Johnson Corporation:19th Century Origins
Prof. Gerald Zahavi
Department of History, University at Albany
Copyright © 1984, 2010 by Gerald Zahavi
|The following essay is taken from unpublished sections of
my dissertation, with revisions and corrections updating the original 1983 text. As this on-line project progresses, it
will be illustrated with excerpts from newspapers, early company
photographs, selections from the Johnson family correspondence, and donated images from readers.
Please send me your feedback and suggestions for improvements.
Gerald Zahavi [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Last updated: March 31, 2011
Horace N. Lester—temperance activist, senior officer of the
Binghamton Savings Bank, former mayor of Binghamton, president of the
YMCA, and co-founder of what the local papers exaggeratedly referred
to as the "largest and most successful" shoe manufacturing
concern in the country—died on October 1st, 1882. The large four-story
Lester Brothers factory on the corner of Washington and Henry streets
stood idle for a brief spell, as workers and foremen attended the funeral.
The city's prominent citizens, men who made their fortunes in leather,
cigars, or wood, the three pillars of Binghamton's economy, took some
precious hours and paid tribute to a fellow manufacturing pioneer.
Obituaries in local papers praised Lester's active involvement
in Binghamton's social, political, and religious life. But perhaps his
most important contribution to the community lay in the four-story factory
that stood idle on his burial day. From
that factory, and the firm that controlled it, would grow one of the
largest and most integrated shoe manufacturing companies in the world,
the Endicott Johnson Corporation. Horace Lester's death marks a dividing
line, separating one era of shoe manufacturing from another. His entrepreneurial
generation was instrumental in transforming the shoe craft into a shoe industry, replete with factories and all
that accompanies them—machinery, division of labor, bureaucratic shop
management, and class conflict.
This is the story of that transformation, of the workers and managers
of Lester's generation and the world they helped build in the Susquehanna
Valley along the southern tier of New York State.
Leaving behind East Haddam, Connecticut, Horace Lester first
came to Binghamton around 1850 and established a retail shoe trade in
the village. At the time, he was a relatively young man of thirty. He
took on a partner, John Doubleday, and the two of them set up a custom
shoe shop on Court Street, a major commercial block in Binghamton. The
"dingy old store" had a cobbler's bench in the rear, and quite
quickly the bench became the real center of the concern, as retail sales
all but disappeared and Lester took up wholesale or "order" work. Doubleday
soon dropped out of the partnership, for reasons that remain unclear,
but was replaced by Horace Lester's brother, George W. Lester. On September
21, 1854, the two brothers established the firm Lester Bros. & Company. The
Lester brothers were among several New England men, most from Massachusetts,
who ventured out of the safe harbors of eastern seaboard markets and
credit houses and sought their fortunes in shoe manufacturing in the
new urban communities that were growing in upstate New York, Ohio, and
Illinois. By 1880, of the four shoe manufacturing concerns in the city
of Binghamton, three were either headed by or had senior partners who
came from Massachusetts.
It is not surprising to find Massachusetts men at the helm of
Binghamton shoe factories. New England was the national center of shoe
manufacturing throughout the nineteenth-century, with Massachusetts
alone responsible for over 50% of the nation's total shoe production
through most of this period. Hence,
when shoe manufacturing began to spread westward, New England and Massachusetts
shoe men helped carry it.
By the late 1850s and early 1860s, slight market advantages
were starting to make the location of factories in inland regions more
attractive to entrepreneurs. According to one student of the industry,
the westward movement of population widened the distance between New
England producers and westward-migrating consumers. Although this decreased
sales, it was not a sufficiently decisive factor in itself to lead to
the relocation of the shoe trade closer to shifting population centers.
An additional stimulating factor to the migration of the shoe manufacturing
was the growing scarcity of tanned hides along the coast. Tanneries
required hemlock, oak, and chestnut bark supplies, "and as the
bark was used up they moved southward and westward." Thus, the
"interior regions were also beginning to furnish an important part
of the supply of hides."
Complementing these western advantages were a decreasing reliance
on skilled workers, because of the advent of new technology, and a growing
surplus of labor in the West—mainly displaced rural workers. "With
labor and capital becoming relatively cheaper and more abundant in the
West, and with the requirements of previous training becoming less important,
it was only a question of time before the western cities likewise could
develop a localized shoe industry and compete in the national markets."
All these factors helped spread factory production westward, into Rochester,
Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, and into many
smaller communities along the way.
While many migrating manufacturers made their way to large western
cities, where lucrative local markets could be immediately exploited,
others found their niche in smaller urban centers, such as Binghamton.
Their paths often followed somewhat circuitous routes, as was the case
with one Binghamton shoe manufacturer, James M. Stone. He was born in
New Braintree, Massachusetts, on February 11, 1830. He lived at home,
attended school, and worked on a farm until he was twenty-two years
old. In 1852, lured by stories of gold riches on the West Coast, he
left with a party of other men for the California gold fields. There
he remained for three years and amassed a substantial enough fortune
to return, in 1855, and become a junior partner in a boot and shoe business
in North Brookfield, Massachusetts—in the firm of Gulliver and Stone.
In 1865, the partnership was dissolved, "upon which Mr. Stone came
to Binghamton and established the industry." Whether motivated specifically
by the opportunities of a westwardly shifting market, personal commercial
failures, or merely restlessness, young capitalists like Stone and the
Lesters helped build the foundations of a factory system in Binghamton.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Binghamton could
hardly have been called an industrial community. Nestled in an agricultural
and lumbering region, and spreading along the banks of the Susquehanna
and Chenango rivers at their confluence, it did, nevertheless, establish
itself very early on as Broome County's commercial and trading center.
Numerous saw and gristmills, a few tanneries, an iron factory, a plaster
mill, and a handful of other small industries were founded in the village
in the first half of the century. Yet Binghamton grew only modestly
between 1800 and the 1850. It was not until the completion of rail links
with New York, Scranton, Syracuse, and the Great Lakes, in the 1850s
and 1860s that the village really began to industrialize.
The ready access to new markets brought about by the extension of
railroad trackage, the village's proximity to coal-rich regions in Pennsylvania,
and the stimulation of industrial production triggered by the Civil
War soon led to the expansion of the village's modest economy. Cigar,
furniture, boot and shoe, and clothing manufacturers soon took root
in the community. Growing numbers of merchants, industrialists and workers
entering Binghamton swelled its population and led to the re-chartering
of the village as a city in 1867.
Industrial growth continued to fuel population growth. Between
1860 and 1890, Binghamton's population increased from 8,325 to just
over 35,000. Commercial and population expansion not only represented incremental
increases in Binghamton's industrial base but also reflected substantive
structural changes within industries in Binghamton. Nowhere was this
more pronounced than in the shoe industry.
In the mid-nineteenth century, around the time the Lesters established
their shop, important organizational and technological innovations had
already begun to transform boot and shoe manufacturing. The days of
master workmen and apprentices, as well as custom shops, were waning.
In New England, small shops, the "ten footers," were being
abandoned, as workers streamed into the factories that were cropping up
in the many shoe towns that surrounded Boston. The pattern was repeated
in other communities throughout the Northeast. Although the past order
would be sustained both within and without factories, as traditional
craft practices were stubbornly maintained and protected by older workers,
and as small manufacturers continued to operate alongside increasingly
larger factory behemoths, the introduction and perfection of various
technological devices, mainly stitching machines, insured that the future
fate of the industry would lie within factories. There, capitalists
would be able to concentrate machinery and workers and compete handily
with custom shops, survivors of a bygone craft era.
Until the 1850s, machines had played an insignificant part in
the manufacture of boots and shoes. With relatively few hand tools,
skilled shoemakers were able to provide sufficient footwear for both
local and regional markets. But the expansion of wholesale markets just
prior to and during the Civil War placed a premium on rapid and large-scale
production. The introduction and development of several important inventions
during this period—devices such as the automatic pegging machine (1818),
the sole cutting machine (1844), and the leather rolling machine (1846)—did
much to satisfy the imperatives of growing demand, but their impact
on the trade was limited. While they facilitated the standardization
of shoe sizes and shapes, they did not affect key manufacturing processes
such as binding, bottoming, upper leather cutting, and lasting. It was only with the adaptation of Elias Howe's
sewing machine to the stitching of leather uppers, in the 1850s, that
mechanization of the industry really began.
John Brooke Nichols' version of the Howe machine had an immediate
impact on the trade. It quickly put an end to the putting-out system
that had prevailed for three-quarters of a century. Prior to the introduction
of the stitching machine, women bound the uppers of
shoes by hand, working in their homes on materials provided them by
a shoe manufacturer. With the advent of the stitching machine, "binding
and stitching had ceased to be a by-employment which women could carry
on in as leisurely a fashion as they wished," instead, they were
"suddenly obliged to go to a factory and work regularly during
a long working day." The new device also reduced the number of women needed to bind leather
uppers. Between 1850 and 1860, the decade during which the stitcher
was introduced, the percentage of women in the shoe trade dropped from
31_% to 23_% 01880 (from 32,949 to 28,515.
Mechanization of the industry spread with the invention and
perfection of the McKay stitching machine in the early 1860s. Designed
for binding uppers and soles, a task which had been done by skilled
men, the McKay machine was quickly and widely adopted by shoe manufacturers.
The induction of many shoemakers into the Northern armies during the
Civil War and the resulting shortage of skilled labor, compounded by
an influx of large government orders for military footwear, helped promote
the rapid spread of the machine.
David N. Johnson, a skilled Lynn shoemaker who witnessed the
introduction of the McKay stitcher, claimed that the device was capable
of completing as many as eighty pairs of shoes in the time it took a
skilled hand worker to produce just one.
So profound an impact did the invention have on the shoe industry
that it led one observer to declare that the machine "has built
great factories and made thriving cities. The McKay and upper leather stitching machines introduced into
the shoe industry what Alan Dawley has called a "revolutionary
dynamic. . . . As speed and efficiency increased in one branch of production,
other branches strained to catch up, and to restore equilibrium it was
necessary for the whole industry to move at a much faster pace. In this
fashion the introduction of the first sewing machines for binding created
an imbalance in the rhythm of production. Once, it had been necessary
to hire more binders than bottomers to keep the latter supplied with
materials. Now the reverse was true; while binding was done in great
speed with fewer and fewer binders, bottoming lagged behind. Balance
was restored by the McKay stitcher, which vastly increased the velocity
of bottoming, but this change, in turn, created new imbalances vis-a-vis
cutting, lasting, shaping, trimming, nailing, and buffing. . . . In
this period of rapid technological advance, one increase in productivity
beckoned forth another . . . innovation sparked further innovation...change
Indeed, technical innovation transformed the industry in the
second half of the 19th century. The Goodyear welt stitcher,
using a curved needle to sew welt, upper, and insole together without
producing a row of stitches inside the shoe, was perfected in the late
1860s and early 1870s. Employed in the manufacture of finer and more
flexible shoes than the McKay stitcher was capable of, it eliminated
some of the last vestiges of custom work. Edge and heel trimming machines
were introduced in the late 1870s, and in the 1880s, the Metzeliger
lasting machine was invented, taking on the task that lasters had long
boasted could not be done, the mechanical lasting of shoes. Numerous less important inventions accompanied these, all of which contributed
to the erosion of craft skills and to the growing division of labor
that came to characterize the factory.
While mechanization of production generated a dynamic of expansion,
it did not act alone in the transformation of the shoe industry. Rather,
it operated as a catalyst within a complex web of market and managerial
forces that functioned together to create a factory system. As one scholar
has argued, centralization of shoe production inside of factories arose
mainly "because industrial organization, in order to secure uniformity
of output, economy of time, labor and stock, demanded foremen to superintend,
and regular hours of steady work on the part of the men and women employed
in all processes of shoemaking."Yet,
in spite of the technological dynamic that new machines created and
the imperatives of industrial organization, centralization of production
did not occur overnight. What stands out in the evolution of the shoe
industry between 1850 and 1890, is the uneven, often chaotic, mix of
old and new, of custom and innovation. While some shops hastily adopted
new technology, others continued to rely heavily on hand labor. Though
a number of manufacturers built large factories and quickly centralized
production, many did not, and persisted in farming out various tasks
to subcontractors. The decisions made by manufacturers were based on
many factors: their conservatism, the resistance of their workers, the
cost of innovation, the size of the enterprise, the specialization of
the shop. In Binghamton, and particularly in the Lester shop, the growth
of a centralized factory system occurred slowly and at an uneven pace.
The Lester factory began as a custom shop, in 1854, with only
a handful of employees. A year later, it was employing some two dozen
workers, making it the largest manufacturing firm in Binghamton.Through the 1850s and
1860s, the firm continued to expand to meet increasing demand, moving
from one location to another as available working space proved insufficient.
Almost all of the work was done by hand, with only a few foot-powered
devices, mainly stitching machines, in the shop. In 1860, the firm employed 55 workers, 45
men and 10 women. It was manufacturing one hundred dozen pairs of boots
and shoes a week. The growing
market for heavy boots created by the Civil War led to to a rapid increase
in both output and workforce, and shifted emphasis to the manufacture
of boots, at the expense of shoes. By 1865, the firm had moved to a
new building. Production was tripled and additional machinery, mainly
upper leather stitching machines, was purchased. The proportion of women
in the firm's workforce declined, due to both the increasing number
of stitching machines and the emphasis on boot manufacturing, which
involved heavier stitching work—considered men's work. Not until the
late 1880s would their representation in the factory labor force appreciably
increase. But, while the number and proportion of women in the shop
decreased, the overall size of the workforce rose. In 1865, the firm
employed around 120 workers. The anticipation of further expansion soon
led to plans for the construction of a new factory.
Even as the workforce grew and output was increased, centralization
of production came slowly. Following a pattern that was widespread at
the time, shoe manufacturing in Binghamton in the middle of the century
was distributed among various shops and sub-contractors. In the late
1860s, the Lester factory concentrated on manufacturing the uppers of
boots and the bottom stock and shipped both to a nearby contracting shop which specialized in lasting and finishing. This practice was
probably an outgrowth of earlier divisions of labor organized around
"teams" or "gangs." According to one student of the industry, a team
consisted of a number of workers, "each performing a particular process,
the whole team producing an entire shoe. On the other hand, a team might
consist of a group of men all experts upon a single process. Such a
team was known usually as a 'gang.' A gang of bottomers, for instance,
often went from factory to factory, or from employer to employer, having
a contract with each to bottom all the shoes in process of making."
Taking charge and supervising a "team" or "gang,"
the contractor would make contact and obtain contracts with manufacturers.
He generally received a certain percentage of the negotiated contract
price, which varied with the wages he paid his workers. There were all
sorts of variations in the way the system worked, but the pattern was
the same. In spite of all the forces at work consolidating and centralizing
production in factories, the contracting system continued to exist through
the latter decades of the century, sustained by custom. Certainly, sufficient
economic and social incentives existed for its elimination and for the
establishment of direct management of workers by manufacturers through
the use of foremen.
But custom was strong enough to weather the many conflicts and
inefficiencies that accompanied the contracting system. Though
the practice of contracting existed, in one form or another, for over
three-quarters of a century, competitive market conditions exacerbated
its more exploitative aspects in the decades between 1860 and 1890.
Competitive bidding between contractors for jobs often led to increasing
exploitation of employees, as bosses tried to compensate for low bids
by reducing wages of workers or by replacing skilled ex-artisans by
less experienced operatives or "green hands." Such practices
met considerable worker resistance.
"The time is coming," wrote a Binghamton shoemaker in 1869,
"when laborers will command that respect of which contractors and
greedy capitalists have so long robbed them¾and Crispins claim that labor
is their capital, and they, as men, will use it to the best of their
advantage to gain for themselves respectable positions in society to
which they, as American citizens, are entitled.” The statement was written in the wake of a
strike, led by the local Binghamton lodge of the Knights of St. Crispin,
against the Lester shop. The strike itself was not a major event in
either Binghamton history or the history of the Lester shop, but it
does provide us with an indirect opportunity to examine in some detail
the sort of transformations that the Binghamton shoe industry was undergoing
and it does offer us some insight into the impact of these transformations
on the generation of shoemakers who were experiencing the coming of
the factory system.
According to an early student of the Knights of St. Crispin,
Don D. Lescohier, the underlying causes of the Binghamton strike were
the same as those which had brought about the formation of the Knights
of St. Crispin in the first place: the growing encroachments of machinery
and unskilled labor on the status, position, and autonomy of skilled
shoeworkers. Noting the provision in the Crispin constitution which
sought to limit the entry of "green hands" into the trade,
Lescohier identified the Binghamton strike as a typical case of an attempt
to enforce this provision. The introduction of new technology
and the evolving division of labor in factories allowed manufacturers
to segment jobs and to substitute relatively unskilled operatives for
skilled workers, and in the process, to reduce wages. The spread of
such practices finally led to collective action by shoeworkers:
The shoe industry at the end of the war was evidently in a most
chaotic condition. Hand and machine labor was competing fiercely for
the market; and an oversupply of labor was seeking employment. Markets
were lessened though factories had become larger and more numerous.
Unskilled labor was on the machines. Wages were uncertain and falling,
employment irregular and uncertain. Large manufacturers were reducing
wages to increase their competitive advantage, small manufacturers to
save themselves from bankruptcy. Out of this chaos came the Knights
of St. Crispin, the protest of fifty thousand shoemakers against their
The spread of the Knights was nothing less than lightning-like,
reaching almost every major shoe manufacturing community in the nation,
and a number of not-so-major centers. When and how the Crispins first
organized in Binghamton is uncertain. Also uncertain is the extent of
their organization in the late 1860s. Whatever the particular origin
of the local Crispin order, in 1869 it was present and active in Binghamton
and about to take on the community's largest shoe manufacturer. In the
second week of August of 1869, six lasters approached their shop bosses,
contractors for the Lesters, and demanded an increase in their wages. They claimed that other lasters in the city were receiving far
more than they were and that Buckman and Benson, the two contractors,
were exploiting them. The contractors refused the men's demand and the
six of them quit. An officer of the local Crispin lodge, when questioned by a Binghamton reporter,
declared that only four lasters left their work and that they left because
of their "dislike to working with men whom shoeworkers denominate
'scabs'!" Whether the lasters quit because of wages or because of working
with "scabs," it is clear that their action did not provoke
a general strike. The local Crispin organization did not call out the
rest of the men in the shop, because, as one Crispin put it, "our
constitution and by-laws will show that we do not favor or uphold strikes.” In fact, Crispins had no inhibitions about
using strikes to better their condition. The remark was probably made
to gain public support.
The Crispin officer, cited above, was careful to note that the
laster's behavior was "not 'sustained' by the Order, although their
action in this particular is endorsed.”
While the laster's unsatisfied demands from the contractors
had not led to a strike, what did finally provoke a strike was the subsequent
actions of Buckman and Benson: "Buckman and Benson have set at work
ten or twelve green hands in the place of the men who quit work. This
is entirely Crispin principles. The men throughout the shop feel aggrieved,
not only because it is detrimental to the Crispin order, but because
it is hurtful to the shoe making trade thoughout the country, as it
floods the market with poor work, and throws good workmen out of employment.
. . . Now if Lester Brothers' would pay the men the price they pay these
contractors, and deduct from that price sufficient to pay a foreman
to take charge of the work, it would no doubt satisfy the men . . ."
Clearly, the introduction of "green hands"reflected
an attempt on the part of the contractors to reduce costs and maximize
profits at the expense of skilled workers. The Crispins, apparently
blind to the general forces that were increasingly converting former
artisans to factory operatives, merely appealed to the Lesters to rid
themselves of Buckman and Benson and to replace them with a foreman,
thereby eliminating two middle-men. The firm would save money and would
be able to increase the wages of the lasters.
The fundamental issue underlying the conflict in the Lester
shop in 1869 was control, whether voiced as a conflict over wages, "green
hands" or exploitative contractors. That was clear to both George and Horace Lester when they announced to
the local papers that they "claim simply the right to run their
shop in their own way.”
Control, in the context of industrial capitalism, meant regulation
of space, time, technology, wages, and the rituals of work, all of which
were coming to rest in the hands of manufacturers like the Lesters.
It is ironic that while the Crispins were reacting against one particularly
oppressive aspect of an evolving factory system, they were suggesting
a solution which would come to represent merely another phase of regimentation,
centralization, and loss of control over skill. But at this early stage
of factory building, the potential abuses of foremanship were dwarfed
by the immediate experience of an exploitative contracting system. The
Lester factory strike was by no means an isolated event in the late
1860s and 1870s, nor was its underlying cause unique. A number of New
York Crispin strikes dealt with issues related to contracting, particularly
in 1870. In Rochester, for example, six hundred members of the local
Crispin lodge successfully struck and did away with the contracting
system in that city. Although the constitution of the International
Grand Lodge did not contain an explicit prohibition of the practice,
by 1870 the New York lodge added a provision to its by-laws which forbade
Crispins from making "any percentage on the labor of another."
With some exceptions, the Crispins were generally unsuccessful
in overthrowing the contracting system and in halting the replacement
of skilled Crispins by "green hands." In Binghamton, unskilled
workers (and later immigrants) continued to make their way into the
city's factories and it would be another decade before Lester factory
contractors would be replaced by foremen. The Binghamton Crispins were
not destined to see it through. The International Order of the Knights
of St. Crispin declined just as rapidly as it grew, disappearing almost
entirely by1873, a year that marked the beginning of a major national
depression. Along with the International Order went the
Binghamton local. The issue of "green hands" continued to figure in both local
and national disputes as skilled workers persisted in their efforts
to halt the erosion of their skills and status by limiting access to
jobs and machinery. The solution to the exploitative practice of subcontracting
offered by the Binghamton Crispins, namely, the substitution of foremen
for contractors, was widely adopted in due time as the imperatives of
centralization and factory rationalization became more pronounced under
the pressure of expanding markets and competition. But its adoption
came slowly and unevenly, and contracting continued to survive within
factories. As late as the 1880s, subcontractors were still operating
in such places as Philadelphia and Albany. As one student of shoe industry
unionism noted, “[In Philadelphia it] had been customary for the manufacturer
to pay the contractor, who also acted as a foreman, a specified amount
for getting out a certain number of pairs of shoes. In order to get
work the workmen were obliged to tip the contractor. The best and most
steady work went to the one who gave the highest tips. Contractors often
made as much as $300 a week in this way. Only with the rise of the Knights
of Labor in the 1880s did Philadelphia contractors confront an opponent
powerful enough to overthrow them. In other cities, meanwhile, they
were able to weather the challenges of labor organizations. In Albany,
foremen-contractors were still operating in the late 1880s, receiving
a cut of their workers' wages. Vestiges of the
contracting system persisted in many factories through the 1890s, with
foremen, as contractors before them, receiving wages based on production.
In Binghamton, at least within the Lester factory, the practice seems
to have died out by the early 1880s.
Through the 1870s, the Lester factory slowly took on more and more
work that previously had been contracted out. Some time around 1874,
the Blackmer shop, the Lesters' major contractor, specializing in finishing
and lasting, was absorbed into the main
factory. By the early 1880s, around the time when Horace
Lester died, the firm of Lester Bros. & Company was producing over
seventy-two thousand pairs of boots a year and employing as many as
120 workers during the peak working season, a fair sized factory when
one considers that the American shoe factory of the time employed about
57 workers. All production was now superintended by foremen, paid in weekly wages,
and carried on entirely within the factory, a large four-story structure
located in the center of Binghamton's commercial district. The
elimination of the firm's subcontractors and the establishment of a
unified locus of production prepared the way for further mechanization
Horace Lester's death in 1882 created a void in the firm's
management which was quickly filled by his son, G. Harry Lester. George W. Lester,
Horace's brother, had recently retired, and his son, Richard W. Lester, soon joined Harry -- but apparently not at the helm of the firm. According to Richard's great granddaughter, Patricia Sweeney, "Richard worked for a subsidiary company, not for the shoe co. as such. My impression is that he had a weak, melancholy character, thus was no match for his cousin G. Harry, & let G. Harry do what he wanted to."
G. Harry Lester took control of the firm
at an opportune moment. The company, like many others, was just emerging from the depths
of depression.The hopes for expansion, kindled by the Civil War
economy, had been dashed in the crash of 1873 and in the subsequent
depression. But in 1882, prospects seemed bright. The revival of the
economy brought an increase of orders from national retail outlets,
such as Montgomery Wards. The firm, under the vigorous and aggressive
policies of G. Harry Lester, began a decade of rapid expansion. The
extent of the company's growth during the 1880s can be measured in rising
employment statistics and in the growing presence of new machinery.
Between the mid-1860s and 1880, rarely did the workforce surpass 120
in number. Yet, in the decade of the '80s, it rose from an average of
95 in 1880 to 425 in 1889, more than quadrupling. By 1889, the Lester
shop was one of the largest factories in Binghamton.
size of the female labor force, which had been declining in the 1860s
and 1870s, also began to grow, reflecting the increasing demand for
stitchers and low-paid operatives. In 1880, women had made up around
5% of the workforce (5 out of 95). In 1887, one year after New York
State initiated factory inspections, about 15% of the firm's employees
were women (41 out of 281). Their numbers fluctuated during the next
three years and then suddenly took off. In 1890, only four years later,
women made up approximately 26% of the total labor force (125 out of
475). Women generally took over low paying positions as stitching machine
operators, lining makers, heel blackers and graders, and finishing room
workers. The influx of workers, both male and female, coincided with a rapid
mechanization of production, beginning in the early 1880s. The 1880 federal Census of Manufactures listed
only eight sewing machines in the firm's inventory of hardware, and
no pegging or screwing machines--generally used in the manufacture of
heavy boots. A small 6 horsepower steam-powered engine was sufficient to provide power for all
of the firm's mechanical devices. A survey of the factory taken in November
of 1882, however, disclosed a far larger power source, suggesting the
introduction of new machinery as well as the adaptation of foot-powered
devices to steam power.
The recollections of an old shoemaker in 1919 suggest something of
the variety of the new devices that were introduced into the Lester
factory and that were increasingly becoming typical of the shoe industry
in the 1880s: “While yet in the Henry street plant we had
the Copeland lasting machine, a heeling machine, pegging machine, leveling
machine, a foot-power heel breasting and hand-power heel trimming machine.
Power was furnished by a 40 H.P. upright steam boiler, located on next
to the top floor and leather trimmings formed a large portion of the
fuel. With expanding production, a growing inventory of machinery and a rapidly
multiplying workforce, the firm found itself, once again, searching
for more spacious quarters. It found them. But not in Binghamton.
In 1888, Lester decided to build a new factory two miles west of
the city. Most likely, his decision was based on pragmatic considerations
as avoidance of burdensome city taxes and expectations of profiting
from land sales of inflated property--property inflated by the mere
presence of his factory. But perhaps labor considerations also played
a role. The model of a factory town was a familiar one at the time,
though viewed with some skepticism by the general public. The single-industry
boom towns scattered throughout the country, or Pullman's "ideal
community," suggested the possibilities inherent in such schemes.
The former represented repression, exploitation, class war, and tyranny;
the latter, benevolence, enlightened capitalism, class harmony and uplift.
The public perception of Lester's plan illustrate some of the class
anxieties that were characteristic of the local citizenry, particularly
the middle class, in the latter decades of the century. It suggests
that the Pullman model was far more dominant in their imaginations than
the less benign factory town. The reality, however, as with Pullman,
was far less benevolent.
The Binghamton press, in both descriptive reports and promotional
advertisements, praised the civic and moral qualities inherent in Lester's
planned factory community. Here would be a modest population of workers,
living, in a community controlled by a well-respected capitalist, determined
to provide the benefits and guidance of a middle class life to his operatives.
It would be "Real Philanthropy," as one paper headline suggested,
a community where the harsher elements of modern urban and industrial
life would be eliminated.
In laying out such a plan there are many things to be thought
of. In case of women and children, there are no railroads to cross,
no unpleasant parts of the city to pass over . . . . this tract was
bought simply with a view to establish a place where all people or anyone
desiring a good home with all that pertains to it, could have it at
a very low price. No liquor will be sold on the premises, and no lots
sold with that privilege.
A library building will be built with a free library, reading room
and public above, school house, etc. In that no expense will be spared
to make a pleasant home and furnish entertainment for all outside of
business hours....Tea will be made and served at one penny a cup, and
he [Lester] thinks he can furnish milk to all at two cents a quart.
Coal will be shipped direct from the mines, and an effort will be made
to furnish the necessities of life at the lowest possible cost.
Themes of paternalism and security, civility and safety, a disdain
for the worst qualities of urban living and the harsh realities of a market
economy tended to characterize this and other descriptions of Lester's
plans. These themes were continually repeated in the latter part of the
nineteenth century in the writings of social critics and moralists. They
reflected anxieties over the social cost of a rapidly expanding industrial
order, anxieties that led many to formulate visions of alternative industrial
communities, in the form of literary utopias, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward,
or in the form of "ideal" communities, like Pullman's famed
town. But more often than not, in practice, the anxieties over the expansion
of industrialism and the growth of an uncontrollable working class led
to the rise of factory towns--small, grey, lifeless communities, created
and dominated by visions of wealth, power, or distorted fatherhood.
Lester's community, though seemingly striving for high utopian
ideals, in practice came to resemble the typical factory town.In 1888,
Lester had his agent, superintendent Joseph Diment, buy several parcels
of land in the vicinity of his planned community, and he himself acquired
additional acreage. Whether this surreptitious purchase was accomplished
to avoid arousing the suspicions of potential sellers who might inflate
prices, or merely to get around the hostility of the local farmers to
factories is uncertain. Whatever the reason, Lester quickly had the
tract surveyed, parcelled, and laid out as a village. He began construction
of a home for himself, a "spacious residence," and offered
lots for sale to the general public.
Lester arranged a number of well publicized land auctions, most of
which were directed to "investors" rather than to workers.
A typical advertisement for these auctions read as follows:
Parties having money to invest can find no
better place to do it than Lester-Shire.
Property in the western part
of Binghamton is rapidly increasing in value and houses
cost can find ready renters at good rates in Lester-Shire. This is no western boom, but a healthy growth with
everything in the line of
business to back it up.
To attract merchants and professionals, and the well-to-do middle
class in general, it was necessary to convince Binghamton's finest citizens that Lester-Shire would not go the way
of many boom towns, with their rough and undisciplined working class.
These fears were addressed in advertisements such as the following:
The employes of Lester and Co.'s boot and shoe factory
are a steady, industrious, intelligent lot of men and women, many of whom
have already erected handsome and comfortable homes near the factory and
whose example has been followed by others, who are now preparing their
plans or breaking grounds for dwellings. Such a class of men and women
are a blessing in any community, and everyone in these parts thoroughly
appreciates the energy and enterprise of Mr. G. Harry Lester, through
whose efforts so many have been afforded employment and the comforts of
Lester's land sales were gala events, with music, refreshments, and
a generally festive spirit. "The band would play a lively air and
the sale wagon could be seen moving through the tall grass and brush,
followed with a mixed crowd of men, women and children." The
festivities, with all the pleasure they may have given their audiences,
also functioned to hide a malevolent feature of Lester's speculations. Lester was enterprising indeed. If investors failed to buy his
lots, he found other ways to sell them, ways which soon put the lie to
any idealistic features his schemes might have had.
About the first thing that Harry Lester undertook to do, when he
came to Lester-Shire and built the factory and wanted to sell lots, was
to promise work to those who would come and buy lots of his real estate
agent. He then undertook to compel working people to patronize stores
and hire houses which had been built by those people who were induced
to come there, under the promise that they would be protected in that
A view of Lestershire as it might have looked in 1895. Drawing by S. J. Kelley, E.J. Workers' Review Vol 1:8 (Oct., 1918): 47.
Indeed, the authoritarian aspects of Lester's community were soon
demonstrated. In September of 1891, a number of men employed by the Lester-Shire
factory were discharged. Local papers reported their number at anywhere
from thirty-five to a hundred and noted that the men asserted that they
were "discharged because they do not own property in Lester-Shire."
The only explanation the firm offered, however, was that business was
slack. Company officers never answered the charge of selective discharge.
Work and community had thus become united under coercive
auspices. Lester's town was going the way of countless other exploited
Lester's quest for profits and the immense expense of the construction
project forced him to seek additional capital, and
ultimately led to the transformation of what had been a family firm into
a stock company. In March of 1890, local papers announced that Lester-Shire, land
and factory, would be purchased by a syndicate and would be reorganized
as the Lester-Shire Boot and Shoe Company, while Lester and Co. would
retain control of the factory's jobbing trade. On March 31, the new firm was incorporated,
establishing a main office in Lester-Shire and a district office in New
York City. G. Harry Lester became president as well as general supervisor
of the New York office. The secretary and treasurer of the reorganized
firm was W.D. Brewster, who had been connected with Lester's business
for a decade. G.S. Ackley, who had earlier superintended the construction
of the factory, took charge of the real estate interests of the new firm,
which included approximately 170 acres of land in Lester-Shire. With the
promise of new capital, plans were soon made to grade the streets around
the factory and to add on a 300 foot extension, as well as additional
office space. Local papers reported favorably on the progress of the company
and community. As the Democratic
Weekly Leader noted, “The recent incorporation of the company has
given an impetus to the industries of Lester-Shire. The company proposes
to make generous inducements to foreign interests to locate there. With
influential and moneyed men at its head and a paid up capital of $600,000 back of the concern and the knowledge that more can be
easily obtained, it is safe to predict a phenomenal success for the company
and for Lester-Shire.
Lester-Shire indeed attracted its share of "influential and moneyed
men." It had become, in the words of Grover Cleveland's private secretary,
"just what the moneyed people want--a business of character and standing
where they can invest their surplus." Among the new firm's major stockholders were: ex-secretary
of the Navy William Collins Whitney, who hobnobbed with the rich and mighty
and whose sons married into the Vanderbilt and Hay families; Ohio senator
Henry B. Payne, who had extensive connections with the Standard Oil Company
and whose son, Oliver H. Payne, was the treasurer of Standard Oil; and
Daniel Scott Lamont, private secretary and close confidant of Grover Cleveland,
destined to serve as Secretary of War during Cleveland's second Presidential
term. Serving on its Board of Directors was Charles S. Fairchild, ex-secretary
of the Treasury and president of the New York Trust Company.
Soon after its formation, the syndicate devised a scheme to attract
new enterprises to the community, a plan which guaranteed that the corporation
would both profit from and continue to control the economy of Lester-Shire.
The scheme was described to a reporter by Daniel Lamont: “The company
at first requires the assurance that the proposed industry has done an
annual business, for several years, of $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000. If this can be
confirmed by the company's accountants, a stock company is at once formed
and the Lester-Shire company takes $25,000 or $50,000 worth of stock in the new concern, which thus is given
an added capital to develop its business. All the management of this corporation
wants is to be assured that their money is safely invested, an unlimited
capital is at its command. But a
safe investment was not to be had in Lester-Shire. Almost immediately,
the syndicate's fortunes were imperiled.
The Lester Boot and Shoe Company had looked forward to a period of
rapid expansion. Instead, it confronted depression. The depression of
1893 came early to Lester-Shire. The anticipation of continuing rapid
growth, one that the firm had grown accustomed to through the 1880s, was
frustrated. Instead, orders decreased and workers were laid off. The firm’s
labor force had reached an all-time high of around 475 in 1890, now began
to decline. In 1891, the average size of the workforce shrank to 425.
In 1892, it remained at that figure. And in 1893, it dipped to 400. Lester’s growing neglect of the business
also compounded the firm’s poor fortunes. In the fall of 1890 and through
1891, G. Harry Lester became increasingly involved in land speculation.
After his initial, though short-lived, success with Lester-Shire property,
he began to purchase land for a development in Yonkers, New York. But
his shady financial dealings soon precipitated a law suit against him
by one of his partners. Although Lester denied the charges of embezzlement,
a subsequent court decision confirmed his partner's accusations. On February
17, 1893, a judgement was reached against Lester in the amount of $67,525 for embezzlement of funds from the Nepera Land Co. of Yonkers.
By the fall of 1891, the condition of the firm seems to have greatly
worsened. Plans for a re-incorporation of the business were made. In December
of 1891, the local papers announced that the "Lester boot and shoe
factory of Lester-Shire and the Lester & Co. jobbing house of this
city will cease to exist as two separate firms after January 1." The papers explained
that the reorganization was undertaken in order to "strengthen the
financial resources" of the factory. On January 11, 1892,
the Lestershire Manufacturing Company, the new name of the firm, assumed
control of the jobbing trade, real estate, and factory of the two former
firms. Financed by large western shoe manufacturers as well as by several
Boston businessmen, the company was able to temporarily weather very lean
times. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1892, the company again faced
a financial crisis. The business was on the verge of total collapse. In
fact, papers reported that it had failed and that creditors were attempting
to locate Lester in order to retrieve their investments. The factory actually closed
its doors for a few weeks. Only the hasty salvage operation of Henry B.
Endicott of Boston, a major stockholder and head of the Commonwealth Shoe
and Leather Company, was able to save the firm. Once again the firm was
reorganized, with Endicott as treasurer. George F. Johnson, who had been
the firm's assistant superintendent since 1887 and who had recently been
chosen by Lester to replace his unsuccessful general manager, was retained
by Endicott. Endicott's reorganization of 1892-3 created two companies,
the Lestershire Manufacturing Company, which retained its predecessor's
name, and the Lestershire Boot and Shoe Company. The latter corporation
held ownership of the factory buildings and land while the former took
over the manufacturing end of the business.
Lester's place in all of these events and in subsequent developments
is not at all clear. What is certain is that his connection with the business
was soon severed. Throughout this period, both before and after the firm's
reorganization, Endicott had been lending Lester money and buying up his
notes from other creditors, in anticipation of taking over his remaining
interest in the firm. With Lester's monetary stake
in the Lestershire Manufacturing Company declining, Endicott increased
his involvement with the concern, dealing with its financial interests
out of a Boston office, while Johnson took charge of the daily management
of the factory in Lester-Shire. The two men, destined soon to be partners,
thus began three decades of collaboration.
Smith, ed. History of Broome County (Syracuse, N.Y., 1885), 216,244,255; George
F. Johnson to the Morning Sun,
September 7, 1922, Box 6, George F. Johnson Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University. Johnson recalls
Lester's funeral in this letter.
 See, for example, the obituary in the Binghamton Daily Leader, October 2, 1882.
 William S. Lawyer, ed. Binghamton: Its Settlement, Growth and Development and the Factors in
Its History, 1800-1900 (Binghamton,N.Y., 1900), 477, 909; Lester-Shire News, April 11, 1891. Another
member of the firm was Henry A. Goff, a young man who had accompanied
Horace Lester from Connecticut and who became the firm's primary salesman
in the 1850s and through the 1870s. In 1877, he left the Lesters and
became a partner in another local shoe firm, Stone, Goff _& Company.
 On the establishment of the shoe
industry in Binghamton see Lawyer, Binghamton,
477-478; H.P. Smith, ed., History
of Broome County (Syracuse, N.Y., 1885), 255-256; William Foote
Seward, Ed. Binghamton and Broome County New York: A History,
Vol 2 (New York, 1924), 412; Dennis P. Kelly, "The Contrasting
Industrial Structures of Johnstown, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y., 1850-1880"
(Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1977),
46-51, and passim.
 United States, Bureau of the Census, Eleventh Census of the United States, 1890:Population\&,
I, 283; Eighth Census, Population of the United States in 1860, 329.
N. Johnson, Sketches of Lynn or The Changes of Fifty Years (Lynn, Mass., 1880),
18-21. Information on the early technological developments in the
shoe industry can be found in Frederick J. Allen, The
Shoe Industry (New York, 1922) and in Blanche Evans Hazard, The Organization of the Boot and Shoe Industry
in Massachusetts before 1875 (Cambridge, Mass., 1921).
 Edith Abbott, Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History (New York,
1910), 167. "Binding" was the term employed in the nineteenth
century to describe the process of stitching the uppers of shoes.
"Uppers" referred to the portion of the shoe above the sole
and included vamps, quarters, back stays and collars. A short
shoe trade dictionary can be found in Allen, Shoe Industry, 380-396. See also The Shoe and Leather Lexicon published in various editions by the
Boot and Shoe Recorder Publishing Co. (Boston, 1926).
 Abbott, Women
in Industry, 166. The proportion continued to decline until the
1880s. The widespread adoption of the stitching machine in Lynn, Massachusetts,
where women had traditionally been heavily represented in the shoe
industry, was an important factor in provoking one of the largest
strikes in the Nation's history, in 1860. On the strike see Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge,
Mass., 1976), 77-89, and Paul G. Faler, Mechanics
and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts,
1780-1860 (Albany, New York, 1981), 222-233.
 The name of the stitcher and process
("McKay stitching") came from its manufacturer and merchandizer
rather than from its inventor. Lyman R. Blake, a Massachusetts shoemaker,
actually invented the stitcher in 1858. It was further refined by
Robert Mathias and finally marketed by Colonel Gordon McKay. McKay,
rather than sell the machine outright, initiated a leasing arrangement
whereby manufacturers paid on the basis of production, at a per-piece
price. This royalty system was an important factor leading to the
machine's widespread acceptance, as industrialists did not need to
make any initial capital investments and took no financial risk in
utilizing the new device. The practice of machine leasing became widespread
in the shoe industry and continued well into the twentieth century,
making the trade highly competitive. Entrepreneurs, with little capital,
could easily set up shop. Allen, The
Shoe Industry, 45, 60-61; Hazard, Organization
of the Boot and Shoe Industry, 11, 245-6; Hoover, Jr., Location Theory, 163.
 Johnson, Sketches of Lynn, 343-344. This may have been an exaggeration, but
not a large one. See United States Department of Labor, Thirteenth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, "Hand
and Machine Labor," Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C., 1899), 119.
 Dawley, Class
and Community, 93-94.
 Excellent surveys of boot and
shoemaking machinery and techniques can be found in John Bedford Meno's The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical
Handbook (London, 1887); in George A. Rich, "Manufacture
of Boots and Shoes", Popular
Science Monthly 41(August, 1892), 496-515; and in Allen, Shoe
Industry, Chapter 2. Recent and not-so-recent treatments of the
Lynn Shoe Industry in the nineteenth century deal with the impact
of technology and factories on workers. See, for example, Alan Dawley, Class and Community, Chapter
3; William H. Mulligan, Jr. "Mechanization of Work in the American
Shoe Industry: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1852-1883," Journal of Economic History, 41(March,
1981), 59-63; Johnson, Sketches
News, April 11, 1891;
United States, Census of Manufactures (Manuscript), 1860; E.-J. Workers' Review 1(August, 1919), 53; "Lester Brothers
Shoe Company," Broome County Historical Society library files.
Daily Democrat, September
6, 1869; E.-J. Workers' Review,
1(December, 1919), 16.
 Don D. Lescohier, The Knights of St. Crispin, 1864-1874, Bulletin of the University
of Wisconsin, No. 355, (Madison, Wisc., 1910), 29. Lescohier's description
of the Crispins followed closely that of his mentor, John R. Commons.
See John R. Commons, "American Shoemakers, 1648-1895: A Sketch
of Industrial Evolution," Quarterly
Journal of Economics 24 (November, 1909), 39-83. For a somewhat
different view of the importance of the "green hands" issue
for the Knights of St. Crispin, see Dawley, Class and Community, 143-148, and John
P. Hall, "The Knights of St. Crispin in Massachusetts, 1869-1878," Journal of Economic History 18 (June, 1958),
Daily Democrat, September
6, 1869. A notice of the strike appeared in the Binghamton Daily Republican, September 3, 1869. The Daily Republican noted that "this time the strike is general
and among the Knights employed there, but only a small portion of
their hands were members of the order."
 “Constitution of New York State
Lodge of the Knights of St. Crispin,” Art. XV, 20, cited in Lescohier, Knights of St. Crispin, 48. The International
constitution did contain the following provision, inserted in 1872:
"Your committee censure the system of a Crispin making a profit
on the labor of a Brother Crispin,
as contrary to the spirit of Crispinism, but consider it impracticable
for the I.G.L. [International Grand Lodge] to frame a law governing
the case, we therefore recommend this I.G.L. to instruct subordinant
Lodges to insert an article in their by-laws suitable to their different
localities." Cited in Lescohier, 48.
 In the late 1870s, an attempt
was made to revive it. The second Knights of St. Crispin was far smaller
and more conservative than the first, and did not last very long.
It was probably absorbed by the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. See
Lescohier, Knights of St. Crispin, 56-59. The Shoe Workers' Journal 11 (May, 1910),
 Although it is very difficult to prove (since membership lists are
not available), many Binghamton Crispins, as was the case in Cincinnati,
probably joined the local assembly of the Knights of
Labor. Local Assembly 2186 was active in Binghamton throughout the
1880s and into the early 1890s. In 1883, an independent Assembly was
formed, breaking away from Local Assembly 2186. See Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859 to 1889 (Columbus, Ohio, 1890), 192, 568-573;
Osterud, "Mechanics, Operatives and Laborers," Working Lives, 99. Binghamton papers periodically
made mention of the activities of the local Knights of Labor, particularly
during periods of labor strife.
 Augusta E. Galster, The Labor Movement in the Shoe Industry (New York, 1924), 54-55.
 New York State, First Annual Report of the Board of Mediation and Arbitration, 1887
(Albany, 1888), 22,28,42,73.
 Undated clipping in Frederick
Wallace Putnam Document Collection, Vol. 77, p. 166, Binghamton Public
Library; E-J Workers Review, 1(May, 1919), 24-25.
 "Lot Surveys," Box 32,
George F. Johnson Papers; United States Census
of Manufactures (Manuscript), 1880.
 Lawyer, Binghamton,
650-651. Binghamton Press,
April 11, 1914.
Daily Republican, January
14, 1890. See also June 3, 1890, June 11, 1890 and August 31, 1891
for more examples.
 Binghamton Daily Republican,
June 4, 1890.
Workers Magazine, 4
(September, 1925), np. This is George F. Johnson's recollection of
Weekly Leader, April
 W. Lester, an original partner in the Lester Co. and a distinguished
financier in his own right, had apparently been instrumental in bringing
these men together and in arranging the transfer of the firm to a
syndicate. Democratic Weekly Leader, April 11, 1890. Dumas Malone, Ed. Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1933), XX, 165-166; XIV,
325-326; X, 563-564; VI, 251-252.
 From 1894 and well into the early
years of the century, the workforce steadily increased, nearing 2000
at the turn of the century. New York State, Report
of the Factory Inspector, 5th through 15th Annual Reports (Albany,
Weekly Leader, December
Record, March 26, 1897.
The only surviving copy of this issue available is in the Broome County
Historical Society Library.
 George F. Johnson to G. Harry
Lester, March 12, 1928, Box 9, George F. Johnson Papers;
Biographical Review [Binghamton], (Boston, 1894), 91-92; Binghamton Sun, November 29, 1948; Binghamton Republican, March 17, 1897; Binghamton Evening Herald, March 17, 1897.