Friday, January 20, 2012

Harvey F. Crawford and His Shoes Under Glass

For reasons I have yet to fathom, certain businesses commonly provided glass paperweights to advertise their products or services. Among them were funeral homes, steamship lines and distillers. But perhaps the most frequently seen are from shoe companies. The epitome of this phenomenon was the Crawford Shoe Company.

This observation sends us to a hard luck but persistent and far-sighted entrepreneur named Harvey F. Crawford. Born in Maine, about 1881 Crawford emigrated to Brockton, Mass., as a young man where he was determined to succeed in the shoe business. His picture shows him with a shock of black hair, a large walrus mustache, and piercing dark eyes.

He created his first shoe manufacturing company with $25. It soon failed. Undeterred Crawford began again. This time his factory burned down. He started over yet a third time, but in 1886 was forced to declare bankruptcy when a local bank failed taking his cash reserves with it.

In 1887, with a deep-pockets new partner funding the enterprise, Crawford launched a fourth shoe company with an outlandish retailing idea. He would open proprietary shoe stores in good locations in large Eastern cities to merchandise the products of his Brockton factory. He also would sell cheap (shoes for $3.50 and $5.00) and advertise heavily in popular magazines of the day. Said a 1902 biography of Crawford: Many of his friends tried to dissuade him from what they deemed certain failure.”

As it turned out, Harvey was the Sam Walton of his day. Over a period of 15 years he opened stores in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, and Washington. Their success allowed Crawford to open a second shoe factory in New York City. Within a decade he could boast 30 outlets in major Eastern cities.

Another of Harvey’s inspirations was an emphasis on customer giveaways. He favored paperweights. Shown here are an array of weights from a number of Crawford’s outlets in major cities. They demonstrate an array of vintage shoe styles. Several added color to the image.

For his Washington, D.C. retail outlet Harvey abandoned the shoe motif to issue paperweights depicting the Washington monument and the G.A.R.. Encampment of 1892 in the Nation’s Capitol. A thriving veterans organization of former Northern soldiers and sailors, the G.A.R. was a highly potent political force during the post-Çivil War era. A feature of its national conventions were commemorative medals sold to participants. Crawford replicated one on a paperweight.

Among the dignitaries attending the 1892 encampment was Rutherford B. Hayes, a former president of the United States (1877-1881) and a Union army officer during the Civil War. From Hayes we have a narrative of what happen in Washington during the G.A.R. national event. Hayes marched shoulder to shoulder with the rank and file as the “great parade” of veterans surged down Pennsylvania Avenue to great crowd applause. “Nothing of the sort could have been better than the demonstration on Fifteenth Street -- Treasury on one side, Riggs House on the other....It was enough to stir the blood of the coldest and the oldest,” Hayes recorded in his daily journal. He did not mention parading by Crawford’s shoe store at 9th and Pennsylvania.

Crawford’s prosperity did not last long. Creative but not particularly good at managing a business, after 1902 he was forced to sell out to other interests. The company eventually was owned by Charles A. Eaton, who raised prices and tried for a classier shoe image by featuring a huntsman with his dog.

As for Crawford, after retiring from the shoe business he was associated with the Crawford Manufacturing Co., making the Crawford rigid steel shoe shank. He also patented inventions in shoe manufacturing and appliances and was recognized widely in Brockton as a leader in local business development. After a long illness, Crawford died in his Brockton home, age 70.

Part of Harvey Crawford’s legacy is a wealth of glass paperweights to remind us of the footwear styles of yesteryear. The weights also memorialize the creativity of a entrepreneur who declined to let three failures at retailing shoes deter him from a fourth, spectacularly successful, enterprise.

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