OshKosh B'Gosh Sewing Machine | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

OshKosh B'Gosh Sewing Machine

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

OshKosh B'Gosh Sewing Machine | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeOshKosh B'Gosh Sewing Machine

OshKosh B'Gosh Sewing Machine, 1950-1997

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1997.54.1A-D

EnlargeEmployees sew garments in an OshKosh B'Gosh factory

Employees sew garments in an OshKosh B'Gosh factory, c. 1960

Employees sew garments in an OshKosh B’Gosh factory on machines similar to that featured above, c. 1960. Source: Image from Celebrating A Century as the Genuine Article: The Story of OshKosh B’Gosh, WHS Library Collection

EnlargeDetail of stitching

Detail of stitching

Detail of triple-stitched, flat-felled seam above shows the finishing technique used by OshKosh B’Gosh to secure and hide cut edges of a pair of denim coveralls. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1997.54.6

EnlargeRadio announcer Johnny Olson

Radio announcer Johnny Olson, late 1930s

Radio announcer Johnny Olson wearing a pair of OshKosh B’Gosh overalls. Olson hosted the “OshKosh B’Gosh Radio Program” broadcast on stations WTMJ (Milwaukee), WSAU (Wausau), and WTAQ (Eau Claire) in the late 1930s. View the original source document: WHI 51810

Industrial sewing machine used by seamstresses to make one of Wisconsin's signature products for more than 40 years at OshKosh B'Gosh, Inc., 1950s-1997.
(Museum object #1997.54.1A-D)

Not so long ago, most people thought of overalls when they heard the word "Oshkosh." The nationally renowned clothing company OshKosh B'Gosh, Inc. has been headquartered in that Wisconsin city since 1895. Founded as the Grove Manufacturing Co. to make denim overalls for railroad workers and farmers, the company underwent several name changes during its first two decades. In 1911, William Pollack, the general manager of the then-Oshkosh Overall Company, heard the "Oshkosh B'Gosh!" punch line in a New York vaudeville routine and began tagging his company's overalls with it. The brand name became so successful that the company was renamed OshKosh B'Gosh, Inc. in 1937.

High quality products and aggressive advertising helped make OshKosh B'Gosh overalls a household name. In the late 1930s, soon to become nationally-known radio personality Johnny Olson hosted an OshKosh B'Gosh radio program broadcast throughout Wisconsin. The company made military garments during World War II and after the war resumed making its bread-and-butter work clothing well into the 1950s.

From the 1950s through 1997, OshKosh B'Gosh workers - most of whom were women - used this three-needle sewing machine to make the major seams of the company's overalls at its factory in Oshkosh. The machine was manufactured by the Union Special Machine Company of Chicago, Illinois. Union Special, which was founded in 1881 to produce machines for sewing cloth bags, developed into a major manufacturer of industrial sewing equipment in the twentieth century.

This model 35800 machine is commonly known as a "felling machine," after the type of seam it makes. A "flat fell seam" is one in which the pieces of fabric are folded together to hide the raw edges, then sewn flat with at least two rows of stitching. Within the industry, this model, which performs triple stitching operations on heavy-weight fabrics, is known as a "three-needle, high-throw, feed-off-the-arm" machine. OshKosh B'Gosh chose the three-needle version to give their garments extra durability.

This machine has been overhauled and modified numerous times during its work life. It features a new dust blower, work light, and upgraded wiring. One reason it remained in use for at least four decades is that the model 35800 is a well-designed, resilient, workhorse of a machine. Union Special introduced the model 35800 in the late 1920s and was still making an updated version in 2007. Another reason it was used for so long is that felling required a fairly high level of operator skill and experience. In other words, the process couldn't be easily automated by adding new machinery.

OshKosh B'Gosh benefited from the trend, beginning in the 1960s, of younger consumers adopting work clothing as leisure wear. Demand for their garments often outstripped production. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the company added new, fashion-conscious lines of clothing and steadily increased output through plant expansion and sub-contracting. But even as the company opened new plants in non-union southern states, OshKosh B'Gosh continued to manufacture overalls in Oshkosh, where workers belonged to United Garment Workers of America Local 126, even opening a new factory there in 1985.

Other fundamental changes were under way. As president Charles Hyde put in the company's 1979 Annual Report, "This gradual shifting of sales to sportswear is naturally eroding the more stable area of our business and increasing our exposure to style volatility." In the same report, he noted, "Particular strength was registered in children's wear." That year, children's clothing comprised 15 percent of sales.

By the early 1990s children's wear accounted for a whopping 95% of sales, and OshKosh B'Gosh had completed its transformation from a regional overalls manufacturer into a worldwide marketer and retailer of branded children's clothing. In this intensely competitive, globalized business, labor costs took on ever-increasing importance, and only the least labor-intensive styles could profitably be made in the United States.

With overalls now a sideline, the company soon found itself with excess capacity at its Oshkosh factory. By 1997 the plant operated at one-third of capacity, and only seventy-five employees still worked there, down from 480 in 1993. As a result, management decided to close the Oshkosh plant, ending production in its namesake city after 102 years.

Though the OshKosh B'Gosh name still memorably evokes the company's Wisconsin roots, the clothes once manufactured on this machine are no longer made in Oshkosh.

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[Sources: Naleid, James C. Celebrating a Century as the Genuine Article: The Story of OshKosh B'Gosh (Lyme, CT: Greenwich Publishing Group, 1995); OshKosh B'Gosh, Inc. Annual Reports 1969-1986 available in the Wisconsin Historical Society Library.]


Posted on August 09, 2007