Thursday, September 15, 2011

Those Places Thursday – The Shoe of Beverly, MA

As one of the largest factories in the world, United Shoe Machine Corporation, also known as “The Shoe,” was the livelihood of thousands of workers and their families.  For more than 70 years, it dominated the economic life of Beverly and its surrounding communities.  Whole neighborhoods were developed to house the workers, and the residents thrived on an industry of manufacturing the machinery which made shoes.  One of those workers, a machinist, was my paternal great grandfather, Frank Albert Andersen.

Founded in 1899 by a merger of Goodyear Machinery Company, Consolidated Hand Lasting Machine Company, and McKay Shoe Machinery Company, United Shoe Machinery Company, as it was then known, revolutionized shoe equipment manufacturing and the shoe industry itself.  Its establishment of an international division made it one of the first three international companies ever formed, and it became a worldwide powerhouse as affiliated companies were set up in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, South America, and Asia by 1905.  The new company became United Shoe Machinery Corporation on 1 May 1905.

Construction of the factory and headquarters in Beverly, Massachusetts (181 Elliott Street, now known as the CummingsCenter) began in 1902.  The massive complex, housed a business that created shoe manufacturing equipment and was, at the time, considered a state-of-the-art facility.  Designed by engineer Ernest L. Ransome, "The Shoe" was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world until 1937.  The building has been ranked among architectural historians as one of the most significant industrial landmarks in the country.

United Shoe Machinery Co., Beverly, Mass.

Defined by its overall understated design, the building’s exterior walls were painstakingly hammered by hand for a decorative texture effect.  The plant’s utilitarian beauty also inspired modernist pioneer/architect Walter Gropius.  The Ransome technique lead to the modern-day skyscraper, changing the face of the American landscape.

By 1906, the Beverly factory was operational.  And then in 1911, a major factory expansion began, which was the same year USM's long complex history with anti-trust legislation began.  This stemmed certainly from the extraordinary monopoly USM gained in the shoe machine industry, but also from the Company's practice of leasing equipment and selling customers only the equipment's proprietary parts.

Although the story of USM is certainly the story of a monopoly, the monopoly's long and fruitful life became a way of life for literally thousands of Beverly area families, many with multi-generational ties to this hugely successful property.  Between 1900 and 1910, immigrants quickly swelled Beverly's population from 13,888 to 18,650, or roughly half of its 1998 population.

Following the guideline that a happy worker is a productive worker, the USM revolutionized American industry in the early 1900s by offering new-fangled benefits, such as adequate lighting, central heating, and healthcare.  In line with the company’s beliefs, the team designed “The Shoe” — as it is affectionately called — where employee health and comfort were paramount.  Originally, open courtyards surrounding the structures allowed cool air to circulate throughout the buildings during the summer months.  In the winter, steam-heated air was pumped through hollow columns into the workrooms.  More than 2,000 5-foot by 10-foot windows flooded the factory’s pre-electricity interiors with natural light.

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.

Between 1899 and 1960, USM developed and marketed nearly 800 new and improved shoe machines and patented more than 9,000 inventions in widely disparate areas.  During 1910 the factory staff grew from 3,000 to 4,500, and the workweek was cut from 55 to 50 hours as the company reportedly paid its workers the highest average wages in the country.  

Although Beverly had a long history of industrial interests, including the first cotton mill in America, USM's influence dwarfed all other commercial activity in the area.  By 1911, according to the old Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics, Beverly residents as a whole had higher annual earnings than the residents of any other city in the state.  The company was a model of employer benevolence for decades before it eventually unionized.

In addition to having its own stop on the north/south rail line between Boston and Lowell, USM actually had Boston & Maine Railroad passenger trains that pulled right into the Elliott Street yard every morning and evening.  

The company established its own state chartered industrial school in 1909, where generations of future workers and managers were trained.  The newly formed Beverly Industrial School was "the first successful school for mechanics in the United States," according to NEW ENGLAND Magazine in 1911.  Two groups, each consisting of 35 young men, alternated between the factory and Beverly High School, and before that, the adjacent McKay School, spending one week at the factory and then one week at the high school.

USM took good care of its employees.  Very early on it established the USM Athletic Association as the umbrella organization through which it reached out to employees, and to some extent the city.  By the fall of 1910, the association had more than 1,100 members, which could have included up to 25 percent non-employee "outsiders."

In 1911, various divisions included the gun club, a new baseball division, a motor boating division, a soccer/football coterie, a band, a chorus, a vegetable growing group, a bowling league, and a cricket team, as well as tennis and golf.  

Indeed, employee athletic and recreational opportunities were of prime importance from USM's earliest days in Beverly.  Most were centered in the United Shoe Golf and Country Club (now the Beverly Golf and Tennis Club), where special attention seemed to be given to meeting the needs of both male and female workers.

The new clubhouse was turned over to the men, however, "a few hours before the bells of the New Year tolled in 1911," by USM Vice President George W. Brown. "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 (emphasis added).

Among 3,000 workers in Beverly by 1911, the company referred to about 100 female office workers and another 70 or 80 girls in the factory, a company brochure proclaims.  They all "begin their work ten minutes later than the men and leave ten minutes earlier, so that a proper distance is maintained between the sexes as they enter and leave the factory," the brochure adds.

"While the United Shoe is one of the largest factories in the country," NEW ENGLAND Magazine noted in 1911, "the provisions made for the comfort, safety, health and contentment of its mass of employees, at times upwards of five thousand persons, men and women, are pronounced to be not excelled, and, perhaps, not equaled at any other factory in the world."  The factory, in the judgment of factory experts, ranked "foremost among the best type of twentieth century industrial establishments."

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.  In 1999, the mammoth Cummings Center was designated the "United Shoe Machinery Corporation Historic District" by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

©2011 – Frank’s Daughter All Rights Reserved


  1. You didn't mention when your ancestor worked there. I had three generations work at the Shoe, starting about 1915 with my great grandfathers (two of them!), and my grandfather retired in the 1970s. My Dad was a security guard there in college, and my grandmother worked as a matron for the "Rosie the Riveters" that worked there during WWII. We lived about three blocks behind the Shoe, and my grandfather and Dad could walk there for work, and come home for lunch, too.

  2. You're right, thanks Heather!
    The only reference I have of my great grandfather's employment at "The Shoe" is from his 1918 WWI Draft Registration card, dated September 12, 1918. This record shows that he and his family are living at 18 Bridge in Beverly, Essex, Mass and Frank is employed as a machinist at the United Shoe Machine Corporation in Beverly.
    1910 & 1920 census records indicate generically that he is a machinist in a machine shop.
    (Perhaps our ggf's knew each other!)