Cited by the New York Times in 2002 as "the nation's largest maker of buttons - an old but little-known giant of the garment industry," Emsig Manufacturing is no ordinary button maker. Suffice to say that you don’t get to be a 4th generation American company – something only 9/10 of 1% of companies in America achieve – and have a place in the annals of Supreme Court Cases and in the very bedrock of the New Jersey Turnpike – without some creative thinking. And of course, there is Emsig’s longstanding “innovative” business strategy since 1928: To produce the highest quality products for their customers.
“Emsig” is the surname of a family that lived in Austria for over 400 years. In 1928, Max Emsig, a 44-year-old tinsmith who immigrated to the US in the early 1900’s, started doing business under “Emsig Manufacturing”. Innovation began in earnest immediately. Between 1928 and 1949, Emsig had produced many firsts among buttons, from the first enameled steel work shirt buttons to fire-retardant and colorfast melamine resins, as well as the world’s first sew-through shank button and automatic shank button feeder. Always acutely responsive to the times, they introduced buttons made 100% from recycled materials, and a bio-tech button that resists viral and bacterial organisms in 2009.
But, as innovative as they were in terms of manufacturing and their “quality strategy,” it is Emsig’s pivotal place as a landmark – literally and judicially – in American history that affords this button maker legendary status and a spot on our most innovative list.
SUPREME COURT: EMSIG v. PRICE FIXING
“When Roosevelt was President,” says Larry Jacobs, the president & chief executive officer of Emsig, “there was a law that limited what price you could sell for. You had to sell at a fixed price.” And so begins one of two stories that Jacbos will share from his Made in USA booth at the MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas last August. Jacobs, who will be 80 in February, married into the business of his wife’s family (Emsig), and by the time he is done telling two stories, one will never look at the New Jersey Turnpike in the same way again.
The “fixed price law” that Jacobs was speaking of, was instituted by Roosevelt as a “national remedy” during the Depression. In 1934, the law was challenged by Leo Nebbia, the owner of a New York grocery store. At this point in time, almost 20 million Americans depended on federal relief, and New York’s milk-control board had fixed the lawful price of milk at nine cents a quart. Nebbia, however, sold two quarts of milk and a 5-cent loaf of bread for 18 cents and was found guilty of violating pricing regulations and fined five dollars. Nebbia challenged the conviction, arguing that the statute and order violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clauseof the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that the state of New York could regulate (set and/or otherwise control) the price of milk for dairy farmers, dealers, and retailers. Nebbia lost. Justice Owen Roberts wrote the majority opinion, upholding the New York law; declaring that a state may regulate any business whatever way, “when the public good requires it.”
Like Nebbia, Emsig would go on to challenge the law. “We needed money for payroll,” says Jacobs, “so we went out and sold buttons for a lower price,” says Jacobs. By doing so, Emsig found themselves sued by one of their competitors, Colt Firearms.
“Colt Firearms made buttons, and they also made plastic handles of the same sort for guns but they were a button competitor of ours,” says Jacobs. “We didn’t have lawyers and couldn’t afford them but we found someone we knew who had two sons who were lawyers and they took this as a class action lawsuit, and they brought it to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt lost,” continued Jacobs, “because our concept was, basically, that the buttons are our goods and we can give it away, throw it away, and sell it any price we want. Roosevelt, who was a very good President, was upset and tried to pack the Supreme Court which he couldn’t do. And now Colt is big in guns and we still make buttons.”
SEW BUTTONS ON YOUR TURNPIKE
A few years later, in 1940, Emsig began supplying buttons to the military. “The Government approached the company and said ‘Make buttons for the Russian Army,” says Jacobs. “Now, those buttons were shipped out on Liberty ships and the German submarines sunk most of those ships and most of those ships had a couple of cartons of our buttons. So now the war is over and we’ve got these buttons still left over from what the government bought and we asked the government, “What do you want us to do with them?” And they said, “Well, we are funding parts of the New Jersey Turnpike. If you ship them there, we can put them in the base underneath the cement.” Jacobs continues, “Now the reason I’m saying this, is that in the thousand years when they dig up the turnpike, no one is going to know how those buttons got there…”
Today, Emsig continues to make buttons from factories in Connecticut, India and China, and remains a supplier for the U.S. government. The class action suit is now discussed in law schools and textbooks. And The New Jersey Turnpike? Already considered iconic from all the heavy pop culture references in film, books and music, it is now the “most buttoned-up Turnpike in the World”. In 1000 years, we expect the expression “Sew Buttons on Your Turnpike” will be sweeping the nation, eventually replacing “Sew Buttons On Your Underwear” as the not-so-popular-anymore expression.
Every August and February, the fashion industry converges in Las Vegas for the most influential event in the business – MAGIC. As an incubator of fashion, MAGIC is where new trends surface and develop into what will be seen on the consumer. The show’s goal is to connect and inspire the fashion community. For up-to-date exhibitor listings, seminar scheduling, travel support and registration information please visit www.magiconline.com.