Editor’s Note: The story below was filed just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard. Some planned outreach and celebrations related to the Gossard Company’s 100th anniversary in Ishpeming, and the same anniversary of the first national election where women could vote, were put on hold, due to COVID-19. The hope is those events will be able to be held in 2021. Nonetheless, the story of the Gossard and especially the women who worked there is still compelling and Superior Woman wants to continue to honor their legacy and tell the story of the Gossard, the women who worked there and one woman’s efforts to make sure we remember it all.
By Dale Hemmila
When you think of Superior Women, you should consider the hundreds of women who kept a garment factory humming in Ishpeming, Michigan, for decades. Now, one Superior Woman is making sure their legacy, and the history that’s included, isn’t forgotten.
The factory was owned by the H.W. Gossard Company, and the hundreds of women were those who worked there from 1920 to 1976. The Superior Woman maintaining that legacy is Sandra Arsenault, who, with husband Paul, owns the historic Gossard Building in downtown Ishpeming.
In 2020, the year in which women will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, is also the 100th anniversary of the first Ishpeming “Gossard Girls,” when the factory opened in 1920.
In honor of that 100th anniversary, Arsenault and her husband, Paul, are planning to create a much larger tribute, with displays encompassing nearly the entire building.
“There’s going to be a lot more information in the building,” she said. “All three floors are going to have more information about their picnics, they had bowling teams, baseball teams and their cafeteria.” In addition, there will be an expanded display relating to the employee strike of 1949.
“The story I want to tell, is to focus on the women,” Arsenault said. “In 1920 women were allowed to vote, and all along women have grown. At the time that the Gossard was here, there were no females in management. Now we have women who run for president, we have women CEOs, we have businesses that are run by women.
“Now, people come into the building, and they take pictures, and that’s what I want them to do, and I think they will be really excited when they see what Paul and I have in store. (They) will be able to go through the building and read about the items (on display).”
To capture that history and recognize the work of the people of the Gossard, Arsenault has researched the history of the Ishpeming operations, salvaged much of the equipment, photos, samples and other items left behind when the facility closed, and reached out to the more than 1,000 employees and their families in order to build an historical display on the Gossard building’s first floor.
“My first goal is a tribute to the women,” Arsenault said recently while discussing her project. “Their legacy should be told.”
The Gossard facility in Ishpeming came about when the Chicago-based manufacturer of women’s undergarments was looking to add a facility large enough to accomplish the piece-work nature of their garment assembly in a location that featured a ready workforce.
Following a recruitment visit to Chicago from a representative of the City of Ishpeming, the Gossard Company sent their own agents to review the potential site and staffing possibilities. What they found was a three-story, 12,000 square foot building that would fit well with their manufacturing process. A bonus was finding that there was an eager and available employee base.
“The two reasons that they came, was that they had the building, and they knew they would have the workforce because of the mines up here,” Arsenault said. “The men (miners) were married, and had daughters, and that’s kind of what sweetened the pot to come to Ishpeming.”
It was those wives and daughters that became the bulk of the workforce for the company. More than 1,000 of them worked at the Gossard over the years. Some were long-term employees, some were short-term employees who may have worked for a while before getting married, having children, or moving away. At its peak in 1950, the facility employed 680 people. Eighty-five percent of them were women, many of whom walked out of high school and directly into factory employment.
Their job was to sew different pieces of corsets and brassieres to manufacture the final foundation products the company sold. The more you sewed, the more money you made.
“It all was piece work, and if you were liked by your supervisor, they would give you the pieces that you could sew faster making more money,” Arsenault said.
That money usually averaged out to minimum wage, beginning in the 1920s at about 35 cents an hour, ranging to about a dollar an hour following union affiliation and a four-month strike in 1949. By the time the factory closed in 1976, minimum wage was about $2.30/hour.
Long before the more common two-income families of today, the Gossard provided that opportunity to their employees.
“They really had a big impact on economics in the city,” Arsenault said. “The paychecks the women took home stayed local.”
And over the years, that was a lot of paychecks and a lot of women.
Arsenault has more than a thousand names in what she calls her “bible” and she continues to add names as family members provide information about their relatives who were employed by the Gossard.
“Every time I put something out on Facebook looking for information, I get more and more people saying ‘grandma worked there’ or ‘my great aunt,’ and the way we’ve gotten these names is by people coming in to see if their relative is on the wall,” Arsenault said.
That’s because once she has an employee’s name, she adds a nameplate on the tribute wall. The plates appear on salvaged metal patterns that were used to make the garments the factory produced.
(Full disclosure, the tribute wall contains the names of several of this writer’s family members, including my grandmother’s name, as she was employed by the Gossard Company for many years.)
It might be hard to imagine now, but during its heyday, the Gossard was a hub of activity. Women, many of whom walked to town, would begin the workday at 7 a.m. For years, the Gossard maintained its own chef and cafeteria to provide a “full noon meal,” and by quitting time at 4 p.m., hundreds of “Gossard Girls” spilled out of the building and onto the surrounding streets. Much of this is captured in photos and memorabilia on Arsenault’s tribute wall.
“And I want to do it with the whole building; I want it to be a time capsule,” she said. “Kids don’t know what piece work is, they don’t understand an assembly line. This building has such a rich history, and it was home to many women, and it’s about the women; this is a labor of love for me. It’s like I know these women, and I just want to share their lives.”
To add to her story, Arsenault said she is looking for artifacts, stories and yes, the names of more women who may have a Gossard connection.
To learn more about the Gossard factory in Ishpeming, visit www.oldgossard.com.