Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mom & Abe Del Monte

Gloria Stromberg, age 17 (1945)

During the war years when my mother was coming of age in a neighborhood called Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan, she went to the U.S. Employment Service in search of summer jobs. The office had been created by FDR in 1933 to boost Depression-era employment.

She expertly navigated the city via buses and subways. Through the 1930s, her parents owned a series of luncheonettes, including one on East 20th Street opposite the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace and another right off Times Square. Therefore, she ventured out of her zone more than most of her peers.

In my mind’s eye, I can see her running down the steps to catch the “A” train at 207th Street.

On her first visit to the employment office, she met with a woman who said, “Next time you look for a job, be sure to wear gloves.”

In 1944, she found work as a clerk at a company on Varick Street, which runs through the neighborhood now called Tribeca. There were blueprints all over the place; the business had a contract with the U.S. Army.

The following summer, my mother filed paperwork at a company that manufactured house-dresses which were exported to South America (as we used to call it). That’s where the manager called one of the clerks into his office and said:

“How many times have I told you? Always try to put the blame on someone else!"

She still laughs about that.

During the summer of 1946, she worked for a hat manufacturer “in the West 30’s,” she recalled.

“Where in the West 30’s?’

“In the millinery district.”

“Where’s the millinery district?”

“At the edge of the garment district.”

So, it looks like Abe Del Monte & Company made its home on West 38th Street where both the office and plant were located. My mother spent each day copying data from sales sheets into a book. She sat at a desk across from a woman who had endured a mastoidectomy, an operation commonly inflicted on children who had chronic ear infections during the first third of the twentieth century.

Because of some fear related to the mastoidectomy, the woman refused to let the fans run in the windowless room. This made one of the workers, a veteran, very grumpy because he handled the “felts,” which were large, contoured fabric shapes piled high on tables along one side of the room. Eventually they would become hats.

The felts were heavy and probably exuded fine dust.

My mother never met Mr. Del Monte, but she did have her first encounter with a gay man, the hat designer.

It turns out that the company was a pretty big deal, well-known in the millinery world. As his business flourished through the 1920s, Abe Del Monte moved to a large Tudor house in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He lived there with his wife Essie, three children, a butler, and a cook.

Abe joined the Masons and two country clubs. He became a go-to philanthropist for Jewish causes. And until the war started, he traveled regularly to Europe to check out new fashions.

Born in New York City in 1886, Abe Del Monte started his career while a young boy, working for J.M. Van Note, a successful sales agent for women’s hats. A writer for The Millinery Trade Review took note in 1904:

Truly Abe Del Monte, who has been brought up by James M. Van Note, has developed into a salesman of no little repute. He is a young man who understands the ladies’ hat business and is making himself of use to the trade as well as to his house.

In 1915, Abe started his own company and did so well that in 1918, The Illustrated Milliner ran a longish story about him.

The success of the firm was instantaneous, and amongst his friends you would often hear, “Abe is a wonder. I can’t understand how he handles his big business in so small a place.”

He moved on to larger quarters with a showroom and workshop.

Everything about the new premises points to the continued success of the progressive house of Abe Del Monte & Co.

It would be interesting to know what the writer meant by “progressive.”

After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, investigations of industrial working conditions proliferated. Progressive-era regulations were put in place. The United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Union organized the workers at Del Monte & Co.  

My mother didn’t see the factory although it operated in the same building where she worked. But in the course of transcribing sales information, she learned that Del Monte charged Saks twice as much as it charged Sears for the same hat.

The next year my mother graduated from college and never worked in hats again. Like all American women, though, she wore plenty of them until the 1960s arrived.

Abe Del Monte, early 1920s

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