Howard Clothes was a name I heard throughout my childhood, as my dad regaled us with tales of his youth. However, I never took the time to learn more until recently, which proved quite a challenge. My 92-year-old dad has a spectacular memory, but I was seeking concrete information on this rather obscure clothing company that has seemingly been lost to history. The first Howard Clothes store opened in New York in 1924 and was founded by Samuel Kappel, Joseph Langerman, and Henry Marks – named after Langerman’s son Howard. A corporation was subsequently organized in New York in 1925 under the name Howard Clothes Inc. and was later changed to Howard Stores Corporation. The company operated a massive factory in Brooklyn, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, in the neighborhood now known as Dumbo. They sponsored a radio show called Howard Dandies, broadcast on WABC. Their line was limited to men’s clothing, with a major competitor being Bond Stores. Bond operated numerous retail outlets across the U.S., with a factory in Rochester, N.Y. and a flagship store at 372 Fifth Avenue at 35th Street in NYC. Although Bond was primarily a men’s clothier, by the mid-1950s some stores carried women’s clothing, and in their heyday, like Howard Clothes, they also had around 150 stores.
“Howard” was a registered trademark for the company’s men’s and boys’ suits, overcoats, top coats, sport coats, and more. In fact, back in the 1950s to 1970s, there were a number of trademark infringement lawsuits against copycat businesses. It is from those sources that I gathered the basic history of Howard Clothes since there is a paucity of online information. My dad helped fill in the rest of the blanks about Howard Clothes, in particular the personal ones. A special thanks to FultonHistory.com – without that source, I never would have located the details on the factory, as well as a lot of other ads and information.
My familial connection to Howard Clothes is on my maternal grandmother’s side. Her first cousin Minnie was married to Samuel Kappel, one of the founders of the business. He hired family members to work for him, including my grandfather Abraham, Aunt Dottie, and Uncle Jack. My grandfather worked at the Howard Clothes factory as a tailor – piecing together sleeves and collars on men’s jackets and dress shirts. Dottie worked in the factory office, and when she got married, her husband Murray was brought on board to learn lapel making, but after his first heart attack at age 32, he had to quit. When they moved to Akron, Ohio, Murray spent the rest of his career as a salesman in retail men’s clothing. It must have been one heck of a long ride for Abraham and Dottie to make from 661 Osborn Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to the factory near Manhattan Bridge. I’m sure Jack worked at a store closer to their home – likely either the one at 1770 Pitkin or 1558 Pitkin.
The story gets very interesting because Kappel’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Sennowitz came to live with my grandparents shortly after she was widowed. Why in the world would a woman whose son-in-law was a millionaire come to live with a poor family in a very modest blue-collar neighborhood? At this point, Kappel was already quite wealthy and his family lived in a beautiful house. She did not want to live with her daughter and son-in-law, nor her son Samuel Sennet (he changed his last name) and his family, because they did not keep a kosher house. It seemed like somebody was always living with my grandparents – their door was open to anyone who needed a roof over his or her head, but Mrs Sennowitz was quite a unique tenant! In fact, their house was so small that my dad slept on a fold-out cot in the dining room during his entire childhood. Mrs. Sennowitz bought them their first refrigerator, which was quite a big deal – they had an icebox prior to that.
My dad loves telling the story about this massive, very expensive 16 cylinder chauffeur-driven Cadillac pulling up to their tiny house at 661 Osborn Street when Kappel and his wife Minnie would visit Mrs. Sennowitz. When Sennet and his family came to visit, they pulled up in a slightly less ostentatious 12 cylinder Cadillac, but both were sights to behold. Mrs. Sennowitz lived there until she died, which I believe was only a couple of years, because she was already quite old when she moved in. She left behind a huge valise plastered with stickers from her husband’s world travels. When my dad was drafted into the Army, his mother wanted to send him off with this suitcase, but didn’t like that it wasn’t pristine. She labored over it for hours, steaming off all the stickers – of course my dad says he would have loved to have a suitcase with such provenance, but his mother insisted.
Kappel, for all his money, could not buy good health. He developed a pituitary tumor which led to acromegaly, which causes excessive production of the growth hormone. In this day and age it is highly treatable, but back in the 1940s it was not well understood. If left untreated, it leads to serious health consequences such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and death. Kappel spent a good part of his fortune seeking treatment all over the world. In a feature article on the garment industry published in the June 28, 1948 issue of Life Magazine, Kappel already had the characteristic facial abnormalities caused by the progression of untreated acromegaly. The only obituary I could find was a tiny one in the Watertown News. Kappel died on November 11, 1957 at the age of 68. He left behind Minnie and four daughters – Muriel (Mickey), Elaine, Doris (Sis) and Joyce.
Kappel’s brother-in-law took over the business, likely after he became too ill to handle day-to-day operations. Sennet began working as a clerk at Howard Clothes when he was 18, getting promoted to general manager first, and then president, serving in the latter role from 1947 to 1957. During his tenure, the clothing chain expanded considerably. Sennet died on December 7, 1964 at the age of 63 after a long illness. He lived in the Lombardy Hotel at 111 East 56th Street and left a wife and three children.
From 1924 until around 1970, Howard Clothes maintained a steady growth rate, continually expanding its markets until its heyday, when they had 150 retail clothing stores, including close to 70 “Howard” stores located from coast to coast in the U.S. I discovered that Howard Clothes had a store inside the A. I. Namm & Son Department Store at 450-458 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. There is a good deal of information on Namm & Sons and it will be the subject of a future blog.
It is odd that Howard Clothes, a company that built a men’s clothing empire with 150 retail stores across the country is not even listed on Wikipedia under defunct stores. At least the Dumbo factory has been converted into something more socially responsible than condos in this now gentrified area of Brooklyn. It is the Chapel Street Community Based Outreach Center, a hub for services related to homelessness, primary care, substance abuse, and mental health.