A Prosperous Past

“Glens Falls has attained fame in all parts of the civilized world as a manufacturing town. Not only are her products distributed all over the United States, but they contribute somewhat to the exports of the country. Between 7000 and 8000 persons are employed by the various establishments in town….At the present time Glens Falls is enjoying a period of prosperity which makes it the envy of many other towns with equal natural resources.”

-1897 Glens Falls Area Phone Book

On April 23, 1902 a devastating fire destroyed much of downtown Glens Falls.

For two young men, Joseph (J.R.) McMullen and Walter Leavens, this was a golden opportunity.

Both men grew up in Glens Falls and apprenticed with the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company (located where the Glens Falls National Bank now stands on Glen Street). J.R. worked at the business end in New York City, while Walter worked at the production end in Glens Falls. As they completed their apprenticeships, both men acquired stock in the company and were partial owners at the time of the fire.

After the fire, they took their portion of the insurance payment, and formed an agreement with their former partner that gave them the rights to the shirt portion of the business, leaving them the detachable collar business. Believing the future lay in men’s shirts with attached collars, they incorporated their new business by May 3, 1902 and filled their first order 2 weeks after the fire. Within a year they were shipping nationally and the name McMullen-Leavens quickly became synonymous with high quality fashion.

The men selected the property here for their new factory because of its ideal location. In 1902 the Glens Falls train depot was across the road, and they were able to have their own railroad spur, meaning materials were delivered right to their front door.  The black and blue dashed line in the image shows the path of the old railroad line.

There is a story that when the men visited the property prior to purchase they found a four leaf clover growing on the property, this sign of good fortune was embraced by the partners and incorporated into their business logo.

They worked with Ephraim Potter to design their factory, insisting on large windows, allowing them to capitalize on the natural lighting, creating an optimal working environment to guarantee consistent quality.

In their hey-day, McMullen-Leavens employed 700 people, each floor had a designated purpose and each person had a specific job to perform. At times, when demand was greater, they ran buses to bring workers from further afield and operated satelite locations in the area too.

By 1910, JR and Walter paid off their initial investment as demand for their shirts continued to grow, leading them to expand on the buildings construction by adding another building that connects to the original building via short hallways. When Walter Leavens passed away in 1922, the company’s net worth reported to be $12 million, the equivalent of $163 million today.

In 1935 J.R. McMullen again displayed the keen intuition that had previously enabled them to turn disaster into opportunity, as he worked with in-house designer Dorthy Cox, to take the company in a new direction. The company’s product line diversified with the introduction front-buttoned, shirtwaist dresses, becoming a leader in a new fashion trend that would land the McMullen name on the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. The business reputation continued to grow and profit margin increased until J.R.’s death.

Marilyn Monroe wearing a McMullen original.

After his death, his heirs split the business, but without J.R. McMullen at the helm, the business began to falter.  It was not long before Dorothy Cox left the company. In the ensuing years there were a number of similar shifts within the company, as well as changes to the economic landscape that caused the workforce at the factory slowly shrink until it closed its doors for good in 1996.

The Legacy

For almost a hundred years the McMullen Company was an important part of the Glens Falls community, not just because it was a major employer, but because of the sense of pride it inspired in the people who worked here.

Today the building continues to receive visitors who come expressly to wander the halls, recalling memories of when they or a relative worked here, visiting someone at the factory, shopping at the outlet, etc. We’ve heard many stories of McMullen garments that were passed down in a family or even folks who bought as much as they could before the factory closed and still have some shirts and ties unworn in the factory boxes. Every so often a  stray button or pin will suddenly work it’s way out of a crack in the floor boards and lay there waiting to be rediscovered. The architechtural elements of the building that the current owner first fell in love with, that so many others have come to apreciate over the years, are present because of the factory that was here first. They may no longer being sewing here, but they have left us much to appreciate.

It would be almost impossible to separate the property from the community’s memories of the Shirt Manufacturers who created it. Rather than try to do so this history has been embraced and celebrated in displays throughout the building.

We are indebted to the Chapman Historical Museum, not only for the images on this site, but for the historical panels lining the hallway between studios 101 and 106. To read more about the buildings history, as well as view gorgeous images of the building, its founders and McMullen advertisements from fashion magazines, read the book The McMullen Leavens Company: How Hometown Worked by Thomas K. Simpson and published by the Chapman Historical Museum.

As you wander the halls you will also find shirt and dresses in display cabinets. These are but a few of the items in our personal collection of garments made under the McMullen label in Glens Falls. When they business closed, much was left behind. It was saved for years for no other reason than it belonged here, today many of the original machines and benches are in the halls for you to see and touch.