Nokian from Finland

This will be a closer look into the history of the Finnish brand of Nokian, a company that finds its origins 125 years ago in Helsinki and has since then been active with rubber products, paper products, cables, electricity, mobile phones, and communication services. The focus of this article will be exclusively on their rainwear, which is probably best known for their iconic Kontio rubber boots as shown below in a picture from the now defunct website 123rubberboots.com, but also includes rubber raincoats, rainsuits, and other protective gear.

Company history

The Finnish rubber industry finds its first inception in 1895 in the municipality of Hämeenlinna where a small rubber factory is established. The owners put in their heart and soul, but the company never manages to find the right combination of compounds and production method to come with any viable products. Within a short time the company goes bankrupt. The second attempt, this time by a different group of Finnish businessmen, is undertaken in 1898 with the establishment of Suomen Gummitehdas Oy, which translates as “Finnish Rubber Works”, in the capital city of Helsinki. Similar problems arise here as well: it is difficult to find the right methods and ingredients to produce durable rubber products. The first years the company mostly loses money, but further investments are made as there is a clear demand for rubber footwear which is now mainly imported from Russia.

In 1904 a new facility for Suomen Gummitehdas Oy is built in the city of Nokia. While the romanticized company story mentions the beautiful surroundings there, the main attractions for settling in this specific place is a combination of cheap labour and access to electrical power coming from the nearby river. Below a picture from the 1890s of the river Nokianvirtra which shows huge potential for generating hydropower (source)

With a 500-volt powerline from the Nokia Osakeyhtiö electricity plant, and the moving of 49 employees and the managing director from their factory in Helsinki, the rubber factory is now able to start producing its first batches of rubber galoshes. The uptick in quality is noticeable with the new machinery and the company starts using the Nokia name to community Finnishness and distinguish its products from the cheaper imported Russian footwear. Market share quickly increases with the production of galoshes reaching 67,000 pairs at the end of 1905. The move to Nokia and the additional investments has put the factory on the track of profitability. Below an early advertisement poster showing rubber galoshes coming down the river of Nokianvirtra, communicating the importance of this rubber footwear and the hydropower from the river for the company.

The galoshes easily find their way to the Finnish population who use the rubber overshoes to protect their more expensive leather or fabric shoes from the elements. Rubber galoshes are basically elastic covers that you put over your regular shoes to make them waterproof. Below a depiction (source) from 1926 showing two kids in wet weather with the boy having a pair of galoshes over his regular footwear.

Besides rubber overshoes Suomen Gummitehdas Oy also produces regular wellington tall boots which are more seen as work shoes by the general population. Galoshes are intended for city folks wanting to protect their regular shoes, while boots are aimed at professionals and people upcountry who need to keep their feet dry all day long. The advertisement poster below shows a pair of Nokia rubber boots worn by a worker in the forestry industry. This sector was especially important for the municipality of Nokia as their industrial base was in the wood processing industry.

Business is going well for the rubber factory and things only get better with the outbreak of the Great War. The main competition for rubber footwear is Russia, but with Russia picking up arms they quickly get cut off from their rubber imports. Not only do competing rubber products stop reaching Finland, the imports quickly turn into exports with the Finnish Rubber Works earning sky high profits by shipping products to the Russians. With this huge jump in income the company is perfectly set to take over Nokia Ab, the company that dominated the wood processing industry in Nokia and owned the electrical power plant as well, in 1918 and in 1922 they also take the majority interest in Suomen Kaapelitehdas Oy, or the Finnish Cable Works, which produces telephone cables and electrical wires. Below an aerial view of the rubber factory in the 1930s (source).

It takes till 1967 for the three individual companies to fully merge into a single company forming Nokia Corporation. This company grows out to become one of the leading telecommunications companies in the world, maybe best known for their virtually indestructible mobile phones (the Nokia 3210) introduced during the late nineties. The production of rubber footwear is split off from Nokia Corporation in 1990, when it continues as a separate entity under the name Nokian Footwear Ltd. In 2005 the family business Berner Oy purchases the footwear manufacturing business which is in trouble as Finnish rubber footwear is unable to compete with the much cheaper foreign rubber boots that are flooding the market. Production is moved from Finland to Serbia and Slovakia, and production under the Nokian Jalkineet brand of footwear within Finland ended in 2007.

That was not the end of the rubber boot production in Nokia though, as in 2007 Suomen Kumitehdas Oy (formerly known as Suomen Gummitehdas Oy) announced it will start producing rubber boots under their own name. Since the factory used to produce the Nokian Kontio rubber boots their new model will be an almost exact replica which is possible since the arbitration court lifted the ban on competing with Nokian Jalkineet. The company mentioned they have plans of bringing 20 different types of boots to the market, but the limited amount of available images and information dating from after 2007 makes me wonder if business is going really well. Below a screenshot from a pair of Finnish-made Suomen rubber boots available online for 169 euros, which is more than double a pair of regular Kontio boots go for locally (source).

With the general overview of the company done, it is now time to take a closer look of their products which will give much more details of the historical roots of Nokia/Nokian.

Products

The very first products produced were basic galoshes, or rubber overshoes, that people would use to cover their regular footwear against mud and water. These galoshes were made from flexible rubber to make it possible to pull them over your regular shoes, and were widely used when the streets turned wet and muddy. Below a miniscule printed advertisement for Nokian galoshes from 1910 (source). Notice how the advertisement mentions “Nokian” instead of Nokia, which can be explained by that Nokian means “from Nokia”, like a product made in America is referred to as “American”.

Below an image from the production hall in Nokia where the rubber galoshes were made. This particular images dates from 1933 (source) and shows the (mostly) female workforce putting together the pre-cut pieces of rubber around an aluminium last. Notice the lack of conveyor belt work: each woman has her own workbench where all parts are glued around the aluminium last from start to finish.

Also the tall boots were produced by a (mostly) female workforce, with below a picture from 1933 showing the start of the process where the first pieces of rubber are glued around the tall last (source).

The tall rubber boots, or wellington boots, were more popular outside the city and also found its way to other countries. Wellington boots were mostly seen as workwear instead of fashionable footwear and therefore less common in urban environments. Below the cover of the Nokia price and products list from 1937 (source).

On the third page an overview is giving of their range of rubber boots, showing the mostly professional target audience for their hunting boots, farming boots, and fishing waders. Only in the bottom right there are different types of more fashionable urban boots depicted, as shown below. Notice these boots are only available in children’s and women’s sizes ranging from (EU) 25 to (EU) 42.

And very typical for the Nordic countries: Nokia also produced rubber skiing boots, as shown in the bottom left of the third page from their 1937 price list.

Post World War 2 the demand for rubber footwear increased in Finland with more and more people finding time for leisure activities and nature offering excellent opportunities to enjoy life. Demand for rubber boots increased and advertisements slowly started to include tall rubber boots in a more fashionable setting as well as shown below depicting a pair of boots in a more urban setting (source).

Similar to most rubber factories around Europe, Suomen Kumitehdas (previously Suomen Gummitehdas Oy) produced almost any type of rubber product they could find a demand for. Especially interesting for this site are the rubber raincoats they produced during the fifties. Below a picture showing a Nokia rubber raincoat worn by an employee of the Protective Gear department, coming from the collection of the Finnish Kerava Museum.

Besides these stunningly beautiful and classy long rubber raincoats they also produced rubber ponchos which would be perfect for while riding a bicycle. Below an advertisement from 1957 (source) showing some of the products being sold by Nokia, including a hot water bottle, snorkelling gear, a travel pillow, and of course a rubber poncho.

Different types of rainwear were produced by Nokia during the fifties and sixties. The picture below, coming from the collection of the Finnish Kerava Museum, shows a group of employees demonstrating the different rainsuits being produced. While the previously shown long raincoat is confirmed to be made from rubber, the material for this rainwear could be either rubber or PVC although I have not seen any evidence of them having purchased high-frequency welding machines during that time period which would be needed for making PVC rainwear.

It is only a small step from producing rainwear to other protective clothing, as shown in the advertisement below (source) where a person is dressed in full protective gear, including a gas mask, doing radiation measurements.

While the text of the advertisement above does not explicitly mention the protective suit, as it talks about footwear and protective accessories, the picture below confirms Nokia did produce the complete outfit (source). Even the gas mask was produced by Nokia, based on the designs of the American M9 gas mask. Nokia produced these M61 gas masks in slightly different forms from the 1960s to the 1980s for both military and civilian use.

The links between Nokia producing specific gear for the military and other government departments dates back to 1935 and 1936, when different batches of rubber boots from Suomen Gummitehdas Oy were distributed to the Finnish Border Guards for testing. These boots were preferred by many over leather or rubber-dipped footwear in wet and cold weather.

Another example of Nokia supplying government departments with footwear is in the corrections facilities. The Finnish Prison Museum has several pairs of Nokia boots in its collection, where the footwear could be used by either the guards or the prisoners. Pictured below a pair of work boots from the Hämeenlinna Central Prison (HKV: Hämeenlinnan keskusvankila) with a rubber part for around the foot and a fully integrated leather shaft (source).

In 1968 Nokia starts producing the playfully bright coloured Hai (shark) rubber boots. At first the boots were available in white, black, red and blue, making them extremely popular with the youth who preferred the boots over plain boring tall black boots. In 1970 the sales of these boots already set a record with 300,000 pairs being sold in Finland. Below a pair of vintage Hai boots from the seventies, now part of a museum collection (source).

Below a picture dating back to 1971 of the production of the Hai boots at Nokia (source). Interesting detail in this picture is that the production process switched from individual work stations to a conveyor belt production setup. Here one facility worker is not tasked with the production of a complete boot; instead each person does only one particular part of the process repeatedly.

And finally a print-advertisement (source) showing a bit more colour with a woman wearing a bright yellow pair of Top-Hai rubber boots.

The most iconic Nokia boot is introduced a couple of years later, in 1973, under the Kontio name. This full-length boot designed for men quickly becomes the most iconic Finnish rubber boot loved by both men and women. Below a promotional picture from Nokia showing a Kontio boot in white.

The popularity and overall quality of these rubber boots was reaffirmed when also the Finnish army started purchasing them for their troops. Shown below an army conscript with a standard-issued pair of military rubber boots from Nokia (source). Notice the nails in the sole of the boots: these were not present in the regular Kontio rubber boots which had a completely rubber sole.

While sometimes the Nokian Kontio is referred to as the “civilian version” of the military boots, the connection is more the other way around I suppose. The civilian version seems to have come first, followed by an adjusted military version with a sturdier sole, detachable lining, and other improvements. Below another picture (now defunct source) of a pair of military rubber boots by Nokia from the late 1980s, showing an updated sole.

The direct linkage between the modern Nokian Kontio boots and the modern military-issued Nokian rubber boots is even further away as there is the Nokian Naali as shown below. These boots are the actual civilian version of the Finnish military rubber boots, which can be deducted from warnings published by Nokian that supply might fluctuate as the orders from the Ministry of Defence have priority (source). My guess is that the durability of these boots must be pretty good, unfortunately they are also about twice as expensive as the similarly looking Kontio boots.

Below an image of unknown source showing some Finnish troops, with several soldiers wearing their rubber boots. Surprising little detail, which I hopefully identify correctly, is that even the military boots have a reflective stripe around the top of the shaft of the boots, which seems odd as that is normally an addition to make someone more visible in the dark. I would presume soldiers would rather not be too visible at night.

Both the Nokian Hai and Nokian Kontio are still available today, with especially the Kontio having become very iconic for Finland. While these rubber boots are sold at a large mark-up outside of Finland, with prices of around 90 euros (available at rainwear.store) to 130 euros for a pair and only a limited number of stores having them in stock, they are much more easily available in Finland for prices of as low as 60 euros in a sale. Every now and then pictures of row upon row of brightly coloured Kontio boots available in stores in Finland appear online, as below published on the website Helsinki-in. I would love to stumble upon that in a store!

Bonus material: the following two links have footage of the production process of Nokia boots in 1964 and 1982 respectively, from processing the raw rubber to calendering, cutting, and gluing the materials into a complete boot which is then finished by being vulcanization. Link 1964. Link 1982.

Cultural heritage

With millions of rubber boots sold it is not hard to acknowledge the boots by Nokian are part of the Finnish cultural heritage. The boots are widely available within the country, with prices starting sometime as low as 60 euros for a pair of Kontio rubber boots on sale and a standard price of 79 euros on the Nokian website. They are available in a range of colours, from black to plum, red, pink, and yellow. Unfortunately that price skyrockets when your postal address is outside of Finland, where a price of 100 euros is seen as “cheap”. In my view this turns these boots into the perfect Finnish souvenir for anyone visiting the country. What is more Finnish than a pair of Nokian Kontio rubber boots, possibly even combined with a raincoat of the Finnish brand Rukka as shown below by “naughtysugar” on Instagram?

And while both the red and yellow version of the Kontio boots are beautiful, the black ones are great in combination with a full Rukka rainsuit in yellow, picture again by “naughtysugar” on Instagram:

The basic design of the boots makes them easy to combine with any rainwear you already have. Below a picture of a low-key rainwear outfit by Farmerrain with shiny rain jeans and their Swedish grey raincoat combined with a pair of Kontio boots.

Not only the tall Kontio boots are a great representation of the Nokian brand, they also still produce their Hai (shark) low rainboots which were first introduced in 1968. They even have temporarily sold a complete range of Hai products, as shown below, which is a very interesting idea in my view.

The colour combination of the Hai boots was brought back into several related items of which especially the poncho has some clear historical context for the brand as shown in an old advertisement previously. The main issue here would be the lack of material consistency though: while the boots are rubber the poncho is made from PU and I can imagine the bag having a different look and feel again in real life. For obvious reasons not all gear is rubber-based, although that would spark some demand from many of the readers of this site I suppose. At the moment only a very uninteresting, in my view at least, rain poncho is still available of their “Hai-related” range, which is probably an indication that the colour matching items did not sell as expected. Maybe try again with a rubber poncho?

My personal interest goes, obviously, to the Nokian Kontio rubber boots as they are such a recognizable Finnish rainwear item and they look absolutely stunning in combination with a pair of Farmerrain rain jeans as shown above. The difference in prices within Finland and outside of the country are holding me back purchasing a pair though: it goes against my Dutch heritage (of being cheap) to just swallow the mark-up. Another possible issue will be the durability of the boots, as I have come across people mentioning a decline in quality now that production has been moved out of Finland. The military-grade boots would be a nice way to solve that issue I suppose. And I guess I now have just found myself an excuse to go visit Finland in the future.

Sources used: