A Saga of the Seno Family History

By Sebastian Seno

 

The best way to start a story is at the beginning, so I will start with Pa.  I have no recollection of any history or stories prior to 1915.  I did learn that Salvatore (aka Sam) Seno was born in Italy in 1893.  He had only a limited education, which was not unusual for that time.

 

Like many youngsters in those days, he left school to earn a living.  Being the salesman that he was, he had a cart and a donkey with which he traveled from town to town selling hand-made doilies, linens, table cloths and other hand-made items.  These articles were sold on consignment and Pa made whatever he could over and above the original prices he paid for them, plus his supplies.

 

That brings me to 1915.  Pa and many friends (paisons) started to immigrate to the Untied States legally through Ellis Island, New York.  They found things very difficult with the language barrier and customs.  Being immigrants, they were accused of taking jobs from Americans.  They worked on the railroad, in piano factories and at other menial jobs at low wages.  Sounds familiar even today.

 

In 1917 when the US joined England in the war against Germany, Pa and others decided to enlist in the US forces.  With these enlistments came automatic citizenship.  Fortunately, they all survived the war and came back to the Chicago area to resume their lives.

 

Starting in 1919, the men sent for their sweethearts and fiancés and started marrying.  Pa and Ma married around 1920.  An interesting fact is that a brother and sister married a brother and sister.  My uncle Joe Zito was my mother’s brother and my aunt Yolanda was my father’s sister.

 

Their first born, Josephine, died in 1923 during the diphtheria epidemic that hit Chicago.  I (Sebastian) Saby was born in 1923, followed by Louis (Gigi), the second Josephine (Babes), Salvatore, Jr. (alias Dillinger), Rudy (Amadeo), Aldo, and finally Guido who became known as Guy.

 

Dad started a tuxedo rental business sometime in the twenties, and I have to assume he was very successful at it.  I have a vague recollection of a large store filled with tuxedos, plus wedding gowns and bridesmaids dressed which women rented in those days.

 

As I mentioned, he must have been quite successful because in early 1928 we all went on an extended trip to Italy.  However, the good times took a turn for the worse as the crash of 1929 hit the US.  Pa rushed back home  and for some reason lost most of his money.  At this point, I would hazard a guess that it was the stock market.  The reason I say this is because he never spoke of the stock market in all the years I worked with him.  It took him six months to get enough money to get us back home again.  We made it back home in October and Aldo was born in November.

 

I was only six at the time we were in Italy, but I remember the horse and buggy trips to the beach and the earthquake that hit the area at the time.  We were spending time at a mountain villa across the Bay of Naples from Mount Vesuvius when it erupted.  The damage was limited to a few cracked walls and broken windows.  We sailed back home on a ship called the Rex which I later understood was lost during World War II.

 

Back home Pa had to struggle to keep the family together.  It seems he was financially ruined by the crash of 1929.  That didn’t stop Pa.  He was a survivor.  He sold pots, pans, shoes and other household items by going house to house, and the purchaser made weekly payments.  Usually he left the house early in the morning and did not return until late at night.  Many a night I did not see him.  The economy stayed stagnant for several years. 

 

In 1935, Pa opened a small store at 702 S. Western Avenue in Chicago where he rented tuxedos (nobody was getting married at the time) and took in cleaning and pressing.  Ma helped out by doing small repairs and alterations at night when all the kids were in bed.

 

Things began to take a turn for the better, and Pa was able to get a job as a presser in a shop that manufactured women’s clothing.  My folks were able to buy a home in 1941.  We moved into our home on Columbus Day.  From there he went into business as a contractor doing work for other manufacturers .  Eventually he started his own shop, Franklin Cloak House, where he made women’s suits and coats.  This lasted a few years, but Chicago was losing its market to other areas of the country (some things never change).  Many people did not know that at one time Chicago was considered the dress capitol of the world.

 

Pa and I ran the manufacturing business (Rudy was our designer) while Lou and Sal ran the tuxedo business.  By then (1941), we moved the business to 720 S. Western Avenue.  Business really started to pick up.  World War II ended in 1945 and the boys were returning home.

 

The United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.  Lou was drafted into the Army and served in India with the Air Force.  He was a mechanic and worked on the B-24 Liberator.  He was not accepted to flight school because he wore glasses.  Aldo volunteered for the Navy and served on the USS Berry which was a destroyer.  Guy went into the Coast Guard and served for 2 ½ years in Washington, DC.  Donald Perry, Sr. was not drafted until after the war was over.  Don was a welder by trade and the company he worked for was doing government work and kept getting him deferments.  In service he became an X-ray technician.  Sal and Rudy received draft notices but by that time the war was over.

 

Josephine and Donald Perry were married in 1948.   They were followed by Lou and Ida, Sal and Pat, and Rudy and Mary in 1949 and Ruth and I in 1950.  With the family expanding it was apparent that something had to be done to feed and provide for everyone.  The decision was made to expand the tuxedo rental business.  This led to the expansion and growth of Seno and Sons.

 

At this time I want to go back to 1948.  Pa had an old friend, Mr. Valente, who ran a bridal shop and a photography business in Detroit, Michigan.  He was interested in adding a tuxedo shop which would work in well with his other ventures.  It was decided that Sal would go to Detroit to help Mr. Valente and his son, Mark, to start and learn the business.  Pa and Mr. Valente agreed to a five year partnership after which he would own the business by himself.  Sal lived with the Valente's for four months.  During the next two years follow-up trips were made until the Valente's felt they could run things by themselves.

 

In 1952, Pa decided to close the manufacturing shop and concentrate on the expansion of the tuxedo business.  In 1950, Seno and Sons opened its second location at 2513 W. 63rd Street.  Over the years this proved to be one of our most profitable operations.  In 1952, the third location on Lawrence Avenue was opened.  The trade at this location was predominately Jewish.  They, like the Italians, had large and lavish weddings.  The Lawrence Avenue location was one of the properties that Seno and Sons owned—the other being in Bellwood.  The gentleman who owned the building sold it to us when he retired.

 

As we grew between 1950 and 1954 we found that we needed more space to operate.  Our inventories were growing at a rapid pace.  Mr. Eisenstein who owned the property at 720 S. Western ran a dry goods store at 716 and 718.  In 1954 he decided to retire and we took over the double store.  Also about that time we hired our first employee—a young man by the name of Tony Spinuzza.  Tony stayed with Seno and Sons through all the years until we sold the business.  When Tony broke through the adjoining walls on Western Avenue, I stuck my head through the opening and exclaimed, “What are we going to do with all this space?”  Little did I know that seven years later we would build our 20,000 square foot plant in Bellwood.

 

In 1954, we opened up on State Street to cater to the Loop shoppers.  In 1955, we opened in Oak Park at 6941 West North Avenue.  This location served many of the Italian and Irish trade that lived in the western part of the city and suburbs.  Unfortunately, on September 27, 1956, the man who started this whole saga, Salvatore Seno, passed away.  Over the next few years we kept expanding until we reached twenty locations in the metropolitan Chicago area.  About this time the malls were becoming a big phenomenon in the retail field.  Seno and Sons decided that this would be the new way to go.  Over the years we opened several stores in various malls.   The first one was in Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, Illinois.  This store turned out to be the first tuxedo shop to open in a retail mall in the country.  It served us well.  In the Chicago-land area we went into Randhurst, Yorktown, Matteson, Waukegan, Old Orchard and Rockford.  With this growth we ran into problems, particularly with the laundries and dry cleaners.  None were big enough to service all our needs.  We had so many bad experiences that we knew something had to be done.  The answer was to become self-sufficient.  The decision was made.  In 1961, we purchased a piece of property at 2700 W. Van Buren in Bellwood, Illinois.  The result was the plant.  Now we were fully independent and did not have to depend on anyone.  At Bellwood we had our inventory under one roof where our orders were filled out and sent out to the proper store.  We put in our own laundry department with the latest equipment and our own dry cleaning units.  Our laundry department had two fifty pound washers.  The pressing department had the best equipment available.  The property we bought was strategically located so that we could reach all the expressways (Congress—later the Eisenhower—the Tri-State, and the Northwest).  The sellers of the property eventually realized their mistake and twice offered us a big profit to sell it back to them.  No dice.

 

At this time I would like to mention that a big boost to the rental industry was the introduction of the synthetic materials.  The After Six people (tuxedo manufacturers) came out with a light weight wash and wear material that made up white coats that were stain resistant.  We as retailers no longer had to worry about make up, food or liquor stains.  Even blood was washable.  Seno and Sons were the first to introduce this item in the Chicago area.  The business we did the first year was terrific.  Obviously the next summer all our competitors put them in stock but the big jump served us well.  Another innovation was the discovery of the polyester synthetics which replaced the heavier wool garments.

 

Roy Seigel, who was After Six representative of sales in the Chicago-land area, made mention to us that with the advent and growth of UPS, we might want to explore the possibility of expanding into central Illinois.  We did our homework and decided to go for it.  The result was the renting of a three story building in Decatur, Illinois that would serve as a central Illinois plant.  During the next few years we expanded to Champaign, Springfield, Bloomington, Danville, Moline and Davenport, Iowa.  The Davenport store was the only store we operated outside Illinois.  Needless to say we enjoyed a great deal of success.  The reason that UPS played such a big part in our decision was because they guaranteed overnight deliveries of any merchandise that had to be shipped.

 

In business there are always reasons why people succeed or fail.  I like to think that we were successful because we were aggressive with our thinking and actions.  We were not afraid to try anything new.  Let me start by saying we carried the largest stock available to the public.  We carried a complete run of children’s sizes that ranged from size two to 18.  We complimented this with a range of huskies from 8 to 18.  In the men’s sizes we carried the standard sizes of short, regular, long and extra long.  Also available were extra short, portlies and double extra longs.  In other words, we didn’t care if you were two years old or one hundred.  You could be 5’4” to seven feet tall.  You could weigh next to nothing or 400 pounds.  We had a tuxedo for you.  The extraneous sizes brought us customers that our competitors could not fit.  We also tried to stay ahead of our competitors.  Another first was the introduction of the business suit.  Customers had one choice—navy blue.  This item was not a big money maker but was popular with the family member who didn’t have a dark suit for an wedding and did not want to buy one.  Seno and Sons were the first to introduce and make available pastel colored shirts to be worn with formal wear.  This proved to be very popular with the brides because now they could have something to match the bridesmaids’ dresses.  In addition we sold thousands of shirts to men who owned their own formal clothes.  Red became a very big color for Christmas and New Year’s parties.  When it came to promotions, we held fashion shows and worked with bridal shops when they held their showings.  Seno and Sons published its own “Bridal Etiquette Book” which we mailed out by request and made available in all our locations.  Of course they were free of charge.

 

We designed our own logo and had our little man copyrighted.  Rudy was our window trimmer and designer.  He trimmed windows that coincided with the various seasons and any special event.

 

Our best money spent that provided the best return was our advertising on pre-game sports shows.  These commercials were obviously aimed at the men.  We did baseball (Cubs), football (Bears), pro basketball (Bulls) and hockey (Black Hawks).  These shows gave us year round coverage via the radio.  Television rates were to exorbitant.  We could afford some TV ads in central Illinois because in the smaller markets the rates were much cheaper.  On our radio ads we had a commercial that became a big hit.  To this day we still hear people say “Seno is the place.”

 

While our business was growing our large inventories were creating another problem.  What were we going to do with our merchandise that was beginning to show wear and tear?  The brains at Seno and Sons came up with the idea of a “Plant Sale”.  At this sale we made merchandise available to the public.  We advertised the sale on radio, in newspapers and in musician trade magazines.  Needless to say we were overwhelmed by the response.  People came from all over the city.  We had waiters, musicians, restaurant owners, choral groups, schools and colleges interested in the sale.  The sale was a huge success and we recouped thousands of dollars.  The sale always took place on the last weekend in September.  People would call and ask when our next sale would take place and we would reply “Wait until the end of September”.  The main reason for such a success was our low prices for used merchandise.

 

An off-shoot of our plant sale was the start of our resale shop.  The shop was located across from the State Street store on the fourth floor of the ABC building.  We brought out of retirement one of our old employees, Irv Rosenbloom, to run the shop.  Again this provided us with an outlet for our used goods.  This operation proved to be a money maker as it ran all year around.  Several times we bought merchandise from our competitors to keep the shop stocked until we were ready to dispose of our own goods.

 

In 1970, the Seno family was confronted with eight graduations.  We had four high school graduates (Alison, Lucia, Tory and Eugene) and four grammar school graduates (Gary, Pam, Celeste and Ginny).  How many graduation parties were we going to have?  I suggested to Lou that we have only one paid for and sponsored by Seno and Sons  Because of the size of the families it was decided to limit it to the Seno families and grandparents.  A dinner party was held at the Terrace Restaurant located in Elmhurst.  We ended up with 48 people in attendance.

 

In 1976, the US celebrated its 200 years of independence.  Throughout the year there were many promotions and celebrations.  Seno and Sons in conjunction with the Illinois Cancer Society decided to run two fundraisers.  Lou flew his small plane over the perimeter of the US.  This required many refueling stops.  These stops were promoted and advertised locally.  The small airports would draw flying enthusiasts and curiosity seekers.  They could and would make contributions to the Cancer Fund.

 

Rudy and several of his bike riding friends decided they would ride across the US west to east.  Their trip would be longer and required some outside help.  This help was provided by Cellozzi-Ettleson, a local car dealer in Elmhurst.  They came up with a truck and trailer which carried supplies and spare bike parts.  This again was a fundraiser and it kept the local people informed of the whereabouts and progress.  I don’t remember how much was raised, but I felt like a contributor because I stayed home and “watched the store”.

 

While the rental business was our main business, Seno and Sons did a big job retail-wise.  We carried a complete line of tuxedos, separates, shirts, bow ties, formal jewelry and men’s gifts for the groomsmen.

 

Early in 1977 the Seno boys decided to try and sell the business.  There were several factors that went into this decision.  At this time many Ma and Pa operations were springing up.  Many of the department stores (Sears, Marshall Field’s) were adding tuxedo rentals to their retail operation.  This was happening throughout the country.  A large manufacturer (Palm Beach) was opening outlets all over the US.  All this activity led to price cutting in order to get started.  After Six and other formal wear manufacturers were coming out with extreme and high fashion styles which would require large expenditures to update our inventories.  The bridal magazines aggravated the situation by showing many of these new styles and promoting them as the latest fashions.  The deciding factor was that Sal and Aldo let it be known that they wanted to leave the business.  Sal was ready to retire to Twin Lakes and Aldo, because of Annie’s health problems was ready to move to New Mexico or Arizona.  We let it be known that the business was for sale.  We found an interested buyer in a gentleman by the name of Donald Buczynski who operated out of South Bend, Indiana and had shops in Indiana and Ohio.  It was agreed that we would start negotiations in July—after the busy season.  Negotiations were started and after several months of offers and counter-offers, the final contracts were signed in October of 1977.  To sweeten the sale, we agreed to let him continue the business under the name of Seno and Sons.  Thus, the age of Seno and Sons as a Seno family business was over.

 

It is customary in literary circles to acknowledge the people who help you with bits of information.  So my thanks go out to Lou, Sal, Aldo and my wife Ruth.  Also a special thanks to my daughter Cindy for transcribing my poor handwriting which made this history presentable.


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