By Peter P Dobbing
Most of us understand what shoes are and indeed own at least one pair. I can recall when this was not necessarily the case, when I started school in early 1945 some children went barefoot. World War II was just coming to an end, many fathers were away and people were very hard up.
Shoes, per se, have been around since almost the beginning of time. Records show that from the 14th century BC in Egypt until the mid-19th century worldwide shoes were essentially produced by the same tradesmen in the same way.
The lapstone (today known as the last) and hammer were the tools and shoemakers kept measurements of their client’s feet secret, to help ensure future business. Originally both shoes in a pair were made identical, there was no left and right, and while climatic and terrain differences necessitated different materials all would be essentially similar.
In 1845 the Rolling machine for leather and fabrics was invented followed a year later by the Sewing machine, and both changed the shoe industry forever. Then in 1875 Charles Goodyear Jr developed a machine that made shoes from a new material termed rubber and with this even bigger changes would follow.
Meanwhile back in Ireland on 7th October 1853 in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, Humphrey O’Sullivan was born, the youngest and third son to parents Timothy and Catherine (Barry) O’Sullivan. He had a good education in a state school and then taught in a local school before beginning an apprenticeship as a printer. He did well and eventually became general manager of the Irish Daily Telegraph newspaper in Cork.
In 1874 Humphrey left Ireland to seek his fortune in America. Travelling on an Inman Line steamship he arrived in New York with little more than his knowledge of printing and his union card. His first job was with a printer in Yonkers but he then joined his brother James in Lowell, Massachusetts. The brothers did well and in 1877 formed a partnership in manufacturing and selling shoes.
Back in his printing days Humphrey had found it painful during long hours of standing on the hard floor of the printing shop, to alleviate this he had taken to standing on a rubber mat. The difficulty with this was that other workers also had painful legs and kept ‘borrowing’ his mat. This prompted Humphrey to cut two pieces of rubber the size of his heels and attach them to his shoes. Wearing these shoes was found to be very comfortable. In the early days the heels were manufactured by the Boston Belting Company and later by the Goodrich Rubber Company. At the time shoe repairs were commonplace as people sought to save money.
The brother’s business continued to flourish mainly as a result of their rubber heels and soles and by January 1899 they had saved $25,000. Clearly in those days rubber heels were not cheap. This they invested in a new company – The O’Sullivan Rubber Company and secured a patent on the O’Sullivan Rubber Heel. The rubber heel was a runaway success with customers, washers were used to hide the nails and good quality rubber ensured sales expanded throughout the world. In 1908 Humphrey sold his share of the company for $4 million – good going for his investment of 10 years.
Advertising in the United States during the 1940’s convinced clients that O’Sullivan’s heels could ‘conserve nervous energy, make the step light and easy and lessen fatigue’. In the war years, sales particularly to the military, boomed and the company became rich and forward thinking. At the end of the war the company became the O’Sullivan Corporation and began making vinyl sheeting and plastic injection moldings initially for cars and furniture but eventually for medical equipment.
In 1986 the O’Sullivan Rubber Division was sold to the Vulcan Corp. in order to concentrate on the production of plastics, forming the Regalite Plastics Corporation. Today Humphrey and James are long gone but their legacy lives on and manufactures many products. In the US they are known as O’Sullivan Films of Winchester, Virginia. Today the Ford Motor Company accounts for more than 50% of sales. The boys from Skibbereen did rather well.