Friday, July 4, 2014

Embroidery Industry In Union City, New Jersey

For many decades from the late nineteenth century to the last decades of the twentieth century, the embroidery and lace manufacturing industry was the dominant business of Union City and North Hudson County. Although all but gone from Union City, the impact that the embroidery industry had on the development of the City is not forgotten. A banner stretches across an overpass in Union City above the NJ 495 roadway. It proclaims, Union City “The Home Of The American Embroidery Industry.” The Schiffli embroidery symbol is featured on the Union City seal, adopted in 1975. And May 30, 2014 saw the dedication of Embroidery Plaza on New York Avenue & 30th Street in Union City.

Embroidery business’s had existed in West Hoboken and Union Hill since the 1860’s, run by skilled Swiss, German, Italian and French artisans. Embroidery at that time, the mid-nineteenth century was all done by hand or manually operated machines. It was in the early 1870’s when Issac Groebli of Switzerland invented the first practical Schiffli Embroidery machine. This machine was based on the principles of the newly invented sewing machine. Groebli’s machine utilized the combination of a continuously threaded needle and shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. The shuttle itself looked similar to the hull of a sailboat. “Schiffli means “little boat” in the Swiss dialect of the German language, so his machine came to be known as a schiffli machine. The machine, powered by electricity, allowed for the mass- production of fine embroidered silks. Dr. Robert Reiner of Weehawken, a German immigrant who came to America in 1903, was the person most responsible for bringing the schiffli embroidery industry to Union City. He realized the potential for embroidery and became the American Agent of a German company that manufactured schiffli machines. Then began the mass importation of embroidery machines to northern New Jersey. Hundreds of Austrian, Swiss, and German immigrants, many in West Hoboken and Union Hill, became the manufacturers of schiffli embroidery. Many of the names of the Silk Mills still hold a familiar ring. The Schwarzenbach, Huber & Co. Silk Mills, Givernaud Brothers’ Silk Mills, De Poli Silk Mills, and the R. & H. Simon Silk Mills. From West Hoboken to Union Hill these and many other Silk Mills brought employment and prosperity to early Union City. 

Many other factors contributed that made Union City the ideal place for the embroidery industry.  First, was its location directly across the Hudson River from New York City and its garment district. Second, was the solid bedrock of the Palisades to which the five- ton to eight-ton machines were anchored by twenty-foot shafts, in order to keep the needles from vibrating. Third, the bustling shipping ports and railroads on both sides of the Hudson River, that until the 1950’s, were the main ways to transport goods across the country and overseas. Fourth, was the large labor force of skilled and unskilled workers employed by the silk mills. Whether employed in one of the areas silk mills or doing “piecework” for the mills at home, the embroidery industry employed thousands of people, many of them first-generation-immigrants. From the early German and Swiss immigrants of the late 1800’s, to the Italian immigrants of the early 1900’s, and the Cuban immigrants fleeing the oppressive regime of communist Cuba in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they all found employment in the Silk Mills of Union City, giving them the opportunity to succeed in America.

"The Embroy" Sculpture

Perhaps the most enduring legacy to the embroidery industry in Union City was seen at the dedication of the Embroidery Plaza. Many of those in attendance were the children and grandchildren of those first-generation immigrants. Most of them leading successful lives as doctors, lawyers, educators, and artists. They stood there in the sunset with smiles on their faces remembering their immigrant ancestors and the opportunity that was given to them by the silk embroidery industry in Union City.

Union City Embroidery Industry Documentary


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  3. Wonderful article. My uncle owned and operated Folger Embroidery on 21st Street in Union City from the 1940's until he retired and handed it over to his son. Unfortunately, the business went under because of overseas competition in the 1990's. What a shame. I lived across the street from the factory from 1953 until 1967. I spent hours there. It was a family business. Everyone helped. I begged to do something, but I was really young. Sometimes I was allowed to help remove the used bobbins from the shuttles that went into the embroidery machine. I enjoyed that. It was also exciting to watch the big trucks full of rolls of cloth maneuver down the narrow street to the warehouse that stored all the embroidery supplies. When I think back, I don't know how they did it.Antway, thanks for the article. It brought back wonderful memories.

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