Clothing the Armed Forces:
The Great Western Garment Company during WWII
By Catherine C. Cole
Edmonton's Great Western Garment Company (GWG) played an important role during the Second World War, producing up to 25,000 pieces of military clothing a week for the armed forces, prisoner-of-war uniforms, and military uniforms for other countries. At the outbreak of the war, GWG was reputed to be the largest garment manufacturing company in the British Empire. Two-thirds of the plant's production was soon dedicated to government contracts.
Since 1911, Great Western Garment had built its business and reputation on high quality workwear and fair labour practices, a combination that was essential to its success in securing government contracts in both the First and Second World Wars, more than $4 million in total by 1945: army combinations, khaki shorts and shirts, khaki battle dress uniforms, pants for the army, the R.C.A.F., and the navy, ground crew combinations, uniforms for explosive workers, etc.
Assembly line production
Clarence D. Jacox became president after founder Charles A. Graham died in December 1940. Jacox hired efficiency experts to divide sewing operations into many different steps and teach operators how to complete each one. Some operators were trained on two machines so they could fill in for others when necessary; however the union prevented them from learning too many operations because under the piecework system they could earn more by perfecting one operation.
Effie Hobden who worked there in 1943, remembers,
The whole floor was on its best behaviour when we were told that an efficiency expert was coming that day to pass judgement on the operation. We all sat sewing away, as we watched his progress around the room, accompanied by the manager.
Suddenly he stopped at the machine next to mine, which was operated by a very pretty girl, who was always very cheerful, even though she had a disabled husband whom she was supporting. The efficiency expert kept asking her questions, which she answered politely, as he lingered on. Suddenly she looked up with her big blue eyes and said innocently, 'Sir, I think it is so-o kind of you to take the time to tell us how to sew.' The fellow turned scarlet up to the roots of his hair and left rather hurriedly, probably quite conscious of the muffled giggles behind his retreating back.
In 1942, Great Western Garment built a $125,000, two-storey addition to the plant at 10305 97th Street, the corner of 97th Street and 103rd Avenue. The company hired an additional 125 workers, predominantly young women, bringing the workforce to 500. With more automated machinery it produced 12,500 uniforms per week. When necessary to complete a contract, two and — at times even three — shifts of operators worked around the clock.
Great Western Garment's wartime production was not limited to the Canadian armed forces. For example, in 1945, Great Western Garment supplied the Netherlands army with military uniforms: 68,000 pairs of combination overalls, 15,000 khaki service trousers, 30,000 overalls for the marines, 65,000 flannel shirts and 35,000 white drill shorts for the air force.
Essential wartime service
In the garment manufacturing industry, normally women were sewing machine operators, pressers and office workers. Men were tailors, cutters, packers, mechanics and salesmen. However, during the war, in addition to working as operators, women replaced some of the young men from the plant who enlisted in the armed forces. In 1942, presser Beulah Williams (née Nelson) was one of three women offered the opportunity to become a cutter. Cutting provided better pay, hourly wages rather than piecework, more variety, and more respect within the plant. When the women moved to the cutting floor, the plant's tailor made them each two pairs of pants to wear on the job, so they could dress like men while doing men's work. However, when the war ended and men returned to GWG, the women were expected to return to their former positions as operators, Nelson married and chose to leave the plant.
The contribution of workers at the plant to the war effort was a source of pride for the community at the time. An article in the Edmonton Bulletin, February 4, 1942, noted that "Thousands of Canadian women are fighting Hitler with needles!" Women working at GWG could not quit their jobs during the war without a valid reason because their work was considered to be an essential wartime service. However, marriage and childbirth often interrupted their working lives. If they did not have family members able to help, employees had difficulty finding adequate child care so GWG supported a request that the City provide child care.
Workers at the plant had taken a wage reduction in the early years of the war. Yet, the company had profited significantly from the war. In 1943, after unsuccessful negotiations at the plant and provincial levels, Local 120 U.G.W.A. President Emily Ross, and Edmonton Trades and Labour Council representative Carl Berg, appealed to the National War Labour Board and operators' rates were restored to pre-war levels, an increase of 10%.
The demands of government contracts, and limited availability of civilian cloth, restricted Great Western Garment's production of its signature brands, Cowboy Kings, Red Strap, Iron Man, Buckskin, Snobak denim, and Texas Ranger. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board governed style changes and price ceilings. Cotton was required for military supplies. GWG had difficulty buying enough material to fill its orders for work clothes, consequently consumers had difficulty finding replacement clothing. Great Western Garment continued to advertise in farm magazines in order to maintain loyalty among its customers and retailers. Advertisements in The Country Guide from 1943 note: "Merchants who are unable to buy stocks of G.W.G. goods, because of scarcity of supply or lack of established quota, should plan to acquire this brand for their stores when peace times return again."
Great Western Garment promoted the purchase of well-made clothes as a patriotic act: "...buy only what you need — buy the longest-lasting garments you can get — buy a quality brand." The company acknowledged the critical role of farm families during the war: "All farm families in Western Canada are fighting a tough battle — a battle to increase food production in spite of a shortage of help. As good Canadians they know that to work, to fight, to sacrifice is the price of Victory." Shortages did not end as soon as the war was over. In 1946, GWG ads noted, "They're still a little scarce, but they're worth waiting for."
Supporting the war effort
The union and workers at the plant supported the war effort by buying Victory Bonds and sending money to workers serving overseas at Christmas, and cigarettes to the boys at Easter. Passwords at union meetings were occasionally war-related: "Onward to Victory". One woman mentioned putting her name and address in a uniform pocket thinking the soldier who was issued it might like someone to communicate with, but the note was caught before it left the plant and she was told not to do that again.
Great Western Garment expanded its plant, upgraded machinery, and increased its workforce significantly during the Second World War, producing more than $4 million worth of military clothing. When the war was over, GWG had to create a new market for its goods. The company expanded its product line beyond men and boys' workwear into fashion jeans, pants, tops and clothing for the whole family with distribution throughout Canada.
Catherine C. Cole is an Edmonton-based heritage consultant who is currently working with the Royal Alberta Museum, the Provincial Archives of Alberta, the Alberta Labour History Institute and DActive on the development of a virtual exhibition about the history of GWG that will be launched in 2009.