For generations, the name Hamilton was synonymous with the best of American watchmaking. The Lancaster, Penn.-based Hamilton Watch Company emerged in 1892 out of the ashes of the bankrupted Keystone Standard Watch Company.
Over the years, Hamilton was responsible for a number of innovations in watchmaking, producing some of the most accurate railway watches around. With the Ventura in 1957, it pioneered the first battery powered wrist watch.
Hamilton watches are a triumvirate of accuracy, craftsmanship and design. It’s the reason today they’re so prized among collectors and command a premium in the vintage market.
I own two: a 1939 Dodson and a 1941 Endicott. Both are still going strong, needing nothing more than a servicing every three years or so.
A number of modern watches are produced under the Hamilton imprimatur–now a Swatch Group brand. But they’re Hamilton watches in name only, with no real kinship with the once venerable American company. Instead of the elegant jeweled movements the company once produced in its American heyday, they’re mostly generic Swiss made quartz movements.
America’s oldest sock brand, Fox River Mills crafts its socks in a 250,000 square foot facility in Osage, Iowa. As the company notes on its its website, “During its first 60 years, Fox River manufactured socks, mittens and gloves primarily for hunters, fishermen and lumberjacks.” In short, people who need a dependable source of warmth and padding for the feet.
I too know Fox River socks through outdoor experiences. They’ve been with me to the top of Kilimanjaro. They’ve traversed the Kungsleden in Arctic Sweden. They’ve kept my feet warm on a cold November section hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virgina. And they’ve been a regular companion on my weekend hikes of the Lone Star Hiking Trail in Southeast Texas.
But socks are not Fox River’s only product.
As Frannie now goes to school in more northerly latitudes, a warm pair of gloves is a must. So to Fox River Mills we turned for their mid-weight ragg gloves.
The gloves come in any color you want, as long as it’s brown tweed. Never mind the limited palette; they go with virtually everything.
Even for the most well dressed of men, underclothes are something of an afterthought. After all, few except select ladyfolk and the family doctor ever have cause to see us in our unmentionables.
But they’re the one garment that’s always flush against the skin. So comfort is paramount.
But finding American made underwear has, until recently, been a fruitless endeavor.
A couple of years ago, Jake Bronstein resolved to upend that status quo. Mr. Bronstein is an unlikely acolyte for a renaissance in American manufacturing. An alumnus of MTV’s Road Rules and FHM magazine, he’s the serial marketer behind such stunts as declaring himself for the NBA draft and a quest to date a woman in each of the 50 states.
In his first (and only) meeting with a venture capital firm, Mr. Bronstein presented his vision for a new flowering of American manfacturing. The response was less than enthusiastic. The financier suggested that the only way to reignite American manufacturing was with flint and tinder. Rejection, yes. But a name was born.
Undaunted, Mr. Bronstein turned to Kickstarter. Propelled by one of the most successful campaigns in Kickstarter’s history, Flint and Tinder opened for business in 2012, initially confining its product line to underwear. Since then, it’s branched out into other products, including what it calls the ten-year hoodie (which includes free mending), trousers and various accessories.
I recently bought a pair of boxer shirts and an undershirt from Flint and Tinder. I can say, without reservation, that these are the best boxer shorts I have ever owned. The cotton is sumptuous, the elastic is uncommonly soft and they fit like a dream. Every other pair of boxers in my underwear drawer has now been relegated to second-class status.
About the undershirt, I’m not so sure. Most of my undershirts are mediums, but they’re a little snug. So I decided to try a large, but it’s a tad voluminous. I’m going to pass it through the wash before rendering judgment. Aside from the sizing (which is a personal issue) the shirt is both soft and well made.
As a humanitarian gesture, however, I won’t be modeling my new wares.
Of all the companies we’ve featured, Flint and Tinder is the most orthodox in its dedication to American manufacturing. The cotton (supima from California) is grown here. Production is domestic. Even the packaging is of American origin.
Flint and Tinder sees its dedication to American manufacturing as more than a thing unto itself. It wants to inspire a renaissance predicated on excellence. As the company’s website points out, “We’re not just making things in America, we’re making things better.”
Can a pair of boxer shorts change your life? Probably not. But they sure as hell can make your day.
Some years ago, I was a regular reader of a website that featured a London gentleman’s journeys as a customer of bespoke tailoring. He sampled the wares of many of Saville Row’s most esteemed tailors–a not inexpensive endeavor. So I was only moderately surprised to learn that he was exchanging charitable words for product.
To avoid that ethical breech, we only feature items we’ve paid for ourselves (or have received as gifts from friends and family members). No freebies from the companies we write about nor discounts that might inspire us to speak more favorably.
It’s a simple consideration. We can’t expect people to part with their hard earned money for the products we recommend if we ourselves are not willing to do so.
Over the past quarter century, few athletic shoe companies have retained any semblance of domestic production.
Famously, in his movie The Big One, Michael Moore confronted Nike CEO Phil Knight, skewering him for his atrocious labor practices in the developing world and challenging him to open a U.S. plant.
New Balance, happily, has not been completely seduced by the siren song of overseas cheap labor. While most of their shoes are manufactured outside the United States, a number continue to be made in the company’s five American factories. According to the its website, “In 2013, 1 out of every 4 pairs of shoes we sold in the USA was made or assembled here.”
All with New Balance, however, is not sweetness and light. The fact that 25 percent of the company’s shoes are manufactured domestically may initially sound encouraging, but it pales in comparison to the 70 percent that were made in the United States two decades ago.
And according to the China Labor Watch, its China factories have been implicated in abusive labor practices, including paying employees wages below the subsistence level, denial of the paid leave time to which Chinese workers are legally entitled, mandatory overtime without required overtime pay and firing workers who organized to protest poor working conditions and poverty wages.
The day was crisp, with early insinuations of Autumn filling the air as Frannie and I walked up Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.
As our shadows lengthened, we stopped in Sherman Pickey. Located near the northern terminus of Wisconsin Avenue’s commercial expanse, the shop is a bulwark of civility, with a sedate charm that is at odds with the bustle of the surrounding city. It has an emphasis on classic clothing, with a subtle nod to the fashions of the day.
Not everything in the store is American made, but several products are. One caught my eye: an R. Hanauer pocket square. It’s a beautiful wool challis, in a paisley print that’s perfect for fall.
R. Hanauer has been around since 1985, when Randy Hanauer began making pocket squares. Today, the company offers a wide range of men’s furnishings, from bow ties to pocket squares, suspenders to belts, all proudly made in the United States. This is all the more remarkable given the exodus of domestic production that has taken place over the intervening three decades.
It’s a vicious cycle. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs has been one of the culprits in the great income stagnation in the United States. In many communities, the few jobs that remained after the exodus of manufacturing were lower paying, causing those same workers to depend on cheaper, foreign-produced items for their wardrobes.
Upending Our Assumptions
In the early decades of the 20th century, clothing purchases consumed nearly 17 percent of the annual U.S. household budget. Over the intervening century, that number plummeted. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a scant 3.1 percent of our household income is reserved for apparel.
Yet our closets are bursting at the seams as never before. The average American buys more than 60 pieces of clothing a year, a stark contrast to years past, when a larger budget netted fewer clothes. Many of those were custom tailored or union made; while more expensive, they were built to last.
H&M, Zara and their ilk have upended our assumptions. No longer are clothes made with an emphasis on durability; cheaply made, they last only as long as they must before the next trend flashes onto the scene.
Elizabeth Cline, author of the 2012 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion, puts this in perspective:
Fashion today has a here-today-gone-tomorrow mentality, where the latest look, lowest price or the hottest designer are paramount and quantity is valued over quality. For the first time in history, we are consuming clothes as a disposable good, buying a cheap dress for a date night and wearing it but once or twice…
Our consumption of clothing is growing at an alarming rate. Most Americans have closets brimming, if not overflowing with clothes. Few of those purchases are made here — 3% of apparel is produced in the United States, down from about half in 1990. While American factories sit empty, our thirst for cheap imported clothing has kept the cash registers at many stores humming throughout the recession.
But our yen for cheap clothing has come at a steep global cost, much of that on the backs of foreign workers who toil in deplorable conditions, with few labor and environmental protections. Add to that the toll outsourcing has exacted upon the American middle class. The loss of American manufacturing has decimated once vibrant communities; decent paying manufacturing jobs have all but vanished.
Consumption of material goods at our current rate is simply not sustainable over the long haul. There is no way companies producing $10 shoes, $20 dresses and $30 dress shirts can pay their employees a living wage. Such companies cut environmental corners, ignore even minimal worker protections and contribute little-to-nothing to the communities they call home.
So, we propose a series of recommendations to help breathe life into what was once a vibrant sector of the American economy.
(1) Buy quality, not quantity. Instead of purchasing ten cheap shirts, concentrate your clothing budget on two or three that will last beyond a few washings. Think of clothing as a long-term investment. Yes, it means paying more in the short term. Or at least buying fewer clothes.
(2) Learn how to maintain your clothes. Learn to repair a seam, to replace a button, to darn a sock. If you have a personal stake in your clothes, you’re less likely to view fashion as a disposable enterprise.
(3) Embrace style. Eschew fashion. For style endures while fashion disappears. A well made, classic piece should be just as wearable 20 years from now as it is today.
(4) Make each piece of clothing as versatile as possible. When Frannie and I go shopping, we hew to the rule of threes: Each new piece must be able to combine with clothes she already has to make at least three outfits. This helps a smaller wardrobe seem larger than its modest dimensions.
(5) Know the source of your clothing. Reward companies who produce domestically with your patronage.