The garment trade has always been a large part of the fabric of Montreal Jewry. Nearly every Jewish Montrealer has worked or knows someone who worked in the industry. Inside the Shmata Factory, the new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, which continue throughout the summer, sews the threads together when the shmata biz on St. Laurent Blvd. was the centre of the city’s Eastern European Jewish working-class community in the early 1900s.
Scattered throughout “The Main” (as the street was commonly known) from Ste. Catherine St. to St. Viateur St. were a number of garment factories, like the Peck Building and Cooper Building, in which Jewish, Italian, Greek and Portuguese immigrants worked for little pay, often side-by-side with French Canadians. Not always in harmony.
Amongst them was the Vineberg Building, located corner Duluth St. Built by Harris Vineberg in 1912, his garment factory was known for the men’s suits that were sold in Canadian department stores, bearing the Progress Brand name. Since the building is now the home of the museum, they have aptly used all of its facilities to display an elaborate exhibition that is accompanied by an escorted walking tour of the premises.
Magdalene Klassen, co-curator of the exhibition arranged my personal tour and my guide for that day was Kate Bauer, who is studying for a Master of Arts History degree at McGill University. She was well versed on her subject matter and I was totally impressed with her knowledgeable presentation. She led me through corridors that were once were Vineberg’s cutting, sewing and shipping rooms. I also saw a collection of vintage photos of the period that included those of Vineberg, along with a copy of his business credo and advertising paraphernalia.
On one of the walls are photos of people who actually worked at that time in some capacity in the needle trade. Viewers are given an iPad and earphones so they can connect to any of those individuals and listen to recorded interviews of their personal stories and experiences.
A popular part of the exhibition is when the guide opens up a closet to reveal a prototype of a Progress Brand suit jacket. Prior to this, men’s suits were all made to measure. This was the first off-the-rack suit brand, making it affordable to the masses. Attendees are encouraged to dissect the jacket and examine all the hand operations that were required to complete the garment. An antiquated serger machine that locked in the suit’s seams is also on display.
Another wall is devoted to the summer of 1912 mass strike in the Montreal men’s clothing industry, which Bauer told me this is probably the exhibition’s highlight. The sweat shop workers demanded that their 60-hour week be trimmed to 49 hours; to be paid per week instead of per piece; to abolish sub contractors; to pay time and a half for overtime; and to have better and safer working conditions.
Exhibition attendees are asked to choose either the side of the boss or the worker and enter into a pro and con discussion. Bauer said that this always ends up in heated and exciting debates. The strike lasted for two months and although both sides claimed victory, the only concession the workers got was reduced working hours to 49 a week. Subsequently, until 1930, more than 100 strikes took place in Montreal’s shmata trade.
Each part of the exhibition is unique and it all adds up as a tribute to and recognition of those involved in the early years of an industry that was Montreal’s main employer in the early 20th century.
Museum of Jewish Montreal is located at 4040 St. Laurent Blvd. For guided tour dates (available in both English and French) and admission prices, call 514-840-9300 or visit imjm.ca