The Ellis Family and the Garment Industry
In St. Louis, MO, the garment industry played an important role in the local economy from the early 1900s to the 1970s. In the 1970s, overseas factories began to take the work once performed Downtown. During the 1920s, the garment district encompassed fifteen blocks of Washington Avenue. Buyers used to walk the fifteen blocks during certain times of the year to purchase merchandise for their stores.
For the Ellis Family, the garment industry played a prominent role in our family. It allowed my great grandmother, Caroline “Lee” Ellis, to support her young son as a single parent. My great grandfather, William P. Ellis, died on December 4, 1917 at the age of 40, when Grandpa Ellis was two years old.
Great Grandma was often a fore lady and even managed a garment factory in 1920. She brought my Grandpa into the industry, when he was in his early 20s. He would spend the remainder of his working life as a garment cutter, foreman and manager in the garment industry. He retired in 1981 at 66 years of age after more than 40 years in the garment industry.
Grandpa also met my Grandma Ellis, who worked for my Great Grandmother. She met Grandpa, when he was visiting his mother. She decided that he would be her husband but she had to let him catch her first. They all three worked for the Women’s Dress Company in 1940. Grandma quit working once she got pregnant.
In 1979, my mother also began working in the garment industry. She met my stepfather, Ernest C. Diaz, when they worked together at the Fashion Square Building at 1311 Washington Avenue. Grandpa Ellis worked with them on the seventh floor. We went to get their paychecks after they got married during a family vacation. We rode up in the elevator, which was run by an actual elevator operator.
When the Fashion Square Building was built in 1926 for a million dollars, the garment industry was one of the dominant downtown industries. By the 1970s, the garment industry was dying in the United States. Outside of New York and Texas, it has pretty much disappeared.
Back then, the union was fighting for its existence and filmed the famous “Look for the Union Label” commercials. My parents were in the St. Louis ad. By this time, it was really all over but the crying. By 1983, the last union shop closed up in the city. Unlike Grandpa, my parents were not able to retire from the garment industry.
Today, most of the old Washington Avenue garment industry has been made into apartments. The Fashion Square Building has also been renovated into commercial space on the ground floor and apartments through the rest of the eleven story building. Most clothing is made oversees. And an entire American industry passed into history.Pin It