The Shoe Business in Massachusetts

IN 1981, SAMUEL GASS’S GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER, Mona Fish, then a senior at Harvard University, wrote a thesis entitled “Jewish Shoe Manufacturers in Twentieth Century Lynn, Massachusetts: An Immigrant Success Story.” In her thesis, Mona provides an interesting and detailed account of the shoe industry in Lynn and a case study of Lion Shoe. The following excerpts from this well-documented thesis give a background that explains how Lynn became the center of show manufacturing.

“Lynn’s connection with the shoe industry goes back to the seventeenth century. Shoemaking began there…as a secondary occupation to agriculture, providing work and additional income during the winter months…As their land was not very fertile, Lynn residents gradually abandoned farming and took up shoemaking on a full-time basis…Merchant-entrepreneurs appeared, whose command of capital and access to credit and markets enabled them to control the sale of shoes produced by shoemakers working in home shops…The merchant had little control over the quality of the work or over the pace at which work was done. After 1820, entrepreneurs began placing the crucial process of cutting the soles and uppers directly under their control by hiring expert cutters to work in central shops. There the stock was cut and proportioned, ready to be delivered to shoe workers who would stitch the shoe parts and the return them to the central shop for fin­ishing.

“[By] 1850, Lynn’s population alone could not provide all the workers’ needed, so entrepreneurs had to supplement the work done in central shops by sending out cut stock to people in nearby fishing villages and towns, as well as to communities in New Hampshire and Maine. In this way, a large skilled labor force was created, which could be tapped by manufactur­ers. Thus for many years before the factory was introduced, Lynn manufacturers were hiring shoe workers on a large-scale, buying raw materials, providing the means of production, and making profits. When machinery finally made its appearance in the industry, it could thus be incorporated into a pre- existing, thriving business structure.

“The adaptation of Elias Howe’s sewing machine for use in shoe production was the first step towards mechanization in the shoe industry. These machines were introduced in Lynn in 1852. Cordon McKay of Pittsfield, Massachusetts modified Howe’s machine to mechanize the stitching of shoe soles to uppers. Each machine could stitch three hundred pairs of shoes per day. The McKay stitcher, as the machine was called thereafter, was first used in Lynn in 1862. Manufacturers, however, slow to realize the benefits of machine production hesitated to buy McKay’s machines. Consequently, McKay made his machines easy to acquire by leasing them instead of selling them outright. This arrangement also kept the market open for his future, improved machine models.

“Other inventions and innovations began to improve the pro­duction process. John Woolridge installed a steam power generator in his Lynn factory in 1858 and by 1865, most of the city’s shoe factories had followed his example…With the introduction of these new machines into the shoemaking pro­cess, the modern shoe factory was born and the shoe industry began to experience rapid growth…By 1880, 174 factories employing almost 11,000 workers were located in the city…By the end of the nineteenth century, Lynn was recognized as the leading shoe manufacturing center in the country, a distinc­tion the city carried into the twentieth century…

“From the end of the nineteenth century to the first few decades of the twentieth, a number of developments signifi­cantly altered the nature of the shoe industry, and dissipat­ed some of the earlier advantages held by Lynn and other Massachusetts shoe cities. One of the most significant developments was that style became an increasingly important factor in the industry. This was due, in part, to the devel­opment of smooth sidewalks, better roads and the use of the automobile. These innovations allowed women to wear finer grade and lighter colored shoes with higher heels and open toes. New tanning processes produced a great variety of finishes and colors which encouraged a multiplicity of styles. The development of more advanced stitching machines made possible a cheap means of adding ornamentation to foot­wear. Shoe designing became an art, as the emphasis in shoe production shifted from durability and quality to novelty.

“The new premium placed upon style made manufacturing more difficult. Before style became so important, Massachusetts had no trouble marketing its shoes throughout the United States. Orders were large, transportation was relatively inexpensive, and whenever shoes reached their destination, there were always buyers. But style footwear changed all this. Manufacturers could no longer produce large quantities of standard shoes for stock, but had to manufacture whatever was currently in style. They were faced with smaller orders and less opportunity for long-term planning. Close proximity to consumers and speed suddenly became crucial to keeping up with style changes. When every day counted and shoes were ordered for delivery only a week or two ahead, cheap but slow methods of transportation were detrimental to a manufactur­er’s business

“It began to appear that the manufacturer who located near his market, who could watch carefully for changes in taste, could serve an area better than a company located farther away. This worked to the advantage of other states and hurt Massachusetts…

“Another development which benefited other shoe producing states was the reduction of labor skill required due to the increased mechanization of the production process. A highly skilled and experienced labor force like Lynn’s became less of an advantage than it had been previously. Such a labor force actually became detrimental because it demanded high wages…

“In response to this competition from other areas, Lynn manufacturers constantly tried to reduce their labor costs. But their efforts met swift opposition from the city’s labor unions.

“At the same time that Lynn’s shoe industry was declining, a group of Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, entered the shoe business and prospered…” [1]

[1] Fish, op. cit. pp. 8, 10-18, 24, 28-29, 33-41.