Universal Lettering Co.
A Brief History of The FFA Jacket and The People Who Make It.
By Dave Langstaff
During the closing years of the 19th century, Dr. Fergus, a dentist, opened a broom factory near downtown Van Wert, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, the broom factory moved into an abandoned piano factory several blocks away. At this larger facility they replaced broom making with the making of denim bib overalls. The company grew abundantly and became the Van Wert Overall Manufacturing Company. Eventually, the "Overall Factory" diversified, making work pants, work jackets, and hats. In the early 1930s the company moved into an ornate five story building in the heart of downtown Van Wert. Several years later the denim overall line ended and they shortened the factory name to The Van Wert Manufacturing Company. A subsidiary business located in an adjacent building called The Universal Uniform Company personalized the work jackets by embroidering organizational names and logos onto the fronts and backs.
In 1928, the U.S. Government formed The Future Farmers of America organization. It helped train young boys in vocational agriculture, primarily through the public education system. The 30s-era Dust Bowl underscored the need for a program such as this. Local Future Farmers of America chapters soon developed in schools around the nation and the FFA Jacket was born.
In 1933, Dr. Lintner of the Fredericktown, Ohio FFA chapter, contacted Van Wert Manufacturing/Universal Uniform Company. He asked them to produce a jacket for the Fredericktown FFA Band members to wear as they performed at the National FFA convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Walter Tolan of the Factory Sales Department provided Dr. Lintner with a design similar in many ways to the FFA Jacket of today. The jacket caught the attention of all who saw it at the National Convention. The jacket worn by Lintner’s FFA Band soon became the official dress of all FFA members. Some outstanding differences between the jacket of today and the earlier versions are; vintage jackets have snaps instead of zippers, embroidered emblems rather than sewn on patch emblems, and square pockets instead of rounded. Today, a computerized sewing machine places the individual’s name and office onto the front of the jacket whereas vintage jackets were embroidered by a hand operated machine. There are also a few more subtle differences, primarily in the way sleeves and other components are attached. The wording on older emblems said "Vocational Agriculture." Today it says "Agricultural Education."
During the time leading up to the Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, Van Wert Manufacturing Company produced approximately 150,000 individualized FFA Jackets per year, along with various other types of clothing. By 1989, they produced only 50,000 FFA Jackets during which time they filed bankruptcy.
In 1991, current owner Mark Hoops and several business associates, including Dr. Fergus’s grandson, pooled resources and began the ongoing task of assembling equipment along with an experienced production team. Through the blessing of God, "Universal Lettering Company" emerged, reclaiming lost clientele, and growing into state of the art production facility that once again produces the official jackets worn by the FFA. Today, over 490,000 boys and girls belong to the FFA.