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Browse Current IssueArt & Design These Greasy Shop Rags Hold More than Their Weight in Stories

Culture These Greasy Shop Rags Hold More than Their Weight in StoriesTo celebrate the beginnings of the humble shop rag, Godspeed Co. is documenting the history embedded in the very fabric behind their Shop Rag Shirt.

We’re all familiar with the shop rag — that iconic red square piece of fabric with the rolled edge. Hell, you probably have one within arm’s reach right now. But do you know the story of the shop rag? Do you know who made it, when, and why? We didn’t either. But as we at The Godspeed Company worked on our American-made shop rag shirt, we set out to learn that story. I was a bit surprised when our initial attempts yielded little to no information. However, what we did find was another chapter in the disappearing story of American manufacturing. An industry that had once thrived no longer exists. At least not like it did.

Shop rags — commonly referred to as “shop towels” — were manufactured in the United States as early as the 1920s. They were primarily used for wiping down machine parts and cleaning away grease, ink, oil, and other unwanted substances. The primary purchasers of shop towels were industrial laundries, who in turn rented them to industrial and commercial establishments.

Beyond their muted spectrum of colors and keep-stitch edges are the graphics and typography embedded in their fibers. Domestic producers of these shop rags would imprint their customers’ names and logos on them at no charge. In acquiring copious amounts of said rags, we began to notice similarities — specifically, the mark of their makers. There were five producers of shop rags in the United States: Milliken & Co. and Wikit, Inc., both located in LaGrange, Georgia; Wipo, Inc., Columbus, Georgia; Texel Industries, Inc., Cleburne, Texas; and Pennsylvania State Manufacturing Co., Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania. Of the five, Milliken & Co. produced the largest quantities of American-made rags under the trade name KEX, whose trademark appears on many rags in our collection. Coupled with the KEX graphic are the logos from the variety of businesses and corporations that purchased them.

It didn’t take us long to find out why production of U.S. shop rags came to a sudden halt. An investigation conducted by the United States International Trade Commission in September 1983 determined that the domestic shop towel industry was “materially injured by reason of imports from the People’s Republic of China of shop towels … sold in the United States at less than fair value.” It is an all-too-familiar story that mirrors much of what happened with the rest of the American manufacturing industry.

Like many, I only associated the shop rag with the automotive and motorcycle industry. After all, it’s the automotive shops and garages across the U.S. where most shop rags can be found. However, in acquiring and curating this collection, I soon found shop rags were also connected to a plethora of other industries: rail, farm and tractor, machinery, uniform, linen, and laundry.

For those who love vintage design, you can’t help but marvel at the aesthetics of these rags. Viewing them side by side is an education in American industrial graphic design and advertising. Imagery of dapper service men, thick-lined letters as symbols, pithy catch-phrases, bold and imaginative typefaces are all set against vibrant but worn-in colors. On some level, its shocking these have gone unnoticed for so long.

More important than the rags’ appearance is the underlying story of the businesses they were created for. By our calculations only a handful of them still exist. One example is the uniform supplier Roscoe Company, based in Chicago. Founded in 1921, they will celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2021. Sadly, though, these rags are all that remains of businesses like the Nye-Fulton Motor Company of South Bend, Indiana.

For those who love vintage design, you can’t help but marvel at the aesthetics of these rags. Viewing them side by side is an education in American industrial graphic design and advertising.

And therein lies our motivation. While we certainly can’t resurrect any of them, we can honor these car dealerships, supply companies, linen services, and railroad lines through a unique and never-before appreciated filter: the shop rag. With over 250 rags currently in our collection, the challenge we now face is acquiring accurate information and histories on these companies so that we might be able to include their story alongside their respective rag. It’s proven somewhat difficult. We’ve reached out to a representative at Milliken & Co. — the same Milliken & Co. who manufactured most of these rags and is still in operation to this day — only to be told they are unable to assist with any research. Total buzzkill.

(7) KEX National Service, once the largest manufacturer of American-made shop towels in the country, announces sponsorship of a public safety program aimed at increasing seatbelt usage across the United States in 1962.

(8) An oversized shop towel that was used as a fender cover during automotive service.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. We faced and overcame similar obstacles when creating the shop rag shirt, so believe me when I say we’re up for this challenge. While we can’t announce a specific launch date for the book, we’re aiming to go to print when we’ve documented everything we can find. As always, projects like this are best taken on with like-minded individuals. We’re joined in this incredible journey by Chattanooga, Tennessee-based photographers Corey and Emily Critser of Lanewood Studios and Raffe Lazarian of Right Hook Creative. Each brings a genuine curiosity and passion for storytelling through the lens of their cameras, and the images showcased here are merely the tip of the iceberg.

American sociologist and photographer Lewis Hines once wrote, “I wanted to show the thing that had to be corrected: I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.” Ditto.

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