A new local history book, “We Were Hanging by a Thread,” documents Kansas City’s historic Garment District in downtown Kansas City, Missouri (formerly and officially recognized as the Wholesale District).
The district, on the National Register of Historic Places, encompasses five full blocks and portions of 10 additional city blocks between West Sixth and 11th streets, and from Wyandotte to Washington streets.
The area that eventually became a world-renowned garment manufacturing district started out as a residential neighborhood in the 1850s. In 1850, the city limits of Kansas City only stretched to Missouri Avenue, or Sixth Street. An 1853 annexation extended the city three blocks to Ninth Street. By 1859, the limits went south to 20th Street.
The shift from residential to commercial development began in earnest around 1880. The first wholesale house was built near the corner of Eighth and Broadway in 1889, when Swofford Brothers Dry Goods Company relocated from the West Bottoms and ushered a shift of the warehouse and wholesale business from near the Missouri River bend. Development continued south along Broadway to 11th Street until 1918.
After World War I, wholesale distribution declined with the development of markets in western states. At this time, the manufacture of clothing began to develop in downtown Kansas City. Eventually, the district’s impact was so extensive that one out of every seven women in the United States wore outerwear garments manufactured in Kansas City. Imagine the untold stories of this remarkable chapter in Kansas City’s history. Some of them have been gathered and are now available to readers in “We Were Hanging by a Thread,” by Ann Brownfield and David W. Jackson.
Production in the Garment District diminished somewhat during World War II (much of it shifted focus for war time), but industry flourished after the war into the 1950s when 150 companies were involved in the Kansas City garment industry employing 8,000 workers.
In the 1960s, Kansas City’s garment industry employed some 5,000 residents and immigrants, who were a dedicated group of workers. Kansas City’s Garment District was the largest market of coats and suits in the country, second only to Chicago. One of the largest units of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was organized in Kansas City in 1933; the coat and suit industry was nearly fully unionized by 1938. Beginning in the 1950s the local garment industry began to ‘unravel,’ and virtually evaporated into oblivion by the 1980s.
Anyone living, working or visiting downtown Kansas City, the “Heart of America,” – where garment industries once abounded – might find this book of interest. Architectural historians should find the surviving and preserved built environment of the Garment District notable. Even barbecue enthusiasts will savor knowing that Henry Perry, “the father of Kansas City-style barbecue,” got his start in 1908 from a stand in an alley in this historic neighborhood.
Brownfield for the last 15 years or so has provided guided tours, and has gathered for the Garment District Museum nearly 400 garments representing Kansas City garment manufacturers.
Ann Brownfield, a former designer, deserves congratulations. Plenty of local residents knew about this aspect of our past and thought it should be saved. But, she were the one who took initiative and action in getting it done, and cultivating others to join her important work. Prepare yourself to gain an appreciation for an art form and a way of life that is no more.
The book is available at: https://www.createspace.com/4216284 (full color edition; $40).
David W. Jackson is archives and education director of the Jackson County Historical Society.