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How Minneapolis became "underwear capital of the world"

By putting its underwear on real people, the Minneapolis company brought the industry into the modern era.

By putting its underwear on real people, the Minneapolis company brought the industry into the modern era.

Underwear's sort of a cool thing to be known for. Really, really old underwear? Not so much. But Minneapolis probably has to take what it can get when it comes to fashion notoriety.

The interesting and mostly forgotten story of how the City of Lakes came to revolutionize American undergarments was revisited Monday in a story on Atlas Obscura, the geography and history encyclopedia that focuses on the weird. The story of Minneapolis' claim to fame in the underwear department certainly meets that description. 

It was in Minneapolis, with its particular demographics and underclothes desires, that America stopped itching its collective crotch. The "thrusting Midwestern city," as it's suggestively described by Atlas Obscura, was the home of Munsingwear, a late 19th-century startup business that introduced a blended underwear fabric.

Gone were the all-wool items that were great for trapping in the, uh, smell, but also left the wearer wanting a stick to shove down his or her britches.

In their place was a wool and silk mix invented by George Munsing. Munsing's own origins are lost to history. He was living in Rochester, New York, in the 1880s, where he was supervisor of a knitting company's work, and moved to Minneapolis in 1886. With him he brought a pair of M.I.T. men, Frank Page and Edward Tuttle, and a plan.

The Northwestern Knitting Company was founded in 1887, and instantly set about remedying America's itch. They produced a long underwear that was still mostly wool, for warmth, but was also "plated" with silk, thus eliminating the discomfort of having sheep hair right up against your bits. 

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Making it was one thing. Marketing it was another. Prudishness reigned in that era, and print advertisements usually depicted underwear on its own, lying flat, with no wearer in sight. Munsing thought Minnesota was ready to get real. As Atlas Obscura writes: 

He saw in Minneapolis not only a market ready for exploitation—the cold winter weather necessitated thick underwear—but also a strongly liberal climate, partly due to the large influx of Scandinavians to the area. Here, he thought, underwear could finally be brought out into the open.

In 1897, the garment company introduced its first live-model advertisement, buying space in the Ladies Home Journal. That advertisement featured a little girl wearing a one-piece suit, but promised shoppers they could inquire about "our free Booklet showing styles photographed on living models." 

The Republic did not fall. The old underwear paradigm did. The Northwestern Knitting Company thrived, later renaming itself "Munsingwear," after its visionary founder. It also became a haven for women looking for work, especially immigrants: By 1918, of its 3,000 workers, 2,500 were women, representing 30 different nationalities

In 1923, Atlas Obscura reports, the corporation "went pubic [sic, we think?] and became the largest manufacturer in the world with an ever increasing array of undies."

It didn't last. American cities rose to challenge Minneapolis' position at the top of the nether region, and the plant closed in 1981, as documented in a recent recollection on MinnPost. Later, South American and Asian hubs came to be the new centers of underwear production. 

Munsingwear went into bankruptcy in the 1990s, and was later scooped up by Perry Ellis, which still holds the brand name as a subsidiary. Judging by this landing page, the name that once changed how America clothed its privates is now a purveyor of cookie-cutter menswear — white undershirts and briefs — that's supposed to be hidden under much more stylish and expensive pieces. 

You only change the world once. The Northwestern Knitting Company, and later Munsingwear, did, but only through one man's vision and one young state's willingness to accept that yes, they shop for underwear, and they wanted it to be comfortable.