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10 American Industries Still Hanging On


Bloodied, battered, but not yet down for the count, there are still pockets of US manufacturing scrappy enough to keep the lights on in the face of overseas competition.


A Steinway grand, consisting of over 12,000 parts, is handmade, constructed by 450 individuals over the course of a year. Small wonder then, that in the decades between 1870 and 1930 the most expensive item an American owned other than his house was generally his piano. Since the 1930s and the advent of electronic home entertainment, of course, the piano, once the must-have of any genteel parlor, has gone with the wind. The great US piano manufacturers – Chickering and Sons, Davis & Co., J.C. Fischer, Mason & Hamlin, and Baldwin, to name only a few-- are all ghosts, swept away by changes in taste and more affordable Asian-made brands.

Only a few, tiny boutique piano-makers such as Mason & Hamlin, based in Massachusetts, and grand old Steinway, based in Queens, New York, and purveyor of high-end state of the art models that retail between $50,000 to $120,000 as well as budget, overseas-built Boston and Essex brands, are left. They cater to the very rich looking for status symbols, and an ever-dwindling market of performers -- over 98% of all concert pianists play Steinways -- and musical institutions.

To get an idea of what's happened to the American sock industry, take a look at Fort Payne, Alabama. Until a few years ago, the town of about 14,000 billed itself as the "Sock Capital of the World." They weren't spinning a yarn, either: As late as 2007, according to the Hosiery Association, if an American put on a pair of socks, the odds were about 1 in 8 they'd be rolling a product of Fort Payne/DeKalb County onto their hooves. Most of the area's workforce was employed in its sock mills, which then numbered 125 to 150. Today only 20 remain, providing roughly 600 jobs, down from 8,000 just a decade ago.

The "Sock Capital" sign that greeted visitors off Interstate 59? Gone. There's a new sign, on the front door of the oldest hosiery mill in town, that hints at the industry's unraveling: "We are not hiring at this time. Thank you for coming."

What started pulling out the thread was -- you guessed it -- globalization. An influx of cheaper hosiery, imported from the likes of China, Pakistan, and Honduras, started around the turn of the 2000s. It flipped the American sock industry on its head faster than argyle came back and again went out of style. Domestically made socks went from three-quarters of US sales to one-quarter between 1999 and 2006.

Thanks to a quirk of national politics, Fort Payne caught a break in 2005, when then-President Bush needed to swing a single vote in Congress to get his Central American Free Trade Agreement out of deadlock. The city's congressman, Robert Aderholt, was a holdout against the deal, and he took the opportunity to hold the bill hostage with a single demand: Restore the tariffs, which had been lifted in 1984, against socks seamed in Honduras. The White House complied, and the duty returned at the end of 2007. The move had little effect in the long run, and sock factories are still fleeing Fort Payne for Honduras.

The fact that there's only one ironing board manufacturing plant left in the Unites States has nothing to do with changing tastes in laundry after-care, or the viral spread of track-suits and t-shirts, and everything to do with retail consolidation and globalization.

Located in Seymour Indiana, HPI Seymour, owned by Chicago-based Home Products International, has been around since 1942, when it started as a tool-and-engineering shop. In the 1950s it switched to ironing-board only mode, successfully marketing a range of high-end ironing boards around the world.

But today the plant, which employs 200 people (down from 400 in 2000) and pumps out 720 boards an hour, is fighting the same stiff winds that have wiped out so much of U.S. manufacturing, despite a market that sees some 7 million ironing boards sold every year. Big chains like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) are still customers and anti-dumping tariffs as high as 157% against its rapacious Chinese competitors have kept the lines rolling at the plant so far. But with the chains increasingly sourcing cheaper and cheaper products from Asia, and with the tariffs coming under pressure from observers who wonder if artificially high ironing board costs for 7 million consumers are worth 200 jobs in Indiana, HPI Seymour's 69-year-old history is probably nearing its end.
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