Unknown to many, the Tretorn brand which sells fashionable sneakers, rainboots, and raincoats, actually has a long history spanning well over a century and making the former owner the richest person in Sweden. The origins of this fashion brand go back to the end of the 19th century with a rubber factory in Helsingborg. They manoeuvre themselves through 2 world wars, produce a wide range of rubber products including many different rubber boots and rubber rainwear, only to end up closing the doors of their factory in 1980. Below a vintage advertisement poster for Tretorn rubber boots, showing a stylish high boot combined with rubberized rainwear in bright colours (source).
“Sometimes I went straight from the hotel to the production line without any sleep at all” recalled Henry Dunker about his early years working at the Helsingborgs Rubber factory. His father, Johan Dunker, a Danish port engineer who was recruited to lead the port expansion at Helsingborg in 1872, began planning for a rubber factory in Helsingborg in 1888. Two years later, with the help of several rich local businessmen, a company was formed and construction of the factory started in 1891. The goal was to produce rubber galoshes, best described as overshoes which one would put over their leather shoes to protect them from the Swedish weather. While the galosh was actually an American invention from the Goodyear company, most imports came from Russia which had the reputation of producing the highest quality. By producing them locally Johan Dunker would be able to compete with the Russian products directly, although it quickly became clear it would not be that easy. Below a picture from 1901 showing the Helsingborgs Gummifabrik (source). The opening of a rubber factory had a large impact on a place ranging from positives like employment and wealth, to negatives like high levels of pollution and employees coping with diminishing health due to the work with heavy machinery and being exposed to chemicals. The Helsingborg Gummifabrik certainly influenced the lives of the people in Helsingborg considerably.
Quality issues hammered the factory from the start with products being returned by customers and Russian-made galoshes being preferred. Johan Dunker had brought in his son Henry Dunker previously, and he was now sent on a mission to Russia to find out how Russian rubber products would stay flexible in the cold while not melt in the heat. The Russians were unwilling to share their secrets with him, but he caught word that a certain skilled chemist in Riga might be able to help him further. That chemist was named Julius Gerkan, and he joined the company in the role of technical manager in 1892. It took another 10 years of hard work to meet the quality and production levels to compete with the Russian products; a time when Henry Dunker worked virtually around the clock going out on business sales and working in the factory between business trips. Below an old advertisement prent of their main product: the galoscher (source).
Henry Dunker doubled down on his beliefs by acquiring a majority shareholding in the Trelleborgs Gummifabrik (formerly Velox) in 1905 and acquiring the majority interest in the Helsingborg factory in 1910. With control over 2 factories he managed to gain better control over the distribution network and expand the range of rubber projects with balls, swimming caps, gloves, tires, raincoats, and industrial products. He became so powerful within the rubber industry that he managed to form a cartel in 1912 in order to raise prices in the domestic market to finance expansions abroad. Below a picture of the packaging department, where wooden crates were build to ship the galoshes to shops (source digitaltmuseum.se). Notice the words “Tre torn” burned into the wooden crates; the name was registered in 1912 and would only later become a brand name.
The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 turned the rubber industry into a crucial part of the war efforts with the entire production focusing on the needs of the Swedish defense forces. Gas mask, tires, hoses, rubber boots, and raincoats were produced for the troops, bringing vast profits to Dunker. Pictured below (source) a rubber protective suit distributed to Swedish troops during the Great War. The use of gas and chemical weapons made protective wear necessary, including a full-face gas mask, thick rubber gloves, rubber boots, and a waterproof protective suit. This gear was produced at the Trelleborg site, which mainly focused on the production of industrial rubber products as opposed to household goods at the Helsingborg site.
A further windfall was the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917 which had devastating effects on the production of goods in Russia. With their biggest competitors virtually wiped out golden times approached for the Swedish rubber industry. In the years after the Great War demand increased strongly for car tires, which quickly became their single largest product, but also for inflatable leisure articles like swimming rings, air mattresses, and rubber boats. It did not take long for Henry Ducker’s company to become Europe’s leading producer of galoshes and rubber shoes. In 1934 the rubber factories in hands of Henry Dunker were merged under a new parent company named “Tretorn AB”. Below a commercial poster for the galosher rubber overshoes, dated around 1925-1926 (source). Notice the logo in red, showing the three towers on the city’s fortress. The name Tretorn, or Tre torn, translates as three towers.
The next upswing in demand comes with the outbreak of the Second World War. The production is again readjusted towards the war efforts, but this time Sweden remains neutral in the conflict. For Swedish companies these are great times, as they do not suffer from crippling bombardments or a loss of workforce, and are able to sell to both the allied as the axis forces. Like most rubber factories in Europe the supply of rubber diminishes with the Japanese controlling South- East Asia where most rubber plantations are, so experiments with synthetic rubber are started and new products are produced from regenerated rubber coming from households. Below a picture (source) of rubber products collected by citizens for regeneration. By handing in their old products citizens were able to support the war effort in their country.
The Swedish rubber industry is perfectly positioned for the increase in demand after the Second World War, and a decreased demand in galoshes is quickly compensated by increased demand in rubber boots. With 3000 employees Tretorn becomes the biggest rubber producer in Scandinavia reaching a total production of 7 million rubber boots a year in the 1950’s. Below a product promotion setup from the Trelleborg rubber factory in 1946 (source), showing the range of “protective clothing” they produced. Different types of rainwear are shown, with on the left the more stylish city raincoats and on the right the workwear for the fishing industry.
Besides rainwear the factory also sold waterproof tarps or fabrics, and on the floor different types of rubber gloves are showcased. Especially the pair on the right stand out and a clearer picture of that type of fingerless gloves can be found below (source).
Not all rainwear produced was workwear, or clearly made out of rubber. A range of different models raincoats for regular use were also produced, most comparable to the Mackintosh style raincoats from the UK. Below a picture (source) from a raincoat produced at the Trelleborg factory just post-war, showing the waterproof layer of rubber nicely hidden between layers of fabric.
Competition from Asia is increasing though. With lower wages and being closer situated to the raw materials Asian companies are able to produce similar rubber boots for half the price, quickly taking over the European market. Local European factories try to compete with more stylish designs and higher quality, but it is only a matter of time for they throw the towel in the ring. A long period of workforce cuts ends with the factory in Helsingborg closing its doors in 1980. Below a page from the Tretorn catalogue of rubber boots from 1961 (source), showing a small part of the rubber footwear range available including wellington boots, workshoes, and hipwaders.
An example of more stylish boots can be found below (source), notice the form of the boots which is quite feminine combined with bright colours and the brand name prominently displayed.
The production of rubber boots is continued on a smaller scale under the name Stovel AB Tre Torn, which later changes name to Sweden Boots. The Tretorn brand name was given a second chance of life as part of the Puma Group from 2002 till 2015, after which Tretorn was sold to the Authentic Brands Group. They produce both rainwear and rainboots which are still available today. Production has long since moved to Asia to limit the costs of production.
Note: during the 1970s the company introduced the Acquo boots for a period of time. These high boots in black rubber were marketed to women but could not change the trajectory the company was going. In the middle of the 2010s, the Acquo boots were relaunched by an independent company which still produces feminine tall boots under the Acquo brand name.
Current range of gear
While in the past the Tretorn company produced a wide range of products, ranging from rainwear, to tennis balls, tires, and industrial products, the company has long since been split into different components. Under the Puma brand the focus become very clear though: fashion. And this has not changed since. Rainwear is still the main product, but they are clearly diversifying into winter clothes, sneakers, and more casual gear that can be sold year long. Below I will discuss some of their more interesting products in detail.
Surprisingly Tretorn is “still” making galosches: the product they started out with in the 19th century. These rubber overshoes should be worn over a regular pair of shoes in case of rain and mud, something that might come in handy when you wear expensive suede or leather shoes to work. To be honest I have never ever seen anyone wear galoshes in my lifetime, and I would not be interested in purchasing a pair myself. My interest in them is purely based on the fact that Tretorn was started to produce these overshoes over 125 years ago, and they are again making them now.
I would have expected a wide range of tall rainboots from Tretorn, but their range of tall boots is quite lacking. Instead they seem to focus much more on playful shorter boots in a range of bright colours. The Wings boots are most notable, with a recognizable white rim near the sole of the boot and available in colours like pink, yellow, and red. The Wings range of products was first launched in the 1960s when sailing became popular as a sport and a hobby. The design of these rubber boots is characteristic for sailing. While I prefer tall boots myself, mostly because I like stepping in puddles, I can see the attractiveness of these shorter boots and how they could be useful in an urban setting. Especially combined with a Wings raincoat in matching colour it is hard to go wrong with these rubber rainboots.
By far the best looking range of raincoats on offer from Tretorn is, in my view, the Wings range. These raincoats are made from PU (polyurethane) which is an environmental sound choice compared to PVC, but unfortunately it also means the material feels and looks relatively uninteresting.
The general audience that cares most about staying dry would not be bothered by this choice of material, but once you compare it to the material of a genuine PVC raincoat, from the Stutterheim brand for example, you will notice something is missing.
Once wet the PU starts to be much more interesting visually, reflecting the light and giving a smoother look, but the thickness and feel will not be as mesmerizing as PVC. Below a Tretorn raincoat that has come alive in the rain.
Tretorn has clearly become a fashion brand and will be mostly interesting for the general population who is just looking for a cute rainwear outfit without thinking too much about it. A combination of Wings rainboots and a Wings raincoat in the same colour would be an easy choice. The brand is stylish, has brand recognition in most European countries, and is a safe pick for anyone looking for a raincoat and rainboots with good quality to keep you dry. Personally I would prefer different brands of raingear that stand out more and make more of a statement, but I cannot blame anybody going for a Tretorn outfit.
- Swedish wikipedia on Tretorn
- Skane Business Archive about Henry Dunker
- Dunkerstiftelserna about Henry Dunker
- Swedish wikipedia about the Helsingborgs Gummifabrik
- Wikipedia on Henry Dunker
- Trelleborg rubber factory about their history
- UTIL SPC about the Trelleborg rubber factory
- Helsingborgs Stadslexikon about their city’s rubber factory
- An interview with the designers of the Tretorn brand
- Kulturkortet about the effects of a rubber factory on the people living and working there
- Tretorn’s own site explaining their history