Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Vanished Tool Makes: USMC

Some years ago I picked up this wrench:

Oddball size, measuring .520" across the flats on one side and .700 on the other.  Note the logo stamped on it:

I also found the initials on a cobbler's hammer:

At first, I guessed U.S. Marine Corps, probably made for some special military purpose.  But no, the answer turned up on one of my old grinding arbors:

On the reverse, the name badge:

In 1899, three large companies in the shoe business merged:  the Goodyear Machinery Company, Consolidated Hand Lasting Machine Company, and the McKay Shoe Machinery Company.  In 1905, they incorporated as the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, eventually known to its employees and customers as "The Shoe."  USMC was headquartered in Boston, and its main manufacturing plant was in Beverly, Massachusetts.  McKay had developed the sole sewing machine in 1860 but it left an uncomfortable ridge on the inner sole so hand-sewn shoes remained popular in the higher price ranges.  Ultimately, Charles Goodyear (the son of the man who discovered the vulcanization of rubber) devised a machine which could duplicate the finer hand-sewing techniques.  The cost savings were immense.  A hand-sewn pair of shoes cost not less than 75 cents to manufacture back then, but the McKay shoes could be produced for as little as three cents per pair.  The Goodyear machines were able to reproduce the better hand-sewn shoes for as little as 10 cents per pair (4 cents for the use of the machines, 6 cents for the labour).  When these manufacturers combined their efforts, they also began to develop machines to perform all of the other shoe-making tasks, such as rounding, buffing and polishing the soles, trimming the edges of the soles, and so on.  Since the machinery was expensive, it was leased to shoe manufacturers.  By 1910, USMC had an eighty percent share of the shoe machinery market, with assets reaching forty million dollars, and it had acquired control of branch companies in foreign countries.  This left USMC, as the machinery supplier, in a virtual monopoly, and in 1911 the anti-trust charges began to be laid.  While the battles raged on in the courts, USMC continued to grow and innovate.  In 1909 they had opened their first state-chartered industrial school, the Beverly Industrial School, which became the first successful school for mechanics in the U.S.  In 1930 USMC built one of Boston's first and, at the time, largest skyscrapers for its corporate headquarters. Between 1899 and 1960, the company developed and marketed nearly 800 new and improved shoe machines and patented more than 9,000 inventions in widely disparate areas. Starting as early as 1949, it undertook experiments to create a baseball stitching machine (see drawing below), a very complex undertaking that ultimately proved unsuccessful.  

Source:  Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Beverly plant boasted such modern inventions as the first time-clocks produced by IBM, the hot glue gun, the pop top for the soda can, the drive mechanism for the lunar module, as well as pop rivets used in the Supersonic Concorde. The company even had its own Atomic Power division.   Its British division, BUSM, produced a variety of military items during both world wars, including naval gun sights and the the technically very demanding precision cast wheelhouse for the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine.  After the war, BUSM was an early adopter of numerical control machines, installing a prototype Kearns horizontal boring machine that is now on display at the Manchester Institute of Technology.  Back in the US, the government anti-trust efforts finally resulted in the break-up of the company in the 1960's.  Management responded by diversifying, buying up various companies which only added on debt.  A crash followed:  stock that was valued at $56 per share in 1968 was worth only $18 in 1972.  In 1976 the company was bought by the Emhart Corporation, an organization half USMC's size and which itself was subsequently acquired by Black and Decker in 1989.  Its old factory in Beverley is now a commercial property managed by Cummings Properties and is described as the oldest continually used commercial real estate in the U.S.  According to their website, "Since its purchase of the property in 1996, Cummings Properties has worked closely with Beverly Historical Society to preserve much of The Shoe's rich history. Throughout the property a wide variety of artifacts is displayed, including refurbished antique USM equipment/machinery, dozens of wall-mounted vintage photo enlargements, an original IBM time clock used at The Shoe in the early 1900s, and several other items donated or loaned by residents of Beverly and the surrounding community."  The Cummings website gives a fascinating insight into the architectural approaches of the time ("building as machine") as well as the many historically significant aspects of the USMC factory. They have an open house once a year.  Sounds worth a visit.  

As for The Shoe, it continues to do business as USM.


Graham Clayton said...

When was the Montreal factory of USMC in operation?

Mister G said...

Still going!