Monday, June 21, 2010

Klein's Fat Men's Shop

Ever since I first discovered its existence some years back, while researching the city's past, I've had a mild obsession with Sig Klein's Fat Men's Shop. From the late 1800s until who-knows-when, it stood at 52 3rd Avenue, near the corner of 10th Street. For close to a century, it served the needs of fat men all over.

Let's take a look back at Klein's timeline...

from under the 3rd Avenue El

Klein's was the subject of a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece in 1931, a year before Mr. Klein died in 1932.

Ben Shahn photographed the shop around 1935. The painter Paul Feeley painted it in 1936. Klein's can also be seen in the background of Berenice Abbott's 1937 photo of the Stuyvesant Curiosity Shop.

Ben Shahn

Kiplinger's Personal Finance wrote in 1949, "The store is well-known in New York for its huge weather-beaten sign featuring an enormous fat man wearing a form-fitting union suit," above the famous slogan: "If everyone was fat there would be no war." (Apparently attributable to one Dr. Frank Crane, a Presbyterian minister fond of making up aphorisms.)

For a peek inside the shop, check out LIFE for their shot of a rather rotund man being fitted for a suit. And Getty Images has two excellent exterior close-up shots, one from the north, and another from the south--both taken in 1947.

Throughout the 1940s, Klein's advertised in popular magazines, proclaiming their prodigious sizes.

Advertisement in Popular Science, 1943

In 1955, Meyer Berger wrote about the place, noting that the "two low gray buildings that house the gargantuan sizes date from 1804," and that Klein "launched the specialty shop back in the Eighties, when most of his customers were German neighbors too fond of their beer. 'The more they drank, the bigger they got.'"

East Side News columnist George Freedman got a similar story in 1954 for his "Did You Know That??" column, crediting the beer-loving Germans for the birth of Klein's:

click to enlarge

In the '60s, things started going downhill for Klein's. In 1963, the Times reported, "Garments Stolen (Sizes 62 and Up) at Fat Men's Store."

The Klein's sign then shows up in Bill Binzen's wonderful book of photos, Tenth Street, published in 1968. In the same time frame, possibly the most recent trace of it appears in this undated shot of that era by Tony Marciante. The photo is from inside the Brata Gallery at 56 Third Avenue, from the time when art galleries took over on 10th Street and 3rd.

Bill Binzen

I can't find any mention of Klein's from the 1970s. No, I take that back--it is briefly mentioned in a 1978 New York Times article about a store called London Majesty, for "royally proportioned men." The writer states, at the end of the article, "shops for king-sized men have come a long way since they had names like Sig Klein's Fat Men's Shop."

Since they had names like Sig Klein's--past tense.

c. 1950s, Klein's sign at 4th Ave. and 10th St.

So was Klein's gone by 1978--or just forgotten? Did it live to see its 100th birthday in the 1980s? What happened to it?

A walk over to its former address shows that the two gray 1804 buildings that once housed Klein's are gone today. A squat, khaki-colored building stands there now, housing a surgical supply pharmacy and a nail salon.

There is no sign of Klein's.


Andrew Gardner said...

I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood in between 75 and 88, I don't remember seeing any fat men's shop on Third and 10th. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have even thought to look for one, being skinny as a rail. Today, I could probably use one!

Anonymous said...

same guy who had a gym?

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

I remember Fat Tony who was the cook/sandwich-maker/onion-slicer at McSorley's on 7th Street used to get his clothes at the Fat Man's Shop. Back when I was a kid I too wanted to grow up and get my clothes there but how little I knew about what fat men had to go through just to live and survive. And it wasn't funny at all...

Fat Al said...

I like this quote from the linked New Yorker abstract:

"Mr. Klein, the proprietor is a little thin man, himself is a lively and jolly man, and says his customers are also. Does not care for fat men's wives, though. Seem to bear out the tradition of being small, sharp, and inclined to haggle."

I'm thinking that the sterteotype in the last sentence may not refer to his fatness...

Jeremiah Moss said...

Mick, it sounds like Klein's was a special place if you longed to shop there as a kid.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Guess I was a weird kid at that, who knew where I got my pleasure from, eh? lol

Anonymous said...

Fat Al,
I may be wrong, but the way I read it, the stereotype in the last sentence in the New Yorker abstract is referring to fat men's wives, not Mr. Klein.

Anonymous said...

I lived at 96 Third Ave near 12th St in 1968 and would surely remember this peculiar sign. I do remember pawn shops but no Fat Man store.

Melanie said...

There was a BIG Mens Shop in downtown Brooklyn back in the day...For Large and Tall men. They really had a remarkable sign of a dignified LARGE man in their window. They were in business in the same location for many years.

pmrussell said...

Who would want to walk down the street with "fat man" on his package? Yeah, back then they didn't advertise on bags but they did sometimes put their name on their boxes. Fat wasn't a derogatory word back then. In earlier times, fat meant well off.

dining room table said...

The sign was very funny but. I am sure that it will attract all customers. With that picture, I know that everyone is going to be interested in that shop.

Unknown said...

Beginning in the late 30s until they closed in the late 50s or early 60s, my father bought all his clothes at Sig Klein's. He would make an appointment and they would select styles they knew he liked. Although he called it, Sig Klein's, the clothing labels said "Fat Man's Shop" and he wasn't bothered about this at all.

As a little kid - in the 50s - I went with him a couple of times and always had a lot of fun. The store had

Beginning in the late 30s until sometime in the mid 60s, my father bought all his clothes at Sig Klein's Fat Man's Shop. And, although he called it Sig Klein's, the clothing labels said "Fat Man's Shop" and, as far as I know, the name or the sign never bothered him.

My father bought clothes twice a year and he would make an appointment so the salesmen (always men) could select the type of styles and colors they knew he liked. He would always go on Saturdays and, as a little kid - in the late 50s, he sometimes took me with him.

I don’t remember too many of the store’s physical characteristics, but I do remember that the place had that old, settled feeling. The store itself was narrow and quiet and had those little divided shelves that held various sizes and colors of things like gloves, handkerchiefs, and other small items.

Like my father, I was - and remain - fat. At the time, my mother bought my "dress clothes" in the "husky" section of DePinna (another old gone-by New York store). Nothing ever fit properly and the DePinna tailors knew it, but they would shrug at my mother with a, "What can we do, he's too fat"" look.

At Sig Klein's, on the other hand, there was none of that. Everything could be had in large sizes and the tailors understood how to fit a fat man, regardless of his shape. Even as a kid, I could tell that they understanding a fat man's fitting problems and that they had a real desire to make a fat man look good.

I always liked both the name of the store and the big sign outside. The Fat Man’s Shop was probably the first place I'd ever been where the word "fat" was a term of respect, not derision; even the man on the sign stood straight, tall, and proud! I felt as good as the teddy bear felt when, in A. A. Milne’s poem, “Teddy Bear,” teddy discovers that the fat “King Louis So and So” was nicknamed “the Handsome.”

I don’t know exactly when Sig Klein’s closed or when the sign came down. Around 1967 or so, I remember seeing the sign from window of a cab, but couldn’t tell if the store was still in operation.

Thanks for writing about the Fat Man’s Shop. I’m grateful I found your blog

Jeremiah Moss said...

Charles, thank you so much for adding this lovely first-person account of the fat man's shop. i enjoyed reading it.

Arthur van Kruining said...

Seems there was a Sanders' Fat Men's Shop as well.

Mitch said...

There is something I don't understand: why would someone knock down those buildings in the 1960s or 1970s just to put up a three story building? I wouldn't be surprised if that building is just the old buildings, renovated.

John D. said...

I remember this store, and another one in the same area, catering to large men. Something about King Farouk is coming through.

But Sig Klein's was somewhat down the block from the family flower shop at 206 Third Avenue, at 18th Street. And there was S. Klein's department store in Union Square. As a kid, I remember thinking they were the same.

I really never thought there could be a store making a business out of catering to just big or tall people. As a kid, they all seemed big and tall.

Neuroguy said...

Was just watching Turner Classic Movies, and they had a short from Ripley's Believe it or Not series that featured Sig Klein's shop, circa 1932. It showed the outside and the inside of the shop. Link to the IMDB entry for the short: