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A Century of Pride: Roscoe’s Roaring 20s

Mark Stedman - Friday October 9, 2020
As we approach our centennial anniversary, our blog series, A Century of Pride, commemorates our history and explores Roscoe’s journey from a small neighborhood laundromat to a full-service work uniform provider.   

 

Before the 1900s, work clothes were generally laundered at home. Family members – typically women – would hand-launder garments for the entire family.

But with the urbanization of America, employees were increasingly required to wear uniforms for personal and product protection and as part of new standards of cleanliness in the workplace.

In response to the growing demand for professional laundry services, laundering partners became popular throughout the early 20th century.

The Beginning of a Legacy

Roscoe’s founders George C. Buik and J.P. “Jack” O’Connell met in 1915 as manufacturers at the American Can Company in Maywood, and while they started off on a rocky footing they quickly developed a bond that – six years later – became a lasting business partnership.

O’Connell, a native Pennsylvanian, was born in 1887; Buik, a Scottish immigrant, was born in 1890. As friends and coworkers in their mid-twenties, the two bonded over their work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, and on May 26, 1921, they entered into a partnership to start a business laundering industrial work clothes.

In August 1921, the two men made a $200 deposit on second-hand laundry equipment and a storefront operation at Roscoe Street and Southport Avenue known as the Very Best Laundry Company. The partners renamed the business Roscoe Overall Laundry – a name that, decades later, would be shortened to The Roscoe Company and finally to Roscoe. It was a humble start to a business that would eventually grow to a position of industry leadership.

In its early years, Roscoe operated only as a laundering service. Drivers picked up the soiled work clothes of mechanics and printers from the plants, brought them back to the plant for cleaning and mending, and returned them to the workplace. Early deliveries made use of an old family car that had been converted into a small delivery truck.

Buik kept his day job as a business agent for the Chicago machinists union while O’Connell managed the laundry plant during the day. The two men “spent all their free time following a trail from smokestack to smokestack drumming up new business,” according to an account published in a company newsletter in 1991.

Years later, in a memorial piece for O’Connell, who died in 1958, Buik reminisced about the partnership’s beginnings. “In 1921, Jack and I had become real friends, so when he approached me to go into the washing of work clothing, I readily assented, because I felt my temperament would not permit me to be a union official for many years.”

Recognizing a new opportunity, O’Connell and Buik added uniform rental services in 1924. The service was originally just a one-piece coverall offered to automobile service stations and garages, but the addition of company emblems and logos gave workers a crisp and professional look. This led to “long-term relationships with many of Chicago’s major companies,” according to the newsletter account.

A Pioneer of the Uniform Rental Industry

Buik and O’Connell understood the need to adapt to a constantly changing market. Their keen business sense, understanding of the Chicago community and entrepreneurial spirit drove Roscoe’s growth during the early years of the business.

The addition of a uniform rental service was a defining moment in the company’s history,  allowing companies to replace haphazard hygiene practices with a mandatory and consistent schedule of laundering. Chicago companies no longer had to rely on their employees to show up in clean, well-kept uniforms; instead, Roscoe would pick up, launder, repair, and deliver the uniforms back to them each day.

Contact us through the link below to learn more about Roscoe’s uniform rental program.

Contact us to learn more about our work uniform rental services