When the University sold its stock in a local paper factory during the Second World War, it turned its back on one of Cambridge's more unique anachronisms. This firm, the Reversible Collar Company of 111 Putnam Avenue, is the country's only surviving maker of paper collars.
But the age that is past had little significance to University treasurers, who sold the stock that had been willed to them by an alumnus who founded the company, and they sold out, incidentally, just before the biggest boom in paper neckwear of the last thirty years.
The boom was a result of naval officers' demands, and it broke near the war's end when cloth collars were made regulation for the Navy. (Annapolis cadets still wear detachable collars, but theirs must be of cotton, not cloth.
But Reversible still carries on, selling 150,000 paper collars and shirt fronts or "dickies" per month. The detachable collar is attached to a neckband shirt, worn once, turned over, worn again, and then thrown away.
Not Collars Alone
The firm, once one of twelve such in the state, is now the country's sole producer of paper neckpieces, but has survived where its competitors have failed only by expanding into coated papers besides collars. Now only a fifth of the company's business is in paper collars. Twelve employees out of the company's 90 make collars, "and even they aren't busy all the time," reports William B. Snow, company treasurer.
Snow concedes that most of his firm's "business is coated papers nowadays," but maintains that "all the old timers around Harvard Square still know us as the old collar factory."
The company's grand brick structure which suggests a utilitarian Mem Hall, is but a ten minute walk from the Yard, lying between the Charles and Putnam Square on Massachusetts Avenue. It contains not only a factory, but also a retail sales room, for anyone in the market for a paper collar. Customers are infrequent, but just a few days ago a Royal Navy captain, whose cruiser was docked in Boston, ran out of detachables (still popular in Her Majesty's Service) and dispatched a jeepload of sailors to pick up a carton.
The same naval predilection was responsible for the World War II boom, and since Harvard was then a training school for cadets, Snow recalls a stream of them coming in for paper collars. But the NROTC boys have not carried the salty tradition forward, and Snow wonders "if anyone in all of Harvard still wears the old fashioned neckband style shirt and detachable collar. He hopefully suspects that "some of the old professors might," but then turns realistic and doubts even that.
The paper collar industry started during the Civil War when the South's control of cotton cut off the supply of cloth collars. And many people preferred the substitute and continued to wear them after the War. The Reversible came into being in 1866 and has made paper collars ever since. The Reversible came into being in 1866 and has made paper collars ever since. The business hit its peak between 1870 (when production hit 3,000,000 items monthly) and 1914, but has generally declined since then.
As for the future, Snow is not terribly optimistic. Reversible will be ready for any boom, but it is not exactly expanding production facilities.
But for himself, Snow can see no alternative to detachables. "Why," he exclaims, "I was married in one! They're a great convenience, economical, and at least as comfortable as cloth."