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MADE HERE, BABY!The Essential Guide to Finding the Best American-Made Products for Your Kids
By Bruce H. Wolk
AMACOMCopyright © 2009 Bruce H. Wolk
All right reserved.
My Mom, "Ruthie the Riveter"
She wasn't much more than 23 years old the morning she first stepped onto the manufacturing floor of the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory in Tonawanda, New York. Her jaw dropped at the scale of it all. It was the largest building she had ever seen, with row upon row of aircraft and all the machinery, the noise, and the activity. However, she is quick to explain that she was an inexperienced girl from Buffalo, who hadn't been anywhere and hadn't seen much.
She was tired from too little sleep and very nervous. She was afraid of not being accepted and, worse, of not doing good work. So much was riding on the opportunity. Though it was 1943, the Great Depression hadn't left her family.
There were 10 children, and she was the second youngest. At any given time, at least some of her older brothers and sisters, even those who were married, were out of work. Family meals were potluck. She never knew who would show up. Strangers were fed with the same love as family. You could stretch potato soup. A memory floods my brain. I was a little boy, and my mother, my aunt, and I were walking out of a supermarket. I picked up a shriveled potato that had rolled out of someone's shopping bag a few days before. I threw it to the ground, and my mother yelled at me. I understand now.
She was teased in high school because she would often wear the same dress or ill-fitting hand-me-downs from her older sisters. She sees nothing noble about being poor. It stinks to be poor. Memories of being teased remain with her to this day.
Though she dreamed of going to college and certainly had the stuff to go to college, there was no money to do so. She knew of some in the "other crowd" that had made it through the hard times without a scratch. The Depression wasn't an equal-opportunity era. The girls in the other crowd had dads who were doctors and lawyers; her dad was laid off from the Pullman Company because they no longer needed car-seat upholsterers. He scratched around at all kinds of factory-second sales schemes to bring in money, and almost none of them worked. So the rich girls would get to go to college. Well, good for them. You took what you could get, and you shut up about it.
After high school, Ruth took employment as a sales clerk. She worked her way up to making almost $11 a week at Kobacker's Department Store. She sold nurses' uniforms, aprons, and such. The war was on, and, sadly, nurses were in high demand. The manager praised her work. He said that her department was doing triple the business of any other department. She asked for a nickel an hour raise, and the manager walked away. She quit Kobacker's and took work at another department store. The results weren't much better. The new boss wasn't such a nice man. In today's parlance, they would call it harassment.
Curtiss-Wright was hiring riveters. It was steady work with lots of overtime. The catch was that you would have to go to riveting school for a month without pay. It was worth the chance. Ruth had just gotten engaged to a guy who lived on Long Island. He was in the family tailoring and dry-cleaning business. She wanted to look presentable for his family. She wanted to dress like a woman and not some small-timer who ate potato soup and had two dresses.
Her new boss was a Native American from an upstate New York tribe. He was a big man physically, with a good heart. His job was to make assignments for the different teams. He teamed my mom with a girl named Wanda who was even younger than she.
Ruth, the daughter of Romanian and Russian-Polish Jews, and her partner, a Polish Catholic girl, "clicked." Their job was to rivet the cockpits for the P-40 fighter plane, known in military circles as the Tomahawk or the Kittyhawk. It was the aircraft flown by the Flying Tigers in the Pacific and the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, in Europe.
There were some who wondered what Ruth was doing there. You're rich, aren't you? All your people are rich. She thought about her father, who was now applying for work at Curtiss-Wright as a broom pusher. What do you think I'm doing here?
The two young women, 98-pound weaklings, talked of their dreams, sang songs such as Begin the Beguine, and leaned into the metal. They finally had real jobs and not small-time work. They became so good at their craft that the bosses assigned them inspection duties to correct the mistakes of other teams. With overtime, working through lunches and inspection work, Ruth pulled down as much as $60 a week. The Great Depression had ended for my mom. I asked her if she ever thought about the pilots sitting in the aircraft she helped build.
Whenever we finished a plane, I touched it, and I prayed that the boys would be safe.
The Curtiss-Wright factory employed nearly 40,000 American factory workers at the peak of its wartime airplane production; more than 80 percent of them were women. During the war years, Curtiss-Wright built nearly 16,000 P-40s. They were built by farm girls, waitresses, and sales clerks.
The nursery rhymes of my childhood were songs of sweat-built aircraft and songs by aunts and uncles who worked as pattern makers, fabric blockers, bookbinders, and car-seat upholsterers. My connection to American manufacturing is genetic. It was no wonder that my first jobs were also in manufacturing. I am drawn to people who like to make things.
We recently honored mom, now 90, with a dinner party. Relatives flew in from all over the country to be with her. At some point during the birthday weekend, she turned to me and unexpectedly asked: How come we don't make things in America anymore?
She made the point for this book.
We still make things here, mom, and we make them well. They don't always get the credit they deserve—well, hardly ever, really. I don't know if the people who make them touch their products the way you placed your hand against the metal of the plane and prayed for the pilots, but they care just as much. I felt their voices as they talked to me. Many of them will have wonderful nursery rhymes to sing.
Moms and Dads versus "The Globe"
At the start of my professional career, when I was doing R&D for a manufacturing company, I remember workers in the nearby electronics factories getting laid off. I saw them shouting and picketing, then reduced to milling about in front of shuttered doors, and finally, applying for nonexistent jobs at my factory. Whole industries were disappearing, and it was not long before most everyone agreed that American manufacturing was going to join the dinosaurs.
According to the experts, we would buy our products from "somewhere else," and, in turn, Americans would find jobs in fields such as customer service and "computers." My business school professors started to talk about something called the "global economy."
We were delighted; as a freshly minted M.B.A., I envisioned flying to exotic places and dining in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rome, and Paris.
Imports began to flood our new global economy. "Bargain stores," "super stores," and then the "big box" stores sprang up. They offered everyday cheap prices. Almost everything in those stores was made in that somewhere else place, and that was all right by most of us.
Things seemed fine for a while except for the plant workers losing their jobs; however, economists assured us that "those people" would soon be fixing things, manning call centers, and greeting customers as they walked into the big box stores with their shopping carts.
We began to hear whispers, not much more than a trickle, about products being recalled for safety concerns. It was stuff used by grown-ups, and no one seemed to care. Then there were the disturbing stories about our pets getting sick, and that bothered many more of us. Finally, the media exploded with news bulletins about the products we were buying for our kids. It wasn't just toys but children's games, furniture, room decorations, jewelry, and clothes! In the beginning it was about choking hazards, but then it was about the chemicals on the products themselves.
Whole laws have been created with regard to lead-based paints and the dangers to children; as parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, we know how dangerous chemicals such as lead can be! In most states, you can't sell a house without signing a lead paint disclosure statement. We were shocked and scared when the first infant products were recalled due to lead contamination!
To our amazement, hundreds of thousands of imported children's products are still being recalled because they contain lead-based paints, present choking hazards, or have other safety violations. Most of these products are from that "somewhere else" place. These aren't just fly-by-night brands, either, but brands many of us remember from our own childhoods and even some brands going back to my mom's childhood.
While the media were outraged and the politicians yakked, it was moms who mobilized. Across America, it has been angry moms, and not politicians, who have rallied and led the fight against unsafe imports. Moms are blogging, moms are forming online communities, moms are reviewing products, moms are talking in the workplace, at coffee bars, and at social events. Suddenly, "cheaper" isn't as glamorous a word as it once was; the somewhere else place had come home to haunt us.
However, most moms, dads, and everyone else were convinced that there weren't good alternatives to imported children's products. Who can blame them? For years the only images we'd seen of American manufacturing were chained gates and crumbling factories.
Wouldn't we consider American-made choices if they were available? According to the experts, moms and dads are willing to at least look at American-made products—if they can find them! In most cases, we can find excellent American-made children's products, and that is why we wrote Made Here, Baby!
What American Manufacturers Have Taught Us
A few years ago, we began a journey to rediscover American manufacturing. As the problems with imported children's products began to surface, we focused our efforts on American manufacturers of children's products.
Friends shook their heads and laughed: There's no one left! Who's going to want a three-page book? We are happy to report that the pessimists would have been wrong. Let's visit some of the findings from our journey:
There are more of us than you might think, but it doesn't mean we're easy to find.
Web searches can be tricky if you don't look beneath the surface. Just because a manufacturer has "USA" in its name or appears on a list doesn't necessarily mean any part of its products are manufactured or even assembled in America. A well-known brand name whose product line used to be manufactured in America does not guarantee that it is still being produced in America.
On the other hand, many companies can't be easily found by typing keywords into a search engine. Though they are true American manufacturers, several of these businesses have such small advertising and marketing budgets that they can't get the word out about how good they are or how committed they are to making their products in the United States.
It took a lot of research, interviews, referrals, and sometimes luck to find the fine companies listed in this book. We list more than 400 companies that manufacture children's products in the United States.
We haven't lost our skills, but ...
American manufacturers still produce excellent products in wood, plastic, fabric, and fine metals. The American-made wooden toys shown on these pages, the fine pewter baby spoons, the fun plastic wagons, the incredible keepsake jewelry, and even the dresses for your little girl hold their own in terms of quality and manufacturing integrity against any products produced anywhere in the world.
However, the bad news is that we can't always buy American no matter how hard we might try. All of the flag waving in the world won't revive an electronics industry that was allowed, even encouraged, to leave our shores. This book, sadly, doesn't list American-made bottle warmers or baby-room monitoring systems.
Nor is it possible to find a new, American-made baby stroller or even a new, American-made glass baby bottle, for that matter. These types of products have been outsourced to distant shores.
We must do the best we can with what we have left and try to build upon that base. We need to look to the future.
We know where we live, and that's good enough.
It is surprising that, among American manufacturers, we found relatively little import bashing. It is easy to put down another country. It is easy to whine. Instead, here is what our manufacturers told us: Don't buy from us just because we're Americans or because you feel sorry for us. Buy our products because they are better and we can make them better.
We make our products in America because it makes sense to make them here.
Some of the companies we detail started out wanting to import or were actually importing but didn't like what they were getting from "over there." Several companies we interviewed brought production back to the United States because of the poor quality of the products they had made overseas.
Shipping costs have gone through the roof, as well. Savings from making things overseas were being eaten up by what it cost to put those items in a container and ship them halfway around the world.
Inflation has also become a problem, even in the Third World. Several manufacturers we interviewed that used to produce overseas reported that what was once very cheap to make in places such as China is getting more and more expensive.
In many cases, it was too difficult to correct manufacturing defects long distance, especially when there were language barriers. Many American manufacturers find it easier to walk out onto the manufacturing floor and make an on-the-spot improvement than to wait three months to see a production result.
I am an American. Don't define me!
The face of American manufacturing has changed. Many of the organizations are now founded, cofounded, run, or owned by women. A few companies are second-generation women-owned. There are many minority-owned businesses. There is no common political orientation. The manufacturers we spoke with represent nearly every state in the nation, not just the so-called Rust Belt. Many businesses are owned by grandparents tired of retirement or by young people barely out of their teens. Some companies were started by dropouts from the high-tech rat race, while founders of other companies were lifelong friends with common dreams shared over a latte and an initial business plan sketched, yes, on a napkin.
We found manufacturers that revived businesses that had been shut down decades before and companies that have been in continuous operation for more than two centuries.
We live here.
Most companies are committed to recycling programs or to reforestation or "green manufacturing." Several companies use organic fabrics, especially when the products are intended for infants, while other companies find ingenious ways to reuse fabrics or reclaim wood or to make novel products from waste plastic. American companies are also exploring new sustainable fibers such as bamboo and hemp or are working with fibers that have almost disappeared, such as linen. Some companies power their operations with energy derived from the wind, while others have rebuilt their factories to allow for the natural warmth and beauty of sunshine.
Many organizations actively support causes in order to give back to their communities, or to children, or to help cure disease, or to nurture the arts, or even to honor the animals they've rescued. We are a generous nation, and, despite how tough it is to manufacture competitively, it is heartwarming to see the way in which we still reach out to those who are less fortunate.
Commitment to customer service.
The dedication to customer service, customization when it is possible, and on-time delivery is also a common thread. Every one of the manufacturers deeply understands that it has foreign competition. Every one of these manufacturers wants your business.
Excerpted from MADE HERE, BABY! by Bruce H. Wolk Copyright © 2009 by Bruce H. Wolk. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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