Historically Speaking: Old-time tailors
Updated Wed., 5/30 – Nowadays when one of our men needs a new suit (trousers, jacket and/or vest) he goes to his favorite menswear or department store and makes his purchase immediately-whether he is average, large or small in size. Some stores specialize in the very large sizes, down to the very small, and he can make his selection from a variety of styles, colors and combinations-right off the rack, with usually just a few minor alterations necessary; perhaps only shortening or lengthening trouser legs or coat sleeves.
A new suit was quite a process in the early 1900s and up through the 1920s and 30s. Tailors were very busy and necessary craftsmen, supplying the needed outerwear for our businessmen and all men in general.
I am going to describe the tailor shop that served many men in Rhinelander in the early 1900s-the Ole Kongslien Tailor Shop. Even though Ole Kongslien was my late husband’s uncle, I had to get pictures and details from his only living child-the former Esther Kongslien (now Crymes) who lives in Oregon. She recalled that before she was born, her father, Ole, owned and operated a tailor shop in the middle of the block of Brown Street near the Oneida (later the Fenlon) Hotel. According to the picture she supplied, Ole Kongslien had this location for his first tailor shop in 1907. He is pictures here with his brother, Tom (my father-in-law) and also Peter Stromme, who worked in the shop.
Both Ole and Tom learned about the tailoring trade in Norway as young fellows where they served as apprentices, and when Ole came to Rhinelander, he opened his first shop at this location. Several years later his brother Tom joined him in the operation of the tailor shop. Ole’s wife, Sigred, helped at the home doing some of the lighter sewing.
The second location of the Ole Kongslien Tailor Shop (and the first location that Esther Kongslien Crymes remembered in her childhood) was located upstairs in a “suite” of rooms in the corner building across from Kirk’s Bakery (now the House of Spirits). Ole worked at tailoring for many years until shortly before his death in 1940. In his later years he did minor repairs and small tailoring jobs out of his home on North Brown Street, just several houses south of Rueckert’s Grocery Store. Tom worked with Ole for several years, and then left the tailoring business to be a custodian at the South Park School (now Northwoods Community Secondary School) on the corner of Arbutus and Prospect Streets. He died in 1955.
Ole Kongslien’s Tailor Shop, as is shown in the photo, contained several tables around the room on which the tailors sat as they basted and sewed. A large wood-burning stove heated the rooms, and this stove contained a well in which the big irons were heated when pressing was necessary as the garment came into being. A treadle sewing machine occupied a central spot. Much of the first sewing was done by hand, and then later on the machine.
A prospective customer chose the materials, as bolts of fabric were kept on display with tags giving the wool content, etc. The wool company sent samples with each bolt-a sample of 6×8 inches was attached to cardboard and kept on each bolt of material with necessary information on it. The customer was then measured, and he would come back for a “first fitting” after the garment was cut out of the chosen cloth, basted and pressed. I would assume that one of the extra rooms was used as a fitting room for privacy.
Perhaps a second fitting would be necessary, and then the final touches would be made and the garment completed. Black was definitely the favorite for men’s suits; brown and navy blue were also available. No brought colors, and very few plaids, if any, were available. It was usual to order two pairs of trousers, and they wore out quicker and a spare pair was handy to have on hand.
Some tailors sat cross-legged upon the tables, but most of them had their legs straight out as they hand-stitched the garments. Some of the tailor shops, especially in the larger cities, were called “sartorial shops”. Webster tells us that the word “sartorial” is derived from “sartor” which means tailor. “Sartorius” is also the name for the long leg muscle. Tailors sat for long hours at a time, stretching this muscle. Can’t you just hear one of our ancestors saying “I must go to the sartorial shop for a new suit!”
Not too many men in the early 1900s could afford to get a suit often. One had to last a long time not just because of the cost, but because of the time it took to choose the material and the time involved in the fittings and final work. I have no idea what a suit or any other outerwear garment used to cost, but I’m sure it was quite an amount. Next time you look at your old tintypes and photographs, consider the dashing suit the gentleman is wearing. It was fashioned by one of our “old-time” tailors.