New England's shoe-business redux

In the B.F. Spinney & Co. shoe factory in Lynn, Mass. , in  1872.

In the B.F. Spinney & Co. shoe factory in Lynn, Mass., in 1872.


From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' column in

From the late 19th to the middle of the 20th Century, Massachusetts was often called “The Shoe Capital of the World’’ because of its many shoe factories, most notably in Brockton but also in towns north of Boston, particularly Lynn.  Most of the factories were closed as the companies either went out of business or moved their operations south in search of cheap labor, aided by new industrial air-conditioning. Same thing with the textile companies.

But the Bay State and New England in general have been pretty good at reinventing themselves. Even in shoes.  Nowadays footwear companies are drawn to (or stay in) Greater Boston because of the increasingly rich design, marketing, manufacturing technology (such as robotics) and other expertise available there. Consider the following companies with headquarters operations in the area: New Balance, Puma, Alden of New England, Wolverine, Clarks, Earth Brands, Reebok, Vibram, Rockport and Converse.

A particularly evocative development is the recent move by British-owned Clarks Americas into the former Polaroid factory in Waltham. In its glory days in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Polaroid, the instant camera and film company, was considered a leader among the Massachusetts technology companies that were spouting up along the recently built Route 128. The company was called a “juggernaut of innovation.’’  (There’s been a minor revival lately of using Polaroid cameras. Like vinyl records?)

A big change since the ‘60s is that many tech companies now prefer to be in Boston and Cambridge because the executives, and their younger workers, find them more stimulating than the suburbs. The most dramatic recent example, of course, is General Electric deciding to leave its  boring Fairfield, Conn., corporate campus and move to Boston’s trendy waterfront.

Gary Champion, president of Clarks Americas,  succinctly explained to The Boston Globe the lure of Greater Boston:

“The skill is what brings us here, even still.’’

Having spent summers in high school working for a trucking company in Boston (on the then grubby and arson-rich waterfront) much  of whose business was servicing the shoe and related business, I find  this comforting.

Massachusetts’s jobless rate in December was 2.9 percent and the state’s average wages are among the highest in the nation. Massachusetts employers need more skilled workers to staff the many well-paying and sophisticated jobs available in the Bay State. That its public schools are probably the best in America, and that the state hosts world famous colleges and universities, helps to churn out great workers. But so successful are so many Massachusetts companies that they’re desperate for more highly skilled workers. In a sense, a nice problem to have!