Origin, Growth and Methods of the Glove 
and Mitten Manufacture of Fulton County

 

Northrup Brothers ~ W. S. & M. S. Northrup & Co., Johnstown

The Glovers of Fulton County - a link to a SUNY project


A stranger entering Gloversville or Johnstown cannot fail to notice immediately that he is in the presence of a remarkable development of the glove and mitten manufacture.  Sign boards, advertising this business, confront him at every turn and almost every step, even among private residences and out of business portions of these villages.  A considerable proportion of the persons and vehicles he meets are carrying gloves or mittens, in some state of their progress from the whole hide to the market;  while the most imposing industrial establishments are the skin mills, with their odoriferous product flapping on trellises in the yards, and the extensive factories.......

The origin of this great manufacturing interest of the county, which has grown to such proportions as to overshadow all its other industries, is shrouded in some uncertainty.  Authorities differ as to the person to whom is due the greater portion of the credit for establishing the business, owing to the variance in tradition, and family rivalry; but the following account is believed to be as correct as can be obtained.  The business started as such, at Kingsboro, in the year 1809.  That village and the surrounding country were originally settled by people from New England, many of whom were skilled  in the manufacture of tin.  They were of genuine Yankee stock, cute and industrious, and unlike their Dutch neighbors along the Mohawk, took more naturally to manufactures and trade than to farming.  Hence they were accustomed to manufacture tin, load a horse with it, and leading the beast up the Mohawk and "Chenango country", as it was then called, would exchange tin-ware for wheat, peltry, and almost any products which they needed or could readily sell.  The deerskins, one of which they generally bought for a medium price sized tin basin, were sometimes rather a burden, for they were not used for much else than jackets and "breeches", being prized more particularly for the latter purpose in those days of comparative poverty, economy and hard work.

The inhabitants had learned to tan the skins for clothing, according to the Indian process, using the brain of the deer itself, when convenient, but at this time often substituting  the brains of hogs for that purpose.  It is said that the brain of a deer will tan the hide, containing as it does the same elements as the soda ash "fat liquor" in use at the present day.  Occasionally a little of what purports to be genuine Indian leather strays into Gloversville and is cut into gloves, which sell at fancy prices, more as a curiosity than anything else, as the material is really much inferior to the leather produced by modern and civilized processes.  Ezekiel Case, and perhaps others,  made mittens from this "Indian tanned" leather, as it was called, which must not be confounded with the leather bearing the same name of which large quantities are now made.

About 1809, Tallamadge Edwards, father of Daniel Edwards of Johnstown, formerly a leather-dresser in England, once well-to-do but then in reduced circumstances, moved from Massachusetts to Johnstown.  In that year, James Burr (father of H. L. & J. H. Burr) and W. C. Mills (father of D. C. Mills) hired Edwards to come to Kingsboro and teach them his art of dressing leather.  Mr. Burr in 1809 made up a few pair of mittens, which he took up the Mohawk and bartered off.  In the following year he made a considerable number and sold at least part of them by the dozen, the first transaction of the kind.  He subsequently made material improvements in the process of dressing skins, the most noticeable of which was the invention of the "bucktail", for which he received a patent.  The apparatus is still in use, but the invention, like many others, proved rather a loss than otherwise to the inventor.

At this time, and much later, no gloves were manufactured, but only rough heavy mittens, which were needed to protect the hands of farmers and woodmen in cold and heavy labor.  Even the leather was produced up to quite a recent date was unfit for the manufacture of gloves, being too heavy and stiff.  As lately as about thirty years ago, it is said, gloves were seldom cut, except an occasional pair, taken from the thinnest and most pliable parts of the skins.  Gloves were originally cut, it is s said, by laying a pasteboard pattern on the leather and following it with the shears.  But very indifferent progress could be made in that way with the elastic leather now in use, and this fact shows the difference in quality quite distinctly.  E. P. Newton started, in 1859, the first general machine works in Fulton county for the manufacture  of glove and mitten cutting machines.  He is at present engaged in the business at Gloversville.  The goods made in earlier days, however uncouth, furnished a good means of disposing of surplus deer skins, which, instead of being a drug in the market, were eagerly sought for, and when made up, were returned, with the next parcel of tinware, to be re-bartered to parties from whom the skins had been obtained, besides being put upon the market for sale to any who wished to purchase.  Elisha Judson, father of D. B. Judson, it is said, carried east, about 1825, the first load of gloves ever driven into Boston.  The trip took six weeks.

Up to quite a recent date the merchants were accustomed to receive gloves and mittens in payment for their goods, very little money passing in exchange.  At length, when accounts came to be settled with cash, a year's credit was established, and the manufacturers only made a final settlement for the year, when they had turned their goods and received their pay.  Meanwhile they and all of their employees traded with the local merchant upon the manufacturer's credit, and hence arose the well-known "first of January" system which, at first necessary, has been continued for the convenience of the manufacturers.

Daniel Hayes & Co. Glove Factory, Gloversrville 

The war of Rebellion gave the glove interest a wonderful impetus, as the price of skins for a time did not advance in the same ratio as the price of gloves.  Scarcity of stock, however, raised the price of skins to very high rates, and a fall in prices entailed losses.

A history of Gloversville and the glove business, published by Horace Sprague in 1859, ascribes an earlier date that we have given to the origin of the trade.  Mr. Sprague says:  "In the year 1806, Ezekiel Case brought from Cincinnati a knowledge of manufacturing leather from deer skins, and was engaged for some time in the business, on a limited scale, at Kingsboro.  In the year 1805, William C. Mills commenced his annual trips to the Holland purchase to buy wheat for flouring purposes, and also deer skins for manufacturing.  From four to five hundred skins constituted  his yearly purchase.  Tallmadge Edwards, of Johnstown, and Ezekiel Case were first employed to dress them, from whom William F. Mills, the son, and James Burr, the son-in-law of William C. Mills, learned the art of manufacturing .  For many years subsequent thereto, Mills and Burr were the most extensive and noted manufacturers.  Mills died early in life, while Burr continued to extend his operations, to invent and adapt machinery, to simplify and improve the various processes, and to give the business the character and currency which have conferred upon him the distinction of being considered the true founder of the buckskin manufacture in this region of the country.  About the year 1810, John Ward, of Kingsboro engaged in the business.  He made annual trips to Pennsylvania for skins, and became a manufacturer on a scale nearly as extensive as Mills and Burr.  He, however, died in early manhood, in the year 1815."  The writer of this work estimated the capital invested in the business in 1859 at from $500,000 to $1,000,000 in Gloversville and Kingsboro alone.  It is judged at this date to be four or five times that amount in those places.  The rapid extension of the business throughout the country, and the immense proportions it has attained since Mr. Sprague wrote, are facts familiar to most of the people of this section.

It must be remembered that the making gloves and mittens is not all of the trade of this county.  There tanneries, and skin-mills and box factories in operation, employing many workmen, and involving a large amount of capital, all of which are subservient to the one great leading pursuit.  Nor is the business confined to Gloversville and Johnstown.  In private houses throughout the county sewing-machines stare one in the face, with their packages of gloves near by, sewed or unsewed.  That a branch of industry which had its origin here in the small dickering of Yankee tin-pedlars should have attained so much importance in a little more than half a century, is perhaps, without a parallel in the history of the great American industries.  "Thousands of laborers are employed, millions of dollars are invested, a great continent is supplied with a needed article of wearing apparel, and all this is the result of an exchange of a few tin-pans for a few paltry deer skins."

It has been stated that the early manufacturers gave the exclusive attention to heavy work, and that fine work for a time was not thought of.  This order has, however, been reversed in late years, and in no direction is greater progress made than in the attainment of as delicate workmanship as can elsewhere be produced in this or other countries.  The success of the effort is believed to be at hand.

 

THE RAW MATERIAL OF THE TRADE

The leading varieties of skins used in the manufacture of gloves and mittens are the deer skin and domestic sheep skin, though several other kinds work in, partly as a curiosity, partly as a matter of accident, and perhaps partly from occasional scarcity.  The manufacturers are sometimes charged with substituting ship skin for buck, on the ground that there are apparently not enough deer skins obtained to produce all the alleged buckskin gloves.  But there are really a great many more deer skins produced than the uninitiated suppose.  Fulton county draws a supply of deer skins form the entire United States, Mexico, Central and South America.  It is believed that about 1,000,000 pounds of deer skins annually come to the New York market, and that the United States produces about one quarter of this amount, with an average weight of three pounds per skin.  Of these, the larger part, of course, comes to the glove manufacturers of this section, though not all; some of them, for example, finding their way to the piano manufacturers, where they are used to cushion the little hammers used in those instruments, while a portion of these skins also go to the shoe manufacturers.  A comparatively few skins are also purchased by Fulton county glove-men from the Boston market.  The hides are usually known by the name of the State or country from which they are gathered, the port from which they are shipped, or the name or trade-mark of the dealer.  For instance, "domestic deer skins" - a term applied to distinguish them from imported stock - are known as Wisconsins, Michigans, Missouris, etc., and these again divided into general classes indicating the time of year the animal is killed, which makes a great difference in the value of the skins.  Thus there are western "reds" and "grays", the former being skins taken in summer, quite thick, but having short, thin, reddish hair, while the latter, taken in winter, are thin skins, with very long thick hair.  It is the rule in regard to all skins, that the warmer the climate where or season when the skin taken, the thicker will be the skin, and the shorter, thinner and more worthless the hair.  The heaviest and most valuable skins, therefore, come from under the equator.  A large number come from the mouth of the Amazon, and are commonly known as " Jacks".  From nearly every port between  Texas and the Amazon, and even further south, skins are sent, named from the port at which they are shipped.  From the Central American ports, or "Mosquito coast", are obtained skins, hence called "Mosquitos".  The surface of many of these hides, when dressed, has a pitted appearance, much resembling that produced on human skin by small-pox.  These pits are said not to effect the wear of the leather, but the seriously impair its appearance.  All deer skins come to market in a hard, dried state, folded together with the hair inside, and pressed in bales of from 100 too 300 pounds weight.

The most important skin in the market, after that of deer, is the domestic sheep skin.  Of these in all forms it is estimated that 1,200,000 are used annually.  Probably not more than one quarter to one third of these are finished as kid, the grain side being used and colored, the remainder being consumed for gloves finished after the manner of buckskin, and also making the split skins or "fleshers", which are the flesh side of the skin after the grain has been removed and are  used  for bindings and the like.  The "fleshers" used in this country are, however, mostly imported from England and Ireland.  In sheep skins the best leather is said to be produced from course-wooled sheep, as they produce the finest grain;  the same rule holding good here as in deer skins, that the coarser the covering of the skin, the finer the grain.  The sheep skins vary as much in quality as the deer, and depend as much upon the section from which they come.  Californian, Mexican and even Australian sheep skins reach our market, but are not considered first rate stock.  The coarse-wooled sheep of this country are said to furnish about as good a quality of skin for glove purposes as any in the market, having an excellent grain for kid, and great elasticity, though the latter property much depends upon the method of tanning.

Probably the deer and domestic sheep furnish eight or nine-tenths of all skins used for gloves.  A few of the Cape of Good Hope sheep skins are used, but only a very limited number now, whereas formerly they were quite extensively used.  The leather from this skin is very durable indeed, but lacks proper elasticity.

Of the deer branch there are the antelope skins.  Of the "domestic antelope" hides, obtained in our western plains, the annual production is said to be about 80,000 pounds, of which a large portion is dressed in this section.  They produce an excellent leather, perhaps fully equal to deer skins of the same weight, for they are a small light skin, very soft, but tenacious, and much of the nature of the well known chamois skin.  There have latterly been introduced into this market, a considerable number of blesbok skins, taken from a fine large African antelope, but in quality resembling the deer rather than the antelope.  Some difficulty was experienced at first, in dressing these skins so as to make them soft and pliable, but that trouble is now overcome, so that they promise to become an important item in the supply.

There is a South American water hog skin dressed here to quite an extent.  They come from Buenos Ayres, and are a good skin for gloves.  Besides these there are some Patna or Calcutta cow hides, goat skins, and even buffalo skins, coming into market and dressed with success by some of the most enterprising and inventive manufacturers.

These various kinds of foreign and hitherto unknown and unused skins are coming into use for the reason both that the domestic deer skins are annually growing more scarce, and also because they promise to the discoverer of a serviceable new skin, an extra remuneration before others shall have taken advantage of it.  One party, during the war, invested in hog skins, a rather untried experiment at that time.  He manufactured 20,000 of these skins in one year, and cleared on them an average of one dollar per skin.  Others have been proportionately successful in their experiments in buffalo, blesboks and other new varieties of hides, and thus circumstances vouchsafe a reward to the discoverer, without the necessity of a patent.  Besides the various skins there are annually large quantities of cloth manufactured into gloves, amounting in 1873 to $400,000 worth.

PREPARING THE SKINS

Dressing the skins gives employment to a large number of hands. There are in the county about twenty-five "skin mills" (employing twelve or more hands at each) where the entire process is completed.  These mills, though not very showy, have an estimated value from ten to fifteen thousands dollars each, which with the money annually invested in labor in them amounts to a very large sum.  The manufacturers are wont to divide the expenses of their product into three parts, viz:  First, the cost of the raw skins and materials; second, the tanning process; and third, the cutting and making up.  The skins are generally bought for cash, or at most, on four months' time; the dressing is done almost entirely on "first of January" credit; the arrangement for cutting and making is cash, or credit as the parties can agree, but the tendency seems to be toward cash in this direction, many of the manufacturers paying their hands monthly now, a thing never thought of formerly.  Many of the large manufacturers own mills, and thus control two branches of the business, employing their mills to dress leather for others when not occupied with their own stock.  A considerable amount of buck and sheep skin is annually dressed in Fulton county, and taken elsewhere for manufacture; some for gloves, some for the shoe manufacturers, some for saddlery, and occasionally a lot for piano-makers.  Much improvement has been made within twenty years in dressing buck skin and also skins heretofore mentioned, which were formerly considered valueless for the glove business.  The leather, as formerly dressed, was apt to be too stiff and unyielding, and whenever a new kind of skin is introduced into market it is likely to be at first condemned because it presents these bad qualities; but the dressers are learning that each kind of skin needs it peculiar treatment, and in this way many skins have been rendered valuable which would otherwise be worthless, and more will, doubtless, some day be added to the list.

The glove manufacturers in this section, only a decade or two since, did not essay the making of gloves from any material other than buck and sheep skin; the latter tanned and finished the same as the former, which is then closely resembles, and from which it cannot be distinguished by a novice.  The same goods in both buck and sheep as formerly, though of a better quality, are still manufactured; but the sheep skin now takes a great many forms which are an addition to former branches.  One of these is that known as "kid".  Formerly all kid gloves, so called, were imported from France, Germany or England, as a large proportion of the finer or lighter kids , made up with an over-and-over stitch, still continue to be; but even that latter kind are now being made by a few manufacturers here, and it may safely be expected that the manufacture of this kind of goods will increase.  Disastrous failure was predicted by the old fogies when kid manufacture began , but now Fulton competes with the world on heavy kids, and is likely to do its proportion of the lighter kid trade.  "Kid", as known in the market, is divided into two leading classes termed "imported" and "domestic".  They are all alike sheep or lamb, and not goat skins, as their name would indicate; but the former are skins imported from France and Germany, already dressed and brought here to be made up, while the latter are skins produced on our own soil, gathered from every State in the Union and brought to be dressed.  The Fulton county kid-dressers, it is said, excel the foreign workman in dressing the same kind of stock, but our native skins are of a different kind of texture from the foreign, hence the difference in the leather.  The foreign sheep is a coarse-wooled animal, many times having its wool mixed with hair more like the goat, while our sheep are finer-wooled, and it is said to hold true that the coarser the wool and tougher will be the leather.

The glove manufacturers probably cut up 20,000 dozen domestic skins annually and more than as many more of the imported.  Certain parties in New York and Albany "pull and beam" these skins; pack them in a salt pickle, from seventy-five to eighty dozen in a cask, and sell them in this state to the manufacturers in this section.  The finer and greater part of these are lamb skins, but the process is the same for lamb and sheep skins.  When thus received to be dressed for kid, they are first "drenched" or washed, to extract as thoroughly as may be the "pickle" fro the skin.  They are then placed in an alum bath, where they remain about twelve hours; then removed and "staked".  "Staking" is a process quite frequently repeated in the manufacture of gloves, and consists in stretching the skin and removing all wrinkles as much as possible by means of a thin, round-faced iron, placed in a standing frame over which the skin is repeatedly drawn.  The "arm-stake", mostly used by manufacturers, has a similar iron, but so arranged as to receive pressure from the shoulder.  With the former, the skin is drawn across the stake, whereas the latter is moved over the skin, the effect produced being the same with each.  After being removed from the alum bath and "staked", the skins are dried, principally in the sun, but sometimes in rooms heated by steam.  After drying, the same process of washing, staking and drying is repeated with as great thoroughness as possible.  When this is completed, the skins are sorted for coloring, the more perfect ones being selected for lighter colors.  They are next washed again and are then ready to put in the egg bath, composed of the yolks of eggs.  For this purpose a large quantity of eggs is used annually, taking on an average about one egg to each skin.  The yolk of over 6,000 dozen eggs is annually used by some mills, the whites being thrown away.  After being removed from the egg bath, the skins are ready to color, which is done by placing them - now a beautiful, clear, white color - flesh side down upon zinc or lead tables, and brushing over them the liquid dye, composed of redwood, lignum-vite, wood-citron, Brazil bark, and many other articles, according to the color to be produced, and afterward brushing over the skin a mordant of some kind to "set" the color.  This mordant generally consists of alum, copperas and blue vitriol.  After coloring, the skins are again dried, then dampened, and then rolled up in separate parcels, flesh side out, and packed away in barrels to "season", that is,  to render every portion of the skin equally flexible and soft.  When thoroughly seasoned they are again "staked" and then "shaved".  The shaving is done with a thin sharp circle of steel, set at a slight angle, having a hole in the center where a movable handle is placed.  The skin is held at one side by bars like those used for the arm stake, and the workman, grasping the other side of the skin, draws his sharp knife over the flesh side, cutting off all superfluous particles, rendering the surface smooth and soft.  The only remaining process is that of "padding", or rubbing the grain side with a pad made of woolen cloth or something of that sort, which polishes and tends of soften the leather; after this the skins are ready for manufacture into gloves.  Some of these skins are not colored at all, especially the poor ones, being used for "welts" and the like.

It is claimed that Christian G. Bach, who came from Germany in 1836, and settled in Fulton county, milled the first sheep skins milled in the county, in the mill now owned by McLaren, near the cemetery in Johnstown village.

The process of tanning deer is somewhat different.  The hides lie in lime liquor for three or four days, and are then taken out and dried, say twice a week, for four weeks in summer and six weeks in winter, lime being added each week.  The flesh is first taken off, then the grain, and then the hair, which is called frizzing.  Next the skins are parched in the sun.  Milling is the next operation, a process which thoroughly permeates the skins with oil, making them supple, and opens the pores.  They are then taken to the beam shop and subjected to a process called "scudding", which consists in shaving of the mucous on the grain side.  Parching or drying down is only used for tight or very heavy skins, which are afterward again soaked when they become soft and better fitted for the mill.  (It may be remarked that the refuse of the skins produced by these various processes is sold, when dry by the pound, and when wet by the bushel, for making glue.)  The skins are then thrown into a liquor made of soda ash, which takes the oil entirely out in about 12 hours, when the hides are said to be "half scoured".  This liquor is saved, and with an addition of acid is sold for calf skin and morocco work.  The skins are then dried and scoured clean; they are next taken to the finishing room, dampened, put on a stretcher and stretched.  If very heavy or uneven, they are put through a splitting machine.  Then they are taken  to the stakeroom, where they are still further stretched and all remaining wrinkles taken out.  Dry ochre is now rubbed on, or the skin is smoked, as desired.  A. Simmons, who began the business in 1845, is said to have been the first man in the county to smoke skins.  The first smoke-house was made by driving four stakes, and surrounding them with a rag carpet; it would smoke two or three hundred a year, whereas Mr. Simmons now smokes from 150,000 to 175,000.  The skin is next placed on a rapidly revolving emery wheel, until perfect smoothness is obtained, when the operation is complete.   The skins are hung out on the lines about eight times during the process of tanning, and are handled thirty or forty times in the course of their preparation for making up.  No formula, recipe or patent is a sufficient guide in the process, for at every step great care and discretion must be exercised, which can be only be obtained by years of practice and experience.

The "bark-tanned" leather is also a prominent item in the business.  The same stock is often used for making these goods as for making kid, but instead of completing the process as for kid, the hides after being washed are treated with  bark liquor until tanned, then worked over mahogany tables and next, stretched to their utmost, are tacked upon boards to dry, and finally worked until soft and pliable.  More varieties of these leathers, perhaps, might be adduced, but this is probably sufficient to show the general line.  The important kid is furnished by nearly all dealers in glovers' findings to a greater or less extent.  Step by step these new kinds of leather and different branches of manufacturers have crept in and advanced in quantity and quality, notwithstanding competition without, and ridicule from old fogies at home, and much improvement may yet be made and doubtless will be.

 

Source:  "History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, N.Y.", (New York: F. W. Beers & Co.) 1878, pages 175-178.


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