By Daniel T. Weaver
Once upon a time, both men and women wore long underwear. These were in the form of one piece “union suits” and were often uncomfortable. There lived in Amsterdam a man named Martin J. Shaughnessy, not to be confused with the notorious saloon keeper by the same name, who invented a revolutionary knitting process that left small holes in the material used for underwear which allowed a person’s skin to breathe.
This patented process was called Porosknit and Amsterdam’s Chalmers Knitting Mill, which Shaughnessy was associated with, manufactured underwear using Shaughnessy’s process. Porosknit underwear was made for men and boys because by the turn of the 20th century, few women were wearing union suits. Porosknit ads in magazines showed men and boys in manly pursuits—throwing a football, boxing, basketball and the like. Porosknit was extremely extremely popular and brought success to the knitting mill.
The Chalmers Knitting Mill began when David W. Chalmers, John R. Blood, John Barnes and J. Howard Hanson became interested in manufacturing Porosknit underwear. The Chalmers Knitting Mill company was first formed in 1901, incorporated in 1904 and the first plant was located on Washington Street, where the company leased the third floor of the Blood broom factory, and began manufacturing with around 70 employees.
David W. Chalmers was the company’s first president and chairman of the board. Born in Amsterdam on May 17, 1870, he was the son of Harvey and Annie Carr Chalmers. Harvey was the founder of Harvey Chalmers and Son, the largest manufactures of pearl buttons in the world at that time.
While on Washington Street, the Chalmers Knitting Mill revolutionized underwear once again by dividing the one-piece union suit into two pieces—top and bottom. In 1913 the Chalmers Knitting Mill erected a new four story brick structure on Amsterdam’s south side. In 1916, a seven story reinforced concrete spinning mill was added to the structure. Eventually, Shaughnessy left the company and moved to Watertown where he established his own knitting mills.
The company’s financial history was one of ups and downs. It ran into financial trouble in 1923 and was put into the hands of a receiver but recovered. During the two world wars, the company did well because it manufactured goods for the military. In 1941, nearly 600 people worked in the plant. After World War II, the firm was sold to Lester Martin and Company of New York City. David Chalmers died on January 16, 1950 at his 345 Guy Park Avenue mansion. Lester Martin manufactured underwear under the Chalmers name. Martin found several Amsterdam operations to be unprofitable and closed them down. By 1951, the Chalmers workforce had declined to 100 employees. That same year, Bigelow-Sanford leased the entire seven-story concrete building to make blankets and other knitted goods for the military. Chalmers continued its operations in the four-story building.
In 1955 Joel Kaplan moved to Amsterdam to run the Chalmers plant for Martin. Chalmers opened a new division that same year, making handkerchiefs for men. Chalmers had already modernized its equipment that year in an effort to compete with knitting mills in the south. The company had been able to increase its employment to 500 from 200 at the start of the year. The manufacturing of handkerchiefs was an experimental program that would expand if it were successful.
In 1957 Chalmers began manufacturing Mojud women’s wear and panties. Mojud had plants in North Carolina and on Long Island. Chalmers also manufactured children’s underwear under the trademarked “Fruit of the Loom” label. Martin also moved its offices to Amsterdam. In the late 1950s, Chalmers was booming once again and had reached an all time high of 700 employees, according to a 1957 Amsterdam Recorder article. In November 1959, the Local TWUA union agreed to a new contract with Chalmers, with a five cent an hour increase and an increase in fringe benefits. Unfortunately, major changes were coming to Chalmers.
Martin died in 1959. However, the biggest change in Chalmers’ fortunes came in December 1960, when Kayser-Roth bought the Mojud and Fruit of the Loom licenses from Chalmers and nearly 450 people were laid off. Mojud, Inc, which Chalmers had become an affiliate of in 1957, also sold off some of its inventory, receivables, equipment and real estate to Kayser-Roth for $5 million but still retained the Chalmers Mill and 130 workers in its women’s knit sportswear department. Congressman Sam Stratton called the sale a “needless and totally irresponsible transaction” and said he had never heard of a “more callous and uncharitable action.” Nevertheless, he attempted to find government contracts to aid Chalmers. Mojud, Industries for Amsterdam and the Chamber of Commerce began advertising for other companies to move into the south side building and hire those who were laid off.
On July 14, 1961 Chalmers was reorganized and renamed Natrim Enterprises, Inc. Natrim is an anagram of Martin, the last owner of the business. Natrim had 200 employees. On November 2, 1961, Joel Kaplan and several officers of Natrim announced they were forming a new manufacturing company, Montco, short for Montgomery County. In 1962, Montco had 200 employees manufacturing women’s knitted sportswear. In 1966 Montco purchased a building at 363 North Perry Street in Johnstown to expand its operations.
Other companies leased parts of the Chalmers building. In 1963, Standard Handkerchief Company set up shop there with 50 employees, with a goal of hiring another 150. Edmond Stern, who had purchased the building in November 1962, ran a knitting company in the building. Edmond Stern Inc. was the parent company of Industrial Knitted Fabrics and Finishing Corp, known locally as Industrial Knit, which had begun operations in Amsterdam on December 1, 1961. Chalmers, now Natrim, ended when Industrial Knit bought all of Natrim’s knitting and dyeing equipment. Joel Kaplan was instrumental in bringing Industrial Knit to Amsterdam. The company employed about 120 people but closed in 1978 after several labor strikes. Montco closed in 1980.
Still the old mill was not quite dead. Beatrice Fredericks, a floor lady at Montco, put up $8,000 and 30 other women put up $1,000 each to form a new venture. The company produced garments under contract and grew to around 120 employees. It closed in 1985.
The building was vacant until 2011 when demolition of the building began. Demolition was completed in 2012.
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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.