Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company: Eighty-Four Years in Cambridge (Part 2) by Alden S. Foss

[Continued from last week]


Two Wars And Two Depressions, 1899-1951


There is an artist’s drawing of our plant made about 1915. Actually, it reminds me of the first time I saw Al Jolson. He comes on stage as a chauffeur, long linen duster, linen cap, goggles, and of course black-faced. He starts to talk about the bad roads in Kentucky. He stops short, turns to the man beside him, “Boss, was you ever in Kentucky?” Answer, “No.” Then with broad smile, Al says, “Good, then I can speak freely.” Well, the artists who pictured our property for letterheads have always sketched freely — apparently believing no one receiving our letters will ever come to Cambridge.


The long building on Hampshire Street east of Building 1 may have been talked about once, but it was not there when the picture was made and never was built. Four big buildings were built in 1907, two for manufacturing (one a foundry) and two on a rail siding, one for incoming freight and one for stock and shipping. In 1910 came the brass shop. In 1912 a power plant —a beauty built by Stone 8c Webster — a top-flight mill room in 1913; another building in 1914, another in 1915, etc. How were these financed? By paying very large dividends with one hand and taking the money back with the other. For example, with the stock selling at $150, a stockholder had his choice of taking $100 cash or a share of stock, and everyone took the stock. Hence the tremendous expansion before, during, and after World War I was out of retained earnings.


In 1906 Joseph N. Smith brought into the company George E. Hall to be his successor. Mr. Hall was a dynamic individual, a man of action, and an able leader, and dominated the company for the next twenty years. All was smooth sailing for George Hall and Company until the severe but short-lived panic of 1921. Many good companies did not weather the storm, but we had learned our lesson in 1898. Business halted and prices plummeted. George Hall in his Report to Stockholders stated that inventories with cost value of almost five million dollars lost 50% of their value in less than six months. Purchase contracts were non-cancelable. Our bank borrowings rose to a peak of 4 1/2 million dollars, and our debt exceeded our net worth. But, to quote George Hall, “by fair dealings we held our customers.” Business recovered rapidly and in the next two years we more than made up the 1921 loss.


Let’s see how the company fared in World War I, 1916-1919, with the income tax in its infancy, compared with the World War II years, 1942-1945, when excess profits taxes and renegotiations were confiscatory. A four-year period is taken for each war for purposes of comparison. Sales in first four-year period were 33 1/2 million and profits after taxes almost 2 1/2 million or 7.1%. Sales in second 4 years were 42 1/2 million and profits after taxes and renegotiation were almost 1% million or 4.1%. Income taxes had taken 17% of profits in World War I and 59% of profits in World War II. My point is that war taxes, while not burdensome for George Hall in World War I, were backbreaking for J. Newton Smith, President in World War II.


What about the Great Depression 1929-1932?  George had died in 1928 and J. Newton Smith was at the helm. He was sound and conservative; 1899 was still very real to him. Our pounds produced dropped off only 10 to 15%, but our dollar volume dropped off to less than half the average for the preceding years. We both reduced drastically the number of employees and cut wages and salaries of all, showing no discrimination. Is there anything unreasonable in expecting management itself to take a salary cut if management is unable to produce a profit? It seems fair to me, but it is rarely done in this day and age.


In his annual reports, Newton Smith always referred to the taxes paid and related taxes to per share earnings. In 1935—1936 we paid our first Social Security taxes totaling $10,000. In his report, Newton Smith commented that “This tax will increase rapidly in future years.” How true this remark was. Last year our Old Age and Unemployment Taxes, here in Cambridge, came to between $300,000 and $400,000 — and the trend is still upward.


Contributions To Our City


What has Boston Woven Hose contributed to Cambridge and to the economy of our country? For these many years we have been one of the largest producers of products for moving material, hose for moving all kinds of liquids, hundreds of different kinds of hose, and flat belting for power transmission and for conveying solids, sand and gravel, coal and coke, grain in grain elevators and food stuffs in canneries, etc. Hose and Belting have accounted for roughly two-thirds of our total business.


Our company has employed from 1,200 to 1,600, of whom roughly one-third have lived in Cambridge, one-third in Somerville and the remaining widely scattered. Assuming an average wage of $80 per week, total payrolls for the year have run to near 5 million dollars, with at least one-third spent in Cambridge. Our company has been one of our city’s largest taxpayers. Tax information is available in City Hall. By 1940 our annual property tax had reached the $50,000 mark and had doubled in amount by 1956. Our property has grown from 2 or 3 acres and only 2 multi-storied buildings in 1898 to its present 6 1/2 acres with 20 or more buildings containing 15 acres of floor space.


Poundage in and out of a plant is a better measure of volume than dollar sales as poundage does not fluctuate with inflation of our currency.


In 1910 we shipped 16 million pounds

By 1920 it was 44 ” ”

In 1928 a then record 52 ” ”

In recent years 60 to 70 ” ” per year


Sixty million pounds per year is approximately 120 tons each work day. For many years most of our freight moved by rail or water. We were good customers of the railroads. And in the twenties and thirties much of our freight moved by boat to East Coast ports to Gulf ports and through the Panama Canal to Pacific Coast ports. Before 1910 New York City shipments went by water.


One of our catalog pages soon after 1900 assured New York City customers that if their telegraph order reached us before noon, the goods would be on the dock in New York the next morning. This was accomplished by a horse-drawn dray moving the goods to the South Station in time to catch the Fall River boat train, and the boat would dock the next morning in lower New York. Our New York customers say they are not getting as good service today. After World War II much of our freight shifted to trailer trucks, but I am glad to say that in the past year or two the railroad piggyback services have put many of the long-haul trucks off the roads.


To return to Cambridge, our refinancing in 1898 was done largely with Lynn and Salem capital which our company attracted to Cambridge, but we also had numerous Cambridge stockholders. The most notable was Josiah Q. Bennett, father of our J. Clark Bennett who served as an assignee of the Theodore A. Dodge interests in 1898 and then for many years as Secretary and Director of the successor company. Among our early stockholders was Charles F. Cushman who served on the company’s Auditing Committee in 1908 and 1909. Now his son Robert A. Cushman audits our Historical Society books. A public-spirited family, as both have served generously without pay. Another tie with Cambridge was the aforementioned George E. Hall, General Manager and President of our company from 1907 to 1928. Mr. Hall was closely related to our Society’s distinguished member and former Treasurer, Oakes Ames.


Our factory whistle deserves mention here. For a great many years it has, at the request of the City Fathers, blown all fire alarms, the no-school signals on stormy days, and a 9:30 P.M. curfew when all good teenagers are off the streets. Also our whistle has summoned each shift to work, our plant normally working at least some departments three shifts. In recent years complaints from the occupants of 100 Memorial Drive have resulted in curtailing much of our whistle-blowing. But on cold winter nights our whistle could be heard clearly as far away as Avon Hill. Clark Bennett recalls that when his father heard our whistle sounding a fire alarm, he always feared it was a fire at either our plant or the Cambridge Electric Light Co. He was financially interested in both companies and unfortunately both were plagued by fires in the early years. Almost all rubber solvents are flammable liquids.


In 1924 our company was the first, or one of the first, small group to make Savings Bank Life Insurance available to its employees through payroll deductions. Industrial life insurance, offered by the big life insurance companies was being broadly sold to the working man and he was paying a very high price for term insurance. Always conscious of the working man’s injustices, our U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, sponsored the legislation enabling the savings banks of this state to write low cost ordinary life insurance for the great rank and file. Over the intervening years $1,800,000 of life insurance has been written by the savings bank for our employees. Premium payments have been near the $50,000 per year level, paid wholly by the employees.


Similarly our company has co-operated with our Employee’s Credit Union which makes low-cost loans available to our workers. It was Edward A. Filene who fathered the Credit Union movement in this state to aid the working man. The only cost to our company for both these services has been the modest cost of making payroll deductions.


Changing Products


Let’s look at some of our products. Over the years we have advertised that we manufacture everything made of rubber except automobile tires, footwear, molded products, and druggist sundries. An 1896 catalog is devoted largely to bicycle tires and all kinds of accessories for the bicycles, but also refers briefly to hose, belting, packing and matting. An 1892 catalog listed several pages of products including roll matting, mats, perforated mats for porch or vestibule, table mats, and cuspidor mats.


At our meeting last March, Mr. Stephen T. Riley of the Massachusetts Historical Society read from a very old manuscript a guide to good manners and conduct for youth. It mentioned when and where to spit, or not to spit. This immediately brought to mind our cuspidor mats. For thirty or forty years they were in our line, pictured in our catalog, and sold by the thousands each year. Tobacco-chewing was the habit of most male employees from the bottom to almost the top. Particularly in the days of buildings built in part or entirely of wood, there were strict rules against smoking as a fire hazard. Chewing was the alternative. Every passageway and stairway had a pail of sand, and every office had a brass spittoon centered on a cuspidor mat. Even if the President and Treasurer did not chew, all the foremen did, and foremen were in and out of the executives’ offices all day, every day. When I came with Hose in 1928, a regular task of the night janitor was to clean the cuspidors. If in the morning the mat was spotted or the cuspidor did not shine to sparkle in the sunlight, there was a great to-do. By World War II the cuspidors had disappeared, but many laborers in our plant still chew tobacco.


Soon after 1900, our catalogs included rubberized fabrics for automobile and carriage tops and curtains. Automobile topping developed into a big volume item with us. We supplied both Ford and General Motors in a big way. The pay was always prompt, but both companies were extremely fussy about quality. The appearance always was too shiny or not shiny enough, or there was some other complaint. The introduction of hard tops in the early thirties spelled the end of our auto-topping business.


Another large volume item, before and after World War I, was heels and soles. Production in 1915 was 6,000 pairs per day. In 1926 the decision was made to expand the company’s business in industrial products, chiefly hose, belting, and packing, and withdraw from the highly competitive consumer items, one of which was heels and soles. No one then dreamed that thirty years later it was to be one of our competitors on heels and soles who would take over our company — of which more later.


The shift in our belting business is interesting. In the 1890’s when canvas belting was being introduced, we were still selling leather belting. As the overhead shafting in mills was replaced by direct drives from individual electric motors, the sale of flat belting for power transmission fell off sharply. However, the use of flat belting for conveying materials increased by leaps and bounds. The biggest single order our company ever obtained was from the Coal Board in England, 2 1/2 million dollars of conveyor belting to mechanize the government-controlled coal mines soon after the close of the Second World War. Let me add that, foreseeing the decline in demand for flat belting for power transmission when World War II was ended, we equipped to manufacture V-Belts for direct drives and today enjoy a substantial volume of V-Belt business.


Garden hose has always been a big volume item for us. Sales figures on products are strictly confidential — would aid our competitors. But in a booklet printed in 1916 we were not bashful in reporting garden-hose shipment of: “20 miles of hose per day or enough in a year to reach from Boston to San Francisco.” Actually this would be 5,000 miles a year or enough to reach to San Francisco and back again. Today Woven Hose continues to be a leader in rubber and plastic garden-hose sales.


Last winter Professor Theodore Levitt of the Harvard Business School talked to a group of Cambridge men and his subject was “Think small for big profits.” In other words, big companies often lack the imagination to see the potential in small things. A perfect illustration can be found in our company during World War I.


An official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., called to interest us in developing a fruit-jar rubber which would withstand boiling water for the length of time required for sterilization, not of the rubber, but of the contents of the jar. The object was to improve the efficiency of home canning. He happened to remark that he had been to the big companies in Akron and the undertaking was too small for them to bother with. This was a challenge to our then Director of Research, John M. Bierer. He believed it could be done and soon produced satisfactory laboratory samples. By that time it was mid-summer and the Department of Agriculture field workers were going out to visit the farm communities, granges, county fairs, etc., and wanted samples in quantity overnight. How should we package them? Any old package will do. The only lot of surplus jar-ring cartons were imprinted with the Good Luck trade name and were hurriedly packed with the new rings. That summer and autumn they were so enthusiastically recommended by a small army of U.S. Government field workers that we enjoyed the lion’s share of the fruit-jar rubber business in the nation for the next fifteen or twenty years. We got so far ahead of the big companies they could not catch us. And the profits were very substantial.


To quote from a 1915 newspaper clipping: “Fruit Jar Rings form nearly a fourth of the Company’s total business. Ten tons of rings are turned out each working day and the yearly production, if linked together in the form of a chain would twice encircle the globe.” Soon after 1928 our Advertising Manager boasted that the Good Luck name and good will would easily bring a million dollars, should we desire to sell it. The Good Luck emblem, the Greek cross or Swastika, was on our jar-ring cartons until Hitler came along. Then it was hastily replaced by a four-leaf clover. No consideration was given to using up the Swastika cartons on hand. They were promptly burned.


Another product made a substantial contribution to our country’s war effort in the Second World War. Wherever our Armed Forces went, there also gasoline in large quantities must go. Storage tanks above ground were easy targets for enemy bombs. Underground tanks of concrete could be built quicker and cheaper than ones of steel. But the gasoline must be protected from the concrete. Our company came up first with the answer: a tank lining of oil-resistant synthetic rubber film. The lining must be attached to the tanks with oil-resistant rubber cement. During the War we lined hundreds of underground tanks in every corner of the world, successfully completing contracts that ran well over the million-dollar mark.


Time does not permit the discussion of many other products, including rubber and friction tape, and the products of our brass foundry operated from 1907 to 1957 where we produced garden-hose nozzles, fire-hose couplings and play pipes, and sundry other brass items.


Changing Processes


Boston Woven Hose was always searching for ways and means of improving processes and products. Many, many patents were taken out by its engineers and chemists and assigned to the company. Time permits reference to only a few of these major pioneering accomplishments.


The circular loom for weaving hose jackets has already been discussed. The next concerned the art of reclaiming rubber—recovering usable rubber from old tires, be they auto or bicycle tires, and from any other rubber scrap. This was and still is of tremendous importance. The supply of crude rubber always has been limited, and price fluctuations have been wide. The company which could make a good quality reclaim at a reasonable cost had a great advantage.


Most scrap rubber contains cotton yarn or fabric. Prior to 1890 reworked rubber with the cotton fiber still in it was mixed in with crude rubber but resulted in an unsightly appearing finished product. Next a process, broadly used, involved heating the scrap rubber with a dilute sulphuric acid which destroyed the cotton content and slightly softened the old rubber so that it would blend with new.


It was in our plant in the 1890’s that a process was developed utilizing hot caustic soda instead of sulphuric acid, commonly known as the alkali process. It was a breakthrough in the art of reclaiming. The resulting product was highly plastic and free from the deteriorating action of the acid. This development work was done in our laboratory by two young men, Arthur Marks and Raymond B. Price, working under the direction of Robert Cowen, Plant Manager. Unfortunately for us, this process was proven and had reached the patent stage in 1898, just when financial troubles beset our company. Mr. Marks left us and went to work for the Revere Rubber Co., a strong competitor, and Mr. Price went to the Calumet Rubber Co. in Chicago. Both took out patents on the alkali process but did not assign them to us. The Philadelphia Rubber Works acquired these patents and first collected royalties on the process. Our reorganized company had to be satisfied with shop rights —right to use the process without paying royalties to anyone.


On the subject of losing ambitious young men who saw greener pastures elsewhere, the list is long. Two notable ones are the present President of the U.S. Rubber Co., George R. Vila, who worked for a few years in our laboratory directly after his graduation from M.I.T. Another is a former President of B. F. Goodrich Co., Bill Richardson, who worked in our factory for a few years after the end of World War I. He died only a few years ago.


Another outstanding discovery was the oxygen bomb for testing the useful life of rubber products. Freshly made products always could be tested for strength, stretch, and resistance to abrasion. The $64 question was, how would they age? What would be their useful life? Must we wait two, three, or four years to find out which of several compounds would wear best or last the longest? Messrs. Bierer and Davis of our technical staff recognized that the oxygen in air is the major cause of rubber aging and believed that a way could be found to expose rubber samples to pure oxygen with controlled pressure and heat, and the results could be translated into a practical yardstick for measuring the useful life of each compound. The result was the oxygen bomb, which accomplished all this to perfection. No attempt was made to patent it or profit by it outside our own operation. We publicized it, with the result that practically every rubber manufacturer throughout the world has adopted this method of testing rubber products. Several hours of testing accurately foretells the results of several years of usage —a great boon to the rubber industry.


Skipping over many other patents or improvements in the quality of our hose, belting, and other products, let us look at one more major achievement to our company’s credit, the Rotocure machine for the continuous vulcanization of sheeted and plied rubber products. Prior to World War II, all manufacturers employed flat presses or platen presses for vulcanizing belting, flooring and other sheeted-rubber products. A thirty-foot flat press would press thirty feet at a time —open, pull through another thirty feet, and repeat. Press marks were left between each press, tensions were not always uniform, etc. A group in our company headed by John M. Bierer, who later became President, conceived a method of continuous vulcanization. Overcoming many obstacles, they developed a machine which turns out sheeted rubber or plastic products as a Rotogravure printing press turns out your Sunday newspapers. This machine was patented and has been purchased by rubber manufacturers all over the world. This process was not given away.


Handsome royalties have been collected by our company, starting in 1946 and not yet exhausted.


A bit of humor in this connection.


In December 1949, John M. Bierer was the principal speaker at a meeting of the Institution of the Rubber Industry at Manchester, England. His subject was Continuous Vulcanization and the Rotocure Process. In his introduction he paid tribute to Thomas Hancock, who discovered a practical method of vulcanizing rubber in England at about the same time Charles Goodyear made a similar discovery in this country. But in the year 1949 Russia was claiming that it invented the steam engine, sewing machine, and about everything else. So Bierer observed that probably it was of little consequence whether vulcanization was first discovered in England or the United States because undoubtedly Russia was first with the idea.


A very few years later a Russian buying commission became very much interested in our Rotocure machine and requested literature on the subject. Thereupon arose a serious dilemma for us. The only adequate presentation of the subject in print was the Manchester address with its unfortunate reference to Russia, now our prospective customer. But this story has a happy ending. The booklet was submitted with the first page, containing the introduction, removed. We got the order, delivered a machine on time, and received our usual substantial royalty.


Rebirth Of The Company


Before I close, you may be interested in where the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company fits into the picture today. It must be admitted that our Cambridge plant is inefficient by modern standards. Most of our buildings are four-story, long and narrow, with elevators of too-limited capacity. The efficient plants today, such as our own newer ones outside Massachusetts, are all on one level, with raw materials coming in at one end and flowing through automatically from machine to machine with little or no handling until the finished product comes out the other end. This efficiency is not possible in our older buildings.


In 1954 our company’s operations resulted in a loss of close to $1,000,000 before tax credits. In 1956 the American Biltrite Rubber Co. of Chelsea, Massachusetts, a highly successful manufacturer of heels and soles and floor coverings, acquired the controlling interest in our company. In 1957 Boston Woven Hose was merged with, and into, Biltrite, and thereupon Woven Hose ceased to be a corporate entity. Since then BWH has been a name only, or style under which our industrial products are marketed.


But the future of the American Biltrite is bright. It operates a dozen plants, most of them new, in five different states. Its growth pattern is impressive. Its stock is listed on the American Exchange, symbol ABL. Fortune magazine includes it in its list of the five hundred biggest companies in the U.S.A. It is a company with a promising future.


Read October 27, 1964



History of Cambridge 1630-1877, by Lucius R. Paige, Riverside Press, 1877.

The Cambridge of l896, edited by Arthur Gilman, Riverside Press, 1896.

Cambridge Fifty Years a City, Riverside Press, 1897.

Our Neighbors at Kendall Square, Murry Printing Co., 1922.

Continuous Vulcanization with Reference to Flooring, Belting, etc., by John M. Bierer, F.I.R.I., W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., Cambridge, England, 1950.

Chamber Members—Fifty Years or More, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, 1961.

Also use made of old files of Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Co., more especially old patents, trade marks, deeds, catalogs, and Annual Reports, by courtesy of American Biltrite Rubber Co.


This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 40, from the years 1964-1966.