I recently added twenty-two copies of swimsuit maker Cole of California’s company newsletter from the 1960s to my archive. I have found old newsletters before, as it was a pretty common practice for large companies to share news of the company and workers this way. The pulp and paper factory in my hometown had a newsletter called Chips (get it; wood pulp made from wood chips). Puns must have been popular in naming newsletters, as Cole’s was called Cole Cuts.
Like most of the company newsletters I’ve seen, Cole Cuts was a gossipy, amateurish affair. The covers were usually cut and pasted motivational content from other sources, but the interior content reveals a wealth of information about Cole and its workers. The pay must have been fairly decent, because many of the employees took vacations across the country, and even to Europe. Every month there was a listing of who was driving new cars!
Cole of California actually started as the West Coast Manchester Knitting Mills, a maker of men’s long johns. When the owners’ son, Fred Cole, joined the family business in the mid 1920s, he switched over to making knit bathing suits. The biggest change came in 1936 when Cole hired designer Margit Fellegi to design bathing suits with a California/Hollywood look. In 1937 they added clothes to match the bathing suits: skirts, jackets, and dresses.
In each newsletter there is a profile of a long term employee. In telling this employee’s story, a lot of company history is revealed. For instance, one profile mentioned that in the late 1930s scraps of fabric left over from the cutting of the clothes were used to make matching shoes. Most interestingly, most of the workers profiled started working at Cole in 1942 or 1943. They joined Cole to make parachutes for the war effort, and ended up staying at Cole after the war work ended.
Also interesting is what the newsletter does not say. In twenty-two issues I could find only one mention of Fred Cole, and that was in a profile of his daughter Anne Cole. I don’t have every issue, so surely his death in 1964 was mentioned, but by and large, he goes unnoted.
On the other hand, the designer Fred Cole hired to remake Cole’s image, Margit Fellegi, is mentioned in most issues. During WWII Fellegi designed the Swoon Suit. It was two pieces, and was held together with laces on the side of the trunks. No rubber was used due to wartime restrictions. My suit above is not a true Swoon Suit, but is a tamer post-war version.
In 1965, the newsletter compared the public’s reaction to the Swoon Suit to the most recent Fellegi creation – the Scandal Suit . The Scandal Suit was mentioned a lot in 1964 and 1965.
That’s Margit Fellegi on the left, along with assistant designer Barbara Meyer, in December of 1967. By that time Cole had five divisions, all with a design staff. Their top of the line was the misses department, along with sportswear and juniors, and two separate labels, Sandcastle and Sea Star. Sea Star was actually made for and sold by Sears.
From reading Cole Cuts and looking at the many photos of workers, I was amazed at the diverseness of the staff. In the tidbits about workers, it often mentioned from where the employee came. Cole had workers from across the globe and the USA. There were many Hispanic workers, especially at their plant in Pico. In fact, the news from Pico was printed in Spanish.
My newsletters date from 1964 to 1969. By reading carefully one can begin to see hints of big changes ahead. The newsletter above brags about automation coming to Cole, but over the years automation has led to the elimination of thousands of jobs in manufacturing. And in one revealing note from 1968, we can see the beginnings of manufacturing moving off shore. Two company executives visited Japan and Hong Kong “where they visited factories who are manufacturing certain items in our lines, and also looked for new fabrics…”
Cole of California was first sold in 1960, to Kayser-Roth. Since then it has changed hands several times, and today you can still buy a Cole bathing suit. I imagine that the folksy newsletter is long, long gone though. And I wonder what happened to their archive.