I came across two vibrant-colored ghost signs on the side of a storefront restorationist church where the building next door had recently been demolished. I believe they date back to the 1910s or the 1920s. This is one of the strange pleasures of a city where demolition is so rampant and necessary: sometimes secrets of history reveal themselves.

"Honor Bright"was a division of the Reliance Manufacturing Company that made kids' clothes and advertised in Boy's Life Magazine. The term "honor bright" itself is an anachronism that meant something along the lines of "it's the truth!" or "Scout's honor!"

I did a bit of digging to find out more about the Reliance Manufacturing Company of Chicago, sort of along the lines of what I did after seeing the Finck's Overalls sign a couple years ago. What I found was pretty interesting. The Reliance Manufacturing Company was founded by Milton F. Goodman in 1898, with its first plant in Michigan City, Indiana. The company produced work shirts under the Milton F. Goodman and Black Beauty labels, and after manufacturing many uniforms for the U.S. Army in WWI, the company started making shirts under the "Big Yank" label (I own a couple vintage Big Yank work shirts myself). According to this article, Reliance shirts were marketed heavily to farmers. With time and the success of the Big Yank label, the products were diversified to include women's dresses, men's and boys' dress shirts, pajamas, and sportswear (distributed under the brands Honor Bright, Happy Home and Kay Whitney Dresses, Awyon Shirts, Pen-rod Boys' Shirts, Universal Pajamas and Shirts, No-Tare Shorts, Yankshire Jackets and Coats, Ensenada Sportswear and Slacks). With such growth, new factories were opened in Yorktowne, Pennsylvania, Loogootee, Mitchell, Kokomo, Seymour, and Columbus (all in Indiana) Washington, D.C., Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama. Those factories became famous for the innovative use of recorded music piped into the garment-manufacturing floors, which was said to increase production (here is an article from a 1943 issue of Billboard Magazine about that topic). But despite the positive press for this innovation, there is a dark side to Reliance's history of manufacturing.

In looking into the history of this company, I was surprised to learn of a controversy from a hundred years ago that largely mirrors many of the current concerns with the garment manufacturing industry and third-world sweatshops. It appears that many companies manufacturing clothes after the turn of the century---mainly those making clothes for sale through large catalog retailers or national chains---used deeply-discounted prison labor as part of their manufacturing processes. Reliance was famously one of those companies.

In a hearing before the House Committee on Penal Labor in 1910, it was stated that the company employs as many as 1,100 convicts. Many of those workers were in the Michigan Penitentiary at Jackson, Michigan. The company defended itself by stating that it employed as many free laborers as it did convicts. The records of that hearing are extensive and interesting and available here. Ms. Florence Kelly, an anti-penal-labor activist, wrote that, "Milton F. Goodman was notorious in Chicago and elsewhere as the exert combination of advertised patriot and philanthropist, and terrible exploiter of prisoners. . .The Reliance Manufacturing Company was then, as it is now, the most widely ramified exploiter known to me in this field."

In 1924, at the request of the Joint Committee on Prison Labor of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America and the United Garment Workers of America, Labor Activist Kate Richards O'Hare conducted a nationwide survey of the prison-labor system. Her findings, published here, are pretty interesting, particularly today in the context of a global economy where labor conditions in particular factories or countries are uncertain, and where it can be downright confusing how Old Navy can sell a brand-new pair of adult blue jeans for $7.99 or whatever. Here are some important passages:

"Convict labor has been concentrated to a very large degree in the production of work garments, and in 1923, twenty states employed all, or a very large share, of their convicts in this industry, and all but four of the others to a lesser degree. One single prison labor contracting firm, in 1923, produced in the seventeen prison factories it controls, about 16,000,000 work shirts. Other smaller operators combined produced as many more shirts, and in addition millions of overalls, childrens’ play-suits, underwear and women’s house-dresses. All of these millions of garments were sold in the open markets in competition with the goods produced by free labor and manufacturing carried on under normal business conditions. The exploitation of convict labor is the most richly tax-subsidized industry in existence. The taxpayers of the several states provide the funds to build expensive prison plants. It is doubtful if any state has less than $1,000,000 invested in prison plants, and such investments run up to $10,000,000 in some states. In these astoundingly expensive prison plants the presumed function of penal institutions is entirely overlooked and ignored, and quite overshadowed by what should be merely incidental in penal administration. Where the exploitation of convict labor is carried on for private gain the prisons are not operated to treat or cure, reform or educate criminals, or to send them back to society better fitted for decent citizenship. The primary object is to produce profits for private interests. The interests and welfare of the convicts and of society are given no intelligent consideration.

The normal wage paid by a legitimate manufacturer, plus his overhead expense, for the making of a dozen shirts is from $2.00 to $2.90 per dozen. The prison labor contractor pays the state fifty cents to sixty cents per dozen for exactly the same labor and overhead. Under this contract practically all of the overhead costs of production are carried by the taxpayers, and the wages paid are only about one-fifth the normal wage paid in the garment industry, thus giving the prison labor contractor the richest tax-subsidy ever enjoyed by any industry in the history of this country."

It is likely that that large contracting firm was Reliance Manufacturing. Those Black Beauty work shirts advertised on that building might have been "triple stitched" by murderers, thieves, and other criminals. The O'Hare study also discussed the conditions faced by convicts employed in these prison factories:

"Prisoners always work under the worst possible conditions. They are always half starved. The same politicians who sell them into chattel slavery also expend the appropriations that the taxpayers provide for the prisoners’ food, and prison food is always insufficient, for the most part spoiled and decayed, and improperly cooked and served. The prisoner eats meat that is full of maggots, dried fruit and oatmeal infested with worms, beans inhabited by weevils, and macaroni that is filled with bugs, not to mention other things not mentioned in polite society that are served in the prisoners’ food. Spoiled and decayed food can be bought for a tenth of the price of good food, it can be fed to convicts because they can not complain, and prison officials are not fussy about a few bugs and worms, more or less, when big profits are at stake. Prisoners are poisoned by bad air, prevailing prison architecture making decent ventilation impossible. They are weakened by lack of exercise, and sapped by confinement in disease breeding cells; they are harried by fear; tormented by sex hunger, and always depressed and unhappy. Among the harried slaves in every prison workshop are cripples and defectives, degenerates and tuberculars, epileptics, and dements, and only a small percentage are what, under ordinary conditions, are classed as normal." [hat tip to Your Old Pal Jim for the link to O'Hare's study]

The study should be considered in the context that the Committee on Prison Labor was made up of prominent owners of work-clothing manufacturers who did not exploit prison labor, including committee chairman Oscar Berman (president of The Crown Overall Manufacturing Co.) A. Sweet, president of Sweet, Orr & Co., Inc.; and A. E. Larned, president of Larned Carter & Co. We've already looked at how the attitude of one such employer (W.M. Finck & Co.) included using union labor and the best possible quality materials as a selling point that rings true even today (and especially important when your primary market is laborers). So it is definitely interesting to consider that a huge competitor to these companies (Reliance Manufacturing) was increasing its profits in the same way contemporary garment manufacturers do today: by finding the cheapest labor possible and exploiting it for as long as you can, then moving on to the place with the next cheapest labor. Who cares if Old Navy jeans fall apart after five wearings? The American consumer has been well trained to want a new pair by then anyways.

Well, that's kind of a downer considering how beautiful those newly-uncovered signs are. But there they sit today, their paint nearly as bright as it was in 1919 when they were first unveiled in a vibrant neighborhood full of working men and women not far from Henry Ford's Highland Park Model T assembly plant in what is now one of the roughest neighborhoods to be found in this city so deeply-ravaged by the disinvestment in American manufacturing.

***Interestingly, a Japanese company that fetishizes American workwear (Workers) recently started reproducing early Reliance Manufacturing work shirts (in Japan, presumably not by prisoners).


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