Converse: Mass.-Made Rubbers

By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting

Once again on the subject of famous shoe companies born in New England (see a previous blog post on Keds), another remarkable artifact recently surfaced in ATHM’s collections. This 1950s-era Converse Sporting Footwear poster, issued to retailers by the Converse Rubber Company, depicts shoe styles that, like the high-heeled Keds featured in the prior post, might not seem to fit the brand name we know today.

Converse, Inc. Only Converse sporting footwear brings you all these features! [Malden, Mass.]: Converse, Inc., [1950?]. Accn. #2010.12.3.

Converse, originally founded in 1908, is now famous around the world for its iconic Chuck Taylors (launched in 1917). The company, established by Marquis M. Converse, in Malden, Massachusetts, is another example of a New England manufacturer that managed to successfully weather a hundred years of changing consumer tastes—an order as tall as some of these boots, to be sure.

Different from what we picture when we hear the name “Converse,” these rubber boots look more like those of fellow New England sports clothing maker, L.L. Bean. According to Abraham Aamidor, who penned a history of Converse’s famed Chuck Taylor and his All Star sneakers, by 1910 Converse was producing over 4,000 rubber boots per day, and the company had to send workers home for the winter after all orders for galoshes had been filled. The rubber-soled Chuck Taylors were created to help the company balance the books, and keep its employees working, during this time of year.

But the story of local rubber ingenuity deepens, as in fact it was inventors in early 19th-century Massachusetts who made crucial advancements in the materials needed to make boots like these. In 1830s Springfield, Mass., Charles Goodyear first developed the process of “vulcanization” of rubber, which allowed it to remain stable and strong whatever the temperature (rather than sticky in hot weather, and brittle in cold—problems that had previously plagued the material). Around that same time Edwin Chaffee, working in Boston, invented a machine called a calender that pressed rubber into sheets, making it much easier to fashion into footwear and clothing. Both of these inventions propelled the rubber industry forward dramatically. (However, it should be noted that at the time this poster was made, most “rubber” products were made up largely of synthetics, partly as a result of WWII rubber shortages.)

As it happens, now is an especially appropriate time to be looking back on this home-grown shoe manufacturer—Converse Inc. moves in April, 2015 from its current home in North Andover, Mass., to new Boston headquarters, its Chuck Taylor shoe still very much at the heart of its longevity.

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