Sherman Textile Company
The Story of HArold Frederick Sherman / 1885-1970
To make a corset you need fasteners (hooks, laces, latches), thread, and supports (pieces of bone, metal, plastic, cork), but above all, you need fabric. To make a spectacular corset that would tempt the woman with a bit of extra money to spend, you need fine fabric of a special quality, texture, print, or color. By 1915 many corset-making endeavors flourished in Worcester, from 1-woman shops to huge factories, but there was no local textile maker serving them. Into the role of specialty fabric supplier to this busy corset town stepped Harold Frederick Sherman.
Born January 26, 1885, Harold grew up in Melrose, Massachusetts with brother Charles, mother Martha, and father William. William was a civil engineer. Both parents came to the Boston area from Rhode Island where Harold would end up living off and on throughout his life. His obituary tells us that he graduated from Melrose High School in the class of 1905 then, as a 16-year-old, “went to work in the experimental division of the Crompton & Knowles Corporation in Worcester.” Crompton & Knowles was then one of the world’s leading manufacturers of looms.
In 1910 he was living in a downtown Worcester boarding house on Wellington Street while he worked as an apprentice in a local textile company. After a few years, we see a detour from his primary life’s occupation when he shows up in the 1915 Rhode Island state census as a 29 year old “druggist” working in a Providence, Rhode Island, retail setting. I suspect he took that as his “day job” while he worked on his master plan in his free time.
Multiple New England newspaper articles reported 1915 activity related to the Royal Linen Mills in Norwich, Connecticut, a property for which Harold held a sizeable mortgage. “The court finds the sum of $13,065 is due from the company to Sherman … The property to be sold includes a large factory and land here near the New Haven railroad.” The Connecticut linen mill appears to have been an early unsuccessful attempt by Sherman to launch a textile company in southern New England. Leaving Connecticut and Rhode Island behind, he returned to Worcester that same year to a job as superintendent at the Dudley Mills Company, a silk and cotton manufacturer (80 Beacon Street). This would be his last stop before self-employment.
Harold F. Sherman Corset Fabrics announced its opening in a 1915 issue of Corset and Underwear Review. That entity soon became the Sherman Textile Company — with “Increased Capacity / Improved Facilities” — which opened for business in 1915 at its first home of 72 Commercial Street in downtown Worcester. A dry goods trade directory of the era (Dockham’s) provides the following details of the company’s start:
capital $25,000 …
cotton and silk corsets fabrics, drapery fabrics,
(jacquard) looms, electric, do not dye, employ 50, buy cotton, silk and artificial silk
In advertisements during this time period Sherman Textile called itself a manufacturer of silk and cotton corset fabrics – brocades, pekins, batistes.
brocade – “a material that is usually richly patterned with intricate designs. These designs could be motifs or iconography, depending on the function of the garment. On the first inspection, the brocade might appear embossed or embroidered, but this effect is a function of the weaving done in the manufacture of the material.” (www.freeneedle.com)
pekin – “a silk fabric in which broad stripes of equal width and in various colors or weaves are alternated.” (www.dictionary.com)
batiste – “a semi-sheer plain-weave fabric that textile manufacturers commonly use to make lightweight garments, lingerie, and bedding. This type of fabric is usually made with cotton.”
While getting a new business off the ground, Harold surely kept an eye on the daily newspaper headlines. War broke out in Europe and the United States eventually decided to become involved. For the owner of a start-up factory, the prospect of a World War must have caused plenty of anxiety. Year Three of a new business is a tough time for disruption, although the war would ultimately be a boon for the American corset industry. Nevertheless, In October of 1918 Harold registered for military service. I find numerous appearances of a Harold F. Sherman on the rosters of the 48th Infantry at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, until 1920 when he would have made his way back to Worcester hoping that the factory was still afloat. Assuming that the Camp Jackson soldier was our Harold, he had left the business in someone’s capable hands as evidenced by the continuation of display advertising in his absence, including this from a 1919 issue of Corset and Underwear Review:
“A word about our Pekin Stripes – Our fabrics are built up of the best yarns – They are not glued to give the required body – They will last as long as the corset and will not wash out in laundering – In Every Way Equal to imported cloths. Let us send you samples.”
Note the American product push: “in every way equal to imported cloths.” David Hale Fanning, one of the founding fathers of the American corset industry, wrote in 1916 that “when the corset industry was started in Worcester, all the corsets used in the United States were made in foreign countries.” In Worcester, corset making began just after the Civil War. For many years, all the corsets sold to American women were imported and thus likely made from non-American materials. The bias toward “foreign is better” on so-called high fashion items took a while to shake off. By the time Harold learns the textile trade, however, the corset industry had a firm footing in the U.S. U.S. manufacturers also now had the advantage of operating on a continent which had not just suffered the physical devastation of World War I.
I came across a 1920 advertisement for a health tonic called “Tanlac,” an ad that speaks further to the consequences of the war in the U.S. Although America was not the site of any World War I battles, gas attacks, or bombings, it welcomed home thousands of men who had lived through all of that overseas. It must have been an extraordinarily challenging time on the mental health front, as we see with the story of Joseph D. Belanger of 58 Austin Street in Worcester who returned home after being gassed in France in 1918:
“After my return home I was in a fearfully rundown condition. I was so nervous that at times I broke down completely and had to be carried home from the shop… At times I was so nervous I shook like a man with the palsy, and I lost weight and was so weak I was constantly losing time from my work.”
The shop in this story was the Sherman Textile factory. The battles were over but their effects lingered on.
At the war’s end, Harold jumped back into the role of president of the company, living at 3 Howe Street in Worcester with wife Marion and infant daughter Mary. He looked to the future. He moved the business to a factory building that still stands at 379 Shrewsbury Street, backing onto rail tracks that could move their product in and out of the city. In that same year the company placed many advertisements in trade journals — among them America’s Textile Reporter, Corset and Underwear Review, and The Silk Reporter — to get the word out. Corset and Underwear Review ran a feature about the business that year which provided nation-wide exposure and included a photo of the recently constructed factory.
An item relevant to the industrial history of Worcester at that time was a simple display ad from the publication Textile World (Jan-Mar 1920). The Sherman Textile Company in Worcester had for sale “2 Crompton & Knowles Looms, heavy worsted, 76″, 8 harness cam, 2×1 box, with individual motors. Now running.” The Crompton & Knowles factory (Harold’s former employer) was located across town from Sherman Textile, barely 2 miles away. The variety of manufacturing in the city was on display as we watch a loom made near Kelly Square going to a textile factory on Shrewsbury Street whose fabrics are going to corset makers all over town.
As did the corset makers, the fabric makers benefitted from Worcester’s extensive rail system. Although I doubt that the trains would have stopped right outside the back of the Sherman Textile building, they certainly could have. The building was situated right on the railroad tracks. And before the many miles of interstate highways stretched across the country, the trains moved the products. Sherman Textile was listed during this time period in the Industrial Directory and Shippers Guide for the New York Central Lines which was headquartered in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The guide’s introduction tells us that the New York Central Lines served more than half the U.S. population, “covering with its own tracks the vast productive district bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and connecting with practically all trunk line railroads inland waterways, and ocean routes.” Out the door of 379 Shrewsbury Street went the batistes, the brocades, the pekins, and onward they travelled to factories across North America and overseas.
By 1922 there were thirty employees at the factory. Two years later, another photo of the business shows us the factory floor in an ad touting the “scientific lighting systems for users of Edison Mazda lamps.” The Sherman Textile Company provided a testimonial, having apparently invested in the technology. “The system of general overhead lighting which you planned for our weave room has been very satisfactory,” they told the General Electric Company. “Quality of work improved, and cheerful conditions have been a help in maintaining a full night crew.” From this we might well assume that the factory was operating 24/7 to meet demand.
In the mid-1920s, the business moved to 54 Commercial Street (a factory building at the time) before changing again in 1927 to 40 Jackson Street, the home of the Ivy Corset Company . Had Harold Sherman brokered a supplier deal with Mary Bowne of Ivy Corset? Once at 40 Jackson, the business name changed to “Sherman Looms Inc.” The Worcester city directory lists Sherman Looms at both of these addresses for some years, with Harold possibly keeping an office in the Ivy Corset building while the manufacturing happened at the downtown Commercial Street location.
The 1930 U.S. Census tells us that Harold was then father of two young girls (Mary, 11, and Margery, 9). He and the family were then living in Northborough, two towns over from Worcester. During the next few years — the Great Depression — the 54 Commercial Street address for the factory disappeared from the city directories with only the Jackson Street address remaining. I find mention of the business in a 1934 article about a New England textile mill workers strike during which “fifty of the less than 100 workers failed to show up for work” at the Sherman Textile Company. By 1935, Sherman Looms Inc. shows an address at 156 Institute Road – a residential neighborhood. The following year, the business disappeared completely from the city directories. The Depression and labor unrest might have been its undoing, in conjunction with many changes in how women were dressing and what types of fabrics were used for their undergarments.
Harold died on July 24, 1970, at Union Hospital in Fall River. His obituary in The Providence Sunday Journal describes his life after Worcester, citing a move to Pawtucket in the mid-1930s where he opened one business that made elastic webbing (Harold F. Sherman, Inc.) and another that made textiles (Harold F. Sherman Textile Corporation). It also claims that he “invented many methods of weaving specialty materials;” is he another patent holder in our City of Corsets story? (read more about patent holder Mary Bowne in the profile of the Ivy Corset Company ) It reports on cutting edge work for him later in life, at the time of his death:
In recent years, Mr. Sherman operated a plant where specialized weaving was done. It was here that webbing used in the space suits worn by astronauts in recent moonshots was produced.
The Providence Sunday Journal, July 26 1970.
From corset factories that needed custom fabric to NASA suppliers needing specific aerospace materials, to the end, Harold was identifying needs and meeting them with manufacturing. His life story includes stops at many of the main markers of the 20th century: from the first World War to the prosperity of the 1920s into the Great Depression, ending with exploration of outer space. He is another example of the persistence, intelligence, and innovation that drove Worcester’s corset industry.