GLENS FALLS — Eric Unkauf was fascinated with the mechanics and durability of the specialized antique sewing machines he spotted in 1996 at the auction for fixtures and equipment of the former Troy Shirt factory in Glens Falls.
“Most of the sewing machines were going for less than the cost of scrap,” he recalled in an interview on Thursday.
At the time, Unkauf had no inkling that a few years later he would buy the factory building at corner of Lawrence and Cooper streets, the building now known as The Shirt Factory Arts and Healing Center.
The collection of sewing machines, long in storage, is now on public display at The Shirt Factory, along with about 40 vintage garments that were made there, interpretive signs, and historic memorabilia.
Items are exhibited all throughout the halls of the four floors of artist studios, retail shops and galleries.
The permanent exhibit is intended to celebrate the history of the building and the creative spirit and precise labor of those who worked there.
In 1939, McMullen-Leavens Co. employed 750 people, making it the city’s largest employer at the time, according to an April 29, 1939 Glens Falls Times article.
The specialized nature of various machines shows how precise each task was, Unkauf said, pointing to a machine that was used to sew labels into garments.
“They did wonders at what they were they doing, but that was all they did,” said Unkauf, a real estate investor and machine shop operator who designs machinery for the paper and alternative fuel industries.
McMullen-Leavens Co., one of the longer-running garment companies in Glens Falls, was founded in 1902 by two partners of the former Joseph Fowler Shirt & Collar Co., which closed after a major fire that destroyed a row of buildings, including its factory, along the west side of Glen Street.
The new location at the corner of Lawrence and Cooper streets was selected because it was across the street from the Glens Falls train station, making it easy to receive deliveries of fabric and supplies and to send out finished product.
In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the company diversified into women’s dresses, according to a July 12, 1958 article by Post-Star fashion writer Helen Humphrey.
“The step was as simple as attaching a skirt to a man-tailored shirt for women and thus creating the now famous American Classic Look,” Humphrey wrote.
McMullen-Leavens acquired the Troy Shirt Guild brand name in 1940, and continued dress making at the Lawrence Street factory until 1976, and shirtmaking until 1996, according to an article Teri Podnorszki Ulrich wrote in 2002 for Warren County Historical Society.
Unkauf, after he bought the building in 1999, began buying vintage garments that were made there through the auction site Ebay, and began collecting memorabilia and documents about the factory.
A page from a 1947 newspaper he found advertises steak at 69 cents a pound and a McMullen-Leavens dress at $39.95.
“So you can kind of do the math and figure out those were not inexpensive dresses,” he said.
The price of steak has gone up, but a locally-made vintage dress in good condition can usually be acquired on Ebay for about $30 or $40, Unkauf said.
“The most expensive one that I bought was $100,” he said.
That’s still a good value.
Adjusted for inflation, the $39.95 cost of the dress in 1947 would be $419.10 in 2015 dollars, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
Follow staff writer Maury Thompson at All Politics is Local blog on poststar.com, at PS_Politics on Twitter and Maury Thompson Post-Star on Facebook.