BALTIMORE’S M.S. LEVY AND SONS: Straw Hat Makers to the World, 1870-1960

Jessica I. Elfenbein


From 1860 to 1960, Baltimore was an important center of the men’s ready-to- wear clothing industries. German-speaking Jews created many businesses that manufactured and sold underwear, men’s suits, and specialty items like hats and umbrellas. The straw hat making firm started by M.S. Levy is an interesting example of a Baltimore-based, family-owned niche business that existedfor 90 years, through three generations ofa singlefamily. The M.S. Levy and Sons story has two main chapters. The first covers the period from its founding by Michael Simon Levy in the 1870s through his son Julius’ death in 1926. This is the story of ascension. A premonition about the coming popularity of straw hats, together with a small but important technological breakthrough, positioned a family and a small industry for significant expansion. The second period began in 1930 with the introduction of wool felt hats and the death of William, M.S. Levy’s oldest son, and includes the Great Depression, unionization, merger, third generation leadership, and finally, in 1959, the family’s withdrawal from the industry. This later period, as told by grandsons of the founder, is the story of struggle followed by decline.

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