Shoe Industry in New Hampshire

by W. B Grover THERE ARE OLDER INDUSTRIES in New Hampshire than that of making footwear, but few of the State’s principal businesses can boast of a more spectacular growth nor of more widespread investment of capital. Although less than one hundred years old in the White Mountain State, the shoe industry has given employment […]

By Yankee Magazine

Nov 08 2018

by W. B Grover THERE ARE OLDER INDUSTRIES in New Hampshire than that of making footwear, but few of the State’s principal businesses can boast of a more spectacular growth nor of more widespread investment of capital. Although less than one hundred years old in the White Mountain State, the shoe industry has given employment to at least three generations of skilled labor, and in its varied ramifications, has given rise to interchange of commerce in raw materials and finished products; and an increase in transportation, all of which have proved of extreme economic importance to New Hampshire. The early histories of the state, although painstakingly and lovingly compiled by many native sons and daughters, have little to say of boots, shoes and leather. The reason for this is, that prior to the Civil War period, New Hampshire possessed no large tanneries nor acres of shoe factory buildings as it does today. A few old time ten-footers took care of immediate local needs in various settlements, but in what we term the early days, New Hampshire bought its footwear mostly from its next-door neighbor, Massachusetts. The making of boots and shoes took on its entity as an industry in New Hampshire possibly a decade before the Civil War brought about an immediate need for thousands and thousands of pairs of Army shoes. A few shops and lofts existed in the ‘50’s where hand turned footwear was manufactured, and here the old fashioned cobbler’s bench, the lap-stone and hand whittled lasts were the precursor of the machine era of today. It has been said that had it not been for the Howe sewing machine, which made its appearance in 1852, and the McKay stitcher, which was patented in 1858, the Civil War could not have been won by the Northern forces. The North shod its men, whereas the Confederate soldiers went barefooted, or nearly so, in thousands of numbers. It was soon after the perfection of the Howe sewing machine and the McKay stitcher that New Hampshire business men began what proved to be the foundations of a great industry for the state. When the edge trimmer was presented to shoe makers in 1877, and the lasting machine, in 1885, shoe production began to be on a volume basis. Instead of throwing great numbers of men out of work, as the use of some machinery did at first in general industry, the adoption of mechanical methods in making shoes brought about the erection of shoe factories, and the hiring of much labor. The continued production of hand turned shoes was not greatly affected for the first few decades of the machine age in shoe manufacturing, due to the preference of many city folk to the purely bench made footwear and its exceptional lightness and comfort. Today New Hampshire owes its high position among the states manufacturing footwear to several individually native elements, each important to the industry and those dependent upon it. Briefly, they are: A plenitude of skilled labor; the willingness of capital to pay good wages; lower taxes than in sister states; excellent rail and highway transportation facilities; proximity to the clearing house shoe markets of Boston and New York City; and the friendly attitude of New Hampshire towns, cities and villages to outside industrial interests looking for factory sites and employees. Nor must it be forgotten that as far back as 1880, such far sighted and public spirited men as Charles C. Coffin were urging through the press and at business gatherings, the need of cheap power for all the industries of New Hampshire. The state was slowly but surely changing from a generally agricultural area into a region of diversified industries each of them valued in the millions of dollars, and all of them contributing valuable products absorbed by the nation at large. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, New Hampshire, just as it does today, took pride in its quarries, its lumber industries, its textile interests, and its leather and footwear producers. Mr. Coffin, in an address before the New Hampshire Press Association in 1880, proudly stated that the total value of boots, shoes, harness and finished leather for the year 1879, was $10,226,000, equal, he pointed out, to the value of the entire hay and grain crop of the state for the same year. Today the crops have shrunk in size and value, while the value of shoes and leather has jumped five fold! New Hampshire manufacturers were always a far-sighted lot of earnest men, and as soon as the machine era made itself known, careful study was given to distribution methods. Market research was early brought into play, and credit must also be given to the commercial travelers who neglected no good market for their wares. New Hampshire shoe salesmen covered the country, not even overlooking the then Western frontiers. Thus it was, that by the opening of the twentieth century, nearly twenty million dollars worth of New Hampshire made boots and shoes were going by rail and water to all parts of the United States. For any New Hampshire resident connected with the shoe industry, or for those students of state affairs who see what is going on, a mass of dry figures and statistics is not necessary to prove the importance of the shoe manufacturing business in this state. Nevertheless, to the uninitiated, the proof of figures may be of interest. Doubtless the peak year of production value in the state’s shoe industry for some time will prove to be that of 1919, when the imposing figure of $73,871,000 was attained. By 1921, due to a mild flurry of depression that was nation-wide, the value had dropped to $43,669,000, but again by 1923 it rose to $59,337,000. The current year’s production is larger than in 1934. According to the United States Department of Commerce, New Hampshire produced 11,006,847 pairs of boots and shoes from January to May, 1934. For the same period in 1935, this state manufactured 12,211,693 pairs. New Hampshire holds fourth position among the states of the union in volume of shoe production, with only New York State, Massachusetts and Missouri, in the order of their naming, exceeding this state. The importance of individual industries to a region change as general business conditions undergo mutations of time and circumstances. In the history of New Hampshire, the cycle of leading industries began with agriculture, closely followed by quarrying, lumber and finally textiles. Cotton manufacture was King. Today it is presaged that the boot and shoe industry will prove the most important in the state. The New Hampshire Department of Labor census for 1934 disclosed that 9,129 men and 7,450 women were employed in the manufacture of shoes in the state. These figures do not include the tanneries and the producers of shoe parts and findings, nor of patterns and lasts. The employment figures for the current year will rise above the 16,579 of 1934. W. B. Grover August 1, 1935.