As mentioned before, investing time into researching a company or brand is always a gamble. Sometimes it is impossible to find even the slightest piece of interesting information, and other times you stumble upon a company like LaCrosse that is a true treasure trove. In this article you will not only find the general company history of the La Crosse Rubber Mills, I will also summarize one of their publications describing the production process of rubber footwear in the early 1900s.
Early history (1897 – 1914)
It was 1897 when the La Crosse Rubber Mill was incorporated in the city of La Crosse, Winconsin. The rubber mill was founded by Albert Hirshheimer, Michael Funk, and George Zeisler who received the funding of 50,000 USD (corrected for purchasing power this would be around 1,5 million USD now) from sixteen shareholders to get a factory and 160 steam-powered sewing machines. A modest total of 25 employees started the production of rubber goods, which most notably excluded footwear. During this period the focus was mostly on rubber horseshoe covers, rubber coated fabrics that were used as carriage covers, and rubber raincoats (mackintoshes). Below the oldest advertisement cover for the Mackintosh raincoats produced by La Crosse, dating back to 1898 (source).
Business went excellent and within a couple of years the workforce increased to 400 people producing about 850 rubber-coated garments a day. A national magazine advertising campaign was launched in 1904 promoting their “Indian Hill Brand” rainwear. Back then the complete production took place in a large factory which formerly housed the National Cooperage Company (barrel-makers). An old employee later described the facilities as “an old shack – just a red shack”.
In 1906 the company took a huge risk by switching their complete production from textile to footwear. Many textile workers were let go and only 150 employees remained to start making rubber and canvas footwear from then onwards. A total of about 1,200 pairs of footwear left the factory on a daily basis. In 1912 the Funk family bought out Hirshheimer and the company moves from their “old red shack” to a concrete building directly north of the old facility the year after. At the new premises, with much more space and storage capacity, a total of 350 employees were kept busy producing 6,000 pairs of footwear per day. And even that was not enough to satisfy demand, with the factory increasing in size again over the years that followed to a workforce of 1,000 people producing 15,000 pairs of footwear daily. Below a series of illustration showing the evolution of the factory that was continuously expanded to handle more workers and more machinery (source).
Early on the logo of La Crosse Rubber Mills became a picture of an “Indian head” and the word “La Crosse”, with first use in 1897 according to the trade mark registration document. The reference to Native Americans is probably based on the history of the area the company was situated. In 1912 the trade mark was officially registered. Below an old advertisement (source) showing the trade mark clearly visible with the date of registration.
Producing rubber footwear (1915)
Interestingly enough the La Crosse Rubber Mills released a book in 1915 describing the production process in their factories during that time period. As this gives an unique insight into the rubber business I will discuss several steps of the production process here with illustrations coming directly from the La Crosse Rubber Mills showing what it looked like back then.
The first thing to realize is that rubber was a “dirty business” back in those days by today’s standards. There was a huge demand for raw materials in the Western World and to keep up with demand the owners of rubber plantations in countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Amazon Rainforest, and Belgian Congo employed horrible practices of slave labour of the worst kind imaginable. The people working the cultivated rubber farms were treated as disposable objects with harsh punishments for refusing to work, including chopping off limbs and raising complete villages.
Once the rubber reached the United States the labour circumstances were better, but still not very good. While the American labourers had their freedom, they were expected to work in factories with poor ventilation, hazardous fumes, heat, noise, and dirt. The toxic chemicals would irritate their lungs and cause headaches and hallucinations which was often referred to as “rubber sickness”. A lack of safety standards also meant workers sometimes lost limbs during production, with occurrences of hands being torn off by heavy machinery. The images below show the steps the raw rubber would go through to end up as rubber footwear, and while some people are drawn over for some reason, these are actual pictures of the facilities giving a decent impression of what things looked like back in the 1910s.
The first step in the production of rubber footwear was cleaning the raw rubber that had been imported. Here the rubber was soaked in warm water to make it soft and to wash out all the dirt that might be stuck in it.
Next the cleaned rubber had to be dried again, which was done by turning it into sheets and exposing it to mild temperatures. Below you can see sort of an oven filled with trays of rubber sheets.
The following step was to add compounds like pigments to color the rubber and softeners to keep it flexible for longer. The most common color of rubber was black, which required carbon black to be added. Carbon black was widely used as it not only made the rubber more closely resemble black leather, it also improved its properties, such as tensile strength, abrasion resistance, and durability. At this stage the sulphur was also added which would be later needed for the vulcanization process.
The rubber was now ready for further processing by turning it into sheets of rubber by moving it through heavy rollers. Depending on what the rubber would be used for it could be attached to a fabric during this process or kept pure in either thick slabs for soles and heels or thinner slaps for the upper parts of a rubber shoe or boot. This process is called “calendering” and in the images below you see the rubber being flattened between two heavy rollers and thin sheets of rubber coming out on the other side.
Next the evenly thick rubber would be cut into the desired shapes which would be done with scissors for the upper parts of rubber shoes (first picture), a sharp knife for the soles (second picture), or a hydraulic press for the thick soles (third picture).
With all parts ready to be sewn together, everything was collected and delivered to the sewing department where the women would be mostly working on light footwear (more comfortable shoes from thinner rubber) and the men on heavy footwear (work shoes and boots with thicker soles and thicker rubber that required more psychical strength to put together). Below the women at work their benches, followed by the men in a large hall working on heavier shoes, and finally the boots department.
The footwear that had to end up shiny had to be varnished, while the dull footwear could skip this final step before vulcanization. Below the varnishing department.
The vulcanization process happened in large ovens where the footwear would be heated so the previously added sulphur would start a chemical reaction with the natural rubber. This process was needed to stabilize the rubber, as it would otherwise become soft on very warm days or crack during very cold days.
Once the vulcanization process finished the shoes would be removed from their lasts by a night crew who would need to put all the lasts back at the sewing department before the first shift would start so they could be used again. The final products would next move to the finishing department which would trim the loose ends and perform a quality control. Once a boot was approved it would be brought to the packing room.
All the packed footwear would then be stored in storage rooms till they could be moved out to customers.
Back then the shipping mostly happened by horse and car as the automobile was still in its early years.
One other interesting department was the design department. As many rubber shoes were sold as fashion it was important to stay up-to-date with changing fashion trends. In this department they would follow what other companies did, which way fashion was moving, and designed the next generation that the La Crosse Rubber Mills would produce. Before a new shoe could go into production, they had to produce the lasts the shoes would be made on and train the workers at the sewing department how to put the shoes together. Below an image showing some of the shoes that were sold back in 1915.
The War period (1914-1945)
With the Great War taking place in Europe, the Wisconsin-based La Crosse Rubber Mills are able to continue production relatively easy. And the period that follows, with high economic growth, gives ample of opportunity to further increase production and profits. In 1925 the workforce has grown to some 1200-1500 people even with the production process becoming less labor intensive due to investments in machinery. Below a picture of a pair of vintage women’s canvas tennis shoes with rubber soles dating back to around the 1920s (source).
In 1930 the Rubber Mills becomes the largest employer in the city when it reaches a total headcount of over 2,000 workers. Below a picture from the Wisconsin Historical Society showing the factory in around 1936.
The outbreak of the Second World War on the European continent goes together with increased demand for products in the United States. La Crosse finds itself lined up perfectly for this period of increased demand as they are just installing the latest conveyorized assembly line and shoe making machinery giving them the capacity to produce not only more shoes than ever in absolute numbers, they could also handle a larger variety than ever before. This method of mass production increases output by tenfold. In 1941 they receive their very first order from the US Army to produce 43,200 pairs of Arctic overshoes. Soon after more orders follow for jungle footwear, hip boots, four-buckle overshoes, and sports shoes for use by military personnel.
Post war modern times
The period directly following the Second World War is a time defined by consumerism. Demand for footwear, and La Crosse products, keeps increasing in the United States and production moves towards 20,000 pairs of shoes per day. More and more brands and models are added to their line-up and consumers happily purchase the latest models of rubber tennis shoes, light boots, and heavy protective work boots. Below a pair of La Crosse rubber military boots (supposedly) from the 1970s for sell on Etsy.
Unexpected detail on these boots is the logo that is printed on the back of the boots, as shown below. The added yellow stripe at the top of the boots is also typical for La Crosse, but seems out of place for military boots. These two details make me doubt the pictured boots are actually military boots.
It takes to the seventies for demand to finally slow down as Asian competitors are starting to enter the American market and selling similar rubber footwear for lower prices. La Crosse is forced to react by increasing efficiency, which is done by dropping brands, models, and sales branches. Below a vintage pair of 1960s canvas sports shoes (source).
In 1986 the company changes name to LaCrosse Footwear as that better reflects the products they produce. For a long time the focus has been on footwear already and market research shows the new name is better received by consumers.
The decades that follow are marked by acquiring Oregon-based Danner Boots, an IPO (the company gets listed on the stock market), and a joint-venture with Rainfair which is a leading producer of commercial protective clothing including footwear and rainwear. In 2012 the story of the independent company LaCrosse ends, with the Japanese ABC-Mart purchasing the company for $20 per share.
To boost efficiency LaCrosse has started moving their production from the United States to Asia since August 2000. By 2002 it is estimated that 70% of the products sold are manufactured by third parties; mainly in the Asia-Pacific region with China taking the lead. The current company focus is on two main markets: the domestic American market as well as the Asian market (mainly Japan). That means acquiring a pair of LaCrosse boots outside these regions will probably require some extra dedication. Still, the unique design of their tall rubber boots in combination with them being available in a “slightly taller than normal height” makes them very interesting for European consumers and people interested in rubber boots.
The in 1957 introduced range of Grange rubber boots are non-insulated and available in green and camouflage. What makes these boots stand out is the overall design, which is quite different from the standard Wellington design most other brands offer. The tightness around the ankle in combination with the raised lines on the top of the foot gives this boot an unique look. And where most wellington boots reach 16 inch (40 cm), these boots give you 18 inch (45-46 cm) of rubber protection around your legs. I for one would love my boots to be a bit taller than the standard 40cm.
The Grange boots are also available as a hip boot in green with the same yellow stripe at the top. With 32 inch of height I am pretty sure I would drown in these waders, but the fact they are available is great.
The Burly range of LaCrosse boots is similar to the Grange range but has thermal insulation. These boots are 18 inch (45-46 cm) tall as well and have the same unique design features mentioned before.
LaCrosse also sells a very extraordinary 2-buckle insulated boot that I have not seen before from any other brand. While the overall look of these boots is a lot less “clean”, I do like how they bring something unique to the rubber boots market. I would almost say they bring something “new”, but I am pretty sure the buckle boots are actually decades old in design and might have been popular something like a hundred years ago.
While there are many more boots available from LaCrosse, the other designs don’t really speak to me as they have too much insulation or are sold in camouflage which does little for me. The key issue is availability here though, as I have not seen these boots being offered within the EU so far.