Sol Howard began his involvement with the vacuum cleaner industry in 1934 as a door to door salesman for Air-Way. In 1936 he moved to Handle Vacuum Company and in 1939 joined National Vacuum Cleaner Supply Company, then located in Manhattan, working for his father-in-law, National’s owner Louis Dick.
Sol fought in Europe during World War II, earning a battlefield commission. He returned to work again briefly for National in 1945, prior to striking out on his own. With a partner, Mike Levine, he rented a former shoemaker shop in Brooklyn and purchased two sewing machines with which to make vacuum cleaner bags for sale to parts distributors. During those early days his primary customers were Buckeye Vacuum, Louis Clark, Harold Saper and a few other jobbers.
At the war’s end, fabric of all types was on allocation and nearly impossible to obtain for non-apparel use. The fledgling business was approached by Kirby regarding the possibility of obtaining fabric for original equipment vacuum cleaner bags. Sol’s brother Joe was in the fabric converting business and assured him of a mill position. On the strength of that commitment and a 50,000 bag order from Kirby, Sol made plans to expand. Mil-An Manufacturing was born, the name being an amalgamation of the partners’ wives names.
While the promised mill position never materialized, Sol was able to fill Kirby’s order with the help of a sympathetic mill and got his first taste of the original equipment manufacturing business. The lessons learned from this early experience formed the basis of his successful operating philosophy. The business prospered as a “manufacturer’s manufacturer,” counting among its customers Kirby, General Electric, Lewitt, Royal, Eureka and Singer.
As disposable products began to proliferate during the 1950’s, Sol became convinced that a vacuum cleaner bag which could be similarly thrown away was a product who’s time had come. The earliest “disposable” filter bags were paper envelopes with a cardboard ring sewn to the open end. Remembering the lessons of his early entrepreneurial career, he leveraged the resources of Studley Paper Company, then a manufacturer of paper grocery sacks, and C.H. Dexter Company, a major paper mill seeking diversification, to form Reams Inc. in 1954, the first in a number of strategic alliances which would propel Mil-An forward in the years ahead.
As it turned out, the disposable vacuum cleaner bag was indeed a product who’s time had come. Through Mil-An’s marketing, bags produced by Studley Paper using C.H. Dexter paper blanketed the newly created market. The totally enclosed and fully automated paper bag, which is in general use today, was the most visible in a number of patents granted. Rapid growth during the 1950’s and 1960’s continued unrelenting and culminated with the merger in 1968 of Reams with Ply Gem Industries. Sol and his remaining partner Lester Studley, were asked to sit on Ply Gem’s Board of Directors.
In 1981 Sol passed the management reins to his son and retired to Florida. The enterprise which began as a storefront with two sewing machines, now employs over 700 people in three locations, utilizing 250,000 square feet of production space.
1994 Vacuum & Sewing Hall of Fame Inductee