FATHERS TO SONS Exhibit explores unbroken family threads


LIKE HIS FATHER before him, and his father before him and his father before him, Mickey Haas, 26, wants the clothes to fit the man. After majoring in radio and television at the University of Arizona, there was little question that he would join the family business, Haas Tailoring Co. in Baltimore.

"I have been around the business for my entire life. . .and there was just a sense of pride and desire that I wanted to get into the business," says Haas, whose father John M. Haas, is company president. "Every time I walk in the door, I realize there are 94 years of family history here. That says something. . . I love my work, I really do."

If fifth and six generation Haases continue in the family tradition, that would suit him just fine. "I'd like to see it go another 94-plus years," says Haas, an account executive.

As the descendant of a Jewish immigrant with the opportunity and the desire to enter the family business, Haas is a rarity. The garment industry that once thrived in Baltimore is long gone. Scores of factories and thousands of employees, largely Jewish, have disappeared. Most companies shut down; others were absorbed by larger conglomerates, and a rare few, such as J. Schoeneman and Jos A Bank Clothiers, retain the family name, but are no longer run by family.

The exhibition, "Threads of Life" -- at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland through January 1992 -- chronicles Jewish involvement in Baltimore's ready-made clothing industry from its beginnings in the mid-19th century to its zenith early in this century.

Because the garment industry involved so much of the Jewish population at every level of industry and society, the exhibit serves as a history of Jews in Baltimore. It is a paradigm as well for cities such as New York, with its own colorful garment history.

Enriched by photos, documents, advertising, tuxedo jackets, tailor's shears and chalk and other tangible reminders, the exhibit also tells the story the labor strife that divided the German Jews who ran the sweat shops and the Russian Jews who manned them. The charitable organizations which grew out of this strife merged in 1920 to form the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

In a highly competitive industry where "pennies make a difference," the family needle trades that have survived in Baltimore share a common bond. "I would have to say in very simple words, 'hard work,'" says Morton Katzenberg, 68, asked to explain the longevity of Katzenberg Bros., founded in 1904. Once a manufacturer of women's dresses, the company now specializes in athletic uniforms under the Merrygarden label. "We run an old-time type of close ship, with close supervision. The family is very strong and active in the business. We're here early and stay late," Katzenberg says.

"If you let it get by you for a second, you're out of business," says Samuel L. "Sandy" Frank, who at 70, puts in 11-hour days running the family lining business.

Finding and exploiting a market niche and a talent for changing with the times, has also allowed companies such as Haas, Katzenberg, and A. Frank and Sons to withstand intense competition here and abroad.

Jacob Haas began selling suits for $10 on Broadway in Fells Point in 1897. Over time, his company grew into a custom-made suit business that today can turn out 150 to 200 suits a day. "We've geared our technology to making one suit at a time," says Irving Neuman, cousin of John Haas, and chairman of the board of Haas Tailoring. "Our niche," Neuman says, "is serving the independent [men's stores] more than the big department stores.

In the tradition of Baltimore's garment trade, Haas does not specialize in cutting-edge fashion. "We're constantly watching the fashions of society," Mickey Haas says. "If fashion calls for a different type of coat, a rather exaggerated shoulder or a coat with with very little body line, we will come up with model very similar to that," Haas says. "In our made-to-measure business, it's important to follow the trends, [though] occasionally, we'll we'll even come up with on one of our own designs. We're not copy cats."

If the founders of these companies were to return to life, they might find that some aspects of their business had not greatly changed. The large sewing floors, where scores of seamstresses bend over industrial sewing machines doing piece work, for example appear to have changed little over the years.

In other ways, these gentlemen would not be able to recognize the businesses their descendants have built. Haas and Katzenberg recently computerized their pattern-making operations, allowing for more precise measurements and better record keeping. If his grandfather Meyer came face to face with such as contraption, he "would probably say, 'It's no good. Don't use it,'" Katzenberg says with a smile.

For families with children expressing an interest in joining the firm such as Haas and Katzenberg, the future appears secure. But unlike the early days, when fathers often gave their sons no choice, there is always the risk that there will be no heirs to continue the family tradition.

"I always had a choice to do what I wanted to do," says Morton Katzenberg, who runs the business with his brother Julian and their three sons. "My father wanted his children to do anything they wanted," Katzenberg says. Of his choice to become the vice president in charge of sales some 45 years go, a position he has held since, "I have not regret."

As the only son in the family, Sandy Frank thought long and hard about joining A. Frank and Sons, founded as a trimming business 1865 by Aaron Frank. His father did not pressure him into joining the company, considered the oldest lining house in America. "He didn't tell me I had to," he says.

Although he was accustomed to working summers and vacations in the company, Frank was torn by his interest in social causes. An influential professor at Dartmouth college advised Frank to stay in the business, help to make it more progressive, and to use it as a base for work in the community. That way, "I was much better able to help other people," says Frank, a past president of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who contributes time and money to a local elementary school.

Now, Frank is thinking about the future. Neither of his two sons has an interest in joining the trade. "I feel a tug now and then. Here is a business that was 125 years old last year. There is something about keeping a family business going. I'm still here and running it, but I don't know what will happen from here on in; maybe a grandchild will come along."

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