TANNING AND GLOVE MAKING
The Encyclopedia of New York State
by Peter Eisenstadt
Publication date: 2005
The Encyclopedia of New York State is one of the most complete works on the Empire State to be published in a half-century. In nearly 2.000 pages and 4.000 signed entries, this single volume captures the impressive complexity of New York State as a historic crossroads of people and ideas, as a cradle of abolitionism and feminism and as an apex of modern urban, suburban and rural life.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, economy was dominated by tanning and glove manufacturing. Unlike tanning in other regions of New York State, this was not hemlock bark tanning of cowhides for shoes and boots, but deer-skin tanning using other organic materials and manufacturing into gloves and clothing. It began with the first glove and mitten shops in Johnstown in 1808 and in what became Gloversville in 1810. At first, the same shops that tanned the leather made the finished product, but by the 1840s the two trades were separated but remained connected. They developed into a vertically integrated business with a full panoply of supporting industries and local producers were marketing gloves as far away as West Coast. Sewing machines were introduced in 1851 and became a necessity because of the labor demands of the Civil War; dies for cutting gloves were introduced about the same time and, beginning in 1857, were manufactured in Gloversville. Glue, a side product, was made starting in 1868 and the same waste from hides led to the development of Johnstown's Knox Gelatine Co. (1890). The first few generations of tanners and glove makers were New Englanders or British immigrants, but there was a large ethnic presence in the industry. Nathan Littauer, a German Jewish immigrant, began manufacturing gloves in 1866. He employed some other German Jews, but it was after the relatively liberal era in the Russian Empire ended in 1881 that many skilled workers, fleeing oppression, immigrated to Fulton County, New York State. Their numbers peaked about 1900, when many of the factories were Jewish owned. Shops ranged from family-run business in homes to large factories with 500 employees, such as Littauer Bros Glove Co. and Daniel Hays Glove Co.. With expansion, Johnstown and Gloversville became the center of the US glove industry but on different scales. In 1890 Gloversville had twice as many shops as Johnstown and their average size was larger. Outlying factories and shops were located in Mayfield, Broadalbin, Northville and Ephratah. The trade dominated the county: in 1905, 82.4% of its wage earners worked in gloves or leather and in 1909 there were no fewer than 12.950 glove workers. So great was the concentration of glove making in Johnstown and Gloverville that in 1900, Fulton County produced 57% of all gloves made in the nation. Manufacture of the cheaper grades of gloves moved west around that year and the county came to specialize in men's fine leather dress gloves. In the continuing search for skilled workers for what remained a craft rather than an industrial operation, gloves shops attracted Slovaks, Italian and Irish to Johnstown and Germans, Jews and Italian to Gloversville. Other, related business developed: the manufacturing of glove-making machines (1893), a knitting mill (1893) and silk mills. Straw paper boxes for packing and shipping were made locally beginning in 1889. The zenith of the glove business was reached about 1890 and continued into the first decade of the new century. In 1904 there was a strike/lockout, constructed in an open shop, leaving the International Table Cutters Union powerless and union strength declined thereafter. Another strike by the cutters, protesting the lack of wage increase since 1904, took place in 1914-15; mediation failed to gain concessions from the manufacturers. Another strike/lockout followed, but this, too, ended with workers conceding. As late as 1929, 138 of the nation's 257 substantial glove manufacturers were located in Fulton County. People were satisfied with the good living that the glove business afforded. Johnstown and Gloversville had high rates of home-ownership and residents' children attended college in substantial numbers. The depression led to a rise in union membership, but the industry spread work around, so people were generally underemployed rather than unemployed. There was a complacency to the Fulton County glove industry that was to prove costly. Business actively discouraged any broadening of the industrial base and the glove manufacturers were high conservative, tending not to adjust to changing technology or markets. Crucial parts of the glove-making process were difficult to mechanize and required cheap labor. With the restriction of immigration in 1920s, new arrivals willing to work hard for low starting wages were no longer available. Around 1938 owners began to contract work out of the country, initially to Puerto Rico. For generations, the seasonal nature of the work and the consequent limits on shop space had been compensated for by "homework", in which workers, mostly women, took gloves home to stitch. Under union demands, the New York State Department of Labor began to restrict homework in 1941. World War II brought government contracts, but the war's end was followed by higher unemployment. Many factors were conspiring against the industry, including seasonality, high costs, high wages and competition from overseas. Tannery workers called a strike in 1949-50, with Communist participation, that resulted in 7.000 of the county's 9.000 workers being out of work. Even after the strike ended, 5.615 remained out of work. The industry's ultimate decline had begun and it became precipitous in the 1960s.