For much of its history, Rochester was one of the fastest growing cities in American society and during the 20th century it became one of the most innovative urban areas in North America. Many people know that Rochester is home to major technology companies like Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb but few realize that it has also been a major manufacturing hub that attracted waves of immigrants to the region from the early 1800s right through to the present. From flour milling to fine clothing, Rochester has been one a productive powerhouse for nearly two centuries.
It all began with the Erie Canal, an artificial river stretching from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Completed in 1825, the canal revolutionized American trade by making it easier and cheaper to transfer raw goods from West to East and people from East to West. By the 1830s, nearly two dozen flour mills existed in Rochester, alongside a variety of other manufacturing concerns. Rochester was one of America’s great boomtowns.
After the Civil War, a bevy of innovators made Rochester home, building industries that would define American high-tech far into the future. Perhaps the most famous figure in this regard was George Eastman, first worked in Rochester’s banking industry before experimenting with photography. By the 1880s, he established Kodak Corporation. Eastman’s success prompted other innovators to gravitate to Rochester, including the lens making company Bausch & Lomb.
Rochester’s economic growth also relied on the manufacturing trades – particularly the garment industry. Much of this workforce was comprised of immigrants. The turn-of-the-century, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian and Jewish immigrants streamed to Rochester. This set the stage for a series of public debates over civic identity and working conditions in Rochester. During the early 20th century, Rochester was one of the nation’s leading producers of men’s and women’s clothing and the garment trade employed roughly 20% of the city workforce. Today that legacy continues in Hickey Freeman, a renowned men’s clothier based in Rochester.