The rise and fall of a West Berkeley knitting pioneer

Daniella Thompson

The former Pfister knitting mill, 2600 8th Street at Parker (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

6 February 2008

For seven decades spanning the period from the 1880s to the 1950s, San Francisco was an important hub in the American knitting industry. It became so thanks to one Swiss immigrant: John Jacob Pfister (1844–1921).

Although the knitting machine was invented as early as 1589, knitting remained a cottage craft for more than 250 years. Not until the mid-19th century, when the circular knitting machine was introduced, did machine-knitted undergarments become common.

In 1864, William Cotton of Leicestershire developed a full-fashioned machine, capable of producing garments that fit the body’s shape. This innovation, alongwith steam power, helped turn commercial knitting into a full-fledged industry in Europe.

Four years after Cotton’s invention, the 25-year old John Jacob Pfister, who had worked as a traveling salesman in his native Switzerland, left for the New World. He sailed on the S.S. Hermann from Le Havre in September 1869 and is said to have been one of the passengers who made the trip to San Francisco on the first transcontinental train.

Pfister’s activities in San Francisco between 1869 and 1877 are not known. He was possibly related to the Swiss brewer John Pfister, a next-door neighbor of the Swiss saloon keeper John Gantner. The latter’s son, John O. Gantner, would become an executive in Pfister’s knitting company.

In 1877, Pfister obtained three hand-operated knitting machines and began manufacturing knitwear on a small scale with the help of two assistants. The impetus may have come from Pfister’s elder brother, who had remained in Switzerland and become a knitwear manufacturer.

Who were the two assistants? Pfister’s biography in Greater Oakland, 1911: A Volume Dealing with the Big Metropolis on the Shores of San Francisco Bay (Pacific Publishing Co.) doesn’t reveal their names. However, a decade following this modest beginning, the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company, now incorporated, was operating a factory at 410 Polk Street, on the corner of McAllister and cater-cornered from the construction site of San Francisco’s city hall, begun in 1872 but not completed until 1899.

An early Pfister Co. bathing suit

In 1889, J.J. Pfister Knitting Co. was listed in the San Francisco directory as manufacturers of crochet and knitted goods, bathing suits, tights, underwear, sporting uniforms, and importers of bolting cloth. By then, Pfister was employing two men who within a decade would utilize their acquired know-how to found their own knitting company—one that would rival Pfister’s and eventually eclipse it. They were John O. Gantner, corporate secretary, and George A. Mattern, mill superintendent (see Knitwear Magnate Looked to Europe for Building Inspiration).

As the Victorian era waned, Americans of both sexes were engaging in more athletic pursuits than ever before, propelling consumer demand for swimsuits, jerseys, golf vests, sweaters, and leggings. Pfister opened a retail store at 60 Geary Street in downtown San Francisco, where he sold both off-the-shelf and knit-to-order apparel and underwear.

Athletic uniforms being an important component of the catalog, Pfister was active in the affairs of the YMCA, even attending the organization’s state conventions. His employee G.A. Mattern learned and copied from the master.

A Pfister ad in the San Francisco Blue Book, 1902

On 13 June 1905, the San Francisco Call reported that property owners and lease holders of the blocks bounded by Geary, Stockton, Post, and Kearny Streets had met “to discuss ways and means of beautifying Union Square Avenue [today’s Maiden Lane] and turning the alley into an attractive place for retail shoppers.” Newton J. Tharp, a prominent San Francisco architect (he would become the City Architect in 1907) presented a sketch of a covered arcade proposed for the two blocks between Kearny and Stockton Streets.

“On each side of the street were walks seven feet wide. Every thirty feet was a pillar, made of iron and supporting a glass roof,” reported the Call. The retail merchants in attendance “seemed very enthusiastic over the possibility of the artistic improvement. Most of them had seen the shopping streets of Paris, Berlin, Milan and other European cities, where the covered shopping avenues have been in vogue for many years.”

A second meeting was convened on 19 June to poll all interested parties, of whom J.J. Pfister was one. A committee was formed and success seemed assured when the City Engineer announced that obstructions on the streets ran contrary to the city charter and the building ordinance and therefore could not be legally accomplished. The merchants vowed to continue, but the momentum appeared to have fizzled.

And then the earthquake struck, followed by fire. Pfister family lore, passed down through John Jacob’s daughter-in-law, tells that on the first day of the fire, the Polk Street factory burned down; on the second day, the Geary Street shop went up in flames; and on the third day, the house at 2208 Jones St. was decimated.

The business was insured by the Pennsylvania Insurance Company, the home by German-American (now Great American Life Insurance), and both refused to cover the loss, since the fire was caused by earthquake.

Two San Francisco friends are said to have helped Pfister start from scratch. Were they Gantner and Mattern, whose own facilities were not harmed? Perhaps, but not likely.

A week after the earthquake, Pfister had opened a temporary office at 1006 McAllister St., and on 26 June the Berkeley Reporter announced that the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company had bought a tract of land in West Berkeley, along Parker Street from Seventh to Tenth, and would construct there a factory employing between 150 and 200 hands.

The land was purchased from the Carleton family, which owned a 100-acre farm on San Pablo Road.

“Five factories are now working on machines to stock this new knitting mill, which is expected to be in full working order some time during September,” informed the Reporter. “In order to accommodate its employees, the company will build a number of cottages, and rent them at a nominal figure.”

The Reporter also made it known that in addition to its factory hands, the Pfister Company employed “many outside hands to do finishing and crocheting and will thus give a number of Berkeley people an opportunity to increase their income by working in their own homes.” It was rumored that the town would “meet the company by completing the macadamizing of Seventh Street to and through the company’s land and also macadamizing Parker Street to the West Berkeley railroad line.”

The Pfister knitting mill circa 1910 (courtesy of Anthony Bruce)

The building was stuccoed in 1929. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

By 11 July, the Reporter divulged that architect William H. Wharff had prepared plans for the new factory, which would contain 27,000 square feet, measure 150 by 60 feet, and accommodate 100 employees. The previous year, Wharff had designed the Masonic Temple on the corner of Shattuck Ave. and Bancroft Way.

Opened in November 1906, the Pfister factory was originally clad in brown shingles. The Oakland Tribune took stock of it on 8 December of that year:

The building is two stories in height and is well lighted by fifteen windows on each side of the building. The basement is being used for storing a large stock of yarns; the first floor has the knitting machines; the second floor contains the machines used for finishing off garments. D. Halliday erected the factory building, and also a handsome residence for J.J. Pfister, the proprietor of the factory, which is located east of the factory building. The factory is employing twenty-five persons this week, but in the near future the number of employees will be increased to 100.

At latest there are thirty-two machines of the latest and most improved type in use on the first floor, and eighteen on the second floor. Fifteen new machines will be obtained in the near future, and will materially increase the capacity of the plant.

Circular knitting machines at the Portland Knitting Co., later Jantzen Knitting Mills (National Museum of American History)

The Pfister family—John Jacob, Bertha, and John Jacob Jr.—settled in a modest shingled cottage, also designed by Wharff, across the street from the factory, at 2601 8th Street. The company’s San Francisco office and sales rooms returned to Polk and McAllister, and a new store was opened in 1908 at 739 Market St., opposite Grant Avenue.

Newspaper ad for the new Pfister retail shop (San Francisco Call, 28 September 1908)

In 1907, the frugal Pfister hit upon an ingenious way to promote his business without shelling out for display ads. His brief, three-line ads began appearing in the San Francisco Call’s editorial columns, the only such ads to occupy this type of space.

Business was sufficiently good, but the Pfisters lived modestly and their names were never mentioned in the society pages. John Jr. was not a coddled son. In 1907, at the age of 20, he took out an ad in the Call in which he described himself as experienced in farming and wanting a position as teamster on a large farm. Evidently he found such a position, because in 1909 he took out another ad, this time describing himself as an experienced teamster with good knowledge of farming who could take entire charge of a small place. A year later, he was superintendent in the knitting mill.

The Pfister home, designed by William H. Wharff, was moved in 1923 from 2601 8th Street to 1233 Derby Street. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

From trade publications of the era one gathers that the Pfister company had a capitalization of $80,000 in 1913 and $120,000 in 1916, at which time they operated 72 knitting machines. But the company wasn’t strong enough to withstand the post-WWI recession of 1920–21. John Jacob Pfister died on 21 April 1921. Although his daughter-in-law claimed that he was ruined financially and died of a broken heart, Pfister left his wife and son an estate of $48,000, consisting of a house and lot in Berkeley and 640 acres in Placer county.

The Emporium bought the Pfister inventory and on 22 December 1924 advertised “Stock purchase of the well known J.J. Pfister Knitting Co. of San Francisco and Berkeley, who are retiring after forty years of successful business. On sale Tuesday at nine—at regular wholesale prices: Sweaters for men, boys, women, children, infants. Not only sweaters but other wanted knitted wearing apparel of high quality just in time for your last-minute Christmas shopping. Every garment high grade and dependable in every way. Truly a lucky purchase!”

Oakland Tribune, 22 December 1924

In 1923, the Pfisters moved their house to 1233 Derby Street, where they continued to live for the rest of their days. John Jacob Jr. went to work as a clerk in another knitting company. The Pfister factory was taken over in 1929 by the Bomberger Seed Company, which stuccoed the exterior. The building was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 17 November 1986.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 8 February 2008.



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