The McMullen-Leavens Company
Why the study of a dressmaker in the context of discussions of the “field”?
A discussion of a small garment manufacturer, and the community if upstate New York in which it once thrived, may seem out of place amidst other writings on James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and the sciences. In my own mind, however, there is a very real connection; the clue, I think, is the concept of the “field”. For me, the field bespeaks “wholeness”, and it is just that sense of wholeness which characterized the hometown, Glens Falls, New York, in which I grew up and went through high school. Glens Falls was even chosen at one point by Look Magazine – for reasons which may not have been very profound, as the example to the nation of “Hometown, USA”, and I have always felt that it in truth deserved that title.
This little book, really hardly more than a catalogue for an exhibit in 2004, tries in a modest way to capture the essence of those “hometowns” which are so nearly lost today in our national scene. McMullen’s first manufactured only ready-made men’s shirts which were recognized nationally as of the highest quality. But at a certain point, in the depth of the Depression, the business was rescued by an adventure into creating women’s “shirtwaist” dresses, which at first consisted of hardly more than a simple skirt attached to a man’s shirt. But rapidly, following their first introduction in 1936, the concept caught on, and a young designer named Dorothy Cox was given a free hand to give shape to the new concept. It soon gained abundant national recognition as the “American Classic” style. The dress factory as well as the unchanged shirt production continued until, gradually, the new forces of the modern world made such an enterprise no longer tenable.
Archival records of this factory, itself a classic of the era of one-man ownership and control, became available upon its ultimate closing, and afforded a welcome opportunity to refloct on the realities, for better or worse, of this enterprise in which so many citizens of Glens Falls spent their working lives, and which was seated so firmly in a civic society which was in its own way somehow coherent and whole. It is the nature of this enterprise, and its meaning for its own community as well as for the America which was its customer-base, that I’ve tried to sketch here. All told, there was a coherence, a wholeness, which for me is represented by the image of the “field”. In this sense, I feel it belongs quite comfortably with my other writings, though they seem of such different sorts.