Growing up, we in Amsterdam’s Baby Boom generation heard many stories about the flashy millionaire industrialists whose factories employed our grandparents. While carpets dominated Amsterdam’s manufacturing profile, knitting mills were also plenty and prosperous in this community. One of the most successful was the Chalmers Knitting Company, run by today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, David Chalmers.
David was born on May 17, 1870, the son of Harvey Chalmers, who had owned an Amsterdam Hardware Store and also started Harvey Chalmers & Son, a company that would grow to become the largest manufacturer of pearl buttons in the World. While his younger brother Arthur went to work for their father’s company, David found his niche in the knitting industry.
At the turn of the twentieth century, most men and boys who didn’t go commando, wore a single piece undergarment known as a union suit. Its primary purpose was to keep the wearer warm during the winter. Back then, central home heating systems had not yet become the norm. Most homes were cold in the winter and union suits were one of the primary ways men and boys stayed warm. The problem was they were made of nonporous fabrics, which meant unless the person wearing one was in a cold environment, they were usually hot as hell!
A highly experienced knitting expert and Amsterdam resident by the name of Martin Shaughnessy had just worked out a mechanical process that for the first time made it possible to knit a fabric while simultaneously leaving tiny holes at regular intervals. This permitted air to flow through the material and reach the body of the person wearing it. This new type of fabric could be used to make a new type of undergarment that would be more comfortable to wear in all types of environments.
In 1901 David Chalmers partnered with fellow Amsterdam businessmen John Blood, John Barnes and J. Howard Hanson in a business that hired Shaughnessy and put his new process into production. The Chalmers Knitting Co. was incorporated three years later with David as its President. The company specialized in producing men’s and boy’s mesh Union Suits for all seasons. Chalmers then invented the first two-piece undergarment, which would quickly render the one-piece Union Suit obsolete. The Company backed all their products with the “Chalmers Guarantee.” By 1909, the business was doing well enough to build a multi-storied modern plant on Bridge Street in Amsterdam’s Southside. By 1919, Chalmers Knitting Co. was doing over six million dollars in annual sales and employing 750 people.
David Chalmers had proven he knew how to build a successful business in a very competitive industry and he certainly also knew how to live the life of a successful industrial magnate. He built an elegant gray-stucco’d mansion at 345 Guy Park Avenue that still stands today. It became the scene of some of Amsterdam’s most glamorous social occasions back in the day. He paid over $30,000 a year for a famous brightly lit sign in New York Times Square that helped make the Chalmers name and its underwear products known throughout the World. He was transported around town in a chauffeured car. He traveled extensively and made powerful friends, like Thomas Edison. His daughter Elizabeth married the grandson of the owner of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.
Chalmers continued to run his Knitting Company until 1945, when he sold it to Lester Martin and Company of New York City. Chalmers died at his 345 Guy Park Avenue home on January 16, 1950, at the age of 79. What happens (or doesn’t happen) to the vacant lot site of his now demolished Bridge Street mill will have as significant an impact on this City’s future as his mill did on its past.