File photo by Brian Hagberg.

Pieces of the Past — Blair Part 1

May 15, 2024

To do the subject of New Process or Blair justice it will take two parts. I had a conversation on ham radio recently with someone who said: “Blair? What is that?” I was stunned.

I tried to explain it to him but I know I fell short of accurately telling him the impact Blair made to Warren. If your family has been in the Warren area for at least 2 generations or more, someone related to you worked for Blair. The scope of the business was nationwide, even international.

The magnificent example of Art Deco architecture that sets the Blair building on Hickory Street apart is a testament to a company that started in a sales defeat for a 22-year-old college student. John Leo Blar’s family emigrated from Ireland toward the end of the 1880s to Corry. I’m not sure what led John E. Blair to move from Corry to Warren. Not long after the move, John L. Blair came into the world. Little did anyone know that in 22 years he’d make a huge difference.

Blair was asked to sell raincoats for a classmate’s father who owned a raincoat factory. During Easter break in 1910, he made 50 sales calls and struck out. Not one sale! Finally, a funeral director in Kane asked for a black woolen waterproof coat. Blair pioneered a “new process” of incorporating rubber into the fabric and not only had he made his first sale. He had tried to get retailers to stock his coats but failed. Borrowing $500 John decided that he would create his own outlet using direct mail. In less than three months he sold over 1,200 coats. The New Process was up and running!

Undertakers became Blair’s niche market. The coats were popular and Blair sold enough of them to move out of his bedroom to a portion of the Bayer Furniture store. The store was located next door to the Episcopal church on Pennsylvania Avenue West. By the late 20s NEW PROCESS was growing rapidly. Blair brought in his father, brothers, sister, and Bayer for his help with office and storage space, In 1932 fire hit the furniture store as well as the building on the corner of Hickory and 3rd. Stories have it that John Blair grabbed an axe, climbed a ladder, and broke out windows so firefighters could get more water into the building.

When the smoke cleared, the newly cleared Hickory Street lot became the state-of-the-art offices, distribution center, and retail storefront With the furniture store gone, the church became the dominant structure on the corner. Blair bought Bayer out and even with the depression, the company grew.

My Mom worked there when she graduated from high school. According to her, the atmosphere was all business. Very formal. No elbows on the desk. Women were required to have every hair in place and always dressed impeccably. The success of the direct mail business led to Warren’s post office being elevated to the same classification as the post offices in New York City. By the 1940s not only did New Process have a workforce of several thousand, but the local post office had a small army to handle shipping.

When you have a customer base of several million people you are faced with inventories in the millions. If just 1% of the inventory of grey men’s slacks remains unsold there is a big storage problem. So every year, associates would inventory all the unsold and returned items. Then sell coats, dresses, you name it for next to nothing! The annual warehouse sale brought thousands of bargain hunters to Warren. I remember the lines of people waiting to get into the warehouse. Some camped out on lawn furniture for as much as a week beforehand! I remember my Dad would always bring home several “sleeves” of golf balls for 50 cents apiece.

The success of the annual sale brought Blair’s leadership to do something that John L. Blair had abandoned all those years earlier. A warehouse outlet. That is a story all by itself.

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