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

An Age of Prosperity

Joseph Fowler

Around 1890, local businessman, Joseph Fowler, left a partnership to open his own factory, manufacturing shirts with detachable collars and cuffs. Sounds silly now, but once upon a time, it was a big business. The Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company was located at 146-150 Glen Street.

While Joseph Fowler employed hundreds, this would provide invaluable experience for two young men who joined the company in 1891 as clerks. James Robert “J.R.” McMullen, a Glens Falls Academy graduate,  had clerked at the Glens Falls Post Office the previous three years. Walter Leaven a recent graduate from the Glens Falls Academy was beginning his first job. Despite these somewhat humble beginnings, both advanced quickly at the company.

By 1897 both men had risen from their clerk positions to be listed on the board of directors, along with the owner, Joseph Fowler, his brother Charles Fowler and John Davies. One year later, at the time of Joseph Fowler’s death, the board of directors for this prosperous business consisted of Charles Fowler, J.R. McMullen and Walter Leavens.

On April 23, 1902 the third of the “Great Fires” in Glens Falls destroyed the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company, as well as damaging several other area businesses along Glen Street. While others did not realize it at the time, this fire drastically changed the future of the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company. Perhaps the only one who appreciated the changes to come was JR McMullen, who had been representing the company in NYC at the time of the fire.

Newspapers around the state conservatively estimated the damages at $500,000 (approximately $14,000,000 today), and reported at least 700 were left unemployed at the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company alone. It was predicted that the affected businesses would not be able to reopen until new buildings were built. With all of this news, JR began thinking of a new building, to house a new business.

After receiving the news of the fire, but before leaving New York City, JR sent Walter a telegram confidently declaring that the two would soon be in business.

Shortly after the fire, they met with Charles Fowler. Displaying a keen understanding of the industries future, they arranged to take the shirt manufacturing business with their portion of the insurance money, leaving Charles with the detachable collars and cuffs.  J.R. and Walter incorporated their new business, McMullen Leavens Shirt Company, and contacted local architect Ephraim Potter to design their new factory. The location at 71 Lawrence Street (then 51 Lawrence Street) was selected for it’s proximity to the railroad depot, which was located across the street, allowing the new factory to have their own railroad spur, making it possible to deliver fabrics and other materials right to their door.

A New Beginning

According to local legend J.R. and Walter had looked at several locations around the area. They were walking around the lot at Lawrence Street and just as they reached an agreement on the location, they found a shamrock growing among the grass. Viewing this as a fortuitous omen, predicting their future fortune, they incorporated the shamrock into their logo.

The shamrock brought them plenty of luck, they began shipping orders from a temporary set up while their factory was built. As a large employer The McMullen Leavens Shirt Factory quickly became an important part of the community.

Not only did they employ hundreds of local people, but the people working for them proudly came together to represent the company in the community. Newspapers from this bygone era include stories of the McMullen sports teams and even a letter from Father Flanagan, of Boy’s Town, thanking the employees of McMullen for their kindness and generosity.

JR and Walter were on many local boards and were well known in the community. JR’s elaborate gardens, which included landscaping the courtyard of the factory, were well known, and he enjoyed sharing them with the community. Each year, he created an intricate holiday display on the front lawn of his home, going to view it was a highly anticipated outing for many locals each holiday season.

In 1936 J.R., with help from his head designer, Dorthy Cox, seized on a new fashion trend and the McMullen-Leavens Company entered into the dressmaking business. Dorthy Cox skillfully guided them to select superior fabric and give attention to little details in this new line that would further the company’s reputation for high quality fashionable garments. It was not long before their dresses graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, not to mention some of the biggest stars of the time. A few years ago the Post Star published an interview with a elderly woman who worked at the factory, fondly recounting the custom clothing they made for celebrities. Today one of the McMullen dresses is in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The dress business was so successful that in 1939 J.R. purchased the “Troy Shirt Makers Guild” label for $1. By 1940 he used this label to distinguish the shirt manufacturing from the dress manufacturing business although both continued to operate out of the same location.

A Gradual Decline

On October 5, 1946, J.R. passed away without a will, leaving the company leaderless. It took two years to settle the estate, at which time it was divided between his heirs. One group took over dressmaking, the other shirt making.

This image of Marilyn Monroe supposedly shows her wearing a skirt and blouse designed for her by Dorthey Cox.

For a time after J.R.’s death the dress company continued to prosper, largely due to the skill and reputation of their designer, Dorothy Cox. As Dorthy gained her own following and other companies sought her endorsement of their products, friction between Dorothy and J.R.’s heirs mounted. In 1952 Dorothy left the company. Nine years after J.R.’s death dress sales had fallen to their lowest levels ever.

In 1956  the family was forced to sell the McMullen dress business to Nathan Sheinman, who made significant changes to the business, including moving the company’s headquarters from Glens Falls to theNew York City offices.

In 1976 the McMullen label was sold again, and dress production in Glens Falls ended as it was sent overseas.

In 1992 the Troy Shirtmakers Guild was sold during bankruptcy proceedings. At that time there were 200 employees in Glens Falls and another 30 in Whitehall. In 1993 the label was purchased by the Tennessee- based Tom James Co.

On January 26, 1996 Tom James announced that they would be closing the Glens Falls factory in the spring, laying off the remaining 110 employees.

The outlet store, which had always operated out of the building, had a customer list of 6,000 names to notify about the imminent closing.

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

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.