Wilson Branches Out to South Bend
The Wilson Brothers menswear business was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio by the four Wilson brothers, John, E. Crane, Hugh, and Milton, in 1864. They moved their headquarters to Chicago four years later, where they continued to make their signature white dress shirts at factories in Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. It was not until 1883 that the company began manufacturing out of the second floor of the post office building on South Michigan Street in South Bend.
Surrounded by growing industries, Wilson purchased land from J. D. Oliver (of Oliver Chilled Plows) in 1887 and built a factory that slowly grew to 12.5 acres of floor space. Continuing to open factories in other cities allowed Wilson to expand their product line. Menswear had been transitioning from custom-made to ready-to-wear clothing for several decades and Wilson Brothers was one of many companies taking advantage of the new market for mass-produced items. The company made a variety of shirts along with underwear, pajamas, and neckties.
By 1916, South Bend housed two of the company’s five manufacturing departments which were reported to be among the cleanest and best managed. The factory hired women employees because sewing was traditionally viewed as women’s work and women could be paid lower wages than men. Ninety-two percent of their employees were women who sought to contribute to their households while their husbands worked at Studebaker.
Since employees were paid by piece, the company implemented a tagging system that traced the product back to an individual. Wilson had access to the best machinery for increased employee productivity, including Singer sewing machines. With these resources 72,000 shirts were produced in the span of an 8.5 hour work day. They continued to increase their workforce and by 1929 they employed 2,200 people.
Enro Takes Over for South Bend
Uncertainty for the South Bend plant began in 1949 when Wilson purchased the Enro Shirt Company. Enro’s Kentucky facility would proceed to manufacture shirts, now under the Wilson name. They took up the bulk of production from South Bend, which only continued to make pajamas and bathrobes until 1975 when the location was no longer needed.
Today’s remaining Wilson buildings have different owners but are facing similar fates. One building is being deconstructed to be sold as reclaimed building materials. Another succumbed to a fire in August 2019 while in use as a retail warehouse. Although Wilson did not start in South Bend, and it is slowly disappearing from the local landscape, it has earned its place in South Bend’s industrial history as a major employer of women during the city’s industrial prime.