Lifestyle

Jobs of yesteryear

Sign painters, milkmen, and others talk about the state of their once-vibrant trades

Jessen Fitzpatrick runs Salmagundi, the full-service hat shop in Jamaica Plain, with his wife.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Jessen Fitzpatrick runs Salmagundi, the full-service hat shop in Jamaica Plain, with his wife.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when just about everybody got milk delivered to their homes. Most families owned typewriters and used them for school reports or formal correspondence. Worn out shoes were sent to cobblers for renewal. Tailors made suits. Signs were painted by hand. These are no longer commonplace. On this Labor Day weekend, we visit some craftsmen and women who are keeping such time-honored skills and traditions alive.

HATTERS

Salmagundi, the full-service hat shop in Jamaica Plain that Jessen Fitzpatrick founded with his wife, Andria Rapagnola, in 2007, keeps 12,000 hats in stock. Yet nearly half the shop’s business consists of making and restoring hats. Coming from a business background, Fitzpatrick had to learn the trade “one hatmaker at a time,” he says. “A lot of old-school hatmakers are excited to pass on the techniques.’’

Fitzpatrick, 38, and his assistant Kira McClellan, 29, a master seamstress and hat collector, clean and block fedoras and borsalinos in the climate-controlled basement of the shop. Their tight work space is filled with shelves of colored ribbons for hat bands, wooden blocks that mimic the human head, and tapered wooden ovals that provide a flange for steaming and pressing hat brims.

Advertisement

“Blocking hats is like cooking,” says Fitzpatrick. “You can’t rush it.” He first removes the lining and ribbon from a gray Stetson borsalino and checks the leather sweatband for wear. He fits the hat with a wooden block, then steams it lightly. Brushing in the direction of the grain of the fur felt, McClellan removes surface dirt. Over the next 45 minutes, the body of the Stetson is steamed to restore its shape, and the brim is repeatedly steamed and pressed. After McClellan sews on a new ribbon, Fitzgerald works gently but firmly with his fingers to restore the creases to the owner’s original styling.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“You have to become one with the material,” he says. “The stitching on this hat will go in another 20 years, but the felt is good for another 80.”

Salmagundi, 765 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-5047, www.salmagundiboston.com

TYPEWRITER REPAIR

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tom Furrier went to work for his friend’s father at Cambridge Typewriter in 1980. “At the end of the first day I knew that this was what I wanted to do,” says Furrier, 59, who was a forestry major in college. “It just resonated with me.”

Learning the typewriter-repair business proved to be like learning to rig sails just before the rise of steamships. By the late 1980s, computers and printers had all but shoved typewriters aside. “In the ’90s, there was a time when the shop was always a few months from closing,” Furrier recalls. “But something made me hold on.”

Even today, some offices can’t do without typewriters. Some municipalities in the state use them for forms like marriage licenses, he says. “When a clerk’s office needs a typewriter repaired,” Furrier says, “they need it repaired now.” He fixes 700-1,000 machines per year, mostly using just a screwdriver and a spring hook. His cramped desk in the rear of the shop is surrounded by loose parts and old typewriters. “There are only 10 or 15 machines a year that I can’t fix,” he says.

Advertisement

Furrier is proud of his craftsmanship, but is more excited about getting restored manual machines into the hands of a new generation. “The manual typewriter resurgence began around 2002 when kids into everything old school and analog started coming in,” says Furrier, who writes the “Life in a Typewriter Shop” blog. He even has a proprietary technique to restore the factory sheen to old typewriters, including his favorite Art Deco machines from the 1920s and 1930s.

Cambridge Typewriter Co., Inc., 102 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-643-7010, www.cambridgetypewriter.com

COBBLER

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

John Elhilow, 46, carries on a family tradition begun seven generations ago in Lebanon and brought to the United States by his great-grandfather in 1910. “I was a good student, and I went to college for a year,” he says, “but I liked working with my dad” at his Holliston shop.

In 1988, Elhilow jumped at the opportunity to take over a shoe-repair space in Waltham. Superior Shoe & Boot Repair has been a fixture on the west end of Main Street ever since, though Elhilow acknowledges that he’s not as busy as he used to be before rubber-soled shoes began to outnumber leather. “When I was growing up, 80 percent of the business was in men’s leather-sole shoes,” he says. “Now most of the business is in women’s shoes.”

What hasn’t changed is the way that a local shop can help anchor a community. “I’ve known most of my customers for years,” Elhilow says, “It’s a neighborly thing. It’s much more than work.” On a hot summer afternoon, a steady stream of customers of all ages stops in to ask for repairs on shoes and bags and to chat with Elhilow, who wears a T-shirt proclaiming, “If the Shoe Fits, Repair It.” He seems to relish the break from the cramped quarters in the back of the shop where he and an assistant stitch on big industrial sewing machines and the air is redolent of leather, rubber, shoe polish, and glue.

The eighth generation is not a sure thing. Elhilow’s oldest son pitches in during college breaks, and the three younger boys like to hang around the shop. “It would be OK if they want to join the family business,” he says, “but only if it’s their choice.”

Superior Shoe & Boot Repair,
839A Main St., Waltham, 781-893-6930, www.superiorshoerepair.com

SIGN PAINTER

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Advertisement

After graduating from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Josh Luke was looking for an art-related apprenticeship — a tradition, he says, since “the Renaissance painters.” He found what he was seeking at New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco, where learning the vanishing skill of sign painting combined his fine art training and his love of lettering.

‘There are only 10 or 15 machines a year that I can’t fix.’

“It’s a difficult trade to master,” he says. “You have to be dedicated to the craft and learn a new skill set with different brushes, materials, and techniques.” For example, he transfers images by pouncing — a technique of dabbing chalk through pinprick outlines on his drawings “like Michelangelo did for the Sistine Chapel.”

San Francisco was a good training ground, says Luke, 36, because “sign painting did not decline” as much as in other parts of the country. “People were looking for things that were unique and colorful.”

In 2010, Luke and his wife, Meredith Kasabian, launched Best Dressed Signs in their Brighton living room. “I was looking forward to moving to Boston,” he says. “The city has such a history of sign painting. You can look around and discover ghost signs.”

Luke, who now operates out of Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester, has started to make his own mark, restoring historic signs like the glass front of tobacconist Leavitt & Peirce and painting new art like the Beat Brasserie sign, both in Harvard Square.

Sign painting, Luke says, endures. “When you discover a trade that was in decline, but wasn’t lost, it’s like discovering the history of the art form. It’s mind-blowing how good some of the artwork is.”

Best Dressed Signs, 11 Humphreys St., Dorchester, 617-942-0189,
www.bestdressedsigns.com

MILKMAN

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The boxy International milk trucks of Hornstra Farms are a familiar site on the South Shore, where the dairy delivers to about 3,500 homes in 14 communities.

Dave Beaulieu, 42, drove a route for five years and now oversees the delivery operation. “I loved it,” he says, even though the drivers have to leave the 80-acre Norwell farm by 5 a.m. to ensure that at least some families have fresh milk with their morning cereal. In addition to milk (in either plastic or glass bottles), customers can order pies, bacon, eggs, cream, butter, ice cream, and other products. Each route is delivered once a week and typically includes more than 100 customers — sometimes with as many as 10 stops on a single street, other times spread miles apart.

“We’re happy to put things in people’s freezers,” Beaulieu says. “You get to be part of people’s families.” As often as not, milk deliverers also pick up the newspaper from the driveway.

Like the mail, the milk must go through. “We’ve been out in every storm,” says Beaulieu. “We usually beat the plows.” Even during good weather, it can take 9-10 hours for each route.

Hornstra Farms took over the historic Loring Farm in Norwell in 2009 and milks about 50 red and white Holsteins. The dairy processes its own milk and makes butter and ice cream.

Demand for home delivery is getting a boost from recent food trends. “A lot of people grew up with it,” Beaulieu says. “Now it’s available to them. It fits right in with the whole movement to eat local. A lot of health-conscious people want home delivery.”

Or maybe they just want the cachet of an aluminum-clad milk box on the porch.

Hornstra Farms, 246 Prospect St.,
Norwell, 781-749-1222,
www.hornstrafarms.com

TAILOR

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Joe Calautti came to the United States from Italy in 1964 after learning the art of tailoring in Milan. “I had seven suits and two sports coats,” he recalls, “but I didn’t have any money.” He went to work for Joseph Rizzo in Harvard Square at a time when Harvard students “all had custom-made clothes.”

He took over the shop in 1973 and has made suits for Harvard professors, lawyers, politicians, and even Julia Child. It takes about a week of concentrated effort to make a suit, with all the finishing work done by hand. The side and back seams are stitched on venerable Singer sewing machines that go back to Rizzo’s day. The pressing machine with an 18-pound iron is even older, dating back a full century. “Mr. Rizzo bought it secondhand,” Calautti says.

Even in the era of casual Fridays, Calautti, 73, has a six- to eight-month backlog of orders. “All professional people have to dress up. They have to wear a suit, even if they don’t wear a tie.” he says.

To help with the workload, Calautti subcontracts some stitching to a couple of home-based professional tailors who’ve been with him for 20 years. He laments that no one has come forward as an apprentice. “You can’t learn this from a book,” he says. “Your eyes see it and then your hands do it.”

He sighs and wishes aloud that he were 20 years younger. “I just want to keep giving people this beautiful workmanship,” he says.

Rizzo Tailoring, 66 Church St.,
Cambridge, 617-547-5052

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.