Worsted Mills in Passaic County New Jersey
Many immigrants from the Old World came to the City of Passaic, New Jersey to seek their fortunes and escape the endless wars on the continent. (1) “When New York lay snugly about the Bowling Green in the 1830s,” fine fabrics from the German firm Forstmann & Huffmann were recognized as the finest fabrics available. (2) Ladies of fashion, men concerned about their appearance and even military men who could afford uniforms cut especially to their specifications felt they were well-dressed when wearing clothes tailored using F&H fabrics. The fabrics were in such demand that by 1850 a branch office was established on lower Broadway under the name Julius Forstmann & Co. The office operated for another 50 years. In 1853, Forstmann fabrics were displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York. Horace Greeley commented that these fabrics were so well known that they were simply known as F&H. American manufacturers were hard-pressed to imitate and certainly could not duplicate the quality of these goods at the prices being offered. After 1860, US business men petitioned the government to step in and levy heavy duties on imported goods. Finally by the mid 1890s, German firms decided that they must manufacture goods in the United States since they could not import them and make a profit. A number of firms tried to come to America and failed. Finally Julius Forstmann, son and grandson of the parent company owners, thought he would like to give it a try. He believed that America with its great wealth, enormous territory and hosts of well-dressed women was the greatest market in the world. So with the vision and support of his father Heinrich Forstmann and grandfather Johann Forstmann, he decided to transplant the industry and came to the States in 1903 or 1904-sources vary. (4) Within a year, he built the first mill in Passaic, New Jersey. He began simply with two fabrics known as Imperatrice and Beatrice broadcloths. In order to produce the best, you must start with the best. His agents sourced wool from the finest Australian wool. By 1927, he used half the finest grades available from there. From his agents in London, he sourced the finest cashmere from Jammuna and the valleys of the Kashmir. (2)
Forstmann & Huffmann Mill along side of the Dundee Canal, Passaic, New Jersey
Courtesy Mark S. Auerbach
After producing the early broadcloths, the firm produced Bolivia-the first pile coat fabric ever made. After that followed Marvella, Gerona, Oriona, Kashmere Needlepoint, and Juina-fabrics which inspired designers to create new fashion modes. The first wool duvetyne was a Forstmann fabric, as was the first Poiret Twill, Piquette, Twillcord, Piquetine, Charmeen, Mirroleen-supple fabrics which made the color, the lustre, finish and weight of silk.
The site was salvaged ca. 1997 for the loblolly pine floors and other materials and leveled. A K-Mart and Path-Mark Grocery occupy the site in 2012.
Site of the Forstmann Worsted Mill 1904-1997. Now a shopping center 2012 Gary N. Mock / Mark S. Auerbach
Hird 1897 (2)
In 1897, Samuel Hird purchased the plants and property of the Robertsford Worsted Mills and began a business which became Samuel Hird & Sons, Inc. The properties bought upon the death of James Roberts resulted in entering the production of men’s worsted fabrics. In the early years of the 1900s, Mr. Hird saw the vigouroux printing process and introduced this to the American market probably by printing wool tops. In this process, the wool is printed in bars on the continuous top which is then blended to make a variegated blend. This process produced a more even distribution of color than produced by blending mixtures of dyed stock.
Mr. Hird incorporated the business in 1909 and took the name Samuel Hird & Sons, Inc. with the following officers: Samuel Hird, President; S. Ainsworth Hird, treasurer; and Henry E. Hird, secretary. In 1911, the company established a sales office with Mr. Fred Nixon as Sales Manager. Lewis A. Hird succeeded Mr. Nixon in 1914. Samuel Hird died in 1922 and S. Ainsworth became president. The business continued through 1927 and sold goods trademarked “Hird’s Vigouroux”.
Gera Mills 1900, 1914
Gera Mills, named after a city in Saxony, southeastern Germany, was established in Passaic by Christian Bahnsen in June 1900. Bahnsen, a lawyer by trade, was the sales agent and importer for the firm of Ernst Friedrich Weissflog of Gera. The original capital invested was $450,000. Production of serges, broadcloths, whip-cords, diagonals and velours began with 200 looms. The original equipment consisted of 50 Crompton & Knowles plain worsted looms and 150 English dress goods looms. By 1927, the number of looms grew to 1,100. The original mill was a weaving mill only. Yarns were sourced and goods finished elsewhere. A dye house was constructed in 1901. Yarns continued to be supplied by New Jersey Worsted Spinning Co. and the Passaic Worsted Spinning Co.
Using earnings from operations, the mill was increased in size over the years. In 1910, the size was doubled to accommodate 450 looms. A further increase was made in 1912 with the addition of 195 looms, and the dye house and finishing department were expanded. On October 29, 1914, the firm which had operated as a partnership was incorporated as Gera Mills, under the leadership of Christian Bahnsen, Harry Haltermann, and Otto Bruckner, the technical expert.
During World War I, this mill and many others with a German heritage were under intense scrutiny as possible German agents. Many efforts were made to seize the properties. In fact these mills were seized under the Alien Property Custodian in 1918. Following the war, the mills were exonerated and returned to business as usual. In March 1922, the Gera Mills and the New Jersey Worsted Spinning Co. of Garfield, New Jersey were consolidated under the name New Jersey Worsted Mills (see below). By 1927, these mills were operated as separate businesses. 5
Passaic First Ward Plot Plan Gera Mills and others
Courtesy Mark S. Auerbach
Gera Mills Front Door
Courtesy Margaret Tarris Bauer 2011, 2012
Minnie Wnuk (later Tarris) at right hand seat Burling & Mending Dept. Gera Mills 1939
Unknown superviser, Minnie Wnuk in background Burling & Mending Dept., Gera Mills. Courtesy Margaret Tarris Bauer 2012
New Jersey Worsted Mills 1905
Another mill noted for quality worsted goods was established in June 1905 as New Jersey Worsted Spinning Company. This firm was founded by Christian Bahnsen, a native of Denmark who acted as Sales agent for the German firm Ernst Friedrich Weissflog of Gera. A site was selected in Garfield with forty acres fronting on the Saddle River. The seven original buildings included the sorting department where bales of incoming wool were stored and sorted; the office building, the power plant, scouring, carding and combing, and drawing, spinning and twisting. These buildings were erected in 1905-06. The mill was divided into a woolen section for coarser yarns and a worsted section for finer counts. By 1927, the mill contained 40,000 worsted spindles and 10,000 wool spindles. 5
Passaic Worsted Spinning Company 1910 was established with financing from German investors (71% ) and built at 122-134 Eighth Street in Passaic alongside the Gera Mills. (6) Location confirmed by Passaic Industrial Center Maps 1944 and 1967.
Botany Worsted Mills 1889
Even before Forstmann and Huffmann were able to establish their mills, Eduard Stoehr of Leipzig sent his brother-in-law Oscar Dressler to the United States to identify a mill location. He chose Passaic because it was only 11 miles from New York and a ready supply of immigrant labor and the New York market and there was an excellent supply of soft water from the Passaic River. Botany became the largest woolen mill in the United States and established a reputation for excellence, especially in men’s wear. (3)
Passaic Woolen Company
Dundee Woolen Company
Gera Mills shown on Insurance Map
These companies shown on 1901 Robinson Atlas along the Passaic River and Dundee Canal
- Palko, Anna, Worsted Mills of Passaic & Surrounding Communities 2003
- Passaic Daily Herald, October 14, 1927. http://sites.bergen.org/ourstory/Resources/industrialrevolution/garfield/archives/forstmann/woolenmills1954.pdf
- Passaic Daily Herald, January 27, 1954 The Threat to Passaic’s Woolen Industry
- Davison’s Textile Blue Book, 1927.
- Wilkins, Mira, The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914, Harvard University Press,
- Cambridge, MA, 1989 HG 4910 W 427 1989.