The French Cleaners was started in 1911 by Morris Gassner. The original store was located on Pavillion Street in Hartford, CT in the back of Bellevue Square and was later moved to its current location in 1925.
The original name was French Dye Works and was later changed as the dyeing of individual garments became less popular.
During the time when Morris was in the cleaning and dyeing business, Benjamin Mellman escaped religious persecution in Russia only to end up in the New York sweat shops. The superb craftsman that he was, coupled with the fact he refused to raise his family in such a deplorable environment, prompted the move to Hartford, Connecticut where he opened a small tailoring shop on Queen Street. He specialized in hand tailoring suits assisted by his wife who was an excellent seamstress. They worked side by side, residing in a room in back of the shop. Hard work and determination met with success, and they moved to the up and coming suburbs of West Hartford, opening a new shop on the Northwest corner of Farmington Avenue and Trout Brook.
During the early 1920’s dry-cleaning was becoming more of an integral part of tailoring and clothing care. Hence, in March of 1925, Benjamin Mellman, Morris Gassner and Jacob Ritvoe built and incorporated the French Dye Works at 935 Farmington Avenue. The only change was the addition of the front office.
Originally designed as a wholesale outfit, the ceilings were built purposely high to specialize in rug cleaning which never panned out.
Initially, the dying of clothing was a major part of the business. It was feasible to dye ten to twelve garments black or navy blue; however, as time elapsed, customers began requesting specialties as orange, magenta, and the like. It became totally uneconomical to spend two hours dyeing one garment the specific requested hue, coupled with the fact that it became almost impossible to import special dyes from Germany during World War II. Hence, it slowly became an obsolete art form.
The forerunners of the business were so preoccupied with quality service that they met with difficulty coupling excellence with financial success. For instance, each pair of men’s cuffed trousers was un-tacked, brushed out, cleaned, turned inside-out to hand press all the seams and then re-hemmed.
Harry Gassner, Morris’s son, began with the French in May of 1940. Benjamin Mellman’s son, Sidney, an honors graduate in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, joined the business in 1946 after his duty as captain in the Air Force. Being Jewish during that time made it difficult to get a job in his field.
Benjamin Mellman died in the winter of 1948 leaving his share of the business to Sidney.
Harry Gassner in 1951 took Morris’ share of the business along with Sidney Mellman bought out the other remaining partner, Ritvoe. Together they worked sixteen to eighteen hours, seven days a week changing the French to a retail trade and simultaneously striving to get the business out of severe debt. Harry’s wife, Frances and Sylvia, Sidney’s wife would bring dinner to them each night, taking care of the bookkeeping, accounting, or anything else to aid their husbands, oftentimes till midnight or even later depending on what needed to be accomplished.
Their original ideals of producing the finest work possible for each and every customer – (as their forerunners) have always been maintained as a number one priority. Great pride and care along with the challenge of perfectionism has made the French famous.
Sidney specialized in spotting and dry-cleaning while Harry’s specialty was pressing.
In August 1972 Sidney Mellman bought out his partner Harry Gassner who had to leave for medical reasons.
In 1980 Jane Mellman came to work with her father Sidney and made a go of running French Cleaners for several years. Jane would bring her dog to work who sat in the front of the store greeting customers while receiving treats and gifts from them.
Jane Mellman left the business and Sidney was left to run the business alone until choosing to retire in August of 1987.
In August of 1987 Sidney Mellman had approached his late partners’ son Michael Gassner to take over the business. Michael Gassner had grown up around the business as a child helping out when needed and had become accustomed to keeping the business running from the back end, doing mechanical improvements and maintaining equipment.
It was Michael Gassner who had his own businesses in the rear of French Cleaners building, “Gassner Electric” and “General Communications”. Michael commonly known as “Mickey” was a brilliant inventor and mechanic. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. It was Mickey who with his two way radio business put French Cleaners into the history books as the first Radio Dispatched Dry-Cleaning Delivery service.
When offered the chance to take over the cleaners, Mickey contacted his son-in-law Philip Cote who was a Chef by trade and the director of Food Services for Northeast Utilities. Mickey asked Philip if he was interested in being a managing partner in French Cleaners. Philip decided to leave a profession he loved and went from creating stains to removing them.
August 3rd, 1987 Mickey and Phil took over and Phil worked under the careful training of Sid Mellman to learn the tricks of the trade. The art of dry-cleaning was picked up quickly by Phil and he along with Mickey worked to bring French Cleaners to where it is today.
Through the years Mickey and Phil worked to replace equipment, modernize the facility and turn French Cleaners into a Dry-Cleaning showplace. The French Cleaners has been written about inside and outside of the trade for the innovations to the industry, knowledge of handling specialty and fine garments and has been recognized as one of “America’s Best Cleaners”.