to buy; they must need not only the goods but the counsel, experience and merchandising information Earl & Wilson can give them.
ONE of the greatest services a manufacturer can render the public is to discourage soaring prices. Not long ago a certain dealer bought a quantity of Earl & Wilson shirts at a price which enabled him to retail them for $2.50— though the actual market value was over $4. The secret of this transaction was simply the consistent Earl & Wilson policy to base selling prices on the actual cost of materials, plus a reasonable profit. These fabrics had been purchased months before.
Especially at the present time does this philosophy operate toward good Americanism. By discouraging inflation of prices, lower costs of living are subserved.
THE Square Deal, in every phase of the business, is the Earl & Wilson policy. In the early days the proprietors knew employees personally; they were Jim and Jack, Ann and Jane. To-day this personal touch is taken over by the Employment Manager. A Square Deal to workers means SERVICE; means bettering the product.
Foremen in the Earl & Wilson plant do not have the power of discharge. The Employment Manager is both counselor and court of appeal. As ambassador from the Company to its workers, he irons out many of their troubles. Perhaps Jessie Stitcher wearies of doing the same work month after month. “I’m going to quit!” she says.
“Just wait a little,” returns the Employment Manager, “we’ll find a different job for you.”
Or Jennie Starcher shows signs of letting down in the Quality Spirit. “Try it in such-and-such department,” he’ll tell her.
Yet it is not his policy to antagonize foremen, but to conciliate; his is the soft-pedal job—a diplomat’s. In this way he keeps the labor turnover down—and maintains the spirit of the Best Goods. Records are kept of all individual performances, and promotions made accordingly.
TROY has still bigger business history ahead of it. The collar and shirt industry has vast markets as yet undeveloped. Nor are all these in foreign lands. The American people are dressing better and better every year—realizing that one royal path to income is the Road of Good Clothes.
Thus the Earl & Wilson ambition is to make its House count big in this Quality Service—to maintain Troy itself the Quality City for Collars and Shirts.