Black (Black Bear Brand) Manufacturing Company Historical Highlights/Timeline

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I received a call from a local Seattle gentlemen about 6 months ago (Jack Colins... who's 80 years young). Here's a great example of what curiosity... it's agelessness and it's ability to connect people... 

"I just completed the history (below) of what was one of the most significant manufacturing businesses in Seattle history. George Black, the founder of the company should be celebrated, not only for his economic success, but also for his sensitivity to the needs of his employees. He was one of the great contributors to Seattle, as is Josh Sirlin, who is continuing the brand and many of the traditions of the company."

- Jack Collins

This is an historical story of a very successful Seattle company, Black Manufacturing. It is about its people, particularly the founder, George G. Black, and a long-time employee, Catherine Z. Collins. It is also about their employee-friendly manufacturing building and their well-made and popular clothing.

The project was inspired by Josh Sirlin, who currently owns Seattle-based Black Manufacturing and the Black Bear brand and is continuing the tradition of manufacturing and selling high quality clothing.

The story relies heavily on articles, photographs and advertisements in the Seattle Daily Times, a staff report recommending landmark designation of the Black building by the Landmark Preservation Board, and two contemporary volumes of Seattle and King County history by Clarence Bagley.

Black Family

George G. Black, the founder of the Black Manufacturing Company, was born in May 1867, in Kentucky. His father, F. David Black, was 52, and his mother, Permelia, was 39.

George Black was employed in wholesale and dry goods and in the manufacturing of working clothes in Chicago. Later, in Oklahoma, he learned about the retail clothing business. He arrived in Seattle in 1900 and was associated with McDougall and Southwick, a major retail apparel store.

In 1902, he organized and began operations in Seattle as the George G. Black Overall Manufacturing Company in the Smith Building at the corner of First Avenue and Jackson Street. The first factory operated in a 20' by 30' room on an upper floor. It contained a cutting room, six sewing machines, a shipping department, and the office.

Three months after beginning operations, a fire destroyed the Smith Building. Although there was a total loss of materials and manufactured product, there were no personal losses. Mr. Black estimated the loss at $7,000, and there was insurance in the amount of $2,000.

George G. Black, the founder, president, and general manager, was sole owner of the business until 1907, when his cousin, J. C. Black, who was appointed secretary and treasurer, joined him.

Also in the summer of 1907, the Seattle Daily Times reported that,“Mr. George G. Black entertained a party of his friends on Saturday at his summer home on Alki Point. He was assisted in his duties as host by Mrs. Curtis and Miss Curtis, who are spending the summer at the Baker Hotel. Mrs. Baker chaperoned the party, the additional members of which were Miss Millard, Miss Sengfelder, Miss Georgie Smith, Dr. F.A. Black, Mr. Robert Hill and Mr. Joseph Black, who is home on his vacation from Yale. The afternoon was spent cruising on board the yacht Hydia, followed by dancing at Mr. Black’s cottage, ‘Lonesomehurst.’”(Seattle Daily Times,” August 7, 1907, p. 8.)

Two years after the party mentioned above, chaperoned by Mrs. Curtis, George Black married a woman who would serve in that role for the rest of his life. According to their marriage certificate, he married Sadie Dorsey Brown in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 3, 1909. Mrs. Black’s first name on the certificate is “Sadie,” but all of the references to her in Seattle refer to her as “Sarah.”

On February 7, 1927, George Black was reported in the Seattle Daily Times to be in “grave condition” in Swedish Hospital. Mr. Black had failed to rally after a surgical operation performed three weeks earlier.

The death notice the next day in the Times noted: “George G. Black, aged 59 years, beloved husband of Mrs. Sarah Black, father of Nancy Dorsey Black and uncle of Dr. F.A. Black. Remains at the family residence, 3028 Cascadia Ave. Funeral services at the residence, Wednesday at 1 o’clock. Friends invited. Private internment. Bonney-Watson Co. Funeral directors.”

In his History of King County, Volume 1, 1929, Clarence Bagley stated that

“the notable success attained by the corporation has been largely due to the administrative power and high standard of production set by George G. Black, whose useful, upright life was terminated at the age of sixty years.”

The Landmark report states,

George G. Black, the founder of Black Manufacturing Company, may be viewed in the same historic context as the Nordoffs, founders of the Bon Marché Department Store, the Schwabaker family, founders of the hardware company, and Joshua Green, banker and financier. These men represent a breed of late nineteenth and early twentieth century entrepreneurs whose small first efforts conceived broadly and with vision generated highly successful local and later regional enterprises that had substantial economic impacts and benefits to the Puget Sound area. For its time, “Black Bear” wearing apparel was a remarkably large and prominent industry.

When George Black died, his cousin Joseph C. Black took over as president. Lyman H. Black and Lyman H. Black, Jr., also cousins of George G. Black, succeeded Joseph C. Black as president until 1981, when the company disbanded. The Black Manufacturing Company was under the same family ownership for nearly 80 years.

George Black and his wife had one child, Nancy Dorsey Black, who died on July 8, 2003, in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 87. The Black immediate family are buried in the Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in Seattle.

Buildings

After the disastrous fire to their building at First and Jackson in 1902, a new plant was soon in operation at Seventh Avenue and Battery Street. This building was occupied while the old one was being rebuilt. The factory then moved back to the old location, one whole floor being leased for its accommodation.

Before long, one floor was found to be inadequate to the demands of the growing business and another was added, but by 1910 this too was too small, so a move was made to the Security Building on First Avenue South near King Street, where 22,500 square feet was obtained.

Within four years this location, too, had been outgrown, and it was decided to build a thoroughly modern plant. A tract of land was secured on Rainier Boulevard, where the permanent factory was constructed during the year 1914, the equipment was moved in, and on January 1, 1915, the Black Manufacturing Company was established in a home of its own.

When it was built, it was the largest overall factory west of Chicago, and Eastern manufacturers, who visited Seattle for the purpose of inspecting the plant, pronounced it the best garment factory in the world. The building, which is 100' by 240' in size and three stories high, contained more side-and skylight glass than any other building of the same size in the city. The building, which is still standing, is located at 1130 Rainier Avenue South in Seattle, and the legal description is Block 4, Rainier Boulevard Addition, Lots 17 through 28, inclusive.

Architect Andrew Willatsen, who designed the building in 1914, was already established as an exceptionally talented residential architect after a number of years generating outstanding residential projects both in partnership with Barry Byrne and on his own. The Black Manufacturing building marks one of Willatsen’s earliest recorded efforts to apply his design and structural knowledge to an industrial building.

Born in 1876, Andrew Willatsen (also spelled Willatzen) came to America with his family in 1902 and settled in Illinois. As an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, he moved to Chicago that year to work in Wright’s Oak Park studio, where he was given increasing responsibility for projects. Between 1902 and 1905, he executed designs for several Prairie-style houses, a fence for the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York, and designs for the lobby of the Rookery.

In 1907, he migrated west and worked for the prestigious Northwest firm of Cutter and Malgren in Spokane. As draftsman and later supervising architect for the Rainier Club and Seattle Golf and Country Club, Willatsen became acquainted with Seattle and decided to settle there. He formed a partnership with another Frank Lloyd Wright student, Barry Byrne. Their exceptional residential work for A.S. Kerry and C.H. Clark in the Highlands (1909) promoted the distinctive Prairie style in residential architecture, and led to the establishment of the Prairie School in Puget Sound.

In May 1914, Willatsen was commissioned to design a home on West Highland Drive for J.C. Black, a cousin of George G. Black. Not long after, in 1914, he designed the Black Manufacturing Building. It was one of his earliest departures from the residential style into industrial, warehouse, and commercial buildings, which led to many commissions well into the 1960’s.

Readers interested in the design details of the 1130 Rainier Avenue building are invited to consult the excellent report by Karen Gordon, the then City of Seattle Historic Preservation Officer, who wrote the Landmark Preservation Board staff report cited above and below.

The building featured more than 15,000 square feet of windows and a shed roof skylight provided healthy daylight for the employees. An overhead fire prevention sprinkler system was a very early use of such a system. The incentives for the sprinkler system were the safety of the workers and the fact that fire had destroyed the business just twelve years earlier. An article in a 1915 “Pacific Builder and Engineer” magazine, cited in the landmark report, notes, “In fact the character of construction and the system of fire prevention adopted removed every reasonable possibility of fire hazard. So safe is the building that it enjoys the lowest rate of any in the state of Washington.”

When the building opened on January 2, 1915, the entertainment was described in detail:

More than 3,000 people, mostly young folk, but with a liberal sprinkling of the elders, gladly accepted the invitation extended by the Black Manufacturing Company’s employees to formally dedicate the big new manufacturing plant of the company at Rainier Avenue and Norman Street last night, with the result that Pres. George G. Black and Sec. Joseph C. Black were enabled to enjoy the spectacle of 1,500 couples dancing through a program of twenty-two numbers and regale themselves with a bountiful luncheon.

The entertainment began at 3:30 o’clock, with a program of musical numbers, reinforced with a speech by Councilman Robert B. Hesketh, who represented the city government in the unavoidable absence of Mayor H. C. Gill. The program out of the way, the youngsters began the real fun of the evening in terpsichorean pleasures including the one step, the two step, the hesitation and even some old-time figures like the gavotte and minuet, the music being supplied by an orchestra of ten persons. (“Seattle Daily Times,” January 3, 1915, p. 19.)

Hundreds of volunteers, mostly women, served on the Cloak Room, Dance, Decoration, and Reception Committees, and were all individually listed in the Times article above.

The company continued its successful operation at 1130 Rainier Avenue South until 1981 when the company was disbanded. The building was vacant from 1981 until 1984, when it was extensively remodeled as corporate headquarters for Darigold LLC , a dairy agricultural marketing cooperative. At the time of this writing, Darigold still owns it.

“The rehabilitation of the building was dedicated to recapturing the original design of the building while adapting it to useful modern office and manufacturing space, according to the building’s owners. The architectural firm of Ralph Anderson, Koch, and Duarte guided the rehabilitation in conformance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.” (Landmark Report).

On September 8, 1987, The Seattle City Council, by a 9-0 vote designated the 1130 building as a Seattle landmark because of its association with the heritage of the community and its distinctive architectural style. Mayor Charles Royer signed the designation legislation ten days later.

At the time of this writing, 1130 Rainier Avenue South is vacant. Its 62,200 square feet are offered for lease at $30.00 per square foot per year ($1,860,000/year.) The building was appraised in 2017 for $9,777,800. With the land, total appraised value for the site was $13,207,800.

The promotional brochure from Colliers International offering the lease states:

What was the most up-to-date factory building in America in the 1900’s is today recognized as one of the most up-to-date wired buildings of the 21st Century. The 1130 building was renovated in 1999 and 2000 by CMGI to become one of the West Coast’s premier, state of the art high-tech buildings for those demanding the best of today’s technology. Tens of millions of dollars were invested by CMGI in infrastructure for Activate’s live webcasting/streaming business. (ed. George G. Black would be pleased that his building is still, in 2017, “premier” and “state of the art.”)

George Black was quite proud to be able to make the claim that his building was the most up-to-date factory building in America, built entirely of Washington-made materials and by Washington workers.

Production

In December 1915, the company added a line of work shirts to its products, in addition to manufacturing overalls, overcoats, mackinaws, pants, and special garments for loggers, fishermen, and other trades. By 1916 there were 50 men and 265 women employed; 275 machines were in operation, producing 205 dozen garments per day, or a total of 52,000 dozen for that year. The plant was so arranged that a total of 584 machines could be installed without building additional room.

The Black Manufacturing Company was one of Seattle’s greatest manufacturing institutions from the beginning to near the end of the Twentieth century, and the Black Bear brand of clothing did much to demonstrate that in Seattle, goods could be produced just as cheaply and of as good quality as anywhere in the United States.

The manufacturing staff, mostly women, worked hard and carefully knowing that they would be paid according to the amount of their production. Their health was safeguarded by supervisors and a small medical staff, with a two-bed health care room, and the building construction itself. Warm meals were served at cost, and lectures and special entertainment were provided each week because the Blacks believed that the health, happiness, and prosperity of their employees was of as great importance as were the machines and cloth used in the manufacture of its garments.

An undated (1910–1914) photo offers the caption, “Union members at the Black Bear factory, now the Seattle Quilt Building on First Avenue South wear Miss Black Bear overalls at work.” At a time when women wore only dresses in public, the company promoted its overalls for outdoor recreation.

(ed. Catherine Collins sent me a wide variety of Black Bear clothing for Christmas presents when I was growing up in the 1940’s. These knickers, especially the gray ones, were my favorites.)

An article in the Seattle Daily Times on April 24, 1927, noted a significant company anniversary:

The Black Manufacturing Company, manufacturers of men’s clothing, is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. The organization has grown from an obscure workshop to an institution with a payroll of more than $1,000,000 annually.

The firm is most widely known from its product, “Black Bear” garment, which were first marketed in Seattle and the Northwest by George G. Black of the organization.

A total of 400 persons are employed and daily produce more than 5,000 garments. This clothing is distributed throughout the West and Alaska.

The factory is at 1130 Rainier Avenue and has been declared to be a model of its kind.

A full-paged, comprehensive story about the company appeared in the Sunday, September 25, 1927, edition of the Seattle Daily Times, page 6. It is the longest and most comprehensive piece written about the company’s operations and is attached to this story. Since it is difficult to read a full-paged newspaper story reduced to an 8½" x 11" piece of paper, the story is reproduced here:

Headline: “Stitching Dollars to Seattle’s Payroll”

Sub-headline: “Each Garment Made by the Black Manufacturing Company Represents One Dollar in Wages, and Annual Production at Its Busy Factory in This City Is Now at the Million Dollar Mark”

“Stitching Dollars to Seattle’s industrial payroll.

Whirling, humming, twirling sewing machines, score on score, manned by women and girls, eating up mile after mile of thread are literally sewing into the industrial life of Seattle millions of dollars annually.

Here it is that a million dollar payroll is created for Seattle by the process of converting 10,000 yards of cloth daily into 3,260 garments—each garment representing one payroll dollar. Just a quarter of a century ago, when Seattle was beginning to march rapidly forward as its destiny as one of the leading seaports of the world and metropolis of the Northwest, a man with a vision of the city’s greatness, backed by a desire to strike from this section the shackles of manufacturers in other parts of the country, who considered this a trade territory belonging to them exclusively; a man with little capital but with an overwhelming ambition, strengthened by a willingness to make sacrifices and to work twenty-four hours out of each day if necessary, gave to the city and the Northwest its first exclusively wholesale clothing factory.

The man was George G. Black, the founder of the Black Manufacturing Company. This was in October, 1902, two years after Mr. Black had arrived in Seattle and gained employment at the MacDougall and Southwick Company. It was while employed at this store that Mr. Black overheard a travelling salesman for an overall factory in another state inform the firm that it “would take” a certain number of overalls whether they wanted them or not. Then it was that the newcomer in the city decided that Seattle, with its tremendous demand for clothing of this character, should strike the shackles of the outside-of-the-state factories and supply the thousands of workers in the great Northwest timber camps and mills with their work clothes.

Beginning at First and Jackson Street in a small room, with five sewing machines, a salesman, five machine operators and himself managing the establishment, the Black Manufacturing Company was launched upon an uncertain sea of the commercial world, making blue denim overalls. At that time, the infant company managed to turn out 125 dozen overalls a month and the fight was on. The product was a rather weird one as compared to the products of today, but it was a Seattle product and it won the support of the Northwest because it was a wearing product. During the next six years the plant had increased to fifty-five machines and moved to 531 First Ave. S. There it showed a steady increase in production so that twelve years ago a handsome new modern factory building was constructed on Rainier Ave., the one in which the company is now located.

Today the Black Manufacturing Company has a payroll approximating $1,000,000 a year. It requires 142,000 square feet of floor space, has an average of 142 persons employed, including 325 operators, 25 salesmen, an office force of 35 and 40 workers in the shipping department. The big plant turns out seven garments a minute, 420 an hour, 3,260 a day, 51,500 a month, a grand total of 988,000 a year. (ed. The numbers don’t add (multiply) up.)

It manufactures overalls, jumpers, denim combination suits, children’s play suits, khaki clothing, cotton trousers, woolen trousers, mackinaws for men and boys, overcoats for men, water repellent suits, flannel shirts, cotton shirts and dress shirts. It has extended its trade territory from Seattle and the immediate vicinity to include the states of Washington, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands and Alaska, and now has plans underway to reach the Atlantic seaboard and cover the entire nation with its products.

The big, ivy-covered brick factory building at 1130 Rainier Ave. for many years has been a landmark in Rainier Valley and numbered among the hundreds of employees are women who started with the firm more than twenty years ago, who have married, raised families, or are raising families, and have returned to the plant to add to the family income and help defray the costs of home building. During the quarter of the century the factory has been growing to its present size and capacity, it has at the same time built up within its walls a happy family of its own.

Some idea of the tremendous value of the production at the factory may be had from the fact that 175 pounds of thread are used daily, every pound containing 3,400 yards so that in the course of a year 270,000 miles of thread alone are sewed into the garments turned out. The 15,000 yards of cloth cut and stitched daily mean that something like seven and a half miles of cloth is used, enough to provide a canopy over the Pacific Highway between Seattle and Tacoma.

The waste from the cutters amounts to around 250 pounds of cloth a day and this goes to the junk dealer, who in turn sells it to the paper mills, so it is not beyond possibility that a person buying a pair of overalls anywhere in the Northwest will find the package wrapped in paper made from the same bolt of cloth from which the overalls were cut, or at least made from waste from the same factory. This is (ed. These are) modern industrial methods. There is little, if any, actual waste. That from one industry finds use in another.

The cloth, huge bolts of it, is first laid out on tables 218 feet in length. Here the cloth is piled, layer on layer, five dozen deep, making a thick pile. A designer takes his patterns and marks on top of the 218 feet of cloth patterns the cuts to be made, going down the entire length of the table. He first marks the larger cuts and then backtracks and marks the smaller pieces, using every available square inch to avoid waste.Following after the designer comes a battery of electrically driven cutters, machines resembling electric hand drills. These are armed with razor edge knives with a jigsaw up and down motion, going at a terrific speed. A heavy under base acts as the lower guide. The operator simply moves his rapidly reciprocating knife blade along the white lines chalked on the cloth and the goods are cut as desired. In the sewing rooms each machine performs a different operation. These machines are equipped with as many as four needles and sew as many seams in one operation. Operated by electric equipment and controlled by a pressure of the foot, the machines sew and stitch at lightning-like speed.

One girl may be sewing a pants leg, another sewing in or on pockets at a tremendous rate, another stitches the suspenders, another makes the button holes, and so it goes. Each operator does one distinct job and passes it on to the next. The overall factory is one of the most interesting places about the factory, because it is in this field that the Black company established its reputation.It is now engaged in developing and building water repellent out-of-door wearing apparel, which is rapidly winning its way into the markets of the Northwest and the nation. In the early days when the company was first broadening its production, there was a saying that the condition of business in the Northwest could be gauged by observing the overall market. When the camps and mills, which provided the main industrial activity of the state, were going full blast and were prosperous, the demand for overalls was greater. The demand reflected the condition of the lumber market and was a fairly good guide of the condition of the state financially.

The Black Manufacturing Company has its own cafeteria conducted by the employees under a cooperative arrangement. The employees operate this business through their own committee, drawing their help from among their fellow workers, employing only a cook and a dishwasher. It is managed similar to an army mess and the costs are checked up and the employees pay what the meals actually cost. They have no fuel, light, or rent charges to pay.

In addition, there is a branch of the public library in the factory, a recreation room, a two-bed hospital, a place where dances and entertainment can be held, a stage, and a safety committee. Then there are girls in the plant who are trained hair dressers and manicurists and in this day of bobbed hair, these girls can be found almost any noon hour or in the late afternoon aiding their fellow workers, clipping, bobbing and curling.

There are several separate and distinct sewing sections in the factory. On one floor is to be found the shirt makers. Here the lighter sewing machines are to be found, but it is here also that machines with four needles making 12,000 stitches a minute, are in operation. In this section the shirts are made and laundered and packed for the trade.In another section are to be found only machines engaged in working on blue denim overalls, which are sewed and riveted and made as durable as humanly possible. Still another section is that where the heavy mackinaws and water repellent goods are made, while in another the woolen and cotton trousers and men’s overcoats are turned out.

An enterprise such as the Black Manufacturing Company provides a ready market for the paper box manufacturer, the label maker and the printer. As this concern has grown and expanded, it has created a new market in the Northwest for the raw materials it needs; woven woolens, cottons, special cloths, denims, thread, buttons, copper rivets, and elastic webbing.Following the death of the founder, George G. Black, last winter, J.C. Black was elected president of the company, and is now devoting to it his time and attention. C.H. Black is vice president and L.H. Black is secretary and treasurer. The three Blacks were cousins of George Black, the founder of the company.

J.C. Black started in with the company while still a boy in his teens, leaving for some time to return after the death of the founder to take up the work the pioneer manufacturer had started.

Frederick and Nelson, a major long-time downtown Seattle department store, honored Black Manufacturing Co. for supplying them for fifty years.

C.J. Byrne, Frederick & Nelson store vice-president and general merchandise manager, presented honor awards and special citations to two principal suppliers, Baxley Dress Manufacturing Co. and Black Manufacturing Co. Baxley has supplied Frederick & Nelson for 35 years, Black for 50. [Seattle Daily Times, August 4, 1954, p. 21]

Lyman H. Black, Jr. was president of the Black Manufacturing Co. until 1958. He then was treasurer and director of the Seattle Hardware Co. until retiring in 1964. He was also a director of the Pacific National Bank and the Smith Canning Machinery Co. He died at age 90 in 2013.

Catherine Collins

My aunt, Catherine Zora Collins, was born on January 6,1894, in Epping Forest, Essex, England. She moved to Seattle sometime between 1910 and 1920, and was naturalized on June 9, 1942.

Catherine began employment at the Black Manufacturing Co. in 1925. She worked as a secretary, personnel manager, and assistant manager. 

Catherine Collins retired in 1963 at age 69, after working for thirty-eight years for the Black Manufacturing Company. She died on January 31, 1983, in Carlsbad, California.

Ed. This piece owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the crucial assistance of Ann Ferguson, Curator of the Seattle Public Library Seattle Room, who made copies for me of the Landmark Report and the relevant parts of the Clarence Bagley histories and, most usefully, showed me how to utilize the digitized and searchable Seattle Daily Times from home.

The photograph, which is page 16, is courtesy of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry.

It also benefitted greatly from the efforts of Carole Jordan, who heavily invested her skill and sensitive touch to making suggestions as to structure and content, as well as editing and re-editing the document.

Josh Sirlin3 Comments