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From Knickers to Body Stockings

By Doris Boyce

May_Hosiery_LOC01887v_comChestnut Square is on Chestnut Street just east of Fort Negley. There are eleven buildings in the complex, some connected by tunnels, with more than 198,000 square feet of space. The landmark buildings are widely known as the May Hosiery Mill which employed generations of Nashville families and was the oldest sock mill in the South.

The six-and-a-half-acre property was acquired by Jacob May and his partners in 1908. May served as president and then as chairman of the board until his death; his sons Mortimer and Dan operated the mill after that. The company was noted for the quality of its socks. The crew of Apollo 2, which landed on the moon in 1969, wore socks made by May Hosiery under contract to NASA.

German-born Jacob May, 18 years old, came to America in 1879 in steerage. He arrived in this country without speaking knowledge of the language and with only seven dollars in his pocket. He began peddling dry goods from a pack on his back. When he had earned enough he peddled the New England area by horse and wagon. He later married and settled in Laconia, New Hampshire, a hosiery mill town, where he opened a store. On buying trips for the store he sold his suppliers hosiery from the mill town.

An advertisement in a Boston newspaper brought Jacob May to Nashville. He and a friend successfully bid a Tennessee prison labor contractó50 men at approximately 50 cents a day. May moved his family and several French-Canadian fixers (knitting machine repairmen) to Nashville and started the Rock City Hosiery Mills in the old Church Street penitentiary in 1895.

By 1908 May and his partners opened for business on Chestnut Street. In the following years, May Mills counted as customers Marshall Field, Montgomery Ward, Spiegel, Woolworth, Kress, Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as Nashville wholesalers J.S. Reeves, Neely-Harwell, W.S. Riddle, and Eskind & Greenspan. In the 1930ís May was one of the first licensees of Walt Disney, and the company was a prime contractor in mortar fuses during World War II.

During the years before World War II, Jacob and Mortimer May made five trips into Hitlerís Germany and managed to rescue more than 200 Jews before the flow of visas was cut off. Mortimer became connected with the network of underground movement in Europe and succeeded in saving some intellectual Jews which the Nazis were eager to liquidate. After the war Mortimer helped to establish a Jewish homeland in Israel.

The family sold the plant to Wayne-Gassard Company of Chattanooga in 1965. Renfro Corporation bought the plant in the summer of 1983 from Wayne-Gassard but closed it soon after (in 1985) when sock sales were slow, displacing 147 employees.

Today, the expanse of unrenovated buildings still retains the aura of the hosiery mill. It is headquarters for a variety of enterprises including Tennessee Repertory Theatre, art and photography studios, video productions, scenic design, drapery fabrication, stained glass manufacturing, food products, and more.

 

Photo of workers at the May Hosiery Mill, Lewis Wickes Hine Photography, from Library of Congress Prints & Photo Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-nclc-01889; Call number LOT 7479, v. 2, no. 1749.

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