Josna Rege

31. Gas-Station Shirts

In 1970s, 1980s, Stories, United States, Work on March 28, 2010 at 10:51 am

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We started the trend—or so I claim. Somebody prove me wrong!

Back in the early 70s—certainly no later than 1972—Andrew and I, who were working at Godine Publishing while it was still doing its own letterpress printing, went on a mission to find lint-free cotton rags for cleaning the presses. We wound up at Harbor Textiles, a “wiping-cloth” company in an old building in East Cambridge, just outside of Kendall Square. This was long before it became Tech Square as we know it today, and the neighborhood still retained traces of its industrial past. Eve was with us, I think, or perhaps my memory is blending two different visits together.

Harbor Textiles bought cloth in bulk from commercial customers and estate sales and sold it to industry by the pound as rags, or wiping cloths. We were fascinated by the place, with its mounds and bins of cloth everywhere, being sorted by kind. The large lots of old tablecloths and napkins from hotels and restaurants were of particular interest to us, since the table linen was already hemmed and finished; some of the other finished items, like the commercial uniforms, needed to be stripped of buttons before they could be processed for wiping cloths.

The fascinating man who sat in the midst of it all, weighing customers’ bundles, ruling over this empire of rags, turned out to be a fellow-Brookline High School alumnus and, as I recall, an MIT graduate (or perhaps dropout) as well. He was extremely erudite and we could have conversed with him for hours on any number of subjects. As it was, it was hard to drag ourselves away.

We soon discovered that mixed in amongst the textile wastes waiting to be turned into rags were treasures—brocade tablecloths, vintage clothing (old clothes, they were called, back in the day), and uniforms, including sharp cotton shirts with workers’ names and oil-company insignia embroidered on them. Apparently they were issued to gas-station employees. Encouraged by the proprietor, we went through the jumbled bins sorting the shirts for colors, sizes, and names. We found an Esso shirt with “Andy” emblazoned on it that fit Andrew perfectly, and I found a Joe working for Sunoco.  (I was to work at a gas station myself in the summer of ’73, but the low-budget Merit station sold no-name gasoline, and didn’t see  fit to issue us with shirts.) We bore them off in triumph, for our new BHS friend threw them in for free with the purchase of the rags. The three of us began wearing our gas-station shirts everywhere, and everybody wanted to know where we had found them. Eve in particular looked terrific in hers and always drew compliments and inquiries.

We returned to East Cambridge for wiping cloths in 1980, soon after we had started Whetstone Press, and were reassured to find our fellow-alumnus still there. The rag shop was a well-kept secret for a time, but it was soon to become Dollar-a-Pound, and to begin pulling out the treasures to sell separately, by the piece.  One-of-a-kind finds with costume potential would be set aside for a special section as Hallowe’en approached. By now many of our friends frequented the place, thrift-shop hounds all, and by the mid-80s, when the sale of used clothing had become more lucrative than the trade in industrial wiping cloths, the owners opened The Garment District upstairs. We had moved out of the Boston area by then, but a building in MIT’s upscale Tech Square was extremely valuable real estate, and I’ve read that the wiping-cloths business was relocated to South Boston, leaving the East Cambridge store all-retail. But it was still a place to find amazing deals well into the 90s. I remember that Maile bought her stunning high school prom dress there for seven dollars, and my friend Ann assures me that the discerning thrift-shopper can still find a bargain there.

The Garment District. Photo: Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

It’s too bad that we used those gas station shirts for work; Andrew’s at least were soon covered with ink and oil. Not long after we started wearing them, they were suddenly all the rage, and became a sought-after commodity in second-hand shops; but for a season or so, we were the only ones wearing them—aside from gas station workers, of course. I still maintain that we started the trend.

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  1. Talk about starting new fashion trends 🙂

  2. What a great story! The Garment District was my favorite store in high school. It was a big deal to drive in to Boston, first with my mom, and later with friends, and spend hours there combing through the clothes. It almost closed a few years ago, and would have been replaced with luxury condos, but the owners avoided that fate. Dollar-a-Pound now costs $1.50 a pound, but the store is still open and going strong!

    • Maile! Thank you for posting, and for the reassuring info that the building was saved and that Dollar-a-Pound is still there and thriving. I’ll have to try to go there next time I’m in Cambridge. Perhaps one day I’ll come in with Ruth and we can all go together. Did I remember more-or-less correctly about the prom dress? xJ

  3. I remember those shirts. Yes, you started the trend. NOBODY else, except real gas station attendents wore those shirts. I did not realize you were making an aesthetic statement at the time (by the way, I remember Eve’s shirt, too), I thought they were political statements.

  4. So there you have it, folks—the definitive word!
    We probably thought they were political statements too–but if so, what were we saying? No, you’re right, they were fashion statements, though we wouud never have admitted to it then.

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