Amongst the titans of classic American lingerie is the historical Van Raalte company. The firm was founded in 1913 by Emanuel Van Raalte as a silk mill and manufacturer of accessories including gloves, hosiery and veils.
One of the company's earliest products was silk veiling.
In 1917 the company opened its first major plant in Dunkirk, New York, increasing production and providing a major source of employment for the community's population. Only a year later, they purchased the Niagara Silk Mills located in Tonawanda, New York and began producing under the already established "Niagara Maid" label, expanding their production into lingerie and becoming one of its premier producers.
A 1918 advertisement for the Niagara Maid silkies posted shortly after the company purchased the Niagara Mills.
Van Raalte's early endeavors were concentrated in the production of silk knits. Their stylish designs were marketed to the fashionable woman as luxury goods that maintained a practical quality. It was not long before their silken products could be found in department stores across the country.
Their advertising campaign "Because you love nice things," communicates the brand's luxurious feel. This stocking ad dates to 1927.
In the 1920s Van Raalte's lingerie designs became increasingly sophisticated and stylish. The newly liberated flapper desired a particular set of intimates, vastly different from her Edwardian predecessors and the firm delivered. Two piece separates complete with tap panties and bralettes were popular, as were the closed bottom cami-knicker pieces like the Singlette. These designs were fashioned from knit silk fabrics and trimmed with elegant lace details for a foundation that was both functional and stylish, perfect for the prohibition moll.
Despite the economic down turn of the 30s Van Raalte stayed afloat keeping the areas surrounding their plants from caving in as well. In 1937 Van Raatle was the single largest employer in Dunkirk, with a large staff comprised mostly of female workers. After the economy busted and the area's steel plants closed many people survived off the wages the women in their families brought home from the Van Raalte factories.
The Dunkirk plant's employee photograph depicts a largely female staff.
As the depression came to a close the lingerie business boomed and it wasn't long before there were Van Raalte plants in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania with the firm's main offices stationed on 5th Avenue in New York City.
A photograph from the 20s of the Dunkirk plant's hosiery cutters.
Stay tuned for more information on the company's adventures in Nylonland including their trademarked fabrics which dominated lingerie fashion in the 50s and 60s as well as a survey of some of the brand's most glamorous gloves.