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Steinberg Drapery Collection

Brassiere - Yellow Satin

Image: Brassiere - Yellow Satin

Source: Museum Victoria

The Steinberg Drapery Collection was donated to Museum Victoria in 1989-90 by Phyllis Steinberg and her son Myer Steinberg. It comprises 162 objects, mostly women's and children's clothing, including stockings, socks, shirts, bathing costumes, brassieres, girdles and fabric remnants. The oldest date from the 1930s. They were collected by Museum Victoria on closure of the store.

Steinberg Drapers was located at 142 Elgin Street, Carlton, Melbourne. The business was established in 1930 or 1931 by Hyman and Phyllis Steinberg. Hyman was an orthodox Jew who came to Australia from Palestine in 1924. He arrived first in Perth, but was unable to find a job that allowed him to observe the Sabbath. He decided to move to Melbourne, where he became a wholesaler of drapery goods (textiles). He soon began manufacturing, establishing a mill at 142 Elgin Street in a building that had formerly been used as a tailor's shop, and had originally been a hotel.

Hyman's wife, Phyllis, had migrated to Australia from the Polish-Russian border with her sister in 1927, when she was 18. (Only four members of her generation survived the Holocaust.) Hyman met Phyllis in Melbourne, and they married in 1929. The following year, Phyllis set up a stall at the Victoria Market, selling her husband's wares and seconds from other drapery suppliers. By 1931, she had opened a drapery shop opposite her husband's mill, at 161 Elgin Street. The growing family lived above the shop, and the babies were popped into boxes under the counter while their mother ran the shop.

Hyman continued manufacturing until 1938, making socks and stockings using American machines. At the height of his manufacturing, he employed 20 people. After he closed the mill, he continued wholesaling and retailing. At one stage he opened a regional store in Wonthaggi. He did considerable business with Arabic hawkers, who bought goods from him for re-sale to country residents. He was fluent in nine languages, including Arabic. Hyman and Phyllis both learned Italian after World War II, when many Italian immigrants settled in Carlton. Hyman became a benefactor and founder of COASIT, the Italian Historical Society.

During World War II, the Steinberg Drapery was particularly busy. Products were purchased using cash with clothing rations to control distribution; Hyman and Phyllis in turn had to use the ration tickets to buy stock from wholesalers and manufacturers. Davies Co-op, a long-term supplier, provided rejects/seconds, including pure cotton underwear and windcheaters.

The Steinbergs faced local competition, with several other drapery stores in Elgin and Lygon Streets. There were also many Jewish shopkeepers in Carlton. The Steinbergs were active members of the local Jewish community. Mr Steinberg was a cantor at the synagogue in Neill Street; and their sons attended a Hebrew school after secular school finished. During the height of World War II, Phyllis and the children moved to Carrum and then to Shepparton for safety, and Hyman ran the shop by himself. After the War, in 1952, the family moved to St Kilda, as did many Jewish families.

Hyman and Phyllis ran Steinberg Drapers until Hyman died in 1975. Phyllis continued to run the store until the late 1980s, when she retired, aged nearly 80.

The Steinberg Drapery Collection provides a significant insight into mid-20th century retailing conducted by immigrants. From the earliest years of the business, nothing was thrown away. Phyllis did not believe in 'sales' - unsold goods were kept for future sale. The collection includes several examples of some types of objects, such as corsets, stockings and brassieres, and documents change in underwear fashion in the mid-20th century. Many items of clothing remain in their original packaging.

References:
Pers. Comm., Myer and Suzanne Steinberg
H. Elliott, 'The Steinberg Collection - an Insight into the Foundations of Fashion', Museum Victoria, circa 1990

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