Piqua's Atlas Underwear Company:
It Kept Americans Warm
By Judy Deeter
PIQUA - This post card shows an image of Piqua’s Atlas Underwear Company plant. It is from a set of 16 post cards distributed by the Piqua Leader Dispatch newspaper. The photo is believed to have been taken in 1920; the date the newspaper distributed the set of cards has not been confirmed. The plant was located at 803 N. Downing St. in Piqua.
The Atlas Underwear Company was incorporated in January 1899. One of its first acts—months later in 1900—was to purchase the Piqua Underwear Company. The Atlas Underwear Company officials involved in the purchase were Leo M. Flesh, William P. Orr and Edgar A. Todd. The Piqua Underwear Company had only been in business for 10 months. An old newspaper story says that Piqua Underwear was founded by Clarence Langdon (the first Treasurer of Piqua Hosiery), John Cahill (chief salesman for the F. Gray Company) and Edgar A. Todd. Some sources also list M.G. Smith as an owner of the Piqua Underwear Company. It is said that the men had the experience to run the company but not enough money. Piqua Underwear Company was re-named as the Atlas Underwear Company about the time of purchase.
The Piqua Underwear Company operations were in what was formerly the O’Ferrall Agricultural Works on Riverside Drive at Downing Street. It employed only a few people. It was there that the first Atlas Underwear Company product was manufactured: union suits for men and boys.
The company prospered from almost the start. Early on, through Leo Flesh, union suits were marketed by Sears Roebuck.
By 1905, it sold the O’Ferral factory building complex (additions had been added to the original building) and opened a new factory. A description of the 1909 building is in Thomas Harbaugh’s CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF TROY, PIQUA & MIAMI COUNTY, OHIO (1909): “This splendid plant is located on three streets facing on Downing Street and runs along Rundle Avenue to Wayne Street.
The building is 300 feet long, has an extreme width of 110 feet, and is four stories high in addition to a fine basement. It is a counterpart of one of the buildings of the National Cash Register Company…It is unquestionably the best planned and handsomest underwear plant in the country and is the largest plant in the world devoted exclusively to the manufacture of union suits…”
In 1909, Atlas added a fourth floor to the building and in 1920 a four-story addition to the building.
The purchase of the Piqua Underwear Company was the first of several company purchase/mergers made by the Atlas Underwear Company. Documents on file at the Piqua Public Library Local History Department outline the numerous companies that became part of Atlas. Documents also show that there were several other underwear companies in Piqua in the early 20th century. A 1995 article in the Piqua Daily Call by Steve Mullett says, “Between 1900 and 1920, Piqua had eight or nine underwear companies in operation at any given time.” (“Piqua Recalls Undy Spirit,” January 7, 1995)
Atlas made a wide variety of products. In 1941, it made the first thermal underwear. The underwear was known as Insulaire. It then purchased a Wisconsin company named the Allen-A Company to manufacture the thermal underwear. In 1968, the company came out with a full-length underwear for skiers named Ski Skins. More space for manufacturing was needed to produce Ski Skins so the company bought the old Superior Underwear Company plant in Piqua. In 1971, Atlas introduced underwear for tennis players named Playskins. Atlas also made socks, swim suits, handkerchiefs, sport shirts, pajamas and men’s briefs.
An old undated newspaper article tells the story of how Atlas Underwear Company worked on a project to create underwear for astronauts. Electronic medical sensors were to be put into the underwear so scientists could keep tabs medically on astronauts. Atlas had previously worked with Goumann Aircraft Corporation and Goodyear on aviation undergarments. Pilots flying in to the arctic regions had previously worn special aviation underwear. Further information about this project has not been located.
In 1971, the Atlas Underwear Company was re-named the Allen-A Company; months later in 1972, the company was acquired by Medalist Industries. It was then re-named the Medalist Allen-A Company.
In 1980, a new building for storage and shipping was erected at 8510 Industrial Drive. By that time, the company manufactured items for private labels such as J.C. Penney, LL. Bean, Lands End, and Eddie Bauer. Their products were known as Medalist Apparel.
The company moved to Sidney in 1993. The Piqua company manufacturing buildings were demolished in 1994.
An article in the Piqua Daily Call of February 21, 1996 states that Medalist Industry paid $350,000 to demolish their manufacturing plant at Downing and Riverside Street. It donated the land to the people of Piqua.
Today, the old manufacturing site is Heritage Green Park—a delightful play space for children.
For further information about the Atlas Undewear Company, contact the Piqua Public Library Local History Department. The Piqua Public Library is at 116 West High Street in Piqua. Telephone number is (937) 773-6753.