Max Hirsch (1871-1959)

Max Hirsch and his son Harold Hirsch were responsible for building one of Portland’s most famous businesses and helping to create a sportswear industry. Max Hirsch was a first-generation German Jewish immigrant to Portland who in 1907 purchased Willamette Tent & Awning from a Portland businessman and turned it into the Hirsch-Weis Company. Building on the success of his father's company, Harold grew his skiwear line into White Stag, one of the largest skiwear companies in the world.

Updated: November 07, 2014

Introduction

Max Hirsch (born March 9, 1871, Frankfurt am Main; died May 28, 1959, in Portland, Oregon) and his son Harold Hirsch (born September 3, 1907, Portland, Oregon; died July 4, 1990, Portland, Oregon) were responsible for building one of Portland’s most famous businesses and helping to create a sportswear industry. Max Hirsch was a first-generation German Jewish immigrant to Portland who in 1907 purchased Willamette Tent & Awning from a Portland businessman and turned it into the Hirsch-Weis Company. His son Harold began making ski clothing after learning to ski while attending Dartmouth College in 1929. Using some capital given to him by his father and some spare floor space in his father‘s factory, Harold eventually grew his skiwear line into White Stag, one of the largest skiwear companies in the world. When the company went public in 1958, its annual earnings were approximately $14,000,000 ($106,000,000 in 2010). This article will examine the legacy that Max and Harold Hirsch created in business, in Oregon, and in the culture of skiing.

Max Hirsch’s Early Life

Max Hirsch was a first generation German immigrant to Portland whose family came from Frankfurt. Born in 1871, his formal schooling had ended when he was 13 years old, but Harold described him as an autodidact who read voraciously and was well-educated in history and economics. Max Hirsch choose to move Portland because of family members that already lived in the city, including an aunt, Jeannette Hirsch-Meier and his cousins Ludwig and Leon. Harold’s reminiscences of Max paint a picture of a man with diverse interests: “My father’s interests were primarily the community, philosophy, the humanities, charitable interests, both Jewish and non-Jewish…”[1] Max’s children remembered him as having high expectations for those who worked for him but in turn was extremely fair towards his employees and made time for his children.

German-Jewish immigrants were part of a second wave of Jewish immigration into the United States that arrived in the United States in the years after the Civil War. The number of immigrants was considerable, and as a consequence, neighborhoods of German Jews began springing up all over the United States. One economic historian, Richard Zweingenhaft, noted that these immigrants overwhelmingly middle-class entrepreneurs. This group also tended to succeed in business, with Zweigenhaft noting that “Proportionally speaking, in no other immigrants’ group have so many men ever risen so rapidly from rags to riches.”[2] The German-Jewish community in Portland was largely from southern Germany and was close-knit.[3]However, they made efforts to blend into the dominant culture. When Harold learned German, it was not from his parents but from a Prussian governess the family hired.[4]

Max immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. When he arrived in the United States in 1886, he spoke no English and relied on support from relatives in Oregon. An aunt, Jeanette Hirsch Meier, was involved with the Meier & Frank Department Store and brought Max and his brother Leopold to Portland.[5] Through his aunt, Max found work at the Meier & Frank Department Store in Portland and remained with the company for nearly twenty years. He rose through the ranks of the store and was superintendent by the time his son Harold was born in 1907. While working for Meier & Frank, Max sent money home to Germany for his sister Eda. Yet Max ultimately left Meier & Frank because he didn’t believe that he could rise any higher than the position of superintendent and he desired a better job; Harold recalled that this was a very difficult decision for him because he felt loyal to the store, but his ambition won out.[6]

Max Hirsch married Clementine Seller, who was from a German Jewish family that had immigrated to Boise, Idaho to run a retail crockery store. Like the Hirsch family, the Sellers were from southern Germany, near Frankfurt. Clementine was well-educated, having been sent to a Catholic seminary and then to Frankfurt for a “finishing” education.[7] They had two children: Harold and Helene.

Max’s Entrance into Business

After leaving Meier Frank, Max’s next venture was the purchase of the Willamette Tent & Awning Company. WT&A had been founded by E. Henry Wemme in 1884 and had repaired sails for ships traveling the Willamette River, which flows through Portland, later on moving to tents and other canvas products. By 1907, the company had fallen on hard times due to a nationwide recession and Max Hirsch elected to buy the company from Wemme with his brother Leopold.[8] Wemme’s secretary, Henry Weis, helped Max and Leopold form the necessary capital to purchase the company. Weis was the only one of the three men who had any familiarity with manufacturing canvas or selling canvas goods. Max became the president of the company, his brother Leopold became the vice-president and Weis remained as secretary. As implied by its name, the company’s chief products at this time were tents and awnings, mostly for commercial enterprises such as logging camps. Harold Hirsch recalled that after a fire in Nome, Alaska wiped out many of the homes, the Hirsch-Weis company ran triple shifts to supply tents to the town before winter set in.[9]

WT&A’s entrance into the garment trade occurred because many of their customers were logging companies. WT&A’s original market had been sails for ships; however, this market had declined. Because logging was the chief industry in the Pacific Northwest at the time, Max began designing products specifically for loggers. One item which loggers wanted was waterproof clothing because of the rainfall in Oregon and Washington. However, raincoats of the era, known as “slickers,” were a poor choice because they had no porosity at all; heat would build up in the jacket and were extremely uncomfortable to work in. WT&A devised work clothing that was waterproof and durable but with fabric that could still breathe, allowing people to work in them without overheating. These items became known as “Tin Pants” and “Tin Coats.”

These were two-ply fabric canvas that was dipped into boiling paraffin. The paraffin would harden on the clothing and would remain waterproof. However, the paraffin would also form minute cracks which would allow heat and moisture to escape while remaining watertight. They were nicknamed “Tin Pants” because they were so rigid that loggers joked that you could stand them up before going to bed and they would remain upright.[10] In an interview with the Oregon Historical Society, Harold believed that it was his father Max who pushed to develop water-repellent clothing for loggers.[11] Another popular WT&A product was the Apple Water Bag. The bag was layered in such a way as to allow a small amount of water to escape and collect on the outside. It would evaporate, keeping the rest of the water in the bag cool.[12]

As the company moved into the 1920s, the focus increasingly grew on outdoor clothes, the most famous of which was the Cruiser Stag. This was a heavy wool melton coat with lanolin still in the wool to repel water and rapidly became popular with hunters.[13]Hirsch-Weis’s reach was largely confined to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, where the company maintained contacts with logging commissaries.[14] The company received some outside attention through catalogs. Max received a letter from one hunter in Pennsylvania claiming that the Cruiser Stag was the best jacket for a sportsman he had ever owned and requests from hunters in the Adirondacks for jackets.[15] Nevertheless, Hirsch-Weis remained a distinctly regional company, confined to the American West.

Hirsch Family Life

In 1907, the Hirsch family lived at 88 NW 21st Street in Portland, between Everett and Flanders streets in what is known as the Alphabet District.[16] Beginning in the 1880s, the Alphabet District had been home to Portland’s well-off families, several of whom were Jewish.[17] The family had a comfortably upper-middle-class existence with a governess for Harold and his sister Helene and several servants. Harold’s first memory of Portland was of Theodore Roosevelt laying the cornerstone for the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1911.[18]

The Hirsch family was close with the other Jewish families in the Portland area, which at that time was a relatively small community and which Harold recalled as being somewhat “clannish.” Harold described his childhood as happy and he had a particularly close relationship with his father, with whom he shared interests in history and philosophy and whom he confided in until the end of Max’s life.[19] The family belonged to a Reform Jewish congregation, and Harold noted that he and his sister were raised “with a feeling of religion, more the feeling than the structure“ and that he never had a bar mitzvah; nor did he learn Hebrew.[20]

Despite the positive relationship with Max, Harold alluded to conflicts between himself and his father when he grew older, noting that he “aggravated the life out of dad!” Harold recalled his father as a busy man; in addition to his business, Max was president of the Beth Israel Synagogue, a stockholder in the Jantzen Knitting Mills Company, and worked as a booster for the city of Portland.[21] His mother did not work but was president of the Council of Jewish Women and participated in a number of Jewish charities.[22] As such, Helene and Harold were often left in the care of a governess. The family’s Prussian governess abused the children, once pushing Harold’s face against a kettle full of boiling water.[23] Harold remembered that after the governess was fired he began having behavioral problems.

Max Hirsch was a political conservative, though Harold recalled that Max loved Theodore Roosevelt and proudly voted for him. He spent much of his time in the 1940s and 1950s campaigning for a simplified income tax plan.[24] While Max appears to have privately opposed the New Deal reforms in the 1930s, Harold also remembered that his father would not tolerate any criticism of a current president regardless of who occupied the office, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. Patriotism and a fierce loyalty to his adopted country appear to have guided Max more than anything else.

Harold Hirsch’s Early Life

At the turn of the century, Portland was a small city experiencing rapid growth. In 1900, the population of the city stood at 90,426 people, but in 1910, the city had grown to over 207,214 people. The city was not especially diverse, and during World War I anti-German sentiment surged in the city. After the war, the Ku Klux Klan came into the state and became a powerful force in local politics, at one point reportedly claiming 35,000 members in Oregon.[25] Helene Hirsch recalled a Klan parade by the family house sometime in the early 1920s.[26] That being said, Harold only recalled a few instances of overt prejudice growing up in Portland.[27] In Portland, German-born Jews had been present as early as 1849 and assumed important roles in the city’s merchant class.[28]

Harold initially went to Lincoln High School in Portland, but eventually was sent away to Moran Private School outside of Seattle, Washington. He later recalled this happened because his grades were poor at Lincoln and his parents feared that he wouldn’t get into college. Moran was a school modeled along the lines of a military boarding school, and Harold seemed to respond better to the level of discipline there. While there, he met a physics teacher named John McCrillis, a Dartmouth graduate and skiing enthusiast. Harold grew close to him and was first inspired to apply to Dartmouth because of his teacher. McCrillis also had some interest in anthropology and inspired Harold to study the subject.[29]

Perhaps most significantly, McCrillis introduced Harold to skiing. Harold’s first skiing experience was not a positive one and nearly ended with an amputation: he went with classmates on a skiing trip to Mount Rainier, and cinched his boots too tightly. When he tried to take them off, he discovered that he had almost completely cut off the circulation to his toes. Once the circulation was restored, his feet swelled up and he had to be carried off the mountain and taken to a hospital in Seattle to save them.[30]

Harold at Dartmouth

Based on advice from McCrillis, Harold decided to apply to Dartmouth College. It was traditional for wealthy Americans in the west to send their children to the great universities in the east because of the belief that it was better for building connections and had superior schools. To be sent to school on the East Coast was in and of itself a sort of social education, one which Harold’s parents wanted him to have. Helene Hirsch was sent to Wellesley for college. Harold’s parents encouraged him to stay at school during the vacations in order to meet his classmates’ families and build a network.[31]

Harold loved Dartmouth and was motivated to pursue academia while studying there. He majored in anthropology while he was there and his liberal arts background would remain with him for the rest of his life. Indeed, it seemed to inform his way of looking at long-term trends in the marketplace. Nevertheless, he also remembers Dartmouth as the first place in his life where he experienced anti-Semitism first-hand. Harold recalled the fraternity rush at Dartmouth negatively, noting that few fraternities wanted a Jewish member. There was one Jewish fraternity at Dartmouth at that time, Pi Lambda Phi, but Harold felt that he would be narrowing himself socially if he were to pledge to a Jewish fraternity, though he eventually did so. Outside of the fraternity life, Harold associated with both Jewish and non-Jewish men.[32] Studies on anti-Semitism at universities, and especially at Dartmouth, reveal a double standard toward Jewish students, with students from German backgrounds—who tended to be upper-class and more anglicized—often being treated better than students from Eastern European backgrounds, and especially those who came from poor and middle-class families.

Harold became more interested in skiing while at Dartmouth. The oldest recreational skiing club in the United States had been formed in Berlin, New Hampshire, fifty years earlier.[33] Skiing at Dartmouth was popular in part thanks to simple necessity, as the fastest way to move around in the winter was on skis. Harold recalled using skis to go from class to class during the winter. Cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and a now-obscure sport known as skijoring were popular at Dartmouth. Skijoring was Harold’s favorite; the sport involved yoking a man on skis to a team of horses which he would guide using reins. Contrary to some stories, Harold was never actually on the ski team at Dartmouth and downplayed his skill as a skier, though he skied recreationally throughout his life.[34]

Dartmouth was home to a German-born ski coach named Otto Schniebs who was a friend of John McCrillis, Harold’s mentor at the Moran School. German and Austrian émigré ski coaches were critical in stoking the popularity of skiing in the United States, a trend that would only accelerate in the 1930s. Schniebs had already set up a skiing school in 1927 near Waltham, Massachusetts and with McCrillis wrote “Modern Ski Technique,” the first instructional book on skiing that was reprinted several times. Harold met Schniebs while he was at Dartmouth, possibly through McCrillis, and Schniebs would unofficially endorse and sell White Stag products later in life, helping to spread the repute of the company.

Skiing

In the early 1920s, skiing was still a relatively novel sport in the United States. Skiing had originated in Scandinavia, not as a sport but as a means of transportation in the harsh northern winters. By the middle of the nineteenth century, skiing was becoming known to the world at large, and Europeans living near the Alps began skiing recreationally. In the United States, skiing was adopted in New England, first as a means of transportation and later as a sport, and it was most popular in this part of the country. Elsewhere in America, skiing existed where Scandinavian immigrants had settled.[35] Skiing had some limited use as transportation in mountainous areas or for particularly cold places, but as a sport, it had very limited appeal. Throughout the nineteenth century, most Americans could rarely afford to travel, meaning that leisure sports such as skiing remained a pastime for the wealthy. Trains would open up some areas for skiing, but again, this remained limited to affluent Americans. Furthermore, ski equipment was extremely primitive. Many of the clothes had to be imported from Europe because there were few American manufacturers, and the facilities for skiing were rudimentary if not non-existent.[36]

Some of the necessary preconditions for the take-off of skiing emerged in the 1920s. A new generation of skiing enthusiasts from the Alpine regions of Europe moved to New England.[37] Dartmouth became the site of one of two critical ski clubs in the Northeast, the other being the Lake Placid Club in New York. Dartmouth founded the Outing Club in 1909, which became a model for other universities that built ski clubs.[38] Skiing became one of the premier attractions of Dartmouth, in fact; when the founder of the Dartmouth Outing Club wrote an article on the club in National Geographic, freshman applications tripled.[39] The students at these university ski clubs formed the nucleus of consumers and buyers of ski goods that would become so powerful in the coming years.

Dartmouth was the first place where Harold was aware of a potential market in skiing gear. His father’s company had begun producing outdoor jackets and clothing in the 1920s and Harold decided that these jackets were better outdoor jackets for skiing than what he could find in New Hampshire. He ended up ordering extras and selling them on campus, where in turn they were so popular that the skiing stores in Hanover started stocking the jackets.[40] The Hirsch-Weis Company was selling its jackets to hunters and sportsmen nationwide at that time and they proved to be popular in New England, largely because they were water-repellent and warm. Hunters wrote to Max Hirsch and asked for additional coats to be distributed around the country.[41]

Facilities for skiing tended to be rudimentary at best and non-existent in most other cases. Even popular locations, such as Mount Hood in Oregon, had few places to ski: Hirsch remembered borrowing a forest ranger cabin on the slopes of Mount Hood that was nearly always buried under snow just to ski down the mountain once.[42] Chairlifts were a novelty in the United States and did not appear for skiers until 1936, when the first one was built at Sun Valley in Idaho.[43] The 1930ssaw the beginning of ski resort construction, with one of the most famous nationwide being Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, though it would be another two decades before the Lodge became a profitable enterprise. Again, this was the product of sponsorship by the federal government: the WPA had built Timberline Lodge.

Harold Returns to Portland

Harold graduated in June of 1929 and headed to Oxford University for a semester to begin graduate studies. At that time, he hoped to become a professor of anthropology. However, the Great Depression loomed on the horizon, and when Harold returned home in December of that year, a number of factors led him to stay home. He wasn’t confident that he could find a job in academia or even make it through the rest of his schooling. Furthermore, his family’s financial circumstances had been hurt by the onset of the Depression. Though his father apparently never admitted it to Harold, his mother Clementine admitted that his father was worried about having to spend the money for Harold’s graduate education. Max Hirsch had been slow to get to invest in the stock market, but at last he was persuaded to and had ended up buying stocks on margin. While he had not been driven into bankruptcy like many of his associates, the crash of the stock market and the ensuing recession had hurt the family. Furthermore, WT&A was financially hurting from the depression, and Harold felt guilty taking his father’s money at such a difficult time.[44]

Based on this, Harold elected to remain in Portland. Max offered Harold a job and $75 a month ($955 a month in 2010), at that time a considerable sum for a person with little experience. Harold was first put to work in the cutting room of the Hirsch-Weis plant and was there for several months until an industrial accident nearly severed his finger. He was then moved to the shipping room and worked as a clerk for a time.[45] By this time, the company had been renamed the Hirsch-Weis Company and was moving deeper into the business of making work clothes, selling work shirts and overalls for carpenters and painters. It had increased production of what they called “domestics,” which were generally meant to be household linen goods such as bedsheets. Part of what helped tide the company over in the lean years of the Great Depression was Portland’s red light district. “We even went so far as to call with our lines of domestics on red light houses and flop houses and hotels…their credit was good,” Harold Hirsch later recalled.[46]Nevertheless, times were very difficult, and at one point, Max Hirsch made the decision to liquidate Hirsch-Weis if business did not improve within six months.[47]

Portland was hit hard by the Great Depression. Oregon had traditionally been a Republican stronghold, and in 1932, many Oregonians were skeptical of Franklin Roosevelt’s promises of federal action. Portland’s mayor, Joseph Carson, personally stopped New Deal initiatives in the city and spoke out against the Works Progress Administration. However, 40,000 Portlanders were on relief by March of 1933, with so-called Hoovervilles springing up along the banks of the Willamette and over a hundred people living underneath the Ross Island Bridge.[48]

Harold worked in his father’s company, gradually becoming more familiar with the garment trade. By 1930, he seems to have been thinking about getting into manufacturing ski clothes. In an interview with his sister in 1989, Harold explained that “I figured that somebody in the United States ought to start making ski clothing. Up till that time... most of our ski clothing, was either imported from the Scandinavian countries or from Switzerland and Austria and was very expensive, and the Swiss ski clothing was a little gimmicky… So I started to make a few ski jackets.”[49] Skiing was becoming popular at Mount Hood, which was only a couple of hours away from Portland.

In interviews with Harold, it seems apparent that others did not take his ideas very seriously. Harold said that Max “thought I was crazy…Dad never felt that I would make a practical businessman and that I was, as I said, an intellectual and an esthete.” It was the height of the Great Depression, and the idea of selling “luxury” sporting goods must have seemed like a wild idea. Yet, despite these apparent reservations, Harold noted that Max was willing to give his son’s idea a chance. He was even willing to give $1,800 ($23,500 in 2010) to get started, which Harold retrospectively noted was a lot of money in 1930.[50]

Harold enrolled in a night school to learn pattern making after he realized that nobody quite knew how to make the clothes that he envisioned. Initially, his working space was a corner of the Hirsch-Weis plant where he was given a few sewing machines and left to his own devices. The company was in tight financial circumstances and was unable to spare anybody else to help Harold sell his products. His first jacket was based off of an existing Hirsch-Weis coincidentally known as the “Cruiser Stag.” This jacket, made out of densely woven wool and with lanolin in the fibers to repel water, was made into a solid color.

Selling White Stag

After Harold was able to produce his first batch of clothes, now it fell upon him to begin selling them. At face value, selling these in the midst of the Great Depression seems nigh-on impossible. Yet Harold’s first sale was to a ski club in Bend, Oregon, and soon after he picked up a contract to sell uniform coveralls to ski operators at a ski lift in Yosemite Park.[51] The progress on these sales was slow and involved long hours driving up and down the West Coast, usually sleeping in a touring car. In those years, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Jantzen and Hirsch-Weis were the three major apparel companies in Oregon, and their salesmen frequently collaborated. Hirsch traveled with salesmen from the other companies, often sharing the same car, and they passed off tips to one another on potential sales as they each struggled through the lean 1930s.[52]

Many of the buyers were the ski clubs and small sports shops that catered to the small clique of skiers in those years. Yet the bigger and more affluent sports retailers were also carrying White Stag gear in those years, such as Abercrombie & Fitch in New York and Von Lengerke & Antoine in Chicago. It was in 1931 that Harold decided to name his company White Stag, after recalling some advice he had heard in Business Administration One at Dartmouth. Companies who had a name which was tied to the logo became more identifiable, and White Stag was a literal translation of Hirsch-Weis.[53]

What helped Hirsch to succeed in those years? He identified several of the factors late in life. He had virtually no domestic competition in the early 1930s. Harold commanded a large share of the market by virtue of there being few other competitors. By 1933, there were only 3 skiwear apparel companies in the country: Slalom Skiwear in Vermont, White Stag in Portland and Sun Valley Skiwear.[54] Some of the reasons he identified were no doubt sentimentalized and reflect Harold’s own love of skiing. For example, he theorized that people went skiing during the Depression to get away from troubles, and while there’s some truth in that, broader socio-economic reasons were at play. Industrialization had helped create a class of consumers and higher wages coming from factories helped create a growing class of people who, for the first time in history, had disposable income. As employers moved towards eight-hour workdays and forty-hour work weeks, employees now had time to spend on leisure pursuits.

Since the 1880s, Americans had been concerned over the consequences of urbanization and removal from nature. American society had largely been rural in the nineteenth century, and as people spent less time in nature, there were growing concerns around public health. One element of this concern led to the creation of the Boy Scouts to provide boys with opportunities for direct encounters with nature. As adults had more spare time, however, they also began increasingly looking to leisure activities and sports.[55]The New Deal fed into this concern as well. The Works Progress Administration allocated 30 percent of its budget toward recreation projects, including parks, ski runs, fairgrounds and playgrounds.[56]

In interviews in the 1980s, Hirsch said that he believed that the class structure of the United States was changing during the Depression. The growth of the middle class and the creation of the forty-hour work week left Americans with an increasing amount of time that could be spent on leisure activities. In Harold’s words, “here I go with my sociology again—the socioeconomic emergence of the middle-income-bracket class” changed the consumer market considerably.[57] People with leisure time could begin to take up hobbies and outdoor sports became extremely popular.

Harold also noted that the make-work projects of the Great Depression were a tremendous boon for outdoor sports. The issue of accessibility had always handicapped the popularity of skiing. In the 1930s, however, the federal government heavily subsidized road-building. It also subsidized recreational facilities in state and national parks after a study by the government found that there was a tremendous lack of outdoor recreational opportunities available to people living in cities.[58]

Cars were improving in these years as well and were becoming more affordable, allowing people to easily get outside of the city. New balloon tires could handle difficult roads more easily without bursting, allowing for longer trips than were previously possible. What happened as a result of federal investment, advertisement in magazines such as National Geographic, popularity among university students, and better cars was a massive boom in outdoor sports: at the height of the Great Depression, visits to national parks tripled, and hundreds of state parks were built or expanded upon.[59] Likewise, skiing, which had only a few thousand practitioners at the beginning of the 1930s may have had as many as two million fans at the end of the decade.[60]

Events in Europe also fed a skiing boom in the United States. Many refugees from Nazi Germany and people fleeing Austria after its annexation by Germany came to the United States with a background in skiing and other winter sports. As historian Annie Gilbert Coleman noted in her history of skiing, émigrés greatly fed the popularity of skiing in the United States by becoming ski instructors and bringing expertise about the sport to the United States.[61] Some émigrés who arrived in Portland went to work for White Stag, while others went into business independently as manufacturers.

White Stag continued to function as a subsidiary of Hirsch-Weis during these years. Harold quickly realized a problem of running a division that only produced skiwear: its demand was extremely seasonal. By 1935 or 1936, he realized that he was going to have diversify the products that he offered to people if he wished to run his own business. Hirsch chose to start making women’s sportswear out of army canvas, which was soft, pliable and porous and which the Hirsch-Weis company had in abundance; thus, “sailcloth became a standard fabric in the women’s sportswear industry.”[62] Pants and swimwear were soon being designed and sold by White Stag.

Sportswear at this time was still a relatively novel concept, especially ready-made sportswear. Upper-class Americans had traditionally had clothing custom-made for them, and the middle-class used old, second-hand clothing for sports. Having clothing that was fashionable for sports proved to be extremely popular. Harold’s philosophy behind these clothes was relatively simple, predicated on the idea that “function is the father of fashion.”[63] This was an idea Hirsch spoke about frequently in later years, specifically about the conditions in Oregon that necessitated the creation of these clothes. This is obvious in his first ski jacket, which was simply adapted from a logging jacket that Hirsch-Weis had been manufacturing.

General sportswear proved to be extremely popular. Harold designed what he called a “four-seasons jacket,” meaning it could be worn the whole year round. The four-seasons jacket was conceived by tinkering with the fabric used in an Anorak that White Stag made and Hirsch successfully convinced the A.G. Spalding Company to begin carrying these jackets. Spalding at this time had 130 stores across the nation and was one of the only sports retailers, helping White Stag reach a national audience.[64] Harold began marketing White Stag in sportsmen’s periodicals such as Ski Week, Sunset and Trails magazine, all of which enabled him to reach a previously unavailable market.[65]

World War II temporarily put recreational skiing on hold. Gasoline rationing hurt skiing tremendously as it limited people’s ability to travel to resorts while the limits available for raw materials hurt manufacturers. Harold spent the war years working for the federal government as an advisor to the Quartermaster General on cold winter equipment. The U.S. army maintained several mountain divisions for use in Italy and elsewhere and Harold was a consultant for designing cold weather gear. He didn’t remember his time working for the government very fondly, as he noted that there was a tremendous amount of red tape and bureaucratic inertia to move through in designing equipment. “It took months and months to get that stuff adopted, even though it was designed. The fact of the matter is that most of the people who had to do with passing on the adoption didn’t know anything about ski equipment, and they were hesitant.”[66]

Max Hirsch spent the late 1930s and early 1940s working as the head of the Oregon Émigré Committee, working to bring Jewish refugees into the United States. The committee had operated in an informal capacity since 1934 and Max was tremendously sympathetic to the plight of those living under persecution in Europe. Jewish refugees faced considerable hurdles before and during World War II. Immigration quotas had been set in place decades before and prospective refugees required sponsorship. The Émigré Committee was one of many such committees that sprang up around the United States, providing sponsorship, housing and employment to new arrivals. The volume of people was considerable: from January 1 through June 30 of 1940, the OEC dealt with 98 émigrés.[67] The size and scope of the operation increased after the war, when increased emigration to the United States was approved by Congress and Portland saw the number of émigrés increase nearly 70 percent in 1947.[68] Max retired from the committee only in 1948, having served as its chairman for fourteen years.[69]

Two émigrés who went to work for White Stag because of Max Hirsch were the Markewitz brothers. Harold recalled that the two brothers, Fred and Martin, had gone from Europe to Shanghai to Canada while being sponsored by Max (Shanghai was a common port for Jewish refugees because of its status as an open city).[70] Fred went to work for White Stag in 1948 and transferred to its Hirsch-Weis division in 1950, where he was in charge of marketing its outdoor goods such as tents. He became president of the Hirsch-Weis division in 1960 and retired in 1976 as a chairman and consultant to Warnaco.[71]

White Stag Takes Off

When the war ended in 1945, skiing finally began to take off as an extremely popular sport in the United States, and the time Harold had spent marketing White Stag would now pay dividends. In 1944, the Hirsch-Weis company acquired a manufacturing plant in Kingston, New York to begin supplying goods to the East Coast.[72] It was in1945 that the Hirsch-Weis Manufacturing Company was reorganized. The canvas products division was separated into the Hirsch-Weis Canvas Products Company and retained a factory in Portland, while the Hirsch-Weis Manufacturing Company was renamed the White Stag Manufacturing Company. The Hirsch-Weis division remained a component of White Stag and went on to produce backpacking goods for the company, especially tents. In 1946, net sales for the company were $2,900,651, equal to $19,100,000 in 2010.[73]

The war itself fed the popularity of skiing in the United States, as Harold noted that veterans of the 10th Mountain Division were some of his earliest and most avid consumers.[74] From 1945until 1966, when White Stag was sold to Warnaco, the company experienced unprecedented growth and grew to dominate the field. By 1958, White Stag had become a publicly traded entity and had separated from the Hirsh-Weis Manufacturing Company which it had outgrown. Harold states that the reason for the sale was that the firm needed outside capital; it couldn’t continue to grow safely by relying on loans from banks and he believed that making the company public would make the company safer.[75] Its sales were approximately $14 million a year (or $106 million in 2010 dollars), making it the largest skiwear company in the United States. That same year, the company reported that it had a total number of 3,500 employees working at plants in Portland, Amsterdam, New York, Richfield Springs, New York and San Francisco, making it the second-largest apparel company in the nation.[76] Several years later, it acquired plants in Georgia, further increasing the size of the company.

Max Hirsch continued as honorary chairman of the Board of Directors of White Stag until shortly before his death on May 28, 1959 at the age of 88. Newspaper obituaries lauded his numerous civic achievements, such as his work for the Oregon Émigré Committee, his commitment to hiring African-Americans and other minorities, his work for the Portland Chamber of Commerce and his political activities.[77] Fittingly, one of Max’s last acts appears to have been hiring an assistant for Harold to remain organized.

Changes in Skiwear

There were substantial changes in fashion surrounding skiwear after World War II. Harold’s earliest products had been wool melton jackets that were water-repellent and well-designed from a skier’s perspective, but which were not necessarily “fashionable.” Indeed, they were designed with function in mind and had been adapted from earlier work clothes’ designs. Furthermore, while the wool ski clothes were warm and dry, they also tended to be somewhat baggy and would flap in the wind while a skier was in motion. Even the colors tended to be darker earth tones, more in line with workman’s clothes than fashion articles.

Fashion would change with the advent of so-called “stretchy fabrics” and the commercial availability of nylon, which came into wide usage after World War II. Stretchy fabrics could create a sleeker, more streamlined appearance and would highlight a person’s physique: in essence, they drew on sex appeal and could be fashionable. Harold noted that ski clothing did not need to be bulky if it was properly insulated, meaning that there did not need to be a tradeoff between warmth and style. Likewise, he was never shy about the importance of sex appeal in apparel. In his own words, “The strongest set of supports, however, for the apparel business, whether at the mass production level or the one-of-a-kind level is that we are appealing to two important basis instincts: sex and vanity.”[78]

Harold had brushed up against the idea of skiing as fashion early on in his work with White Stag. Harold had experimented with stretchier wools such as gabardine, but gabardine proved to be a poor choice because it eventually lost its elasticity.[79] Harold was in particular advised by other fashion designers such as Ruth Altman that stretchy fabrics would be the wave of the future and that he had better begin mass-production of stretchy clothes. Ruth Altman, an Austrian refugee from Nazism, was responsible for first bringing these brand-new fabrics to the United States. Before, when ski clothing was solely functional, it only appealed to ski aficionados. Now that it could be sexy, it could be sold to everybody.

Beyond all of these changes in fashion was the truth that Harold seems to have first grasped in 1929: Americans had more leisure time and income than ever before, and that meant that sports like skiing would become more popular in the coming years. The years from 1945 to 1973 saw the largest economic growth in history up until that time, and a newly enlarged middle class could spend their money on skiwear, among other things. The prosperity of the post-war years ensured that people would have the money to buy his products; he acknowledged this in a speech at a groundbreaking in 1961, saying “We recognized the fact that Americans in increasing amounts would each be working less hours per week and earning more money per hour, hence would have more leisure time with more money to spend on leisure pursuits, clothing and equipment.”[80] Harold’s original observation that one simply couldn’t run a company manufacturing skiwear and sit idle eight months of the year was correct, and to this end, the company began offering sportswear that could be used year-round.

Throughout these years, White Stag continued to expand. Then, in 1966, Harold and his family sold their stock in the company to the apparel company Warner Brothers (which became Warnaco in 1968), making White Stag one of its subsidiaries. They chose to do so for a few different reasons. One was simply a desire for greater capital, which they felt was only possible through a merger with a larger company. Another was Harold’s advancing age, as he felt that he was becoming too old to lead the company and possess the same levels of entrepreneurship.[81] His children were not interested in running the company either, leading Harold to believe that it would be better off in the hands of another company. Finally, it seemed to be the next step to help the company grow. He continued to work at White Stag and Warnaco as a director until 1978, when he finally retired permanently from the business.

White Stag continued on as a subsidiary of Warnaco for another two decades and was successful until the end of the 1970s. By 1972, White Stag’s annual earnings were approaching $60,000,000 a year, equivalent to $243,000,000 in 2010. However, the recession and the inflation in 1979 heavily damaged the company’s business, and the anemic economy in the early 1980s did not help the company’s recovery.[82] The manufacturing had been gradually moving out of Portland throughout these years, leaving only the administration of the company, and by 1986, even this was gone. Then, in 1986, Linda J. Wachner engineered a hostile takeover of Warnaco and streamlined White Stag along with several other companies into a new company, Authentic Fitness Corporation. This last company failed and Warnaco filed for bankruptcy in 2000. The White Stag trademark was sold to Wal-Mart in 2003 and is now used on a line of women’s clothing.

Why did White Stag collapse? Warnaco, it seems, did a poor job of fostering support within the company in the 1980s, bringing in executives unfamiliar with apparel and dismissing long-time White Stag employees. In a letter to Warnaco executives in 1984, employees wrote that “What we want to get across to the Board of Directors is that they took a 100 year old company and managed to run it into the ground in 8 months. We employees think it is grossly unfair that we should have to pay for such mismanagement.”[83] Harold noted that Warnaco was overly centralized in how it administered the company and tended to ignore the advice of those at White Stag who had more direct experience in the field.

Harold’s Personal Life

In 1934, Harold married Barbara Honeyman, a woman from Portland whose family owned the Honeyman Hardware Company.[84]There was some controversy in Harold’s family about marrying a Gentile, though he overcame this through sheer persistence.[85] The couple had two children: a son, Fred, and a daughter, Janet. Barbara converted to Judaism for Harold, though in later interviews he described her conversion as largely “lip service.”[86] Harold divorced Barbara and married Elizabeth Conklin in 1949.[87]

It was in the postwar years that Harold acquired a reputation as a dedicated philanthropist. This was likely a trait that he inherited from his father who was also noted to spend his time in philanthropic pursuits. Harold sat on the Board of Trustees for Reed College from 1956 onward, served as a commissioner to the Port of Portland, financially supported the Japanese Garden and founded the Jewish Historical Society of Oregon, among other activities. Paul Bagdon, president of Reed College, paid tribute to Hirsch after his death by calling him “Mr. Portland.”[88] Politically, Harold was apparently a conservative, though he was also the head of the Portland chapter of the “Republicans for Adlai Stevenson” in the 1950s.[89] While he was retired, he was frequently a businessman-in-residence at business schools, where he would poke fun at his own lack of business education: “My sole exposure was a course in elementary economics 49 years ago which emphasized the supply and demand curve…I’m the worst-schooled business specialist you’ll meet. [I’m] a western boy with a Dartmouth college liberal arts background— I never went to business school.”[90]

When asked toward the end of his life if he had ever regretted selling White Stag, he responded “had I known what eventually evolved, I might not have done it.”[91] He believed that the company’s products were unique to Oregon: the first stag jackets had been made for loggers and hunters in the Northwest and Harold was adamant that the company belonged in Oregon. Its aesthetics were born in Oregon, a point Harold almost belabored throughout his later life. Notably, one of White Stag’s fellow Oregon apparel companies, Pendleton Woolen Mills, is still in operation today and remains within the family that founded it. Another Oregon company founded by an immigrant entrepreneur stepped into the void left behind by White Stag: Columbia Sportswear.[92] In 1984, Columbia’s earnings were around $3,000,000 ($7.19 million in 2010 dollars). By 2001, it was the largest retailer of skiwear in the world.

Legacy

Harold Hirsch passed away on July 8, 1990 after a long battle with cancer. His obituary noted his role in creating White Stag and jumpstarting interest in skiing and sportswear. His philanthropy was discussed as well as his involvement with Reed College and Dartmouth. The obituary also noted that he had racially integrated Portland’s manufacturing plants during World War II and did so again when White Stag expanded into the South during the 1960s.[93] All of these are legacies left behind by Harold Hirsch, and skiing proponents paid him tribute when he passed away.

Harold’s impact on skiing was considerable. He certainly had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time: he met John McCrillis, one of skiing’s most famous advocates early in life, he had his father’s resources to draw on, he had good advice to adopt the latest European fashions in skiwear, and he had the good fortune to enter skiwear when virtually nobody else was selling it. It’s reasonable to imagine that if Hirsch had never gone skiing, somebody else would have filled the void and sold the clothes that he made: the market was there, after all. Whether they would have done so during the Great Depression is another question entirely. Harold had a unique view on the market in the United States that was likely a product of his Dartmouth education and liberal arts background. Whereas other businessmen would never have pursued ski wear in the 1930s because they believed the market was too poor or too limited, Harold recognized the structural changes occurring in the American economy and saw an opening. He didn’t create skiwear or interest in skiing in the United States, but he certainly fed into it, and it’s difficult to imagine the postwar years without a company like White Stag.

Yet perhaps the most visible legacy of White Stag, at least for Portlanders, is the famous White Stag sign on the Portland waterfront. The sign had originally belonged to the White Satin Sugar Company, which rented a floor from the White Stag building. In 1957, they sold the

sign to White Stag which then renovated the sign to show the White Stag name and logo. Harold’s wife suggested that they plant a red light on the deer’s nose every year at Christmas, a tradition which has survived to the present. When the company moved out of its building in 1972, there was discussion of tearing the sign down to preserve the historic character of the waterfront, but popular outcry in Portland saved the sign and had it designated a historic landmark of the city in 1978. Today, it is simply the “Portland, Oregon–Old Town” sign.[94]

Notes

[1] Harold S. Hirsch, interview by Helene Hirsch Oppenheimer, 1990, SR 2831, transcript, p. 10, Sound Recordings Collection (hereafter OHS Sound Recordings Collection), Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Ore.

[2] Richard Zweigenhaft. “American Jews: In or Out of the Upper Class?” The Insurgent Sociologist 9.2 (1979), 25.

[3] Hirsch interview, SR2831, p. 15.

[4] Hirsch interview, SR2831, p. 34.

[5] The Oregonian. “Max Hirsch-Obituary.” Saturday May 30, 1959.

[6] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,16.

[7] Harold S. Hirsch, interview by Michael O’Rourke, 1989,SR 358, transcript, p. 20, OHS Sound Recordings Collection.

[8] “Manager’s Statements and President’s Reports 1908–1911,” Document Case 1, Hirsch-Weis Company Records, MSS1436, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Ore.

[9] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,19.

[10] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,48.

[11] Mark A. Gullickson, “Work Pants Worn by Loggers in Western Oregon, 1920–1970,”master’s thesis (Oregon State University, 2000), 16.

[12] Hirsch interview, SR 2831, 47.

[13] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,55.

[14] Harold S. Hirsch, interview by Shirley Tanzer,1977–1978, SR 354.1, tape 5, side 2, transcript, p. 10, OHS Sound Recordings Collection.

[15] Harold Bomberger to Max Hirsch, July 26, 1929, folder “Correspondence, 1929–1947,” Box 2, Hirsch-Weis Company Records.

[16] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,16.

[17] National Park Service, “National Register of Historic Places–Alphabet District,” 5.

[18] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,2.

[19] Harold S. Hirsch, interview by Janet Hirsch Willis and Fred Hirsch, SR 357, tape 3, transcript, p. 3, OHS Sound Recordings Collection.

[20] Hirsch interview, SR 354.1, tape 3, side 2, transcript, p. 10.

[21] Hirsch interview, SR 354.1, tape 3, side 1, transcript, p. 3.

[22] Hirsch interview, SR 354.1, tape 3, side 1, transcript, p. 4.

[23] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,39.

[24] “Portland Manufacturer Launches Campaign for Simpler Tax Forms,” The Oregonian, February 5, 1956.

[25] Eckard Toy, “Ku Klux Klan,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, accessed December 18, 2013

[26] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,25.

[27] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 3, side 2, transcript, p. 13.

[28] See “A History of Jews in Oregon, 1850–1950,” The Three Rabbis: Three Men, Half a Century, One Community, Oregon Public Broadcasting, accessed December 18, 2013.

[29] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,53.

[30] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,53.

[31] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 3, side 1, p. 6.

[32] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 3, side 2, p. 15.

[33] Nansen Ski Club, “History of Nansen Ski Club,” accessed December 18, 2013.

[34] Hirsch interview, SR 2831, 52, 54.

[35] Annie Gilbert Coleman. Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies (Topeka, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 2004), 16.

[36] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,56.

[37] John B. Allen, The Culture and Sport of Skiing (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 213.

[38] Ibid., 224.

[39] Ibid., 224.

[40] “Ski Business Week Vail, Co., 11/28–12/1/1979,” folder 19, box 3, Harold S. Hirsch Papers, MSS 1819, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Ore.

[41] Bomberger to Hirsch, July26, 1929, Hirsch-Weis Company Records.

[42] Morten Lund, “Timberline Lodge,” Ski Heritage Journal, June 2006, 33.

[43] Idaho State Historical Society. “Sun Valley Ski Lifts,” Idaho State Historical Reference Series, no. 974, July 1977, accessed December 18, 2013.

[44] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,49.

[45] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,49.

[46] Hirsch interview, SR 357,tape 4, transcript, p. 35.

[47] Ibid.

[48] William G. Robbins, “Surviving the Great Depression: The New Deal in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109 (Summer 2008): 311–317, 313.

[49] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,55.

[50] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,56.

[51] Oregon Historical Society, SR 2831 55.

[52] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,56.

[53] Hirsch interview, SR2831, 56.

[54] Seth Masia, “Whatever Happened to Wool?” Skiing Heritage Journal, Dec. 2002, 31. This article incorrectly claims that Hirsch was from Seattle.

[55] Foster Rhea Dulles, A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1940), 185.

[56] Susan Currell, The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 51.

[57] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,65.

[58] Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 2008), 70.

[59] Maher, Nature’s New Deal, 73.

[60] Dulles, A History of Recreation, 361.

[61] Coleman, Ski Style,53.

[62] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,56.

[63] See “Assorted Speeches Inc. the President’s Speech to public stockholders, 1957-1976” folder, box 2, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[64] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,60.

[65] See “Misc. Correspondence1930s–1960s” folder, box 2, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[66] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,155.

[67] “Report,” July 9, 1940, “Committee on Placement” folder,Oregon Émigré Committee Records, ORG 12, Oregon Jewish Museum, Portland, Ore.

[68] “Meeting Minutes, June 16,1947,” “Committee on Placement” folder, Oregon Émigré Committee Records.

[69] “Meeting Minutes, June 11,1948,” “Committee on Placement” folder, Oregon Émigré Committee Records.

[70] Hirsch interview, SR 2831,73.

[71] “Ex Hirsch-Weis Chief Fred Markewitz Dies,” The Oregonian, Feb. 27, 1986.

[72] “Prospectus: White Stag Manufacturing Company,” folder “Historical Reviews and Financial Reports,” box 2, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[73] “Prospectus: White Stag Manufacturing Company,” Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[74] “Ski Business Week Vail,Co., 11/38-12/1/1979,” folder 19, box 3, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[75] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 5, side 2, 11.

[76] “Merger Puts White Stag Near Top in Field with Line of Sports Clothing,” The Oregonian, July 10, 1958.

[77] “Max Hirsch: Obituary,” The Oregonian,May 30, 1959.

[78] “Speeches by Harold Hirsch,” box 2, Hirsch-Weis Company Records.

[79] Morten Lund, “Ruth Altman: An Artists’ Life in Skiing,” Skiing Heritage Journal, June 2008, 23.

[80] “WS new plant ground breaking 1961,” folder 2, box 3, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[81] Hirsch interview, SR 357,tape 8, p. 27.

[82] “Is White Stag Owner Leaping Ship?” The Oregonian, Dec. 17, 1984.

[83] Harold S. Hirsch, “Letter to The Board of Directors for Warnaco,” Dec. 7, 1984, folder “1984-Rough Times #49,” box 3, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[84] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, p. 37, tape 4, side 2, p. 37.

[85] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 9, side 1, 19.

[86] Hirsch interview, SR354.1, tape 9, Side 1, 20.

[87]Reed friend Elizabeth Hirsch dies at 88,” Reed Magazine, Feb. 2000, accessed December 18, 2013.

[88] Hirsch interview, SR 2831, preface.

[89] Hirsch interview, SR 357,tape 5, side 2, p. 11.

[90] “Harvard Business School-exec. Lecture, 10/4/76, box 3, Harold S. Hirsch Papers.

[91] “Harold S. Hirsch, Oregon Business-Civic Leader, Dies at 82,” The Oregonian, July 6, 1990.

[92] Anna Accettola, “Gertrude Boyle,” Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present. Accessed April 7, 2014.

[93] “Harold Hirsch, 82; Started White Stag, Sportswear Concern,” Associated Press, July 8, 1990.

[94] Edwin Battistella, “White Stag Manufacturing,” Oregon Encyclopedia, accessed December 18, 2013.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Max Hirsch." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved June 17, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=202

Chicago Style

Larson, Zeb. "Max Hirsch." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified November 07, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=202

MLA Style

"Max Hirsch," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 17 Jun 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=202>

Max S. Hirsch, 1954

  • Workers in a large sewing room, Willamette Tent & Awning Company, ca. 1917
  • Two models in sail wear by White Stag, 1950
  • Harold S. Hirsch being interviewed during filming of “Success Story”
  • Barbara Honeyman Hirsch, Harold S. Hirsch, Helen McAlpin, and Malcolm McAlpin, August 1937

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