The recent snowstorm — blizzard — and another predicted for next week reminded me of the era of the Brewster snowsuit, which I have written about before. It seems that nearly everyone who grew up here during the 1930s and 40s had one, even well into the 1950s. Choosing what you were going to wear was not an option. If you were going out to play, you put on your Brewster snowsuit.
They came in several colors, especially green, blue or red. Mine was green. Along with some good rubber boots, a knitted hat that pulled down over your neck and ears and some mittens Grandma knit you for Christmas, you were ready to deal with everything a Maine winter had to offer. Depending on the temperature, the wool became a repository for melted snow, or for a build up of ice. In cold weather snow would freeze to the cloth until from the knees down at least you were encased in ice, while in warmer weather the snow would melt, and the wool would absorb the melt water until the suit would begin to feel baggier and heavier with water. Even so, they were warm and only occasionally one had to return home for dry mittens, which Mother always had in good supply.
The Knox Woolen Mill provided Mr. Joe Brewster with woolen cloth especially designed for winter snowsuits and jackets. The snowsuits were all but indestructible. Mr. Brewster guaranteed the child would outgrow the garment before it wore out and he stood behind that guarantee with free patches and repairs. There were a couple of styles of jackets, short and long, perhaps for school or another activity, but snowsuits were the thing for playtime in the snow.
Some years later in 1956 when I was going to the University on the GI Bill, Helen and I remembered our Brewster snowsuits and took Alan, our 4-year-old, to Mr. Brewster for a fitting. We had moved up from Norfolk, Va., where winters were somewhat warmer, so we needed to prepare him for the Maine winter. Money was always a consideration in those days and we discussed that with Mr. Brewster. He assured us the snowsuit would not wear out, but we suggested Alan was growing fast and would soon outgrow it. “No problem,” Mr. Brewster again assured us. He would design the suit with plenty of leg length for growth, and Alan would get at least two years out of it. He was a little bit put off at the suggestion that Alan might wear it out and assured us again that patches and repairs would be free. We agreed on the price and came back in a few days to pick up the finished suit.
Alan wore the suit two years (though Helen says it was three). Then we took it back to Mr. Brewster to have reinforcements put on the knees and elbows, new elastic wrist and ankle cuffs put in, and our daughter Vicki wore the suit for a couple more years. It was probably the best clothing investment we ever made for our children.
Mr. J. A. (Joe) Brewster was a very prominent citizen in Camden for many years. Reuel Robinson’s History of Camden and Rockport tells us that in 1905 Mr. Brewster owned a “flourishing” business called the Joseph A. Brewster Shirt Manufactory “which employs 65 people and has a payroll of about $25,000 per year.” Robinson goes on to say Mr. Brewster was also in partnership with the H. D. Storey Shirt Factory in Rockport, which employed 35 people. Robinson makes an interesting observation that in his day “Camden and Rockport have never lacked sufficient industries to keep their people profitably employed.”
Turning now to Jack William’s History of Camden, we are told that in 1910 Mr. Brewster purchased the building he had been renting on Tannery Lane along with the old bakery mill privilege (dam) on the river there. In 1912 he purchased the F. J. Blood lot at the corner of Mechanic and Washington streets and built the building known today as the Brewster Building that once contained Highland Mill Mall. The Storey Shirt Co. needed room to expand and Brewster’s dam could supply power for both enterprises. In 1915 Brewster bought out Storey’s interest and combined the whole shirt manufacture under one name and one roof, employing 110 people.
I have a note from Joan (Salisbury) Asbury to point out that wearing Brewster snowsuits was not always such a happy occasion as I have described. My wife, Helen, too, has reminded me that sometimes when they got wet on a warm winter day, they could be very uncomfortable. Joan’s words are that they were “a horror story of wet, heavy disaster.”
Helen tells of the time she fell in a brook with her snowsuit on, and had to walk home a half-mile or so, dripping wet, with her snowsuit practically dragging on the ground. Girls especially found that the suits chaffed their legs, perhaps because they often were wearing a dress that didn’t give much protection against the wool material of the suit. Some suits were lined with cotton or satin material to help on that score.
I keep saying that the old days in Camden were not better; they were just different, but maybe they were a bit more self-sufficient. Many of the things we needed was produced right here in town, like Brewster's snowsuits.
Paul Putnam lives in Rockport. His four volumes of essays, "Thoughts and Reminiscences of a Camden Native," are available at the Reading Corner in Rockland and the Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden. He can be reached at email@example.com.