Jacksonian Miscellanies, #55

March 31, 1998

India Rubber Shoes

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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In chapter XIII, covering the years 1830-31, of Charles Haswell's Reminiscences of New York by an Octogenarian (1816 - 1860), he notes:

Besides overshoes, uncured India Rubber was for a while highly overrated -- thousands of regular shoes made of them were sold, and speculation lead to a huge (for the time) commercial enterprise, the Roxbury India Rubber Company. But within a few years it was bankrupt due to the fact that in warm weather, India Rubber tended to soften and stick together.

The following is from James Parton's People's Book of Biography (Hartford: A.S. Hale 1868):

ONE day, in the year 1833, a Philadelphia merchant, who was stopping a few days in New York on business, chanced to pass the store of the Roxbury India Rubber Company, in the lower part of the city. Seeing the words India Rubber on the sign, reminded him of the life-preservers of that material, which had been much spoken of in the newspapers as a new article of great utility. Being a natural lover of improvements, he went into the store to examine them, and the result was that be bought one and took it home with him to Philadelphia.

The name of this inquisitive person was Charles Goodyear, of the firm of A. Goodyear and Sons, hardware merchants. Prosperous merchants they had been for several years, with a factory in Connecticut, their native state, and an extensive establishment in Philadelphia for the sale of their products; but, at this time, they were involved in debt and difficulty. Having failed in 1830, they had compromised with their creditors, and were striving bravely to extricate themselves. But all their efforts proved fruitless, and they were compelled, at length, to give up all they possessed, and withdraw from business, still burthened with heavy obligations. This calamity occurred soon after the time when Charles Goodyear made his purchase of the India Rubber life-preserver, and when he was already thinking of turning his attention to some other branch of business.

On examining his life-preserver, an improvement in the tube by which it was inflated occurred to him; and, the next time he was in New York, he showed it to the agent of the Roxbury Company, and offered to sell the improvement. The agent acknowledged the value of the idea, and proceeded to lay open to the inventor the state of the India Rubber manufacture in the United States, and the condition of the great Roxbury Company, in order to account for the improbability of the Company's buying the tube invention.

There had been an India Rubber mania in New England, like that of petroleum during the late war; of which mania this Roxbury Company, with a capital of three hundred thousand dollars, was the most remarkable result. The first pair of India Rubber shoes ever seen in the United States were brought here, in 1820. They were gilt, and were pointed like the slippers of the Chinese mandarin. This pair, which were handed about as a curiosity, were followed, in 1823, by an importation of five hundred pairs, which, rough and ill-shaped as they were, were eagerly bought at high prices; and, from that time onward, there was a regular importation of India Rubber shoes from South America, of five thousand pairs per annum. It was the high prices which these shoes commanded, as compared with the extreme cheapness of the raw material, that caused the expectation of such enormous profits from their manufacture at home. Hence the rage of 1832 for India Rubber stocks. Hence the formation of the Roxbury Company, and the extravagant expectations of its stockholders.

The agent of that company, however, had but a sorry tale to tell Charles Goodyear in 1833. He told him that the material had presented unexpected difficulties. Shoes made in winter melted as soon as the summer came. When exposed to the cold, they grew as hard as stone; but a temperature of one hundred degrees reduced a case of shoes to a mass of gum. And, what was worse, no one could tell of the winter-made shoes, whether they would stand the summer heats or not. The Company feared to manufacture a large quantity, since the first hot week in June would melt the product of eight months' labor, as readily as a single pair of shoes. In short, the agent said, unless a way could be discovered of hardening or curing this singular substance, and that very soon, the Roxbury Company would be obliged to wind up its affairs from the exhaustion, at once, of its patience and its capital. This catastrophe, in fact, soon after happened, to the ruin of a large number of the people of Massachusetts. With it died all interest in the home manufacture of India Rubber, except in the mind of a single individual-- Charles Goodyear.

On his return to Philadelphia he began to study and experiment with India Rubber. He bought a few pounds. He melted it, kneaded it, rolled it, read about it, talked of it with professors and physicians, pondered it by night and day. He even made a few pairs of shoes, which were very pretty to look at; but they would stick together as soon as they were brought into a warm room. He mixed magnesia, alcohol, turpentine, with the melted gum, and tried in every way he could conceive to render it a manageable substance. Still baffled, be bought a quantity of the sap as it comes from the India Rubber tree, and experimented with that. Coming to his shop one morning, an Irishman in his employ met him at the door in high spirits, saying that he had found out the great secret and beaten a Yankee, pointing to his trousers, which he had dipped into one of the barrels of sap. They were so nicely coated over with the glistening gum, that for a moment, Mr. Goodyear thought that perhaps Jerry had blundered into the secret. The man sat down to his work on the top of a cask. On attempting to rise, a few minutes after, be found himself glued to his seat, and his legs stuck tight together. He had to be cut out of his trousers, amid the laughter of the bystanders. Another time Mr. Goodyear thought be had succeeded in curing India Rubber, by mixing it with quicklime. He made some specimens of India Rubber cloth, which had an elegant appearance; but, after enjoying his triumph a few days, he found, to his dismay, that the weakest acid, such as apple-juice orange-juice, or vinegar and water, dropped upon his cloth, dissolved it into soft gum again.

But Charles Goodyear was a man who, having undertaken a thing, could not give it up. He struggled on for five years, in debt, with a family, and exposed to the derision or reproaches of his friends. Several times he was in the debtor's prison. He sold his effects, he pawned his trinkets, he borrowed from his acquaintances, he reduced himself and his young family to the severest straits. When he could no longer buy wood to melt his rubber with, his children used to go out into the fields and pick up sticks for the purpose. Always supposing himself to be on the, point of succeeding, he thought the quickest way to get his family out of their misery was to stick to India Rubber.

In the fifth year of his investigations a glorious success rewarded him. He made one of the simplest, and yet one of the most useful, discoveries which has ever been made in the United States. It was this: Take a piece of common, sticky India Rubber, sprinkle upon it powdered sulphur, put it into an oven heated to 275 degrees, bake it a short time, and it comes out a new material, which has all the good properties of India Rubber, without that liability to harden in cold weather and dissolve in warm, which had hitherto baffled all his endeavors to turn it to useful account. It was found, by subsequent experiments, that, by varying the proportions and the heat, he could make it as soft or as hard as he chose. He could make the softest cloth or the hardest ivory. He could make it as flexible as whalebone or as rigid as flint. In short, he had produced not merely a new material, but a new class of materials, applicable to a thousand uses.

Overjoyed with his success he thought his troubles were over. Never was a poor inventor more mistaken. By this time, he had utterly tired out all his friends and acquaintances. He was thought to be India Rubber mad. As soon as he opened his mouth to speak of India Rubber, his friends manifested such signs of repugnance, pity, or incredulity, that he was abashed and ashamed to continue. As to mere acquaintances, they laughed at him. One of them, being asked one day how Mr. Goodyear could be recognized in the street, replied:

He used to say, in after times, that two years passed, after he had made his discovery before he could get one man to believe him. During that period be endured everything that a man can endure and live. Very often he knew not how to get the next loaf for his children. Very often, in the coldest day of a New England winter, he had neither food nor fire. once he had a dead child in his house, and no means with which to bury it. He was denounced as a man who neglected his family to pursue a ridiculous idea, which could never be of the slightest use to any one.

In New York, at length, he found a man who had faith enough in his discovery to enter into partnership with him for bringing the new material before the public. From that time his children, indeed, had enough to eat; but it was three or four years before his patent began to bring him in any considerable return.

Any one but Charles Goodyear would then have stopped and quietly enjoyed the fruit of his labors. But he, we repeat, was an inventor. He saw that the application of India Rubber to the arts was still in its infancy, and he felt it a kind of religious duty to go on developing his discovery. Therefore, he never entered into the manufacture of India Rubber goods, but, selling rights to manufacture for a low percentage on the sales, he spent all the rest of his life in applying the varied forms of his material to new uses. Like all other inventors, he was tormented with litigation. His right to his discovery was unquestionable, yet men there were who infringed that right; and, though the courts sustained him, the defence of his rights cost him enormous sums.

The present condition of the India Rubber manufacture in the United States and Europe testifies to the ingenuity and devotion of this remarkable man. We are informed, by a gentleman engaged in the business, that a single firm in the city of New York sells two million dollars' worth of India Rubber belting and engine-packing every year; and this firm is only one out of forty engaged in the Rubber business in this city alone. By Goodyear's process one girl can make twenty pairs of India Rubber shoes in a day, so easily is the material worked, -- and yet the various branches of the trade give employment to fifty thousand persons in the United States. Take one item, -- the new clothes-wringer made of India Rubber rollers, invented three years ago. The companies engaged in the manufacture of this article are now selling the astonishing number of two hundred thousand per annum in this country; and, recently, a whole shipload was sent to England. During the late war, more than a million blankets of India Rubber were supplied to the armies.

Charles Goodyear died in July, 1860, in the sixty-first year of his age. He literally wore out his constitution in his zeal for developing his discovery. Though he had been for many years a sufferer from disease, his death was somewhat sudden and unexpected. Almost to his last day he was still employed in the work to which his life was devoted. It is not without a pang that we record, that, after all his toils and successes, he died insolvent, leaving his devoted and gifted wife, the faithful helpmeet and solace of his later years, and a family of six children, the youngest but two mouths old, without provision. Such is but the common fate of inventors. That very zeal and enthusiasm, which alone enable them to carry out their ideas, deprives them of the substantial reward which other men win by using their discoveries.

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