The Boss Workwear Buttons: Unveiling the History Behind Them

Los Angeles, now renowned for its fashion boutiques and extensive shopping opportunities, was a city devoid of dedicated clothing stores just over 130 years ago. This changed thanks to Morris Cohn, who established the first exclusive clothing store in Los Angeles, laying the groundwork for the city’s fashion industry.

Morris Cohn, born in Germany in 1869, emigrated to the United States in search of a better future. Unlike many Bavarian Jewish immigrants who settled on the East Coast, Cohn headed straight to California, arriving in Los Angeles in 1888 at the age of 19. He initially worked as a clerk at Jacoby Brothers, a prominent local clothing retailer, alongside Henry Louis and Daniel Brownstein, who would later co-found the Stronghold brand.

Workers in a Los Angeles shirt factory, circa 1940s. Image from California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

In 1890, Cohn left Jacoby Brothers to start his own business, Morris Cohn & Company, at 112 Commercial Street. His venture marked the beginning of garment manufacturing in Los Angeles, specifically with the production of men’s overalls. Prior to this, local stores were limited to retail and wholesale, with no in-house manufacturing. Cohn introduced the first powered sewing machine to the West Coast, achieving immediate success and necessitating a move to a larger store at 318 North Los Angeles Street in 1894.

Morris Cohn & Co Help Wanted Ad – Los Angeles Herald, April 30, 1899. Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Cohn married Edith Armer in 1895, who became actively involved in his business. By the end of the decade, Cohn sought a financial partner to expand his operations, finding an ideal match in Lemuel Goldwater. Goldwater, a wealthy individual who had moved to Anaheim, California, in 1893 and invested in a local bank, joined Cohn’s firm in 1899. The company was subsequently renamed Cohn, Goldwater & Company, producing overalls, shirts, and trousers under The Boss brand.

The Boss, Union Made Buttons Found Metal Detecting

Found Metal Detecting, South Orange County (California) by Joanna Jana Laznicka

By 1906, Morris Cohn, the original clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles, had partnered with Lemuel Goldwater to create Cohn Goldwater & Company and establish what the Los Angeles Times touted as the largest shirt and overall factory on the Pacific Coast, with a new factory located at 12th and San Julian Streets.

Wording Variants of Morris Cohn & Company “The Boss” Buttons

While The Boss brand was successful, it was not the first workwear brand in Los Angeles. The Stronghold brand, founded in 1895 by Henry Louis, Daniel Brownstein, and Philip Newmark, preceded it, sparking a competitive rivalry that lasted over four decades. It is important to note that The Boss brand is distinct from the similarly named Cones Boss brand of Indianapolis.

1924 Morris Cohn and his Wife, Edith – Image from the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

The Boss brand, featuring a logo inspired by Levi’s two-horse design but depicting two elephants trying to rip a pair of jeans, quickly gained popularity. By 1909, the company had moved into a newly constructed factory at 525 East 12th Street, the first modern steel-reinforced concrete factory building in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times touted it as the largest shirt and overall factory on the Pacific Coast.

Original drawing of the Cohn and Goldwater Factory from the Los Angeles Times, 9/15/1906. The building is extant but has been significantly altered. Image source Survey LA
Cohn-Goldwater Factory Building, 525 East 12th Street, circa 1909. From the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

The company thrived in the early 20th century, surviving even the Great Depression. Morris Cohn and Lemuel Goldwater led the company for over 40 years until their deaths in the early 1940s (Cohn in 1941 and Goldwater in 1942). Leadership then passed to Cohn’s nephew, Ernest J. Armer, who served as president for more than a decade. By 1954, the company had shifted its production focus to sports shirts, and the Cohn-Goldwater Mfg. Co. ultimately ceased operations in 1962.

Cohn-Goldwater & Co. advertisement in the Arizona Republican, 1920 from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

The thousands of fashion shops in modern Los Angeles owe their existence to this pioneering enterprise, which set the foundation for the city’s thriving fashion industry.

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