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.

9 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 […]

  • Rand Lytton

    Where was the W.E. Graves & Sons Manufactures of Children’s Play Suits, etc located in Milton, especially by the mid 1940s? It was established in 1901, and gives an address of 321-323 Mulberry Street which I assume is in Milton. Thanks.

    • Phil Martin

      Sorry for the long delay in responding; the Mulberry Street address is indeed in Milton. However, only 323 appears on Google maps, flanked by 319 on the southeast and 327 on the northwest. It’s anyone’s guess what happened here, and requires a further looking into, which I will undertake. I can see that in 1940, this company appears on a Federal Register, under Department of Labor, as employing three learners at under the minimum wage, permissible at the time; it appears again in 1950, with two learners. The earliest news mention of the factory is from 1923, when it was destroyed by fire, rebuilt and restarted in the space of 3 months. The location is confusing, because the owners lived in Georgetown, and the Georgetown fire department was called to put out the fire.

      • Rand Lytton

        Thanks, Phil. My earlier question came out from a document that I found at an antique show that had W.E. Graves & Sons, factories in Lewes, Milton, Georgetown, general store, Lewes. It appears to be a fiscal report for 1945/46. Five Graves are listed at the top, and two are referred to in the document, with figures noted for various expenses, I assume. If you would like to see it, I would be happy to share it with you. Rand

        • Phil Martin

          I think I now have an answer for you. The old Douglass and White Shirt and Overall Factory was bought out by W. E. Graves in October 1919, and they started operations shortly thereafter. They may have had other operations going on elsewhere in Sussex County, but this is the first reference to that company I have been able to find in Milton. I believe the Douglass and White factory was located on the the south side of Atlantic Avenue between Union and Hazzard Streets.

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