Likely unbeknown to most, doing a deep-dive into a specific company, brand, or subject always is a gamble. Only after investing numerous hours you can get an idea if there really is an interesting story to tell. Sometimes you stumble on a treasure trove of information and pictures, while other times the company’s rainwear and rainboots are barely mentioned. For Phoenix it is the latter unfortunately.
And that is a waste, as Phoenix was the first producer of full rubber shoes and boots in Germany and their rubber boots are still beloved, or maybe hated after hours of sweating, as they are part of the German military zodiac protective suit. Shown above, a pair of these rubber zodiac suit boots for sale on the German site Gehrotex.de. This article will have some interesting historical information going for it, but unfortunately I was unable to find many images of their rubber boots.
Early days (1856 -1914)
In the early 1850s, shortly after the German revolutions of 1848-49, the second Industrial Revolution unleashes in Germany. New companies are created and factories are opened resulting in strong economic growth and wealth being spread through the population. Two entrepreneurs from France, the brothers Albert and Louis Cohen, set foot in the city of Harburg, which is located just below the German city of Hamburg. Outside the city gates they start construction of a huge factory which will make rubber shoes and vulcanized rubber. Below the old factory in Harburg (source: 150 Jahre Phoenix).
On June 13, 1856, after the brothers attain citizenship, the Harburger Shoe Factory starts operating with two steam engines, 40,000 lasts for rubber shoes, and 280 workers who work round the clock in shifts. Sales take off immediately, mainly because the locally produced rubber shoes can easily compete with foreign rubber footwear, and partly because of extremely bad weather turning the streets of Hamburg into mud. Production capacity is soon expanded, and with a doubling of the workforce a total of 5,000 rubber galoshes leave the factory every day. More production lines are soon added for other products like balls, sponges, and medical equipment, but rubber footwear stays the backbone of the company. Below a promotional stamp showing their “standard tennis balls” (source).
In 1864 the Phoenix brand is introduced to distinguishing its products from competitors. Up till this day it is unclear what the bird rising from the flames actually refers to; the process of making rubber products with heat or the unkillable entrepreneurship of the company. Pictured below the logo used to represent the brand (source). In 1872 the company sees changes in the ownership when a French investor has to pull out due to the Franco-Prussian war, and the company changes name to Vereinigte Gummiwaaren-Fabriken Harburg-Wien (United Rubber Goods Factories Harburg-Wien) after merging with Europe’s oldest rubber factory in Vienna. The sheer size of the combined company, now with over a thousand employees, gives it unprecedented importance and political power.
Business was going well with the company acquiring cheap raw inputs from colonies that can be brought in by boat, and their strategic location near the customs area of the North German Customs Union which promotes the sale of goods. The company does not shy away from using its political power to hold on to its favourable situation. Below an advertisement for their rubber shoes (source).
The first tires for prams, bicycles, and carriages start leaving the factory in the 1880s followed by hoses in 1893 and the first automobile tires in 1894. In 1905 a huge setback occurs with the shoe factory burning to the ground due to an accident and a year later the complete rubber shoe production needs to be destroyed due to quality problems with the rubber from Mexico. These issues can be quickly fixed though, unlike the dark clouds that start forming over Germany when it is heading towards the Great War. Below a picture of the shoe assembly department from around the early 1900s, with on the right their range of shoes and boots on display (source).
WW1 and the inter-war period (1914-1939)
It is hard for a German-based rubber company to keep production going as the import of raw rubber is soon cut off. The Harburg-Wien factories find work in using old rubber and other materials to produce emergency tires and other rubber goods. The production of airships, barrage balloons, and blimps, also takes off for as far material can be found. Below a picture of a very early balloon show where a promotional balloon is showcased (source: 150 Jahre Phoenix).
With the Great War ending in 1918 the problems are not over for the rubber factory. The terms of surrender the Germans signed result in a quick decline in the value of the German mark and a collapse of the German economy. The 50-year old partnership with Wien falls apart due to the economic troubles and the company changes name once more to the “Harburger Gummiwaren Fabrik Phoenix Aktiengesellschaft” (Harburger Rubber products factory Phoenix Public Company) (source). The bestselling products continued to be tires, rubber shoes, and rubber mats.
The German economy found its way up again in the year that followed and Phoenix was perfectly positioned to profit from the turn in tides. New rubber products were added to their portfolio, from work boots to aircraft tires and conveyor belts. Below an overview of their line of rubber workboots available in 1935 (source), with a range of regular-height boots for workers and farmers, as well as taller boots for factories and fishermen. Most interesting are the “Motorrad- und Angelsport” (motorcycle and fishing boots) boots shown, as it shows 80 cm tall waders to wear on a motorcycle. Sign me up!
The recession that started in 1929 brings these profitable years to an end when the company has record sales of 36 million Reichsmarks but manages to end the year with a loss. The situation doesn’t improve till 1932 when the first signs of economic growth appear again and Albert Schäfer comes aboard Phoenix to find new capital injections and refocus the company on the tire production. German’s ramping up of industrial production, to have a running start in the conflict they are about to create, brings golden times for the rubber industry. At 1938 the company is economically stronger than ever before with about 4,000 employees and record profits.
The darkest days (1939-1945)
With the outbreak of the Second World War the Phoenix rubber factory was perfectly situated as one of the largest producers in a sector that was deemed essential to the war. The largest threat was the exact same as during the Great War: the vulnerability of the supply lines of rubber. With most raw rubber being imported from South-East Asia it was relatively easy for the Russians or Americans to disrupt these supply lines. Precautions were taken years earlier though, with setting up production lines for synthetic rubber and synthetic fibres. Synthetic rubbers had been developed by the German company IG Farben and the production processes at Phoenix were prepared to this change of base material. Below an overview of the rubber production in Germany from 1939 till 1945, with the last two columns representing the total amount of synthetic rubber and what percentage these synthetic rubbers were of the total amount used (source).
As can be seen, from 1940 onwards the synthetic rubber, named Buna, has overtaken natural rubber. And while details are lacking of the products Phoenix produced during the start of the war, the table below gives an overview of the product categories made by Phoenix in 1944 and what their market share in the German production was (source).
Phoenix was responsible for 100% of the German rubber glove production and about 35% of the rubber-metal connections. The third category mentioned here is work boots. While the products made were deemed essential, resulting in the company operating “without restrictions”, the production crawls to a near stop after repeated bombing raids from 1943 onwards.
The company history during the Second World War is almost completely glossed over by Phoenix in it’s own promotional materials as both Phoenix General Director Schäfer, as well as Phoenix board member Otto Friedrich became members of the NSDAP (nazi) party and played important roles in helping the Germany produce products for their war effort. Especially the production of the synthetic rubber, Buna, has a very dark side with IG Farben opening a production facility in Auschwitz-Monowitz. The use of forced labour at this facility fell under immediate responsibility of Friedrich, who handled the procurement of Buna. Friedrich put in time and effort after the war to rewrite his own role during the period 1939-1945 and took over as CEO of Phoenix from Schäfer in 1949. Only 3 years later he managed to get Otto Ambros on the supervisory board of Phoenix appointed. Otto Ambros played a key role in the Buna production and was a convicted war criminal for his role in the use of slave labour from the Auschwitz labour camp.
Post war (1945-2004)
After the war it is Schäfer who is able to build a relationship of trust with the British occupying force and the rebuilding of the plant is started. With the help of financial support through the American Marshall Plan and currency reforms the economy begins to pick up speed again and Phoenix is able to use its position to fully profit. By 1949 Phoenix is back near the top again in the European rubber boots and sports shoes sector. In the 1950s a total of 28 workers assemble 1,200 sneakers per shift. These canvas shoes are soaked in rubber and are therefore more waterproof and elastic than leather shoes. Pictured below the canvas shoes made by Phoenix, which were seen as the German version of the Converse Chuck Taylor shoes (source).
With Phoenix’s role in mind in supplying the German army during the war, the company strengthens ties with the Bundeswehr (the German army of after WW2), which is growing rapidly as a reaction to the threat of the Soviet Union, and starts producing rubber products for them again. While the exact products they produced is hard to track down, the one item that carries their brand name is the rubber boots which are part of the German chemical protection suit (zodiac, or zodiac, suit). Pictured below a close-up of a black pair of rubber Phoenix boots which you can combine with the rubber zodiak suit. Gehrotex in Germany sells the boots as well as complete rubber zodiak suits and the matching gas masks.
While the Phoenix company continues taking over other rubber companies and finding profitable segments in the market, the decision is made in the seventies and eighties to focus on technical rubber products with a high profit margin. Their sports shoe segment is spun off into the new subsidiary Palladium SA, and their rubber boots production is completely stopped. That decision concludes the link between Phoenix and this site. In 2004 the company name Phoenix also disappears when it gets incorporated into ContiTech AG, a subsidiary of the German tire producer Continental.
- 150 Jahre Phoenix
- Newspaper Abendblatt about the Phoenix canvas shoes
- Kulturtag Harburg about rubber coming from colonies
- Harbuch.de about the rubber strike in the early 1900s
- Harbuch.de about the logo and name changes of Phoenix
- Veikkos about the Phoenix company history
- Company histories about Phoenix
- Harbuch.de about the political face of Phoenix part 1
- Harbuchde with part 2
- Wikipedia on Buna