16.12.11

I Get the Boot...And the Shoes

16 December 1890 - Brockton, Massachusetts

You may have never heard of Brockton, Massachusetts, but if you sold shoes in 1890 you would certainly know of this place. One sixth of all the shoes made in 1890 America come from Brockton--nearly ten million pairs a year. Almost all of the residence (27,294) are involved in shoe making or supporting all those shoemakers.

W.L. Douglas Shoe Co. Factories in Brockton
The industry started out with cobblers and their apprentices making shoes and shipping them out to the surrounding rural communities. Mr. Micah Faxon was the first person in Brockton to begin wholesale shoe manufacturing in 1811. Then in the 1840s the railway between Boston and New York City went right through North Bridgetown as it was then called. Their market expanded tremendously.

It was in the 1860s two things happened that made the industry boom. The steam powered McKay Sewing Machine allowed one to stitch up a shoe in minutes instead of hours. And with the marching armies of the Civil War, there was a huge market for boots. North Bridgetown exploded.

By 1874 North Bridgetown decided they needed another name to set them apart from the local communities of West Bridgetown and East Bridgetown. One of the locals, coming back from Niagara Falls, told of a town he heard of in Ontario called Brockville. Everyone liked the name “Brock” and decided to add to equally strong sounding “ton” to it.

Unfortunately no one looked into who Brockville had been named after. Sir Isaac Brock was the British General who captured Detroit in the War of 1812. (Erm...that will just be our little secret, eh?)

W.L. Douglas Shoe Ad
Brockton is not the only small town in America which became an industrial giant almost overnight. It is however unusual in how workers are treated. So many industrialists of this era take advantage of their poor immigrant work force, treating them worse than slaves. (You have to at least keep slaves alive to protect your investment.) Here there is no squalor, no families shoved into tiny airless rooms. Conditions are not perfect, but compared to other factory towns, Brockton is a veritable Utopia.

Brockton’s “Shoe Barons” decided a healthy, educated and happy working class made more productive workers. The city opened a public high school in 1864 and a public library in 1867. The Brockton Street Railway Company started a horse-powered trolley service in 1881 so workers no longer had to walk to work. By 1880 Brockton was part of the first interstate telephone system in the country.

Which brings us to Thomas Edison. He had improved the light bulb to something more practical, but what good is it without electricity? He had managed to light up a few blocks in New York City, but he needed a system that could send electricity more than just a mile. He came up with the three-wire underground system, and chose the progressive city of Brockton as his experimental laboratory. So 1 October 1883, Edison threw the switch and Brockton became the second city in the world to have electric street lights. It also became the first city in the world with a theatre and fire station with electric lights. In 1888 it would become the second city in the country to have electric street cars. Currently Brockton is one of the most modern communities in the world. (Locals would argue, THE most modern community in the world.) Other cities from around the country and even Europe are visiting Brockton, wanting to copy them. 27th century Harvard has sent me to study it, too.

Brockton Electric Streetcar
I was also asked to visit all the shoe factories of Brockton. After looking them up I discovered that will be impossible. I found a list of the thirty-four most prominent shoe manufacturers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t close to one hundred factories.

President Benjamin Harrison
The real reason though that I picked December 1890 is because of another great first that Brockton is probably now most proud of, but I will talk about that in my next blog. A hint? He’s fat and jolly and has a white beard. (No, it’s not current President Benjamin Harrison.)

collection of postcards from Brockton’s heyday


And in case it ever comes up in a quiz show, here are Brockton's thirty-four most prominent shoe and boot manufacturers in 1890:
Church & Alden; Packard and Field; W. L. Douglas Shoe Co.; The Frank E. White Co.; George G. Snow; George E. Keith; Preston B. Keith; R. B. Grover & Co.; M.A. Packard & Co.; Stacy, Adams & Co.; Lilly, Bracket & Co.; Henry M. Kingman; S. Gardner Jones; Daniel Waldo Field; Thompson Brothers; Enos H. Reynolds; Emerson, Weeks & Co.; Perkins & Joyce; N.R. Packard & Co.; Howard T. Marshall; Bittenbender & Caverly; Ellis F. Coopeland; Myron F. Thomas; Terry, Ware & Alley; L.C. Bliss & Co.; T.D. Barry & Co.; Montello Shoe Company; Whitman & Keith; Walker & Whitman; James Means & Co.; L.M. Reynolds; McCarty, Sheehy & Kendrick Co.; Walker, Taylor & Co.; Bowe, Crawford & Co.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fine research concerning Brockton, Dr. Howe