Filed Under Industry

The Joseph and Feiss Company

A Pioneer in Progressive Industrialism

If your ancestor was a Czech or Italian immigrant who lived on the west side of Cleveland, there's a good chance he or she worked at the Joseph & Feiss Company, or at least had a relative or close friend who worked there. A Cleveland business since the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph & Feiss was by 1930 the oldest garment manufacturer in the United States. It employed thousands of immigrants and second and third generation Americans at its mammoth plant on West 53rd Street. They worked there until Hugo Boss, the large German concern which had purchased the company in 1989, closed the Cleveland plant in 1998, transferring the remaining workers to another plant in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn.

Joseph & Feiss was founded in 1841 by Caufman Koch, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who moved his clothing business from Meadville, Pennsylvania to Cleveland in 1845--at a time when a lot of merchants, following the completion of the Ohio Erie canal a decade earlier, were moving to the fast-growing city on Lake Erie. In the early years, he operated a small shop at various locations downtown, procuring the garments he sold from immigrant tailors who worked out of their homes in nearby Cleveland neighborhoods.

One of those early contract workers was Frank Yidrack, a Bohemian immigrant who came to Cleveland with his parents in 1854 when he was just 4 years old. In 1860, when he was 10, his father pulled him out of school and put him to work at home making garments for Mr. Koch's business. This was the beginning of Yidrack's 60-year career with Joseph & Feiss. For the first ten years he worked out of his house, and, then when the company began to transition to the factory method of operation in 1870, Frank became a cutter in a factory for the next 50 years. The company honored him with a dinner in 1920, and there he told those present a story about the early years of the company. During the Civil War, when he was just a little boy, Frank would travel downtown to the company's offices then on Superior Avenue near West 6th Street, bringing with him clothing that he and his father had made. Caufman Koch would greet him at the door, take the clothing from him and say: "Well, Frank, what do you want now?" "All the money," young Frank would respond. Koch would then laugh and feign indignation: "Oh, no! You can't have it all. We need some of it for ourselves."

Frank Yidrack's story probably got some good laughs at that 1920 dinner. But, in addition to being humorous, it was allegorical for one of the most important issues for industrial businesses like Joseph & Feiss in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Labor-Management relations. Prior to 1909, Joseph & Feiss was a typical garment manufacturer of that era, paying its employees as little as possible and working them for as many hours as hard it reasonably could. But in that year, Richard Feiss, son of Julius Feiss (the "Feiss" in Joseph & Feiss), became factory manager. While living in Boston from 1897-1904 and obtaining his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, Feiss had become a disciple of Frederick Taylor, the well-known industrial efficiency engineer of the late nineteenth century. When Feiss returned to Cleveland, he set out to manage the company's work force in a manner that would maximize productivity but at the same time create a humane work environment that would keep workers healthy and happy. According to Cleveland State University historian David Goldberg, Feiss accomplished this by joining together Taylor's principles of scientific management with Progressive era welfare capitalism, establishing a work environment at Joseph & Feiss that many at the time viewed as the most progressive in America.

Feiss, with the assistance of Progressive era reformer Mary Barnett Gilson whom Feiss made head of the company's employment and services department, redesigned the chairs employees sat on and the tables they worked upon to reduce injury and fatigue; provided employees with well-lit and well-ventilated work areas; sponsored employee dances, picnics, choral societies, clubs, orchestras, and athletic programs; provided medical and counseling services; established employee savings programs; awarded promotions based on performance; and increased wages. In addition, in 1917, Feiss introduced the five-day work week for employees at the company's plant, several years before Henry Ford, often cited as the first industrial employer in the United States to do so.

Perhaps it was progressive policies like the above that kept Joseph & Feiss a non-union shop in the decades of the 1910s and 1920s--a time when garment manufacturers in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere were fast becoming union shops. It wasn't until 1934, during the Great Depression and almost a decade after Richard Feiss was forced out of the company in 1925 by his father and older brother, that the American Clothing Workers of America, finally won the right to bargain for and represent the garment workers of Joseph & Feiss.

Joseph & Feiss would remain one of Cleveland's largest employers for another five decades, employing over 2,000 employees at its West 53rd Street plant throughout this period. Eventually, however, new plant technology, cheaper labor sources, and changing markets ended the company's 150-year run in Cleveland. In 2003-2004, several years after the plant closed operations, the main factory building was razed, leaving on the site today only the company's office building on West 53rd Street and its massive warehouse building near the intersection of Walworth Avenue and Junction Road. In 2015, the warehouse received new life when it was purchased with the intent to make it the new home of Menlo Park Academy, a public charter school for gifted children. After $17 million in repairs and renovations, the school opened its doors in the historic building in the Fall of 2017.

Images

Moving to the West Side In 1900, Joseph & Feiss--then known as Goldsmith, Joseph, Feiss & Company, purchased land on the east side of West 53rd Street and began building offices, a factory building and a massive warehouse. By 1920, the huge complex of buildings covered seven acres of land just south of Walworth Avenue. This photograph, taken on August 1, 1941,presents a southerly view of the complex from the nearby Big Four railroad tracks. The two-story building in the center of the complex is the factory building, which was razed in 2003-2004. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.
The Founder of Joseph & Feiss The company was started in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1841 by Caufman Koch (1808-1895), a German Jewish immigrant from Bavaria. Koch moved the company to Cleveland in 1845. Over the years he brought a number of partners into the business, among them Moritz Joseph and Julius Feiss, who, after becoming primary partners, changed the name of the company to Joseph & Feiss in 1907. This photo was taken circa 1890. Image courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
Original Offices Downtown Joseph & Feiss had a number of different downtown locations in the nineteenth century, all of them in what is today Cleveland's Warehouse District. The last downtown office, shown in this 1920 photograph of employees with more than 25 years service,was at 632 St. Clair Avenue. Among the employees pictured is then 70-year-old Bohemian immigrant Frank Yidrack (circled in red), who as a young boy in the 1860s, engaged in friendly banter on a weekly basis with company founder Caufman Koch. The building at 632 St. Clair Avenue is still standing in downtown Cleveland. Image courtesy of Raymond Pianka
Human Resources In 1913, Joseph & Feiss Factory Manager Richard Feiss created a Service Department to improve productivity and working conditions for employees. He hired Progressive Reformer Mary Barnett Gilson to head the department. In this photo taken in 1915, Gilson (left) is shown urging Eliza Kiel (center) to allow her daughter, Anna Hupka (right), to participate in the company's employee savings program. Image courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
Americanizing the Work Force Part of the Progressive agenda in early twentieth century America was helping immigrants assimilate by learning the English language. In this 1916 photo, Mary Barnett Gilson (left) teaches English to a number of the immigrant employees of Joseph & Feiss at the company's offices on West 53rd Street. Image courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
Early Health Care Among the Progressive programs at Joseph & Feiss in the early twentieth century was free employee health care. In this 1915 photo, Dr. Monson and Nurse Krebs administer a vision test to employee Mary Uhlic at the company's offices on West 53rd St. Image courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
The 5-Day Work Week According to this article which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 14, 1922, the 5-day work week started in Cleveland, at the Joseph & Feiss company in 1917. This was several years before Henry Ford introduced it at his factories in Detroit. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Scwartz Library, Special Collections
Paul L. Feiss (1875-1952) In 1925, Paul, with the support of his father Julius, who was the first Feiss partner at Joseph & Feiss, engineered the ouster of his brother Richard Feiss. The two believed that Richard's progressive programs were too expensive and not cost effective. Prior to this time, Paul had been more interested in philanthropy than in business. He founded, or helped to found, a number of Cleveland's best known institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art (1916), Mt. Sinai Hospital on East 105th Street (1916), and the Cleveland Orchestra (1919). After ousting his brother from Joseph & Feiss, he turned his attention to business, assuming the duties of general manager (1925), vice-president (1927), president (1930), and then chairman of the board (1937), a position he held until his death. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Women on Strike On March 15, 1934, 1,800 garment workers at the Joseph & Feiss factory on West 53rd Street went on strike. Many of the strikers were women. Shown here in the strike headquarters at Ceska Sin Hall on Clark Avenue, the workers contended that they were protesting the firing of an employee who had allegedly engaged in union activities, demanding a closed union shop, and seeking an immediate twenty-five percent pay raise. The strike was settled within days when the company agreed to hold a union recognition election. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Together Serving Employees On December 14, 1948, some 14 years after the American Clothing Workers of America won the right to represent the employees of Joseph & Feiss, company and union officials are shown serving lunch to employees in the plant cafeteria. According to the photographer's note on the back of this photo, the officials were getting ready for the company's upcoming annual Christmas party. The man in the middle of the line of officials is Beryl Peppercorn, president of the local union. He was the chief organizer of the ACWA's successful 1934 unionization campaign. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Women managing and representing Women In this June 1, 1956 photo, Clara Moell (left), a Joseph & Feiss forelady, debates a point with Mae Hendrickson (right), local union president. In its early twentieth century progressive era, the company contended that it paid women equal pay for doing the same work that men were doing and that it gave opportunities to women, like Clara Moell, to become part of management. The top management echelon throughout the company's history, however, was composed entirely of men. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
The Ruins of Joseph and Feiss In 2014, all that remained of the Joseph & Feiss complex of buildings that stood at 2149 West 53rd Street for most of the twentieth century was the company's warehouse building (shown above) and several of office buildings to the west of this building. The massive factory where most of the company's employees worked during the twentieth century was razed in 2003-2004. This warehouse was renovated, and, in 2017, became the home of Menlo Park Academy, a public charter school for gifted children. Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko

Location

2149 W 53rd St, Cleveland, OH 44102

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The Joseph and Feiss Company,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 8, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/653.