A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
We all know that they used to make things here in Brooklyn, but it’s rather mind-boggling how much manufacturing went on in neighborhoods that are now largely residential. Clinton Hill is a fine example. We know that there was a lot of manufacturing going in in the Wallabout area, but in reality, factory and warehouse buildings did not end at Park or Myrtle Avenue, they continued on to DeKalb and in places, beyond. The area around Pratt Institute was very industrial, which made sense, as many of the Pratt Institute’s students were headed towards careers in industries of all sorts. What better place to put an industrial institution but in the heart of the city’s industry?
One might also think that this industry died in the early 20th century, but that too would be a fallacy. Many of the factories around Pratt were going strong until after World War II, and on into the 1960s. In fact, the war gave many of them more business than they had ever had, depending on what they produced. We’re not talking small businesses, either. Some of these companies were huge, with large manufacturing facilities, some of which consumed blocks, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of space. One of the largest of these was the Julius Kayser Company, located on Taaffe Place, between DeKalb and Willoughby Avenues.
The Julius Kayser Company had its origins upstate. Julius Kayser was the son of German Jewish immigrants, and was born in New York City in 1838. In 1879, he and a partner, Jacob Lowenstine, went into business making cotton gloves for women. Their first factory was in Hornell, NY, a town in Steuben County, in western NY, near the Pennsylvania border. How they ended up out there is anyone’s guess, it’s pretty remote.
A year into their business, they began making silk gloves, and their business took off. They designed and manufactured the delicate gloves that women wore to dinner, parties, the opera, and other social events. The eveningwear of the time was often sleeveless, and full length gloves were de rigeur for the well-dressed woman. They also had beautiful styles and a superior product.
What set them apart from other glove manufacturers were Julius Kayser’s innovative reinforced fingertips that Kayser invented and patented. The reinforcement was invisible, and Kayser gloves lasted much longer than many other brands. The gloves came with a money back guarantee certificate, and the company soon grew well beyond the confines of the Hornell factory.
By the late 1880s, he was back in New York, in a factory on Taaffe Place, a few blocks east of the Pratt Institute campus. Taaffe was called Graham Street, at that time. From the maps, we can see that the large plant, which took up more than half of the block, had multiple looms, a dyeing room and multiple sewing and cutting floors, as well as a shipping room. It was one of the larger factory buildings in the area.
By 1911, the company had grown, both here in Brooklyn, as well as elsewhere throughout the country. Kayser’s patented reinforced fingers had made him a household name, and a rich man. He incorporated, and began introducing new products. In addition to gloves, the company also made ladies’ underwear, swimwear and hosiery. They began producing a line of Italian silk underwear, veils, and other lingerie. The goods sold in the finest stores in America and overseas. The company began advertising everywhere, even outside of the United States, in Canada, France, England, Germany, Italy and South America. They soon had more business than they could imagine.
Here in Brooklyn, he expanded the Taaffe Place factory. He built another large mill building directly across the street on Taaffe Place, one almost as large as the first. In 1913, there were 2,500 people working in Brooklyn, alone. By 1929 he had expanded to include even more buildings facing Kent Avenue. The flagship Brooklyn complex was huge.
He also expanded his factory capacity outside of New York City, and by 1916, there were 14 mills all over the country, employing over 7,500 people. By the 1920s, that number was even larger. Many of the mills were in upstate New York, and were often the largest employer in medium sized towns and small cities like Hornell, and also Walton, Sidney, Owego, Schenectady, Binghamton, Amsterdam, Syracuse, Buffalo, Monticello and Rockville Center.
The Brooklyn Eagle is full of advertisements from the Kayser Company, both ads for its gloves and other products, and also large help wanted ads. They touted themselves as a great company to work for, with generous salaries, and a great future. Most of their employees were young women. In spite of advertising that it was easy to learn how to do the jobs there, the fact of the matter is that spinning is a dangerous job where one needs to be constantly alert and quick, or you can lose fingers or even a hand. The dying works were toxic, and the sewing jobs were backbreaking and eye-straining.
There were several strikes over the years at both the Brooklyn and upstate plants. Yet, Mr. Kayser was known to be a generous boss, who was well loved by the workers, and who instituted many programs within his factories for recreation, holidays, savings clubs, bonuses and incentives. He also gave very generously to many charities, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Hebrew Hospital, and other Jewish and non-Jewish charities.
Julius Kayser lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at 18 East 71st Street, a six-story limestone townhouse with 28 rooms, seven baths and an electric elevator. He moved there in 1911, with his wife, Henrietta, unmarried daughter Alice, and staff. In 1920, after coming home from the theater with Henrietta, Julius Kayser suffered a massive heart attack and died in his home. He was 82. In his will, he left generous gifts to his favorite charities, as well as to all of his household staff. Henrietta held onto the house until her death in 1943. A year later, their two daughters sold the house.
The Julius Kayser Corporation continued with a new president and director. They continued to dominate their market, and remained one of the largest gloves and accessories companies. In the 1930s, Kayser began opening retail stores, the first being in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue in the shopping district. It was soon followed by others across the country. The Art Moderne store was famous for its black mirrored surface and sleek modern design.
By the 1950s, the company was still growing, and under new board management began acquiring other companies. They bought Catalina Inc., which made women’s swimwear, and the Corrette Corporation, which produced women’s petticoats and slips. Kayser was now one of the largest apparel and accessories companies in the entire country. More companies were acquired, and a new headquarters was established in Manhattan, with all of the lines of the company under one roof in their building at 425 Fifth Avenue.
In 1958, the company bought the Chester Roth Company, maker of many things, including Supp-Hose, the most popular brand of support stockings. The new company was called Kayser-Roth. In the 1970s, looking at a huge market loss for their products, they introduced a new brand of hosiery to compete with the L’eggs brand, made by Hanes. This new brand of pantyhose was sold in drugstores and supermarkets, and was made with a new formula of nylon thread that produced a superior stretch and fit. The hose was called No Nonsense, and it saved their corporate bacon for another 30 years.
Eventually, the company was bought out in 1999 by Golden Lady of Florence, Italy. They are the largest hosiery company in Europe. Today, Kayser-Roth manufactures the popular Hue line of hosiery, among a multitude of other products. They are still in business, after 135 years. But not in Brooklyn.
As so often happens, the closure of factories and plants often goes unreported. I don’t know when Kayser left their Brooklyn complex, although there are mentions of the plant in the early 1950s. The factory buildings on Taaffe Place and the building that faces Kent Avenue are now all apartment buildings. It’s rather amazing that most of the Kayser complex is intact. They are all great looking factory buildings, especially the oldest building at 226 Taaffe Place.
As for the postcard that started this search, as seen on the left? It’s actually a bit misleading. The buildings in the foreground are Julius Kayser factories. That’s Kent Avenue in the foreground, with Taaffe Place to the left, and the two factories that face each other. But none of the rest of the factory buildings portrayed in the picture belonged to Kayser. They were big, but not that big; they are all other factories belonging to other industries. I also suspect some of them never existed, except in the artist’s imagination. He also embellished quite a bit with the hills in the background. Who knew the rolling hills of Manhattan were so close?