How did New England become the home of so many American footwear brands, from Converse to L.L. Bean? New England’s history of footwear manufacturing spans centuries, from the 19th century with the first sewing machines, to the mid-20th century with family run factories.
The region’s dominance in footwear manufacturing began with the American Industrial Revolution. With solid ports, plenty of natural resources and strong rivers, the Northeast was the first part of the U.S. to become industrialized. At the start of the 19th century, with Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812, the fledgling United States was forced to develop its own means of production without the help of European exports. New England took the lead in creating America’s first factories, and with a tradition of shoemaking dating back to the Puritans, New Englanders decided to manufacture what they knew best, footwear.
By the mid-19th century, the revolution brought railroads and new technology like the telegraph, that demonstrated the potential for trade and economic prosperity in the U.S. In towns like Lowell, Mass., the revolution introduced new industrial sewing machines that allowed factories to greatly outpace traditional cobblers. Maine and New Hampshire traded farming for factories, and quickly followed Massachusetts, making New England one of the world’s largest hubs for footwear.
During the early 20th century, much of New England’s footwear production was situated in rural towns where factories played a central role in the community and employed large portions of the population. A good example is the Hubbard Shoe Company in Rochester, New Hampshire. Founded in 1930 by Lithuanian immigrant Samuel J. Katz, the Hubbard Shoe company had two plants that employed around 900 workers.
While cheap imports during the 70’s and free trade policies during the 80’s would ultimately spell the end for manufacturing in Rochester, the Katz family continued its footwear tradition. Samuel’s son Saul Katz and grandson, Bruce Katz, formed the brand Rockport in 1971.
Bruce Katz recalls the summer days he spent working at his grandfather’s factory. “One thing I remember was this shaft that went the entire length of the building and had leather belts to attach to each of the machines,” Katz said.
Many of the factory workers in Rochester were French Canadians, and Katz still wonders where their shoe-making skills came from. “Rochester was very much a shoe town,” he said. “This was before the age of computer stitching, and like any shoe factory you had guys who were quite skilled and others who were not. Some people would be working on the kick press, working with the eyelets.”
The Rochester Historical Society in New Hampshire estimates that a shoe in Hubbard factory would pass through as many as 160 different machines and 209 pairs of hands before completion.
Before New England’s shoemaking age ended, the Hubbard factories were at the top of innovation. “Hubbard shoe was a very well respected manufacturer for everybody in the industry,” Katz said. “The factory was doing injected molded women’s boots in 1968 or 1967. It’s the kind that you might see a lot of today, but it was completely new at the time we were doing it. My grandfather was always trying the newest manufacturing processes.”
Katz helped run Rockport with his father for a while, but he eventually moved to San Francisco during the Dot Com Boom. After spending years working at Silicon Valley startups, he has thrown his hat back into the ring with Hubbard Shoes, a men’s and women’s comfort brand that has seen very promising growth in the last year.
“My grandfather’s business never had its own private label, that’s one of the reasons it was unable to adapt into the 70s. Hubbard Shoes is like my poetic justice,” he explained.
Katz’s new brand focuses on premium comfort shoes expertly made in Portugal. The production and quality are the two points that Katz is most proud of, and with its contemporary footwear potential Portugal is an ideal location for Hubbard Shoes.
“If I were younger I would consider building a factory in America. The problem is we lost all our tanneries and all our suppliers. If you need any type of welding or materials, you will need to import it. And we lost all the know-how,” he said. “I think you would have to bring over workers from somewhere else to help train the American employees.”
It’s an ambitious idea, but Katz believes it can be done. “The secret is to have a lot of the commerce be direct-to-consumer. When you take out the middleman, you can build a factory in Kentucky and provide a pretty good wage,” Katz speculated. “I think what happened to pricing and shoes is an untold story. When all the business moved to Asia, all the prices went way down but all the real estate for retail went way up.”