After I posted those great ads from John Meyer of Norwich last week, I hope you will be pleased to read a bit more about the company. Today I have an interview with Elise Meyer, the daughter of the owner, John Meyer. Elise is a collector with a mission – to learn about and share the story of her family’s company. Her collection is now on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Elise’s interview is interesting not just from a family history perspective. It gives a great glimpse into the world of American garment manufacturing in the mid 20th century.
1. The story of John Meyer of Norwich actually begins with your grandfather, Issac Meyer. Tell us about him and the garment company he started with his brothers.
Isaac Meyer, the father of John Meyer, was born in May 1894 on “Orchard Street second floor in the sink”, according to family lore, on the famed Lower East Side of Manhattan to parents who, like almost 2,000,000 other Ashkenazic Jews, emigrated from Russia, Germany, Lithuania, and other parts of Northern Europe seeking refuge from genocidal Pogroms. Armed only with needle skills they brought with them from the Old Country, many who settled in New York City grew the garment industry with a willingness to work hard and the desire to succeed.
Soon, Isaac, his parents Morris and Minnie, and four older brothers, and a brother-in-law had left the squalor of the Lower East Side, and according to the 1910 Census, were living at 1143 Herkimer Street, Brooklyn. By 1915 the American sons of Russian- born Morris Meyer, (a “truckman”), had started a company called Meyer Bros. located in a new cast iron factory building at 48 Walker Street, right below Canal Street, the epicenter of the Dry Goods Market of the time.
The company manufactured men’s trousers, and supplied other factories with “Gray (Greige) Goods” or, fabric freshly off the loom before any finishing, printing, or dyeing processes were done. Twenty-year-old Isaac, known for his charm and good looks was a travelling salesman and spent most of his time on the road, taking orders for the manufacturing side of the business, and buying textile lots that were then sent to New York for sale to other businesses .
2. The Meyer Brothers’ factory was located in Manhattan’s dry goods district. Is the building still there today? Did you always know the location of the building, or did you have to re-find it while doing your research?
Finding the address of the company was a delightful surprise, I found it in an old trade directory.
3. How did the Meyer family come to leave New York and move to Connecticut?
Unfortunately the economic woes of the Great Depression did not spare the Meyer Bros. Family letters from years after the 1929 stock market crash indicate that everyone was still working hard, but having invested heavily in the stock market, trading on each others’ stock tips, suffered the fate of many. Grandmother Anita’s cousins wrote letters trading horror stories about suicides and destitution, and most of the girl cousins went to work as bookkeepers and stenographers, and encouraged each other to do as best they could under the circumstances.
But the interesting part of the story– one that I never knew before I began my research – was that after the death of Harry Meyer (one of the Meyer Bros.) his widow sued the other brothers with the hope of taking on her dead husband’s role in the business. She lost the lawsuit, but I can surmise that the pressures were too great on the partnership.
4. After the brothers dissolved their partnership in the mid 1930s, what was Isaac Meyer’s next business venture?
The 1929 city Directory of Norwich, Connecticut shows Isaac Meyer (alone) living on Fairmount Street, the same street on which Philip Gottesfeld, a tailor, is living.
The exact details are lost to history, but the 1933 Directory lists Philip Gottesfeld Pants Manufacturers on 37 Chestnut Street (the same building later known as 242 Franklin Street). The evidence suggests that Isaac Meyer, travelling frequently to the mills around Norwich to arrange orders for the family business in New York, took a residence in Norwich, perhaps as a base for business trips to the dozens of important fabric mills in the area. And, the 1935 directory shows that “Ike’s” future son-in-law, Karl Meyerowitz (soon to change to Meyers) a German Jew whose family went to great lengths to arrange his immigration to America as Hitler rose to power, was living in Norwich also, with the stated profession of “salesman” in that year’s directory suggesting that he and Isaac were working together.
Gottesfeld and Meyer started G&M manufacturing together.
5. How and when did your father, John Meyer, enter into business with his father?
In January of 1949, after serving in the Navy in WWII, John Meyer joined his father as salesman and merchandise manager.
In an effort to change the distribution of the G & M line of pants and jackets, John steered the company to manufacture a better quality of clothes, designed for the more upscale university clientele, and began to sell to stores in New England university towns. This new direction proved successful, and the company became specialists in the “Ivy League” style. They began to produce a high-quality line that was carefully tailored and fabricated in high-quality fabrics, that positioned their line in an exclusive niche.
Meanwhile, John Meyer met the beautiful and stylish Arlene Hochman. Arlene, a Brooklyn native, was a student at nearby Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. She was an English poetry major and a talented artist who had attended the famous High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. Like her collegiate peers, Arlene liked shopping the boy’s department of Brooks Brothers for scaled down collegiate staples like Bermuda shorts and button-down shirts.
6. At what point did G&M switch over from men’s trousers to women’s apparel?
Together my parents approached Isaac with the idea of manufacturing “walking shorts” for women, after Jean Higgins from the Fred Atkins company, (a buying office that represented and consulted to the biggest and best department stores and specialty retailers) met with John Meyer in the fall of 1955, and agreed that it was a great idea.
7. Describe the women’s clothing made by G&M.
That year, the G. & M. Manufacturing Co., Inc. made their first women’s items. A flyer excitedly proclaimed; “ A menswear manufacturer producing completely man-tailored Ivy-League Type BERMUDA SHORTS and TAPERED PANTS FOR WOMEN! ALL in washable fabrics!” The shorts had a strap in the back, a buttoned back pocket, no pleats, and a fly front with a hook and eye closure. They came in three plaids (Black Watch, scarlet and green, and green and white) and three solids in flannel and cotton poplin, made of new wash-and-wear fabrics that had recently come on the market.
Because of their popularity, thanks to the quality and fine fabrics, the stores pressured for more women’s items, and soon the women’s business was growing fast. There was no competition in the field, as menswear for women’s sportswear was a brand new market. With their first New Yorker magazine ad in February, 1960, they took the market by storm. The company quickly developed a reputation for quality and originality of design.
8. After your grandfather, Isaac Meyer died in 1957, your father took the family company in a new direction, which included a name change. Can you tell us the hows and whys of this change?
After Ike Meyer’s death in 1957, John Meyer took over as president of the company, and immediately started importing fine Shetland wools and cottons from Europe and the British Isles, sourced during trips to Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Italy. And, of course, to India, where a relationship with the leading Madras mill was cemented. Philip Gottesfeld sold his share of the business, and went on to do other things. I have spoken to his son.
In 1960 the name of the company was changed to John Meyer of Norwich, which reflected the New Englander’s pride in craftsmanship and his flair for advertising too. Soon the company was making sweaters to match the skirts, and shirt-waist dresses and shirts, made from Liberty of London prints from England were added to the line.
By then they had found an eager market in college girls and “young suburbanites” who found that the clothes expressed their lifestyle… easy for Mr. and Mrs. Meyer who were living the country life as well. It was the all-American look for the all-American girl. The clothing as John Meyer would have said “Hit the spot”.
They decided to change the name to John Meyer of Norwich to express the “country life” marketing angle of the clothing, and the Ivy League appeal. Also, my father was an extremely charismatic man, and soon he was making store appearances with the announcement, “Yes, Virginia, there really is a John Meyer of Norwich”
9. John Meyer of Norwich clothing is strongly associated with a certain lifestyle. I can remember that the brand was sold only at the very best clothing store in my town. How was the “branding” of the company managed? Did your father set out to give the company an image of Ivy League, or preppy?
They were very selective about the shops that would carry the line, and wanted to have their own department in the shops, so people could easily build the outfits of the matching components. It was very affiliated with the Ivy League look. In an interview my dad said, “We don’t sit in an office and wonder what someone would wear to Derby Day at Yale, or to the Regatta. We’ve been there, we know”. My parents were very proper, and believed that good manners in dress and behavior were very important.
10. You were a child during John Meyer of Norwich’s strongest years. Did you and your brother and sister have any input into the company and the clothing?
On weekend trips to our ski house in Vermont, our parents would show us samples of colors, and we would help name them. I remember my brother seeing a dark pink and saying “razzleberry”. The name stayed. I apprenticed at the factory from the time I was 12 for a couple of years, but by then my father was quite ill, and the company had been sold to W.R. Grace. As the oldest child I would occasionally accompany my parents for a fashion show or other event. Most of my clothing was scaled-down versions of the dresses in the line. They had a very successful dress called “the Lisa Dress” that came from a dress my mother designed, and had made up for me. I am wearing it in this photo:
11. Another company that seems to have had the same target audience as John Meyer was Villager. Was there a relationship between the two companies?
In the early days, my parents and Max and Mary Raab from Villager shared an office and a showroom in New York City. John Meyer made the “hard goods”; skirts, pants, suits, coats, etc. and Villager made the cotton blouses and dresses to match the colors of each season. At a certain point Villager decided they could do it all on their own and the companies went their own ways.
12. How much do think the changing political climate of the late 1960s affected the company?
The youth revolution was an important turning point in the company, when people started wearing jeans and hippie attire (myself included!) things got hard, and the college and youth market turned away from the traditional looks, and indeed, away from anything that looked like their parents’ generation. The name was changed to just John Meyer to downplay the country-club image, and the lines of 1969 and 1970 showed some very funky looks- tapestry long skirts and vests, patchwork velvet and bell bottom pants. How Sgt. Pepper is this?
13. Your father sold his company in 1969, but continued as president of the company until his death in 1974. What happened to John Meyer of Norwich then?
My father was diagnosed with a rare and virulent cancer when he was only 43, and battled it until his death at the age of 50. Around 1969 he started Jones New York, which was taken over by Sidney Kimmel, and the John Meyer of Norwich label was sold several times, finally being acquired by Judy’s Group, who produce women’s wear under that label today, although the attitude or the style of the today’s line is not at all reflective of the ideals or look for which the company was known under my parents.
14. You told me that you did not have any of your original John Meyer of Norwich clothing, but now you have amassed a great collection. How were you able to assemble such a comprehensive collection?
Etsy! Ebay! Vintage shows and shops!… I am the goddess of google… some of my best finds have resulted from googling various misspellings!. It does seem fascinating to me that the world of online vintage clothing shopping is a cottage industry not at all unlike the piecework and home sewing that supported families in the early days of the garment manufacturing industry. The wife of one of the salesmen of the company made a quilt with samples of some of the cotton goods, and using that I was able to ascertain the “provenance” of some dresses and blouses.
15. What about the company archives? Did any of it survive the closing of the company?
Not that I have found, although I have an album of the press clippings and newspaper articles.
16. Do you have any pieces with a Meyer Brothers or a G&M label?
I don’t– I WISH I did. I have one pair of very early walking shorts with a John Meyer of Norwich label, and another pair that looks and feels exactly like the description in the 1956 tear- sheet, but it has no label. I would be so appreciative if any of your readers could help provide this missing piece of the history!
17. Any additional thoughts you’d like to share?
Going into this project I was hoping to preserve a bit of the history of the company– because I realized if I did not do it, nobody every would. I never expected that the archive would lead to my historical discoveries. I was only 19 when my father died, and he and my mother worked non-stop. I really didn’t know that much about them, and was eager to learn more, but my mother, who died about five years ago, never really wanted to talk about those days– she was widowed with three teenagers at the age of 42! I understand that it was hard for her to look back at their amazing achievements in the nine short years between that first pair of shorts and the sale of the company.
My thanks to Elise for such a great interview, and for the use of her photographs. And if anyone come across one of those elusive Meyer Brothers or a G&M labels, please be in touch so I can refer you to Elise.