Wilson Bros. Shirt Co.
South Bend, IN

“Makes a Gift Men Appreciate,” bragged one old ad for Wilson Brothers. “I don’t know about the shirts,” I thought as I gingerly skirted the edge of a hole from the second floor to the basement, “but I appreciate this place more than it can know.”

A Captive Audience of One

The huge snowfalls of 2011 brought new collapses across the buildings.
The huge snowfalls of 2011 brought new collapses across the buildings.

It was a time in my life when I felt marooned; hundreds of miles away from friends, but thankful for a my car and ample free time. All I had to fill my time was an infinite supply of abandoned industrial husks and an equally infinite amount of studying to do–I was supposed to be learning ancient Latin full-time. Wilson Bros and neighboring Studebaker formed a compromise; I would pack my backpack full of reading and declension charts, set up camp on a roof or near a smokestack, and sit for hours making the ancient era and industrial revolution fight for my attention.

Luckily for my professors, Wilson Brothers was a simple place in macro. Mostly empty wooden buildings that smelled of pine and light grease. Occasionally a gust of wind would set the scary skyways in motion, filling the industrial courtyard with the sound of a metal trashcan falling down a flight of stairs, but usually it was peaceful. As I experimented with different ‘study squats’, I began to notice more of the micro details. Workers’ initials carved into the beams, sometimes next to little stick figure drawings. I felt their messages were always the same: we just wanted you to know that we were here.

The simple messages, this industrial graffiti, could not be reconciled with the empty space around them, though. At least, not if I was to be their captive audience. I began to learn more.

After Wilson Bros moved out, a furniture company moved in.
After Wilson Bros moved out, a furniture company moved in. Note the graffiti on the machine.

Socks by Two Thousand Seamstresses

Wilson Brothers Shirt Company began not too far away in Chicago, Illinois in 1893, but moved to South Bend (the rumor goes) when the company heads learned of the unemployed female population in Indiana around the new Studebaker plant.

The textile industry generally relied on female labor in that era, so while the husband was in the steel works or truck plant, his wife could earn extra money sewing grain bags shut. Or, as was the case for thousands of women of South Bend, assembling socks, pajamas, shirts, dresses, and underwear.

An excellent view into one of the many sewing rooms, circa 1920s. Note forms for dresses around the room and oil lamps.
An excellent view into one of the many sewing rooms, circa 1920s. Note forms for dresses around the room and oil lamps.
Hand painted fire extinguisher notices and a long room which I strongly suspect was a pattern cutting room.
Hand painted fire extinguisher notices and a long room which I strongly suspect was a pattern cutting room.

Before the thousands of workers—and the truckloads of underwear— the Wilsons spent a short time working out of the local post office, but soon they hired a local firm, Robert, Hoban & Roach, to build a dedicated factory building. The first of many, this building was two stories high and was opened in 1883.

Expansion was steady, and by the 1930s more than 2,200 women worked in the plant, now encompassing 7 large brick buildings built across the street from the Southern swath of Studebaker, the most well-known industrial presence in South Bend.

From Fixture to Failure

Behind the factory was an old truck, blocked in by overgrown trees on one side and the buildings on the other.
Behind the factory was an old truck, blocked in by overgrown trees on one side and the buildings on the other.

Business for Wilson Brothers was steady through the World Wars; the factory even won some war contracts to manufacture clothes for the soldiers. In the 1950s, however, lack of cheap labor forced the company to merge with a Kentucky company, Enro Shirts. This did not save Wilson Brothers, however, and in 1975 the factory closed.

Since then, some of the buildings were used to store and sell mattresses, and a discount lumber company ironically used the carpentry building as an office for years. Not much has changed architecturally since these buildings were constructed, though, other than the removal of a skyway, the boiler house, and an engineer’s office.

One of the oldest buildings had a wide central staircase with well worn steps. They were utilitarian and beautiful.
One of the oldest buildings had a wide central staircase with well worn steps. They were utilitarian and beautiful.

2015 Disassembly-demolition begins

In 2007, a company bought the property to salvage its bricks and wood. That work began in 2015, so the buildings that once bordered Studebaker (now demolished) will be slowly disappearing to repair their contemporaries across the country. Wilson Brothers will not be lost, per say, but recycled to save other 19th century buildings–isn’t that a beautiful ending? Read more here.

Sew & Sew/Behind the Seams:

Worker News Bulletins of The Wilson Brothers Plant

I had the opportunity to buy a stack of Wilson Bros. internal workers’ news bulletins a few years ago. I scanned them so that anyone, now, can glimpse into the life at this plant. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do:

February, 1935

March 1953

May 1953

August 1953

 

References »

  • Anderson, First, and First Cooley. South Bend and the men who have made it. South Bend: Tribune Printing Co., 1901. http://books.google.com/books?id=aC8VAAAAYAAJ (accessed May 11, 2012).
  • Historic Sites and Structures Inventory. South Bend: Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, 2007.
  • Kepshire, T. (2004, January 9). Wilson brothers shirt company. Retrieved from http://www.monon.monon.org/sobend/wilson.html
  • Report of the State Superintendent. New York: New York (State). Dept. of Public Instruction, 1897. http://books.google.com/books?id=WUI_AAAAYAAJ (accessed May 12, 2012).
  • Wilson brothers shirt factory . (2010, December). Retrieved from http://www.centerforhistory.org/learn-history/business-history/wilson-brothers-shirt-factory