From Knickers to Body Stockings

by Doris Boyce.

German-born Jacob May, 18 years old, came to America in 1879, a passenger in steerage. He arrived in this country unable to speak the language and carrying only seven dollars in his pocket. His first job was peddling dry goods from a pack on his back. When he had earned enough to purchase a horse and wagon, he peddled his wares throughout New England. He eventually married and settled in Laconia, New Hampshire, a hosiery mill town, where he opened a general store. When on buying trips for the store, he sold his suppliers hosiery from the Laconia mill.

A series of photos from November 1910 indicates that the May Company employees were primarily women and children. (Lewis Wickes Hine Photography, from Library of Congress Prints & Photo Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-nclc-01889; Call number LOT 7479, v. 2, no. 1750.)

It was an advertisement in a Boston newspaper that brought Jacob May to Nashville. He and a friend successfully bid on a Tennessee prison labor contract – 50 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.

Jacob May and his partners acquired the six-and-a-half-acre Nashville property for the hosiery mill in 1908. May himself served as president and then as chairman of the board until his death, after which time his sons Mortimer and Dan operated the mill. The May 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.

The May building in recent years

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

During the years leading up World War II, Jacob and Mortimer May made five trips into Hitler’s Germany and managed to rescue more than 200 Jews before the flow of visas was cut off. Mortimer maintained an association with the network of underground movements in Europe who succeeded in saving some intellectual Jewish leaders the Nazis were eager to destroy. After the war Mortimer took part in the efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Israel.

The family sold the mill to the Wayne-Gassard Company of Chattanooga in 1965, operating it for nearly 20 years. They sold it to the Renfro Corporation in the summer of 1983 but slow sales forced Renfro to close it soon after (1985), displacing 147 employees.

Today, the expanse of unrenovated buildings still retains the aura of the hosiery mill. It is currently the headquarters for a variety of enterprises including the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, art and photography studios, video productions, scenic design, drapery fabrication, stained glass manufacturing, food products, and more. (2000)

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