Thursday, April 8, 2010

Working at “The Shoe” in Beverly, Massachusetts



United Shoe Machinery Corporation was a major employer in Beverly, Massachusetts. The locals called it “The Shoe,” and when it began manufacturing in 1902 it was the largest factory in the world at that time. By World War I it employed over 5,000 workers. Founded in 1899, they produced machines for the shoe industry, and it was one of the first international companies. There were branches in England, Germany, Canada, South America and Asia by 1905. It quickly became a monopoly, receiving royalties on 317 million pairs of shoes by 1932.

During the Great Depression, USM made only 15% less than just before 1931, and workers were sometimes furloughed, but not laid off. By 1960 USM had invented over 800 new machines and held more than 9,000 patents. When the monopoly was broken up, USM tried to diversify but fell into debt and sold many of the new divisions. By the 1970s the USM had its last decade of manufacturing in Beverly. The factory property was bought by Cummings Properties in 1996 and converted into office, laboratory and research space.

The Beverly USM factory was a good employer in its day. Besides employing the majority of blue collar workers in the region, it also established an industrial school, part of Beverly High School, where young men were guaranteed a lifetime job with “The Shoe.” There were also athletic associations, a country club and a chorus. My parents held their wedding reception in the country club, which is now the Beverly municipal golf course. "Inside are a theater, an auditorium, a library, locker rooms, bowling alleys and cozy little rooms for the women who may congregate with their sewing or other pleasant diversions so dear to the feminine heart," New England Magazine reported [from the Cummings Center website].

This is the kind of prosperity that drew immigrants to New England. This is the kind of guaranteed employment that my generation and my daughter's generation will never know. I can't imagine working in one place my entire life, knowing that my children would be guaranteed jobs, too! This just doesn't exist anymore in the United States.

Three generations of my family worked here at “The Shoe” in Beverly, from my two great grandfathers, three of my four grandparents, and my father.

My great grandfather, John Peter Bowden Roberts, immigrated to Beverly in 1915 from Leeds, England to work at “The Shoe.” He was lured by his son-in-law, who also left Leeds to work at General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts. His other son-in-law, my grandfather, Donald Munroe Wilkinson, worked at “The Shoe” as a shipping inspector. His daughter, Bertha, who married Donald, was a matron at USM during World War II, watching over the many Rosy-the-Riveters. They all lived on Dearborn Avenue, within walking distance of the factory.

On my mother’s side of the family, my great grandfather Arthur Treadwell Hitchings was a draftsman and shoe designer for “The Shoe.” He lived in company housing near the USM company golf course. His son-in-law, my grandfather, Stanley Elmer Allen, was a glazier for 45 years at USM. I can remember his retirement party was a big deal in the 1960s, when thousands of people were still employed by “The Shoe.” My father, John Warren Wilkinson, worked his way through college as a security guard at USM. Various other uncles and cousins all spent some time employed by USM during the mid 20th century. They all had modest jobs, but they were happy with their situations and community.

The Cummings Center in Beverly is now more than 1.5 million square feet of office space. The Cummings Properties worked with the Beverly Historical Society to showcase artifacts from USM throughout the hallways, and in a special gallery. Of special interest are the many photographs of workers, old time clocks and machinery. It is located at 181 Elliott Street, Beverly, Massachusetts, and it is free and open to the public.

The collected archives 1899 to 1972 of the USM have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum, and include 5,000 glass plate and safety negatives of shoe making machines, company catalogs, photographs taken at the Beverly plant, and 16mm motion pictures. A complete description of the collection can be found here: http://siris-archives.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?session=1267646M588BM.4957&profile=all&uri=link=3100006~!135429~!3100001~!3100002&aspect=Browse&menu=search&ri=2&source=~!siarchives&term=United+Shoe+Machinery+Company%2FCorporation&index=#focus

Essex National Heritage Area, Industrial Trail http://www.essexheritage.org/sites/united_shoe.shtml

The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System - Search over 2.3 million records, with 290,000 images, video and sound files from Smithsonian museums, archives, and libraries http://www.siris.si.edu

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Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo
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3 comments:

  1. The joys of the community of geneabloggers --- I learn bits and pieces of history that I might never have known --- and the history centers around real people and their times. Thanks.

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  2. Such an interesting post Heather! I enjoyed reading it and learning about "The Shoe". :)
    Fascinating stuff!

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  3. It always amazes me how many shoe factories there are/were in Massachusetts.

    I grew up in Bridgewater (down in the Brockton area), and there are a whole bunch down there! Many of my family members (great-grandparents and their siblings) worked in shoe factories in Randolph, Brockton and Bridgewater, just to name a few.

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