In the early 1900s, Winnipeg experienced tremendous economic and population growth. Fuelled by a healthy and vibrant grain industry and the expansion of railway lines, the city became a major manufacturing and financial centre and a transportation hub that allowed it to deliver goods to all parts of North America. Winnipeg became known as the “Gateway to the West” and the “Chicago of the North.”
Much of Winnipeg’s economic activity took place in the Exchange or Warehouse district, which was the centrally located business centre of the 1890s, in close proximity to major railway lines and sources of hydroelectric power. Most of Winnipeg’s warehouses were located in an area bordered by Notre Dame Avenue, Main Street, William Avenue, and Hargrave Street. With the decline of the distribution business after World War I, wholesalers left the district and empty warehouses became available at affordable prices. Garment manufacturers benefited from this state of affairs, because the warehouses could incorporate the staffing and physical requirements needed to produce and distribute goods. The large open spaces permitted easy installation of office and factory equipment; in most cases, offices were located on the second floor and the main floor was reserved for machinery and heavier goods and materials. Gerry Berkowski notes that the standard layout was as follows: “first would be… the sample room, a miniature factory which cut, measured and assembled garments that would be produced on a larger scale on the factory floor. Next was the cutting room. After cutting, the pieces were taken to a basting room for preparation for sewing, then to the sewing room, to the pressers and finally, for storage, display and shipping.”
At one point, the garment industry used about 90% of all Warehouse district buildings including the Peck Building at 33 Princess, the Glengarry at 290 McDermot, the Daylite Building at 296 McDermot, the Merchants Building at 250 McDermot, the Bedford Building at 281 McDermot, and the Sterling Cloak Building at 110 Princess. Over the years, The R.J. Whitla Building at 90 Arthur, which was constructed in 1903 exclusively as a garment factory, became the site where several garment manufacturers were located including National Cloaks, Gunn Garment, Silpit, Hercules Manufacturing, and Winnipeg Pants and Sportswear.