Sunday, May 11, 2014

Real Silk Stockings: Stockings for the World from a Corner of Indianapolis

Real Silk Buildings are now condominium lofts. 
In the 1920s and 1930s, Real Silk Hosiery Company was a multinational firm sheathing the legs of ladies across most of the developed world in its famous stockings. From an ever-expanding mill complex in downtown Indianapolis they sold literally millions of real silk (hence the name) and lesser quality stockings through a vast International network of salesmen.

The Real Silk Company collection of the Indiana Historical Society contains the records of a firm that began its Indianapolis life in the early 1920s. Brothers, J. A. and L. L. Goodman, had previously operated the Goodman Hosiery Mills in Burlington, North Carolina where they had produced cotton and “mercerized seamless hosiery,” according to a report from the North Carolina Department of Labor since at least as early as 1918.

In 1921 the brothers, through their attorney, began to purchase property in the area around Noble (now College) and Walnut streets in downtown Indianapolis. In this era before zoning prohibited mixing heavy industry into the city’s residential areas, a potential mill location just off bustling Massachusetts Avenue, with nearby railroad access, was a great choice for these two young entrepreneurs hoping to expand their hosiery empire.

The Baist map shows Liberty Street lined with small frame residences in 1916.  Records show that the Goodmans bought lots from several individuals, eventually demolishing the houses to make room for their new plant. By 1927, the Real Silk Hosiery Company occupied most of the block on the west side of College between North St. and Mass Ave.

By this time Real Silk dominated the upscale hosiery market in the U. S. The company was also practicing a form of silk diplomacy, spreading American-made hosiery across the developed world.  Folder after folder of contracts signed in the 1920s fill the boxes of the historical society’s collection.  Contracts between salesmen from France, Argentina, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, among others, required that the orders were paid for upfront, sometimes with loans that the company made to the salesman at interest.

The contracts forbade independent salesmen from selling wholesale to retail establishments. They may have had exclusive sales of the product in their country, but each pair of stockings had to be sold door-to-door-- at a price prescribed by the company. And these were not cheap stockings.

Prices in the contract for Jesus Matas Barrie and Juan Garcia Vidal, the Mexico salesmen in 1925, ranged from $17.50 per dozen for “All silk full fashioned service weight hose” to $4.50 per dozen for “Ladies’ Lisle [cotton].” And the “representative” had to pay shipping charges. And every year after the fourth year of being contracted with Real Silk, the salesman had to increase his orders by 10 percent. 

Real Silk boomed through the 1920s. In addition to foreign salesmen, the company had a raft of domestic salespersons in the thousands. In Chicago, for instance, they sold, and perhaps manufactured, hosiery through the Trojan Hosiery Mills.

Then the Great Depression hit and hit hard. Stocking sales didn’t have a leg to stand on in these years when work was hard to find and bills were hard to meet. And the tough times expanded around the globe. 

Real Silk couldn’t sell enough stockings to pay the bills. According to the “Encyclopedia of Indianapolis” a bank committee took control of the company in the 1930s.  Then, in 1932, Gustave Efroymson, formerly the president of H. P. Wasson & Co., was elected president of Real Silk.

Two years after Efroymson took the helm employees at Real Silk went out on strike. Violence marked the negotiations (or lack thereof), resulting ultimately in the arrest of 16 strikers and intervention of the National Labor Relations Board to arbitrate the strike.  Although the strike eventually resolved and personnel went back to work, the company never regained its prominence in the hosiery market. 

World War II brought boom times back to the hosiery firm. Silk was requisitioned for the armed forces but Real Silk, like many manufacturing firms, converted to war time manufacturing. The firm produced parachutes used in dropping bombs, as well as socks for both men and women serving in the armed forces.
Shortly after the war ended, Gustave Efroymson died in 1946. And a brief increase in profits deflated in the 1950s.
Robert Efroymson took over the firm after his father’s death and by 1957 had closed all the manufacturing locations, including the huge complex at Park and College avenues in downtown Indianapolis.
Real Silk continued door-to-door sales of stockings and other items for years after the manufacturing arm of the business closed. In the meantime Robert Efroymson sold the manufacturing equipment and registered the company as an investment firm.

In 1961 what was left of the hosiery business became Realsilk, Inc. The manufacturing buildings on Park Avenue were converted into a printing center which for several years housed a number of different printing businesses.  Beginning in 1986, the brick buildings, with their casement windows that once illuminated machines weaving silk stockings, were converted into apartments and condominiums.   

********Originally published in May 2014 "Urban Times Newspaper"


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