As we approach our centennial anniversary, our blog series, A Century of Pride, details Roscoe’s (almost) 100 years of colorful history through the recollections of modern family members, some written histories and an irresistible trove of faded note cards, old photos and family lore.
In Roscoe’s early years, founders J.P. “Jack” O’Connell and George C. Buik shared the responsibilities of managing their new laundering business. O’Connell handled the day-to-day operations of the plant while Buik maintained his job as a business agent for the Chicago machinists’ union, assisting O’Connell on the side.
In their free time, the two friends chased smokestacks across the city, searching for new business in the smoke trails of factories that, for most, simply melted into the backdrop of Chicago’s skyline. But for the two entrepreneurs, every factory represented the possibility of a new customer.
A Founder Reminisces
George C. Buik wrote on notecards the story of how in 1926 he came to join Roscoe full time:
In the machinists’ election of 1925, we had a real contest. There had been a general election for International President a short time before, and after listening to a talk by Jack Anderson, who aspired to the office, during the campaign, I decided to support the candidacy of Wm. Johnston who had been the President for several years and was to my mind one of the outstanding leaders of the trade union movement in the United States. Most of the leaders in Chicago were supporting Anderson, so this put me in a minority. One of the special business agents discussed the matter with me and suggested that if I did not support Anderson, my own job was in jeopardy. He was told in no uncertain terms that a threat of this kind would not deter me from my decision that, in fact, if this sort of treatment was meted out to me, I did not want to remain in office as Business Agent. When election day arrived not one member of the Election Board was favorable to me, yet at the end of the vote count, I had only been defeated by 75 votes out of 2100 cast.
I left office in January of 1926 and had a talk with Jack O’Connell who was my partner in the laundry business. We had rented a laundry at Southport and Roscoe and had named the operation Roscoe Overall Laundry. We had 4 trucks in operation and O’Connell was quite happy in the business. I told him I wanted to come in to the plant and start to work. We agreed on a salary comparable to a driver which was just about half of what I had previously earned. I assured Jack that I would know in three months whether or not I enjoyed the work and was contributing to the success of the business. I was out on a small route collecting washing from machinists who knew me as their business agent and giving them orders for the past five years, but I never felt embarrassed when anyone started to discuss the chap who had taken over my job. My usual reply was, you owe me $0.25 and I’m not interested in union matters. In 1925 we did $44,000 in business at Roscoe and spending part time on sales work we advanced to $66,000 in 1926.
Years Marked by Growth and Evolution
With the business growing, Roscoe quickly outgrew its namesake location at Roscoe & Southport. In 1926, Roscoe moved into the previous location of Garden City Laundry at 3517 West Harrison St.
The evolution of rags followed in the footsteps of garments. Roscoe started washing customers’ rags in 1926 and entered the rental wiping towel business in 1929. A timeline from Roscoe’s 45th anniversary notes this was a new service to Chicago, despite the fact that a similar service was offered in Germany as far back as 1887. While the market crashed in 1929, Chicago benefited in the early 1930s from the World’s Fair, and so did Roscoe.
Image: George C. Buik’s notecards tell the story of Roscoe’s early days.
Next month’s Century of Pride blog will feature Roscoe’s role in the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair. To learn more about Roscoe’s humble beginnings, read our previous blog in the Century of Pride series. To learn more about our uniform rental services, contact us through the link below.
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