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Behind the Seams of the Butterick Building

Horse-drawn delivery wagons in front of the Butterick Building (1911 postcard). Click for source.

Do you have childhood memories of your mom sewing your clothes? Or have you ever come across your grandmother’s old sewing machine and huge stash of patterns and fabrics?

If you know someone who sews, ask them if they know the name “Butterick” and they will very likely say yes. That’s because 150 years ago this year, Ebenezer Butterick revolutionized home sewing by creating the first multi-size sewing patterns in the world at his home in Sterling, Massachusetts. You can still find new Butterick patterns being made today, though Butterick has since been purchased by another company.

But why the mention on Off the Grid?

A child’s coat sewing pattern in multiple sizes from the 1900s. Printed at the Butterick Building. Click for source.

After Ebenezer’s initial success, he eventually moved the company to 192 Broadway in lower Manhattan. In the latter half of the 19th century, his patterns gained in popularity as the multiple sizes made it easier for seamstresses to sew custom fit clothes for themselves or for their family. By 1876, his patterns were being shipped all over the country and Canada, and eventually found their way to Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin.

Ebenezer left the company in 1899, but its success in producing both patterns and fashion magazines resulted in another big venture: the construction in 1903 of the Butterick Building at the corner of MacDougal (now Sixth Avenue) and Spring Streets. They commissioned the firm of Horgan & Slattery to design their new headquarters.

The completed building. Source unknown.

The 15-story Beaux Arts style building became the jewel in the crown of the Butterick empire at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but a 15-story building in Manhattan would have been quite a commanding presence in 1903 (it’s no coincidence that the shock of such “skyscrapers” ultimately led to the passing of the city’s first zoning law in 1916). The Fuller Company, engineers of the iconic 22-story Flatiron Building going up at the same time, also built the Butterick Building.

Standing at the head of Spring Street, the Butterick Building remains today a visual gateway to the Hudson Square neighborhood.  Recently, when the City proposed to rezone Hudson Square to encourage new high-rise residential development, GVSHP asked that height limits for new construction be limited to 210 feet, about the height of the Butterick Building. The City ultimately opted for the more excessive 290 feet.

The Butterick flagship. Click for source.
A copy of “The Delineator” from 1894. Click for source.

Sparing no expense, when built, the interiors of the Butterick Building were designed by Tiffany. The building, marketed as “The Home of the Delineator Family,” operated 86 printing presses that produced Butterick’s 32 periodicals, which made it one of the largest magazine publishing companies in the country. With such a large floor area, the building accommodated a large range of activities, from seamstresses making sample garments to workers printing and shipping sewing pattern envelopes.

But just what was The Delineator? The Butterick Publishing Company’s cultural and social significance was not limited to its home sewing patterns; it also created one of the most successful publications the country had ever seen: The Delineator. First created to help advertise Butterick sewing patterns in 1873, The Delineator ultimately became a champion of “the new woman” in the post-Civil War era.

Finding herself balancing roles in and outside the home for the first time in history, the middle-class woman was the prime subscriber of Butterick’s magazine. With printing moving to the Butterick Building, the readership went from 30,000 in 1876 to 480,000 by the turn of the century, and by 1920 it climbed to over one million. It lasted until 1937.

Butterick was located in this building until October 2001 when they were purchased by the McCall Pattern Company and were moved uptown to Penn Plaza, according to a former employee who now works for McCall’s.  Even though they’re now gone, we’re glad to see this monument to women’s history still standing tall at its prominent spot on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street.

One response to “Behind the Seams of the Butterick Building

  1. Would you let me know where I might find a copy of the September 1897 issue of The Delineator. I discovered that an author I’m writing about, Emma Wolf (1865-1932) wrote “Social Life in American Cities: San Francisco” in this issue of the magazine.

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