Friday, July 21, 2017

Pocket Mirrors: Reflections of the Evolving Shoe Industry

Among the manufacturing and service industries regularly presenting the public with giveaway advertising items like paperweights and pocket mirrors, the shoe industry of the early 20th Century stands out as a major participant.  On September 28, 2012, I presented on this blog a group of 10 paperweights under the title “Shoes Preserved Under Glass.”   Herein is presented eleven advertising pocket mirrors — all related to the footwear industry.   They present the fashion in  the shoes of the time as well as the methods of merchandising.  Just as important they point up major changes taking place in shoe manufacturing.

In 1904, a cartoonist named Richard Outcault went to the St. Louis World’s Fair where he hoped to sell the rights to a pair of comic page characters he had created known as Buster Brown and his dog, Tige.  Among buyers was a St. Louis shoe manufacturer named George Warren Brown.  For the princely sum of $200 he bought the rights to feature the pair in his marketing and never looked back.  In ensuing years Buster and Tige became closely identified with Brown’s shoes, as on the pocket mirror shown here.  By 1958, largely through creative advertising, the Buster Brown line had become the largest brand of footwear for children.

Contrast that pocket mirror with a similar item for Granby Rubbers.  This mirror is in black and white with a photo of a young girl seemingly stuffed into an overshoe, a clumsy image.  The Granby Rubber Co. was a Canadian outfit founded by Samuel Henderson Campbell Miner in 1882 to manufacture rubber clothing items, including “…Rubbers for city or country and Overshoes for country.”  His factory, one that reputedly made 5,000 to 6,000 pairs of shoes daily, was located in Grandy said to be Miner’s “… town financially and sentimentally.”  The boss was mayor for more than two decades.

A similarly conservative figure was August Schreiner of Rochester, New York, who advertised the “The Snow Shoe” on a pocket mirror.   A shoe and boot trade publication in 1916 said of him:  “Mr. Schreiner is one of a very few of our old shoemen who continue to make custom shoes.  This, he says, obliges his older customers and he does quite a brisk business in this line.”  In less than three years, however, Schreiner was advertising in the local newspaper the equivalent of a bankruptcy sale, saying”  “A force of circumstances, which none could foresee, prompts this action.”  

While Schriener was harking back to the days of the village shoemaker where footwear was made customer by customer, industrialization had long since taken shoe manufacturing out of the workshop and into the factory.  Even then an outfit like the Stonefield-Evans Shoe Company of Rockford, Illinois, was insisting that it employed only “highly skilled tradesmen.”  Acquired by Sam Stonefield, who had started in work in a shoe factory when he was ten years old, the factory made only men’s shoes employing 140 of those skilled cobblers, keeping output at a modest 600 pairs daily.  

By contrast, the Bradley & Metcalf Company of Milwaukee, one of the largest boot and shoe manufacturers in the Northwest, even as early as 1870 was replacing those skilled workers.  A company foreman told a local newspaper that of the 450 men now employed in the establishment, “Perhaps not more than ten were sufficiently skilled to be of any service ten or fifteen years ago.”  The Bradley & Metcalf spokesman added:  “The simple fact proved to be that the division of labor  — one single and simple operation being assigned to each class of workmen — and the introduction of machinery has enabled manufacturers to substitute unskilled for skilled labor.”   Indeed, in some shoe factories the workforce might include child labor.

Conditions in shoe factories were such to spur the development of a strong and militant labor union for shoemakers by 1889, evolving to become the Boot and Shoe Worker Union (BSWU) of the AFL.   Regarded as a “radical” union in its early days, the BSWU was formed to establish uniform wages for the same class of work, including equal pay for women, and to abolish child, convict, and contract (low paying home industry) labor.   The union was international, including French-speaking Canadian workers.  

The presence of a labor union made shoe manufacturers increasingly concerned about keeping their workers happy.  Among them was Thomas Gustave Plant, a French-Canadian immigrant who made his fortune manufacturing footwear under the Queen Quality Shoes label.  His largest shoe factory was in Roxbury (now Jamaica Plain) Massachusetts and self-proclaimed to be the largest shoe factory in the world.  Plant provided numerous innovations and amenities for his employees,  including a company park where they could have lunch and recreate.  And not just another park.  Completed in 1913, the facility was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., park architect son of the man who developed Central Park in New York City.

Despite occasional labor unrest, communities were eager to have shoe factories locate within their boundaries.  The Friedman-Shelby Shoe Co. of St. Louis in 1907  built a factory in Kirksville, a community of about 20,000 in North Central Missouri but only after the town had furnished a free site, free water for five years and tossed in a bonus of $60,000, equivalent to almost $1.5 million today.  For its investment Kirksville secured employment for 300 workers who produced 1,800 to 2,000 pairs of shoes daily.  Friedman-Shelby sold the 60 by 300 foot four story factory to another shoe company in 1916.  Reflecting consolidation occurring in the industry, Florsheim Shoe Company eventually bought it and shut it in 1973.

The “Enna Jettick” shoe brings us back to the wardrobe changes that were affecting the industry.  As shirts got shorter and shorter, women were giving more attention to make fashion statements with their shoes and investing more money in them.  The company behind this brand was Dunn & McCarthy, a shoe manufacturer of Auburn, New York, in business since 1867.  The Enna Jettick line was issued during the flapper era of the 1920s and, true to the zany antics of that era, advertised with its own blimp airship.  In Auburn, the company bought a park on the banks of Cayuga Lake, installed a merry-go-round, and in 1930 named it Enna Jettick Park.

The face of each of these pocket mirrors shows us the image that the advertiser chose in order to sell his products.  Behind each mirror is a story of an industry in flux virtually from the end of the Civil War until the 1920s as the transition from village cobbler to industrialized manufacturing occurred and changed forever the way shoes are made and merchandised.

Note:  For anyone interested in the origins of the celluloid-backed pocket mirror as an advertising giveaway, I have treated that subject in a post of July 4, 2009.  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ephriam S. Wells Was “Rough on Rats” And People?

 R-r-rats!  Rats! Rats!
Rough on Rats,
Hang your dogs and drown your cats;
We give a plan for every man,
To clear his house with “Rough on Rats.”

Recently my doctor suggested that I begin a regimen of a blood thinner called “warfarin.”  When I suggested that this medicine began existence as a rat poison, he readily agreed.  That encounter got me thinking about an artifact I recently bought at a bottle show, a small metal box containing an earlier, very popular American vermin poison called “Rough on Rats.”

Shown here, the box lid is a colorful celluloid picture of a Chinese gentleman with  a long pigtail, a cooly hat, and an embroidered tunic who apparently is about to eat a rat while in his other hand he holds a second rat, apparently also about to be consumed.   The racist image perpetuated a long-held belief among some Americans that the Chinese on a regular basis ate live rats as a snack.  The Chinese also appeared in “Rough on Rats” advertising.  

Trading on anti-Chinese prejudice in the U.S., however, was not the primary sin of Ephriam S. Wells, a New Jersey druggist who invented “Rough on Rats.”  It was his seeming indifference to the other effects of his product that soon became associated with a significant increase in murders and suicides by poisoning.  As Professor Loren Gatch has described:  “Thanks to Wells, Americans were poisoning each other in increasingly large numbers.  Newspapers of the era were littered with lurid accounts of the despondent and depraved.”

Unlike Europe and other European countries, the United States had no national poison control laws and state regulation often was weak and inconsistent during the late 1800s.  Despite “Rough on Rats” being largely white arsenic with some fillers, Wells was able to able to elude state laws that outlawed the sale of poisons to minors or required registration when sold to adults by marketing his arsenic under its trade name.  Nowhere in its ads or packaging were there warning to humans.

“If Wells felt any ethical qualms about the abuse of his rat poison, he never recorded them,”  noted Prof. Gatch.  Rather he concentrated his effort on merchandising the product through humorous and often colorful magazine ads and trade cards.  “I desire to state,”  Wells announced, “that I have written all my own advertisements and designed all my own cuts and illustrations without a single exception.”  The lighthearted treatment of the druggist’s nostrum also acted to deflect concern among the public about its lethal qualities.  Above, for example, are six variously colored cats all gazing in astonishment at a can of “Rough on Rats.”  The caption reads:  “Our occupation gone — Rough on Rats Did it.”  

What more amusing subject for an ad could there be than a bespectacled rat with     pointer who is describing to smaller rats the dangers of Wells’ product.  “This is what killed your poor father.  Shun it!” the ad reads.  Avoid anything containing it throughout your future useful careers.  We older heads object to its special roughness.” 

A similar card, shown below,  includes the other pests “Rough on Rats” was to eliminate, including gophers, chipmunks, mice, flies, roaches, ants and even down to bed bugs.
Still another colorful Wells trade card depicted a rat being chased in turn by a cat, a dog, a boy with a hatchet, a man with a whiskey bottle, and a woman with a broom.   The druggist took advantage of this card to market other proprietary medicines he had invented, including “Well’s Health Reserve,” and “Mother Swan’s Worm Syrup.  Wells also featured a series of “Rough on” medications to remedy toothaches, itches, corns and even piles (hemorrhoids).

In 1982 Wells took the additional step of publicizing his rat poison by commissioning sheet music to sing its praises, anticipating the advertising jingle.  The song was created by two well-known music men of the time. W. A. Boston wrote the lyrics including the chorus, repeated several times, that opens this post.  The music, by Juniper Jones, was suggested as suitable for dancing.  

Working from his factory located at the corner of Grand Street and Summit Avenue in Jersey City, Wells concentrated on selling “Rough on Rats” and his other products full time through mail order sales, with extravagant spending on advertising in the United States and other English speaking countries. It paid off.  Over the next twelve years his profits exceeded $2 million, equivalent to $50 million today, from individual sales of items costing ten to twenty-five cents.  Shown here is a company check that features the rat poison and various other Wells products.

Beginning as a lowly drug store clerk and often on the brink of bankruptcy, Well’s concoction of a powder that was odorless and tasteless to its rodent victims but deadly, eventually brought him fame and fortune — even though “Rough on Rats,”  a name suggested by his wife, too frequently was administered to humans.  In the last decade of his life the wealthy Wells retired to his summer house in Glenmoore, New Jersey, living like a country squire and raising horses.  

Wells died of natural causes in March 1913, leaving a substantial estate.   The “Rough on Rats” brand continued to be sold into the 1950s.  Like other successful nostrums, it attracted copycats, one of them perpetuating the racist Chinese image. 

Note:   Thanks to Prof. Loren Gatch for much of the information provided in this post as well as for a number of the images shown here.  Prof. Gatch was associated with the University of Oklahoma when he published an article on Wells and his anti-Chinese bias.