Opening the SATRA Bulletin archives
An opportunity to examine the working lives of our shoemaking predecessors in past decades.
Published continuously since 1935, SATRA Bulletin magazine has long provided valuable information to companies working in the footwear and leather industries. In this issue, we continue our occasional journey into the Technology Centre’s archives in order to re-visit an article published some 76 years ago that provides an insight into the technologies and construction methods available to previous generations of shoemakers.
From the Monthly Bulletin of the British Boot, Shoe & Allied Trades’ Research Association - December 1939
It is an interesting, and may be profitable exercise to look back over the twenty years between the two great wars in an effort to trace the trend and interlacing of events. The present cataclysmic interruption of the normal flow presents both the opportunity and the justification for such as review, which may give us useful signposts to the future of the industry.
The first impression one gets is that the matters of deepest significance, the most fundamental and far-reaching things, are the things which receive least thought from the industry as a whole, while the more superficial, day to day opportunist matters are always uppermost in the industry’s mind. This is very natural, no doubt, for the successful running of business is to some degree opportunism, and yet one sees all round one such examples of individual business reaping the success of long term policies carefully thought out, that one would expect the true lesson to be learned, and opportunism to be put in its proper place for the industry at large.
Truly, the most fundamental, radical and far-reaching things are by no means always the most obvious or tangible. Questions of wages, hours of work, relations between employer and employed, are very real questions and take up a great deal of the industry’s attention, but much more important is it that there should be trade and increased business for both employer and employed. More corporate attention to this latter subject would probably make it much easier to dispose of the former.
Although seeming neglect of the most fundamental gives to the industry an appearance of drift on an undirected current, yet there can be traced a logical sequence in the current itself.
The period with which we are concerned, has been one of impeded international trade with a constant striving towards self-sufficiency on the part of certain large and important countries. This restriction on the flow of materials gives impetus to research and invention on the production of substitutes or alternatives; consequently, these twenty years have seen an enormous increase in new, alternative materials for many various uses in civilized life generally. Examples are the synthetic rubbers of American and German development, artificial wools and other alternative textile fibres, artificial gums and resins. It is especially to be noted that many of the principal developments are in countries other than ours, and this may have important consequences for which we must be constantly on the watch.
Elastomers – as synthetic rubbers are called in America – have made steady progress, especially in applications where natural rubber in unsatisfactory, and the war will, undoubtedly, stimulate the progress still more. Germany today relies to a considerable degree upon its buna rubbers, and in the United States the field in which elastomers are competing with natural rubber, is evidently appreciable. Rubber and rubber alternatives, are materials of ever increasing importance in the shoe industry.
The water soluble gums are necessary in several industrial processes. They are exuded by certain tropical trees after being wounded by the collector’s knife. Thus, gum arabic comes from the forest stretching across Africa, west from Ethiopia, tragacanth comes from India, Iran and the countries of Eastern Mediterranean. Now appears the announcement that a new synthetic gum capable of substituting the natural products, has been developed in the United States.
These brief examples are sufficient to illustrate the present point which is that world conditions produce stimuli and efforts in far off countries which have direct and intimate bearing upon our industry at home, and that if our own industrial policy is to be directed wisely, vision must be both broad and far.
In another direction, the two decades have seen striking changes. Commercially, the period may be perhaps described as a Distributors’ Age, for undoubtedly, in many directions, it has been the distributors who have held the reins, not the producers. Besides the growth of large and glittering emporia, there has been considerable increase in the bazaar type of retail business, as well as club and mail order trade. These things have been made possible because of mass production factory processes whereby large quantities of quite reasonably good commodities can be produced at modest prices. The change (or development if that is the right word), has, however, its unsatisfactory side, namely, the persistent downward pressure which the large distributing powers are able to exercise upon prices, and consequently upon qualities. Towards the end of the period, indications were beginning to manifest themselves that there was a growing realisation of the dangers of this pressure, even amongst some of those in a strong position to use it. These remarks, relating to commerce in general, apply in full measure to the shoe trade in particular, and they are significant from a technical standpoint, for it surely becomes a prostitution of science if research and inventions have to be persistently directed towards a lowering of standards.
The final arbiter is public taste and demand. In the twenty years the public have been nursed in certain clearly defined directions. Ready-made entertainment – films and radio – has advanced in leaps and bounds; luxury industries – motorcars – have flourished; other amusements like football pools increased to the extent of taking millions of money out of the commodity market. These things readily explain the taste for low-priced, short-lived, fashion items. But an explanation is not a justification and long-continued downgrade will bring no ultimate satisfaction to anyone.
It therefore behoves an industry desirous of maintaining some of its standards and ideals, to take such steps as can be devised to counter those influences that are sinister to it. When peace comes after this war, the lessons to the shoe industry taught by the last twenty years, must be applied if tragic drift is to be avoided.
There is one movement that is full of important significance for the future – a most hopeful influence, namely the greatly intensified interest in health questions. During the years the health sciences have made tremendous strides and, in making known their results, have aroused the public mind to an unprecedented enthusiasm for health subjects. The new knowledge of vitamins and dietetics, the public activities or authorities like the Medical Research Council, including the Industrial Health Research Board, Welfare Organisations, Clinics, and social services of various kinds, all these and many more influences have combined in recent years to enlarge the public’s ready receptivity of health information.
The shoe industry is in an eminently favourable position to take advantage of this state of the public mind, to tack itself to health propaganda and make progress with it, for the intimate relationship between footwear and health is demonstrable. The Research Association from its own direct experience in the months preceding the war, can vouch for the practicability of this suggestion; the possibilities are extensive and if tackled properly, are likely to yield more permanent good both to the industry and public than any equal amount of effort expended in any other direction.
Much thought and expense goes to creating fresh styles designed to stimulate a passing whim, and a few transient sales. Behind much of this the underlying originality is feeble-peasant styles from the Tyrol, Dutch clogs, Turkish toes – what can there be in it of permanent value? The industry that is first to advertise shoes that are of proved health-giving properties in the fullest sense of the word, will establish something that time cannot destroy.
Little straws are in the wind. American trade papers have published lately many articles and notices about foot perspiration with special regard to means of retarding its detrimental action on shoes. But to try to make materials resistant to sweat, while constructing shoes in such a way as to induce perspiration more and more can never be more than a partial way of dealing with the problem. The physiologically comfortable shoe is the answer. In the meantime, the perspiration talk forcibly directs attention to one of the unsavoury features and is preparatory publicly for physiological shoes that must come.
Taking up the loose ends of this rather discursive article, we see that by keeping our eyes on the horizon for any new materials that may be adaptable, by careful attention to tendencies in the public mind and the influences that are being exerted upon it, by exercise of directive thought on the tendencies of commercial practice, and above all, by putting new, genuine scientific knowledge into the product, a policy can be formed for the industry that will safeguard it, when peace comes, from some of the pitfalls, danger and hard times experiences during the past twenty years.
Reprinted from SATRA’s Monthly Bulletin, December 1939.
This article was originally published on page 42 of the September 2015 issue of SATRA Bulletin.