The Beginnings of Milton’s Garment Industry

We are fond today of the alliterative “four B’s” as a succinct statement of Milton’s industries, past and present: Boats, Beans, Buttons and Beer. Unfortunately, this nifty mnemonic doesn’t include an industry that was a year-round employer of Milton’s people, especially young women, and contributed a great deal to the local economy: the garment industry.

The first of several garment manufacturers that set up operations in Milton was the Douglass & White Shirt Factory, established by two local men – Thomas H. Douglass and N. Wallace White – around 1895. In 1904 or 1905, Josiah Culver, the former station agent at the railroad depot, joined the founders as a partner in the enterprise. It was built by contractor Isaac Nailor for $800, was 25 x 50 ft and two stories high, and was considered very attractive in appearance.

By 1905, the economic importance of this industry to the town was huge. In his Milton News letter published in the July 28, 1905 edition of the Milford Chronicle, David A. Conner spells it out unambiguously: In a town of 1200 people, the factory in 1905 employed 70 workers year-round, with a total payroll of $14,800, or nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars. This was a very respectable amount of money, and all of it was earned by locals, most of whom were young women. More importantly, this money was all pumped back into the local economy, being entirely spent within Milton. Conner believed that the money earned by the women “operatives” sustained middle class living standards for many Milton families.

Three or four garment factories would continue to operate in Milton until the mid-twentieth century, and eventually at least some of the shops were unionized by the I. L. G. W. U.

Consider this: by 1905, boat building was well into a steep, terminal decline; bean (and other vegetable) canning was seasonal and its workers were mostly transients from Baltimore and elsewhere; button making was about two decades into the future, and beer making was about a century down the road. I would suggest that “Four B’s and a G” would be a better summation of Milton’s economic mainstays in the twentieth century.

Douglass & White Shirt Factory ca. 1895
Douglass & White Shirt Factory employees, ca. 1895. Nathaniel Wallace White is at the extreme left; Thomas Douglass, the other partner, at the extreme right.

4 thoughts on “The Beginnings of Milton’s Garment Industry

  • […] The photo of N. W. White also confirms his identity in the photograph of the Douglass & White Shirt and Overall Factory employees taken ca. 1895: he is at the far left in that photo, which can be viewed on the post The Beginnings of Milton’s Garment Industry. […]

  • William A. McKay

    Hello, This is William A. McKay a resident of Newark, Del. who is interested in 19th century Delaware photographs. I am very near the end of a book on 19th century Delaware photographers. My question is, are their any reference has to who was the photographer? Any and all help would be greatly appreciate.

    • Phil

      Thank you for your interest; I myself would be VERY interested in your book on Delaware photographers once it is published. As for identifying the photographer – we don’t know who shot the garment factory group portrait. Milton had no resident photographers in 1895 when we think that picture was shot. In all likelihood it was an itinerant, of which we have no record. We have a much better idea of who shot the cartes de visite and cabinet cards in the MHS collection; the majority of those were made in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

  • […] know that lots of other Delmarva towns had garment factories in the 20th century. Here, for instance, is a brief piece about the industry’s history in Milton, Del. Someday I hope to try and look into this topic in more detail, so if you know the name of or […]

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