A Short History of Newburyport’s Shoe Industry

Shoe manufacturing was the main industry in Newburyport for the better part of a century, employing thousands, sustaining the local economy and populating the downtown with four and five story factories.

Click here for a video of this presentation with more photographs. 

My Dodge forebears commenced manufacturing boots and shoes on a truly industrial and increasingly mechanized scale in 1867, but that is hardly when shoe making began in Newburyport.

Elisha Perkins Dodge
Elisha Perkins Dodge

Or should I say boot making?  The annual Newburyport Directory of people and businesses used the term “boot making” or “manufacturing” in the 1800s, suggesting people were wearing them or using the term to generally describe footwear. The term “shoes” as reflected in the directories didn’t replace boots until the early 19 teens. But for our purpose, we’ll call them shoes.

In 1834, Austin George started making pegged shoes on Federal St. and later moved to State St., according to the 1887 survey, “Newburyport, Its Industries, Business Interests and Attractions” by John D. Parsons. William Moody began making pegged shoes in the same year near Green and Merrimack Streets. Parsons also mentioned Col. Robert Robinson and George Emery as shoe makers during that period.

Many shoe makers and their apprentices toiled away in “10 footers,” a term used to describe the shanties that dotted the New England countryside where they set up shop. Famed Haverhill poet

A “10-footer.”

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier did time in a 10-footer.

John Greenleaf Whittier as late as 1825 worked at making the family’s shoes, as did so many farmers on the long, shut-in winter hours of winter,” according to “The New England Galaxy: The best of 20 years from Old Sturbridge Village (1980), which chronicled life here in the early 1800s.

Pegged shoes use wooden pegs to fasten soles to the shoe body were largely made by hand as were all shoes and boots in the 1830s. But crude wooden pegging machines did automate the process somewhat, signaling the arrival of labor saving devices that would serve as the engine of eventual mass production. The goal of such inventions amid the Industrial Revolution was to lower costs and speed production.

Specialty footwear such as cowboy boots are still made with wooden pegs.

As shoe making expanded into larger quarters, B.F. Bartlett Co. manufactured boots for customers in Boston and employed “a large number of hands.” Some like Ayer and Heath were short lived, Parsons wrote. The firm made shoes on State St. from about 1835-37.  Indeed, the budding shoe industry grew while ship building declined in Newburyport. And like Ayer and Heath, they would frequently come and go with new names and ownership.

By the 1850s, shoe makers were sprouting up in Newburyport like dandelions. Robert Couch Jr. & Co. made children’s shoes and slippers for five years, employing 150 and boasting a payroll of $500-$600 a week. Jacob T. Rowe had 25 hands and generated annual revenues of $20,000 ($612,500 in today’s dollars). Seth Chase made soles and other shoe parts in a facility on Prince Place where one of the largest shoe factories in Newburyport would soon rise. The factory still stands today, but exchanged its roots for other industries after shoe making disappeared and today houses million dollar condominiums.

Until the Civil War, shoes were crude, straight and presumably terribly uncomfortable by today’s standards. Left and right hand shoes eventually caught on with mens and womens as styles expanded and advanced manufacturing methods were applied.

(L. to R.) John L., Elisha, Nathan Dane Sr. (father), Moses, William Henry, Nathan Dane Jr.
The Dodge Brothers, 1868. (L. to R.) John L., Elisha, Nathan Dane Sr. (father), Moses, William Henry, Nathan Dane Jr. (source: family files)

Mass production of shoes and boots didn’t begin in earnest until the soon to be pre-eminent Dodge shoe making family came to town, led by Elisha Perkins Dodge. Elisha saw the future and began what was soon to be mass production of shoes. Born Oct. 5, 1847 in Ipswich, Elisha at age 16 followed brothers Nathan D., John L. (my great, great grandfather) and Moses to Troy, N.Y. and started out as a survey assistant for the Catskills and Schenectady Railroad, according to Nathan D. Withington in the 1903 biography of “Elisha Perkins Dodge, 1847-1902.”

After a year on the railroad, he joined his brothers as a shoe cutter. Brothers John L. and Nathan D. wanted to start manufacturing in Lynn, Mass. where they briefly operated on a small scale. Given that lenders were more accommodating in Newburyport, the brothers moved here in 1866.

“On September 1, 1866, N.D. Dodge went into partnership with John H. Balch and established the business over the First National Bank (their creditor), Elisha working on salary as a cutter.  He was remarkably quick and expert, and it is told of him that he in three hours cut sixty pair of balmorals. He also did a large share of the bookkeeping, Nathan attending to the selling,” wrote Withington. Elisha was the real innovator and mover, but too young to sign contracts, hence the mentorship by his older brothers.

Elisha was off and running. In late 1867, he took over the business with partner Newell Danforth. With some ups and down, the business took off with various partners taken into the business until 1875 when Henry B. Little was brought into business as a partner for 24 years. Elisha controlled the business and its offshoots ran the business under various names such as E.P. Dodge & Co., Newburyport Shoe Company and N.D. Dodge & Bliss. By 1880, Dodge and his brother Nathan owned the largest factory in the world, according to The Newburyport News (perhaps the largest shoe factory).

21 Pleasant St.
21 Pleasant St. today from the parking lot in rear. It was built in 1873 and expanded in 1880 which is noted in the chimney brickwork (photo: John Dodge).

Between 1873 and 1902, the year of his death, his company racked up more than $30 million in sales of women’s shoes ($825 million today). His large factory at 21 Pleasant St., hummed with machinery including the revolutionary McKay Stitching machine, which could turn out 200 pairs of shoes a day and as it was refined by United Shoe Machinery, 1,200 pairs by 1960, according to the paper “Cord Wainer (shoe maker) delivered by Milton L. Dodge on April 4, 1961 to the Tuesday Night Club, a group of prominent male Newburyporters who met every other week to eat, drink and discuss the issues of the day.  Milton (1892-1975) was John L.’s grandson and my grandfather. He was awarded numerous patents, following his passion for inventing machines rather than manufacturing shoes.

Burley & Stevens ad (photo: John Dodge)

By 1874, six “boot and shoe manufacturers” were operating in Newburyport with the Dodges joined by E.K. Batchelder at 314 High St., John D. Pike at 268 High. Jacob T. Rowe at 285 ½ High and W.N. Spinney at 10 Middle St.  The number grew to nine by 1884-85 and there were 11 “Boot and Shoe Makers” suggesting handmade footwear was still viable. Cottage industries were starting to spring up under the directory headings “Boot and Shoe machinery” and “Boot and Shoe Stock.” Supplier firms also operated in all the immediate surrounding towns such as Rowley, Georgetown, Salisbury and Amesbury. And Haverhill like a dozen of other bigger Massachusetts cities was a center of shoe manufacturing.

The late 1800s and early 20th century was the golden age of local shoe manufacturing startups, according to the Massachusetts History of Industries (MHI), 1930 edition. At its peak, shoe concerns in Newburyport employed upward of 3,000 “operatives” as the MHI called workers.

Bliss & Perry was incorporated in 1892 by Charles A. Bliss and Nathan D. Dodge. Walter I. Perry was shortly thereafter brought into the business. It became Dodge, Bliss & Perry in 1907 and was known for an inexpensive line of womens slippers and eventually womens shoes. Others associated with the firm were George H. Bliss, Donald I. Perry, Herbert E. Harriman and Norman P. Merrill. It employed 400 at its peak.

Daniel S. Burley and William R. Usher started their namesake firm in 1891. Eight years later, it became Burley & Stevens.

In April, 1894, Harry M. Husk Co. started up and eventually employed 400 operatives.

In 1906, George A. Learned began operation as a partnership with Roger Sherman Jr. and Andrew Roaf. Learned eventually took over the business with 350 “operatives” turning out 2,500 pairs of shoes a day.

Other smaller concerns include:

— The Baby Shoe Co., owned by John S. Norton and Louis J. Festo, made soft soled shoes for infants.

— The Custom Heel Co. employed 50 operatives with J.F. Pollard as president. The Maple Wood Heel Co. produced, unsurprisingly, heels. The president was Fred W. Mears and the treasurer was Halsey E. Abbey.

— The Fern Co. with Oscar Fern as president made womens shoes with 175-200 operatives. Fern & Poor employed 125 and made womens shoes. W.D. Hannah employed 300 in the production  of shoes. Lowell Thomas Shoe Corp. made womens shoes with Harry B. Thomas as president, William P. Lowell Sr. as treasurer and William Lowell Jr. as secretary. The R.E. Welch Shoe Co., owed by Richard E. Welch, created jobs for 75.

As the 19th century wound down, the shoe industry kept right on growing with nine manufacturers, three of them Dodge concerns – Dodge Bros at 112 Merrimack St., E.P Dodge at 21 Pleasant St., and N.D. Dodge & Bliss Co. on Prince Place. A whopping 21 “Boots and Shoe Makers” made the 1894-95 directory although it’s not clear what distinguished a maker from a manufacturer. Shoe entrepreneurs were setting up everywhere in Newburyport.

Nathan D. Dodge ad from the Newburyport directory (photo: John Dodge)

In 1891, John L. Dodge died, but sons Chauncey and Harry carried on the business and had started The Dodge Brothers in1888, which became a large maker of ladies’ shoes and slippers well into the 1920s and possibly the early 1930s until a strike in 1933 crippled the shoe industry. The Dodge Brothers probably filed bankruptcy although when is unclear. Unfortunately, many of those records were discarded when my grandfather’s house on Toppan’s Lane was sold in 1978.

Wedding shoes made by George A. Learned Shoe Co. (John Dodge photo, Museum of Old Newbury).

The Dodge companies specialized in women’s and children’s shoes and slippers, but I found only a smattering of detailed information about the shoes themselves although I am on the lookout for more.

Womens styles, 1912 (source: Google images)

“Nathan D. Dodge & Son* was manufacturing plain slippers to be sold at 74 cents to $1.50 and Oxfords to be sold for $1 to $3, as well as manufacturing Theo Ties, Grecians, Elites, Baden-Badens, Elysians and others, in ooze (a type of leather), cloth, bronze and satins,” according to the Newburyport News on Aug. 8, 1891 as excerpted by former Newburyport Public Library employee Ron Irving.

Irving excerpted many years of The News and The Herald (absorbed by The News in 1915) concerning the Dodge enterprises. Coverage focused on strikes, fires, accidents, layoffs and the politically active Elisha. “The News reported on April 29, 1895: “E.P. Dodge to use lasting machines, new method displaces 15 men.

*(Nathan’s son William G. Dodge would take over the business upon his father’s death in 1915. Cousin Will as we called him would come to our house for Thanksgiving until his death in 1964.)

The Plaza pump, 1919 (photo: John Dodge)

Showing the style of the day, an ad in for “Plaza Pump” in a 1919 edition of the Sunshine News displayed a picture of sharp toed and bejeweled ladies’ shoes with high heels. The ad, from the “Sunshine Factory” of the Nathan D. Dodge Shoe Company crowed “Our plaza Pump was successfully displayed at the Milwaukee Style Show. It was called the real hit of the show.” Clearly, the shoes were stylish as workers would complain during a1933 strike that constantly changing “novelty shoes” required considerable extra work deserving of higher pay.

Irving excerpted many years of The News and The Herald (absorbed by The News in 1915) concerning the Dodge enterprises. Coverage focused on strikes, fires, accidents, layoffs and the politically active Elisha. “The News reported on April 29, 1895: “E.P. Dodge to use lasting machines, new method displaces 15 men.”

Perhaps given their national market primarily in the East and Midwest, very few shoe manufacturers bought ads in the directories where some description of their products might be present. Examination of 10 directories, between 1874 and 1942, I discovered one Nathan D. Dodge ad pushing its “fine slippers” in its retail store at 71 ½ State St. and one from Burley & Stevens advertising its “Goodyear(rubber soles) and McKay stitched specialties.”

Elisha died just shy of his 55th birthday from pneumonia on Sept. 30, 1902. Author and historian John J. Currier, who lavishly eulogized him at his memorial service, summed up the father of shoe manufacturing in his tome “History of Newburyport, 1764-1905.”

“For 35 years, Mr. Dodge was interested in establishing and developing the shoe industry in Newburyport. He was one of the first to combine the many parts of shoe manufacturing under one roof to build and successfully operate the large establishment from start to finish under the management and care of one man. Others who followed owe much to the example set by him as one of the pioneers in the manufacture of shoes on a large scale.”

Post E.P. Dodge, the shoe industry in Newburyport had yet to hit stride. There were 12 “Boot and Shoe Manufacturers” in the directory, 17 “boot and shoe makers, two heel makers and two counter makers in the 1904-05 directory. One of them was Bracket Heel whose nameplate today adorns the front entrance to the large Prince Place factory built by Nathan D. and Elisha.  At its peak, the complex of factories anchored by 21 Pleasant St. and the Prince Place building and bounded by Tracy Place, Prince Place and Hale’s Court employed as many as 1,500 workers. In 1919, the complex or at least 117,000 square feet of it was sold by the E.P Dodge trust to shoe manufacturer W. D. Hannah. Add in the Dodge Brothers who started up on Merrimack St. in the late 1888 and the number of Dodge employees rises to nearly 2,000.

If the number of listings is any indication, the shoe industry in Newburyport peaked in 1914-15 with 15 “shoe manufacturers.” and seven heel, counter, trimmings and remnant manufacturers. Subsequently, the Dodge Brothers, according to my 85-year-old uncle John (Milton’s son and my father Allen’s brother) made army belts, canteen holders and possibly other stitched goods for the World War I effort.

By 1924, the shoe industry in revenue was in decline, according to an industrial survey of conducted by The Newburyport News to attract commerce to Newburyport. Indeed, shoe revenues had dropped from $8.39 million in 1919 to $5.9 million in 1924. In the same period, capital invested was almost halved from $4.26 million to $2.47 million. Wages paid out declined less precipitously from $1.78 million to $1.54 million.

“Newburyport specializes in women’s’ turned shoes. The shoe trade looks to Newburyport for the latest style ideas. Frequently, ten to fifteen thousand pairs of shoes are shipped out of the city each day,” the survey crowed. Indeed, shoes revenues in 1924 were double all the other industries combined in Newburyport, which the survey dubbed “The Gateway to the North.”

More alarming, Newburyport economically was in a downward spiral: industrial revenues declined from $20.6 million in 1919 to $11.99 million by 1924.  During that period, a recession had taken hold as the economy transitioned from wartime to peacetime.

Still, 15 manufacturers and five heel and counter concerns soldiered on: They included  A.N.F. Shoe Co., Bliss & Perry, William W. Coffin, Dodge Brothers, W.G. Dodge Shoe Company, Fern Shoe Co., Fern & Poor, W.D. Hannah Shoe Co., Ernest D. Haseltine Co., Harry M. Husk Co., Jaques & Welch, George A. Learned Co., William P. Lowell Co., Noble Shoe Co. and Pearl Shoe Co.

And the survey might have not been the last word on the local shoe industry’s health in the 1920s. According to the 1930 MHI, Newburyport shoe revenues rebounded to $7.9 million in 1927 with 60 shoe related firms operating in the city, many more than were ever listed in the annual directories. Even so, the die had been cast. If the decline had not already begun, it would soon and some of the wounds were self-inflicted.

The Dodge Brothers, according to my uncle, failed to embrace adhesives and instead stuck (pun intended) with more expensive stitching. Styles change rapidly, influenced heavily in the twenties by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 (“Tutmania” was all the rage in glamorous Egypt wear for women). Strikes didn’t help.

Family lore holds that William G. Dodge was done in by strikes and styles, something to the affect that he wagered that shoes would all be white one year when what sold was black. Thus he was stuck with stock he could not sell.

Two major blows in 1933 and 1934 just about finished off the shoe industry in Newburyport.

Workers numbering 1,500 from seven Newburyport factories struck on March 10, 1933, according to W. Lloyd Warner’s “The Social System of the Modern Factory” – Volume four of his Yankee City Series. In the throes of the Depression, annual wages had dropped from $1,332 a year to $924. They also spent time in the factories with no pay as they waited for orders to materialize.

The workers were represented by a loosely knit union which after a month of striking won recognition and some wage increases. The workers, 40% of them women, returned to work on Monday, April 9, jubilant that they had prevailed. But at what cost?

Nine manufacturers, a heel and pattern company were still listed as operating in the city in the 1935-36 directory, but by 1942, the number of manufacturers had dwindled to two and one supplier concern. The big names – Dodge, Brackett, Hannah, Bliss, Learned and Perry were gone. Newburyport’s shoe industry was all but dead.

Dodge brother factory, Newburyport (photo: Google images)
The Dodge Brothers where the fire was believed to be set(source: Google images).

The other big blow came on May 19, 1934 when a suspected “firebug” as they were called in those days lit up the Dodge Brothers factory at 112 Merrimack St. The building was total loss as was the George A. Learned Co. factory next door, then occupied by Fisher Shoe Co. The blaze destroyed 20 buildings, including many nearby homes. The area looked like a war zone and attracted 125,000 gawkers in the days that followed, according to a 2009 story in The Newburyport News. Consider that 9 out of 10 families in Newburyport had a member working in the shoe factories, according to a 2012 article by the late Newburyport News columnist and historian John Lagoulis. The fire put 500 workers out on the street.

Dodge Brothers factory
Devastation from the air (photo: Google images)

The firebug was never caught although it’s reasonable to suspect the arsonist may have harbored resentment from the strike 13 months prior. The fire signaled that this once vibrant industry was flaming out.

By the time my grandfather wrote his paper in 1960, two shoe manufacturers were still hanging on in Newburyport. The irony is that Massachusetts still produced more shoes than any other U.S. state.

“Massachusetts in 1959 led the nation with approximately 102,500,000 pairs (made), an increase of 6.7% over 1958. Maine retained fifth place in production while New Hampshire was sixth. N.E. during 1959 made 215,000,000 pairs and accounted for 33.7% of the entire national production,” he wrote.

Strikes, fires, competition and technology shifts hastened the end of shoe manufacturing in Newburyport, but its demise was inevitable. New England’s claim to shoe making primacy in 1960 is but a memory for the few who care. Capitalism ran its normal course in shoe making as it has in many U.S industries during the past half century – TVs and computers, autos, steel and appliances to name a few. Learning the

E.P. Dodge, Nathan D. Dodge
Entrance to Prince Place factory (photo: John Dodge)

lessons of the past is instructive, but can’t reverse the ravages of competition.

Prince Place today (photo: John Dodge)

This long ago and often overlooked chapter in Newburyport’s history spawned innovation and acrimony, created wealth for the precious few and defined the local social strata. Next time you walk past the impressive edifice that is 21 Pleasant St. or the Brackett Heel condos on Prince Place, imagine the sounds and smells coming through the open windows a century ago on a hot July day. That was the shoe industry of Newburyport.




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