One of the great, but lesser-known California swimwear makers of the 20th century was Gantner-Mattern. Like most of the makers of swimsuits, they started out as makers of knitwear – stockings, underwear, and sporting sweaters. By the turn of the century, they were making the swimsuits that made them famous.
The company got its start in San Francisco in 1877 at the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company. By the late 1890s, two employees, corporate secretary John O. Gantner and mill superintendent Alfred Mattern had left Pfister to start their own knitting company. That was lucky for them because the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed the Pfister operation, while Gantner-Mattern was located in a safe area. Pfister was able to rebuild with the help of two friends, but it is not known if the friends in question were actually Gantner and Mattern.
Swimwear quickly became the main product at Gantner-Mattern. In the first days of the 20th century, swimming was becoming increasingly popular, and with the purchase of a Gantner-Mattern swimsuit, one got a free pair of waterwings to help the buyer learn to swim, or at least stay afloat! In 1932, Gantner-Mattern was the first company to produce a topless swimsuit – for men! Yes, it was still considered indecent in many places for a man to swim without a tank top in the early 1930s, but before long this quaint old custom was only a memory.
Like most advertising literature from the early 1940s, this catalog from Gantner makes many references to the war, though it doesn’t mention shortages. That’s probably because the catalog was actually produced in 1942, before shortages became so acute in the US.
I had a fun time researching this label. Most of the entries were for the many lawsuits that the company was involved in – price fixing after the war, not paying a former employee for work completed before he quit – the sort of thing that always bugged the clothing industry. But most interesting was a reference to a strike in 1940, where women wore bathing suits and held placards at a union convention to show solidarity with locked-out workers at Gantner.
And here is a nice sampling from the catalog, including a good look at that famous men’s Wikie.