What Once Was: An Exclusive Look into the Comprehensive History of Neptune City’s Largest Manufacturing Concern
It all started in 1891. The grand opening of what would become the country’s biggest manufacturing concern, right on the corner of Fourth and Steiner Avenues and overlook Railroad Avenue (now Memorial Drive) in Neptune City (what was formerly known as Bradley Beach): Steiner and Son, Inc., which would produce the wildly popular “Universal Broadcloth Nightshirts”, otherwise simply known as sleeping garments. 60 operators stood by their machines that day, with more employees ready to cut and pack material. A crowd of onlookers gathered around as a little girl, Anna Ballard, pressed a button and sent the building’s grand machinery into action.
Steiner and Son was founded by Emmanuel Steiner, a silk dealer, in 1875. The business originally began in Peekskill, NY with just Emmanuel and his son, Edwin J. Steiner. Through the acquaintance of John Steinbach, Steiner met the proprietors of the Asbury Park Press, and then members of the Asbury Park Board of Trade, who encouraged him to consider moving business to Asbury Park. Subsequently, the Steiners chose to build their flagship factory at the location on Fourth and Steiner Avenues, with an expectation to employ a total of 1,000 employees to manufacture women’s sleeping garments. Homes, including mine, were built along Fourth Avenue to house the employees who would work there.
The 74,300-sq. foot three-story brick building was constructed by A.A. Taylor of Asbury Park on land donated by James A. Bradley. The first floor, constructed with beautiful hard wood, was used for packing and storing goods. A grand office was placed near the south entrance of the factory and a cloak room at the north entrance. The second floor, also finished in hard wood, was used exclusively by shirt operators, whose machines were powered by steam. The third floor would be reserved as the cutting room.
A McAdams and Cartwright elevator with a capacity of 2,000 pounds would carry materials to all three floors, while a broad stairway would enable employees to navigate the building. A grand dining room, completely furnished with tables, was located off of the operating room. The building was heated by steam, carried through pipes leading from the 60 horsepower boiler. The total cost of the building’s construction and heating system was $18,000. Combined with the cost of machinery, furnishings and everything else inside the plant, the grand total cost came to about $40,000. The 50,000-gallon water tower located outside the building, overlooking the railroad, sported the company’s logo: “We Put The World To Sleep.”
Local residents soon set their clocks by the whistle that sounded morning, noon and evening “quit work” whistle. After the Neptune City/Bradley Beach plant couldn’t keep up with the numbers of orders coming in, the Steiners opened a factory in Long Branch. The second factory still wasn’t enough, leading to the opening of more factories in Freehold, Manasquan, and Keyport, each with several hundred employees. They also had factories in Pennsylvania fulfilling orders. Steiner and Son would go on to have a total of seven factories in Toms River, Manasquan, Freehold, Long Branch, Keyport, Neptune City and Neptune Township.
By 1911, demand for nightshirts was so high that the Steiners considered adding a third floor to the Memorial Drive annex of the factory to create an addition 5,000 square feet of floor space. In 1919, they acquired the former Symphonion Building located on Seventh Ave and Memorial Drive (best known as the S.S. Adams Novelty Company, demolished in 2017) to use as a paper box factory.
Site of the First Murder in Neptune City
The flagship factory would become the site of Neptune City’s first murder in 1929. On the morning of August 3, 65-year-old George Danielson, a bank messenger for the First National Bank in Bradley Beach, was walking along Fourth Avenue with a $7,280 payroll in-hand for the factory before he was approached and shot by three well-dressed men, one of whom grabbed the payroll and ran towards Memorial Drive. The murder and robbery was conspired by Russel Baxter, Robert Tully, Frank McBrien aka “The Jersey Kid,” Francis “Lefty” Long and James Sargent, all of whom were caught and tried for their roles. Read more about it here.
Historical Significance in Labor Relations
During their years in operation, Steiner and Son made some incredible strides in labor relations history. The company was particularly known for the good treatment of its employees. The Bradley Beach and Long Branch plants had restaurants on site, where employees would be served lunches at a reduced rate. The company was also known for the cleanliness and high safety standards of their factory operations. All factories were well-lit, clean and equipped with modern machinery. In 1907, work hours were rearranged to begin at 7:30 a.m. (as opposed to 7) and end at 5:30 p.m, with work stopping at 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Employees received a half-hour lunch break at noon. Many operators (mainly girls and women) worked by the piece, making between $15 to $18 a week. By 1915, a Mutual Benefit association was created for its employees, who could qualify for paid sick benefits after three months of employment. The Mutual Benefit association offered employees two different classes of membership, costing $2.50 or $5.00 a week for 13 weeks, which amounted to .5-.10 cents from every paycheck. Four years later, all seven Steiner factories transitioned to a 48-hour weekly working basis, bringing the total working schedule up to 51 hours. Steiner and Son was the first company in Monmouth and Ocean counties to adopt this system. On March 31, 1930, Steiner and Son adopted a 5-day workweek, being the first firm on the Jersey Shore to join the then-growing movement. The reason for this move was to create more flexibility in the lives of their employees, as well as enable their women employees more time to spend with their family with the hopes of boosting employee morale. Wages were not affected as a result of the restructure.
In January 1932, Steiner and Son bought and merged with the Liberty Manufacturing Company of Baltimore, MD, forming the biggest pajama manufacturing concern in the world, with a million dollar capital. A large reason for this move was due to the decline in demand for nightshirts. The newly formed Steiner-Liberty Corporation would continue to make waves in the labor movement.
In 1935, the corporation saw a worker’s strike, backed by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, who leased a home on the 800 block of Fourth Avenue to serve as their headquarters during the strike. The reason for the strike was that the female employees were demanding the recognition of a union organization, claiming that they were not allowed to form one, as well as a dispute over the right to an election of the Employee’s organization under code. 100 girls (pressers, stitchers and examiners) walked out of the factory at 9.a.m after learning that the election was postponed by the board of directors. The workers wanted to form a union because they believed it would act as a “weapon” they could use to receive a pay increase and shorter hours. Their current wages were $13.20 for a 36-hour work week, working on a “point system,” having previously worked on a piece-system. The National Labor Relations board upheld the right of the group to organize, although the corporation filed to have the decision appealed. Clarence S. Steiner, chairman of the corporation’s board of directors, argued that they were working employees at the manufacturing trade cap of 36 hours/week but paying them as if they were working 40.
Two and a half weeks into the strike, an estimated 125 workers were participating, although it had little effect on the plant’s production process, according to Clarence Steiner. Strikers continued their picketing despite a snowstorm, wearing snowsuits and heavy coats, walking up and down the sidewalk between Fourth and Memorial, stopping at least three trucks from leaving the factory. After being accused of stoning a bus carrying employees to the plant, eight strikers were arrested, three of whom were charged with a disorderly persons act. One man, Raymond Poland, was found guilty of breaching the peace.
On the second day of the strike, a bus carrying workers was stoned again and two windows in the home of the plant’s foreman were broken. Clarence Steiner pressed charges against Miss Nora Piore, an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Union, for “inciting an affray.” According to reports, Miss Piore stopped one of the company’s trucks during the first day of the strike, rallying the other picketers around the truck so that it couldn’t get out. Edgar Eckart Jr, of Fourth Avenue, was charged with assault and battery against an officer, who claimed that Eckart attacked him as an ice cream truck attempted to make a delivery to the plant’s cafeteria. After a four hour hearing, Miss Piore was acquitted on charges of causing an affray, based on mass testimony that she did not purposefully block or instruct the picketers to block the truck’s path.
The Nightshirt Industry’s Big Decline
Approximately 6 months later, the Steiner-Liberty Corporation announced that it would close four plants, due to uncertain business trends and general trade debility as well as taxation issues with the borough of Neptune City. The closure put a total of 750 employees out of work, 350 of which whom worked in the Neptune City plant.
In 1940, a carton manufacturing concern bought the Steiner plant and expected to employ 300 people. One year later, the plant was purchased by Mario G. Mirabelli, who owned another manufacturing concern that produced clothing for the war. Mirabelli’s reason for purchasing the former Steiner plant was due to a high demand in government contract orders, creating approximately 300 all-union jobs. Mirabelli planned to use the entire factory for manufacturing and the smaller buildings around the property for storage. However, Mirabelli’s ownership of the plant did not come without troubles.
Hot ashes from a 1947 boiler fire caused $2,000 worth of damage. A company engineer smelled smoke and discovered the wooden boiler room to be in flames. Sounding the fire alarm and then using an in-house fire hose, assisted by a bookkeeper with another hose, the two men tried to contain the fire until Neptune City Fire Department arrived. They arrived with two hose lines, followed by Bradley Beach who used booster lines, stopping the blaze from potentially destroying the brick building. They also had to bring lines to the roof to stop a part of the fire that spread.
Two years later, an arson plot at the Mirabelli plant was foiled. A suspicious fire broke out in a carding machine, causing $5,000 worth of damage to auction stalls. The fire was deemed as an arson plot in an attempt to burn the entire plant down. The fire began when the plant’s controller fired up the large machine, which contained highly flammable material. A fire immediately broke out along a top roller but the controller and a few others were able to put out the fire with their hands. They then discovered hundreds of kitchen matches hidden in the machine’s material, which would have ignited instantly if the machine continued to function. Another fire broke out near the auction stalls located along Fourth and Steiner Aves. The arson scheme came after Mario Mirabelli reported having received threats from a north-county auction group who wanted to be cut in to a share of Mirabelli’s auction enterprise. The threats were of burning the plant and causing personal injury.
In 1951, Mario Mirabelli reopened the factory at Fourth and Steiner, after having previously used the factory as a retail sales outlet for garments, and planned to employ about 200 employees after receiving numerous government contracts calling for the manufacturing of army overcoats and parkas, jackets, dufflebags and jumpers for the Navy. One year later, the Mirabelli firm received a government contract totaling almost $1,000,000 for winter army clothing, causing the plant to require a third, eight hour shift to fulfill the orders. When the firm was alleged to have caused a delay in producing some of the goods, Mirabelli was ordered to give up $1,300,000 worth of material to return to the U.S. Army. Mirabelli quit on the contract to make 637,000 GI Pants in a dispute over more compensation. Federal agents arrived at the Neptune City plant to seize the material. The plant continued to operate for some time after but eventually shuttered business.
After Mirabelli’s manufacturing operations ended, the building was used for a flea market. In 1955, Neptune City residents expressed concern over rumors that the factory would be converted into a public auction market and that the vacant lot across the street on Fourth and Steiner Aves would be blacktopped to create parking for the auction. The borough of Neptune City assured residents that a public auction would not be allowed in town and a Press investigation into the rumors revealed a proposal for a shopping center/market venue called “Mirabelli Shopping Center,” which did not seem to go through. The building was also briefly used as a furniture warehouse during the 1970s until it was completely vacated.
In Desperate Need of Redevelopment
Afterward, the building had numerous owners until the Borough of Neptune City foreclosed on it twice, once in 1984 and again in 1986. During the 1984 foreclosure, the borough announced that it was unable to afford demolition costs and wanted to redevelop the building. In 1989, the building was sold to a West Orange company, that had the intent to redevelop the building into offices and stores, with a warehouse in the back, but those plans fell through due to the poor condition of the economy.
By 1991, the building began to deteriorate to the point where residents of Fourth Avenue began to petition to borough to ensure the building be demolished or developed. One couple living across from the building strongly advocated town officials to either “build it up or knock it down,” rallying other residents who lived in the vicinity to call up the borough until something was done. Some of the resident’s primary complaints were that the crumbling and decaying brick building was a fire hazard, an eyesore, a haven for raccoons, rats and other pests, and a danger to children, citing the overgrown weeds, broken glass and trash strewn about the property. One resident complained that the building was bringing down property values and that he was unable to sell his home, or even get prospective buyers to get out of the car and look at it, noting that once they saw the building, they would get in their car and leave. Neptune City’s code enforcer ordered the current owners to board up all of the windows and the Fourth Avenue entrance, which was condemned. They were also ordered to repair all of the places where the bricks were falling. Two years later, the building’s roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow.
Nothing else came of the building until May 1999, when demolition finally began. Partly into it, an 85-ton crane assisting with the demolition toppled over when the ground underneath gave way. The crane smashed through one side of the building, sending debris flying and knocking out power to surrounding homes on Fourth and Evergreen Aves. Only a few days later, the 100-year old Steiner and Son/Mirabelli plant was completely razed, followed by the tearing down of the water tower.
The construction of condominiums began in 2000 and was completed by 2002. Nothing remains of what once was… until now.
*Disclaimer: All information in this article is compiled for educational and historical purposes. Piecing together a story from newspaper archives isn’t an easy task and you can’t always get all of the details straight (for example, ages, spelling of names, etc. differs in different articles from the same publication) so there may be small gaps or inaccuracies in my write-up. My main goal was just to piece together the story as best I could. And with that I give you…my feature article…