The first time I heard of the Kaufman Black Diamond raingear brand was when it was mentioned on a rainwear related forum covering a major Hollywood motion picture starring Marilyn Monroe. The visual representation of this gear in wet conditions stoked up my interest and after a long search looking for information I hope I have an interesting story to tell about a rainwear brand you might have never heard of before either. Below some of this rainwear in its most stylish way: in a stream of water, combined with waders, and topped off with a interesting “Texan” rain hat. As this is workwear, it won’t get any more stylish from here onwards.
The Kaufman Rubber Company Limited was established in 1907 in Berlin, Ontario, Canada, by Jacob Kaufman. The city name of Berlin might be confusing but this town is located about 50 kilometres west of Toronto, Canada, and they changed the name of the town to Kitchener in 1916. It is Jacob Kaufman, a son of German parents, who is credited for establishing Kitchener’s ( = Berlin’s) rubber industry. First he founded the Berlin Rubber Manufacturing Company Limited with 3 partners, where they produced about 800-1,000 pairs of rubber boots a day. But after a falling out with his partners, Kaufman set out to launch his next business in 1903; the Merchants Rubber Co. together with one other partner. After 3 years of making profits producing rubber-based footwear the company was acquired by the Canadian Consolidated Rubber Company of Montreal which also bought his previous company Berlin Rubber in a search for small rubber companies they could consolidate. With money from his previous ventures, experience in setting up rubber companies, and some persuasion of his son who also had experience in this branch, Jacob Kaufman established the Kaufman Rubber Company in 1907 and opened the doors of his factory in 1908 with 350 employees aiming to produce for the local and international markets.
The company made a surprising wide array of rubber footwear, ranging from hip waders and professional grade rubber boots, to rubber city boots and more regular shoes. Below a page from the catalogue for 1912-1913 showing a pair of heavy fishermen’s boots on the left and a lighter pair of rubber boots for city use on the right.
The surprisingly wide range of available boots can be explained by the mostly manual production process. While heavy machinery was necessary, it does not compare to the almost completely automated systems you see in modern factories these days. Below a picture of the Kaufman milling department in the 1920s, with heavy machinery being operated by workers.
The cutting of materials as well as the sewing and gluing of the boots together was done by hand, meaning smaller production series can be made. In the picture below you can see the packaging department with rows of boots waiting to be packed. Producing a certain type of boot in series of maybe 10 pairs of boots per time was regular practice back then but will be highly inefficient today.
With the death of Jacob Kaufman in 1920 the company was handed over to his son Alvin Kaufman. In the years that followed the company further extended the range of products to other categories, but the common denominator continued to be rubber. Most interestingly the line of rubber clothing was introduced for industries such as fishing, mining, and firefighting. Below pictures from Instagram user iamheavyrubber showing the interesting details of the rubber rainwear for miners: first the brand logo and second the imprint on one of the buttons.
And below a close-up of the logo used on their regular heavy rubber rainwear, also from iamheavyrubber, here shown on a sou’wester rain hat.
As you can see from the pictures above the raingear is made from heavy-duty rubber which needs to be able to stand extreme weather conditions and wear-and-tear. Below a complete rainsuit in heavy rubber combined with rubber boots and heavy rubber gloves, giving optimal protection – photo by Simon Avery.
It was the quality of this rainwear that would result in some interesting order for the Kaufman Rubber Company that would eventually turn out to be a showcase in a motion movie picture featuring Marilyn Monroe.
NIAGARA: THE MOVIE AND THE FALLS
The Niagara water falls have been a tourist attraction for over 400 years, with visitors travelling the globe to experience the spectacle of Niagara – one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls. Some of the oldest pictures of tourists visiting the falls are from halfway the 19th century, nicely showing the fashion of that time with men wearing top hats. Picture below is dated circa 1854 and accredited to Platt D. Babbitt.
While in the picture above the people stay at a safe distance from the spray coming from the waterfall, it was already possibly back then to come closer to the falls and experience its beauty. Rainwear was already available back then, as shown in the picture below dated 1855-1860 accredited to Edward Davis, which could probably be rented locally. The particular style of the head cover the woman is wearing suggests this rainwear was specially created for visiting the waterfalls and was not personal rainwear belonging to these particular people. The material of this gear is most likely oil-impregnated cotton-canvas as that was the most rugged and reliable rainwear available at that time.
The artwork below, dated 1891, shows how close by people were able to come to the waterfall and the specialized raingear they had to wear to not end up completely soaked.
The picture below, coming from the Flickr profile of Simpleinsomnia, shows the rainwear used on the boat Maid of the Mist 2. This picture nicely shows the rainwear in detail and the combination of the reflection and wrinkles in the material convinces the gear is made out of linseed-oil impregnated cotton-canvas.
With a steady stream of tourists visiting Niagara every year the first steps were undertaken to improve opportunities to come ever closer to the waterfall and avoid accidents. While at first tourist climbed down steep banks and over big boulders, or down crude ladders, in the early 1800s enclosed stairs and walkways were added to the site. Below the old-style walkways on the side of the rock one had to take to come close to the waterfalls (source: http://niagaraparks.com).
Tunnels were drilled out, hydraulic elevators were installed, and a building with a changing room was constructed over time. The undated picture below shows some of the rainwear used at Niagara; notice the complete protection it offers by coming almost to the ground and the specially created hoods to keep the wet mist out. Gloves could have been a nice addition in my view, as well as some rim to keep water away from the face.
There is little information available when exactly the switch was made from linseed based rainwear to rubber rainwear: probably nobody would have phantomed my interests in the raingear used so many years later. What ads to the confusion might be that the materials could be mislabeled at certain points. Below a postcard dating back to the early 1900s where “The Roosevelt Bears” are getting ready to explore the Niagara Falls: “They dressed themselves in rubber suits, With rubber hoods and rubber boots”. Those lucky bears. Postcard available on Cardcow.
Below an undated picture of the changing rooms at Niagara waterfalls (source nflibrary) with heavy raincoats hanging from hangers in the back and boxes with rainboots standing in front.
Further upgrades were made to the Niagara tourist attraction over time, including more modern changing rooms and the availability of Kaufman heavy-duty rainwear. Below a picture of inside a building showing people dressed up in rainwear, ready to go see the falls from up-close. The choice for the Kaufman brand was obvious: this heavy-duty gear would give optimal protection against the mists coming from the waterfall and was virtually indestructible meaning they could last decades.
Tourists would arrive at the first desk telling the size of raincoat they wanted, which would then be handed over by a worker who would have all sizes available from a rail with hundreds of raincoats. At the next counter the process repeated itself for a pair of rainboots. Below a movie still from the 1953 movie Niagara showing the dressing rooms. The situation shown here is most likely set up for the movie and the dressing rooms looked different in reality.
Once dressed in this heavy rubber gear visitors would be able to enter the tunnels and viewing platforms without getting soaked or risk losing grip on the slippery walkways. On the way back the raincoat and rainboots would be handed back and quickly cleaned and dried for use by following visitors.
The Niagara waterfalls became the background for the Marilyn Monroe movie “Niagara”, released in 1953. Part of this thriller plays around the waterfalls and several scenes are shot with the actors wearing heavy rainwear. Below a picture of Marilyn Monroe in her rainwear outfit for the movie; the female visitors of the site are dressed in yellow gear and black rubber boots. While the gear looks rather dull in this picture, it will come alive in the movie when it gets wet and shiny.
The male visitors wear black rainwear, as shown below in a movie still. Notice the Kaufman logo visible on the centre of the hood, indicating at least the black raingear used in that time was made by the Kaufman Rubber Company Limited.
Which company made the yellow rainwear worn by the female visitors in the movie is unbeknown to me, at some points in the movie you can see a small brand indication on the rainwear but I was unable to make up which brand it is. Below a movie still of a kissing scene with the red logo partly visible on the hood of the yellow raingear.
My suspicion is, based on historical pictures and film, that different operators at the site made use of different types of raingear. Nowhere could I find evidence that men were normally dressed in black and women in yellow: it is more likely everyone was dressed in either black or yellow depending if you visited the waterfalls at the American or Canadian site, and depending on which operator you used for your boat trip. From a visual perspective the choice of differentiating men and women by color of rainwear in the movie is clear: it balances the colors in the scene, it makes it easier for the viewer to track different people who are hard to recognize in their rubber rainwear with mist spraying over them, and historically the “bad guy” is often depicted in dark colors while the “good guy”, or in this case the big star Marilyn Monroe, is wearing lighter colors.
Another interesting aspect is that in the movie everyone is wearing both a raincoat and rain trousers, while the trousers seem to have disappeared in the years after at the falls. A logical reason for this can be that trousers not only add extra time to put on, something that might limit the maximum capacity of the dressing rooms, the wear and tear is often also much higher meaning they would be replaced sooner and leaving them away is a quick way to limit costs. Later purchases of new rainwear would most likely be of PVC rainwear, as this is similarly tough as rubber rainwear but cheaper to purchase and probably easier to maintain. Below a picture of Princess Diana visiting the Niagara Falls in 1991 where she did a boat tour and was dressed in blue PVC rainwear.
In 1990 the raincoats and rubber boots were discontinued at the site and replaced by light plastic rain ponchos which can be kept as a souvenir. The reason for this switch has to be obvious: instead of maintaining a complete changing room, a building full of raincoats and rainboots that need to be stored, cleaned, and dried, and several people handing the gear out and taking it back in, it is much easier and more hygienic to simply hand everyone a small package containing a plastic poncho that they can keep or throw away after use.
The decision to switch to single-use plastic ponchos is a decision that does hurt though. It takes away the opportunity for visitors to experience the historically interesting heavy rubber raincoats combined with rubber trousers and rubber boots. For me personally the whole process of dressing up in heavy rubber gear and testing it in this extreme environment would be tremendously interesting, and maybe more people would experience it that way if given the opportunity. A thin plastic poncho would cheapen the experience.
UPS AND DOWNS – 1950s to 2000s
The increased competition from other materials and producers, like cheap plastic replacing heavy rubber raingear at the Niagara falls in 1990, is something that has happened continuously to the Kaufman Rubber Company Limited. During the Second World War the supply of rubber came under pressure with Japan’s aggressive expansion strategy in Asia, home of most rubber trees. Rubber was re-used during the war and synthetic rubbers were invented to limit the shortfall, but availability of rubber products during the war time for non-essential use was very limited. Below a World War 2 rubber raincoat made by Kaufman for the Canadian Army. Notice the heavy metal closings of the jacket, that kind of quality is hard to come by these days.
With the end of the war the demand for rubber from the military industrial complex disappeared and good times started for producers of rubber products: consumers could finally catch up buying products containing rubber and demand was soaring. But it didn’t take long before producers worldwide expanded their production and saturated demand at their home markets; the next step was exporting the products abroad. The increased competition from foreign-made rubber products became a huge problem for the Kaufman Rubber Company, and they were forced to explore manufacturing footwear made from synthetic materials. In 1953 they introduced Foamtread slippers and in 1954 they pioneered the slush-moulding of PVC under the name Showertogs. Production of leather boots was started under the brand name Kingtreads and a very successful line of hiking and hunting boots was introduced in 1959 with the brand name Sorel.
Also the heavy rubber rainwear line they produced came under pressure and the brand introduced “Aqualite” waterproof coating which was just as waterproof as rubber rainwear but much lighter and therefore more comfortable to wear. Below a 1950s advertisement poster of Aqualite rainwear which was produced besides their range of rubber rainwear.
In 1964 the company name was changed to Kaufman Footwear Limited, a logical choice as their most successful product lines were not based on rubber anymore. The Sorel line became more and more important for the company, but could not save them from experiencing financial trouble in the last years of the 20th century, partly due to soft winters which diminished the demand for their warm winter footwear. In April 2000, the Red Wing Shoe Company signed a letter of intent to purchase Kaufman Footwear but the deal fell through and Kaufman Footwear was declared bankrupt in July 2000.
With the Kaufman Rubber Company out of business since halfway of 2000 the supply of their rubber boots and rubber rainwear has disappeared, just as their rubber rainwear that featured in the Marilyn Monroe movie “Niagara” disappeared in 1990. The only things left of the company and her products is the brand name “Sorel”, which became part of the Columbia Sportswear Company in Portland in September of 2000, some vintage photos, videos, and memories of the rubber rainwear they produced, and of course the last original rainwear items still being offered on second-hand websites. Below one of the last pictures I could find of brand new Kaufman rainwear from The Rain Store, a website that still loads but any attempt for contact gives an automated mail delivery failure notification. The gear on show looks like an absolute dream though, with a shiny black rubber boot and hip wader, some unidentified black raingear still in its original packaging, and an eye-catching yellow rain hat with the Kaufman Black Diamond logo in bright red on the front. Imagine wearing that complete outfit in black rubber with the yellow details on the boots and the yellow rain hat to break the colors.
An option to get some original Kaufman heavy rubber raingear is scouting second-hand sales places online and in the real world. Multiple items can easily be found on ebay and worthpoint, but given this quality of raingear is not being produced anymore and it fits well with a niche group of rainwear enthusiast, you can expect high prices being asked. Below two pictures of Kaufman Black Diamond rubber boots which are still going strong after decades of use. Both pictures are sourced from waderguy_bc on flickr.
Notice the different logos on the boots: the Kaufman Company had several logos in use for their products, even at the same time. An overview of their trademarked logos can be found here. The logo in the top picture above is a maple leaf with the Kaufman in it, a better detailed view is on the inside of the rubber raincoat below.
The logo on the second pair of boots, with the beautifully contrasting red, can be better inspected on the picture below from instagram user iamheavyrubber although the red and black are switched on the logo below.
Another option is to find “reproduction” rainwear closely matching the cut and materials of the original Kaufman Black Diamond rubber-on-cotton raingear. There are two online websites that claim to have original moulds or patterns in their possession, something they could have picked up at the bankruptcy sale-off in 2000, and who are still producing “Kaufman sou’westers”. First there is F.L. Woods with a sou’wester in black vulcanized rubber with flannel lining for $98CAD, as shown below.
And secondly Zephron has a black sou’wester of unknown material for $55 Canadian. Unfortunately no heavy rubber raincoats or rainpants are available, nor any “Kaufman rubber boots or waders”. Zephron did not react to further inquiries about their products.
The story of the Kaufman Rubber Company is an interesting one in my view. Jacob Kaufman shaped an important industrial part of his home town and his raingear outlived his company. And although the heavy rubber gear would not be very fashionable these days, or at any time as it is workwear, it is an interesting part of rainwear history. There is some beauty to shiny black heavy rubber rainwear that is maybe better explained in a picture than in words.
Below three more pictures (by photographer Simon Avery) of Kaufman Black Diamond raingear being used what it was intended for, which is in some way the best way to honour the founder and his range of rainwear.
- Rainwear forum “rainwearcentral”
- Website of the Niagara parks with their history
- Overview of trademarks owned by Kaufman
- Waterloo library website detailing Kaufman Footwear
- Mastershoe.co.uk on the history of Sores footwear
- Wikipedia on Jacob Kaufman
- WordPress page on the industrial history of the city of Berlin, CA
- Damnyak.ca on Kaufman rubber – Sorel boots
- University of Waterloo collection from the Kaufman Footwear Fonds
- Canadian Gov site with the exact date of bankruptcy for Kaufman
Editorial note: it appears that the rainwear with the “Miner” brand is actually produced by a seperate company named Miner Rubber Company, founded in 1911 by Stephen Miner, and dissolved in 1982. It is not clear to me how the Miner company and the Kaufman company used a similar logo and had the same product range name and products, without them being connected in some way. I will need to look into this further and will update when I understand what is (was) going on.