Marlborough recalls shoemaking boom

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City was once a global capital of industry

Photo courtesy of the Marlborough Historical Society
The original John Frye shoe shop was founded during the Civil War.

By Brett Peruzzi, Contributing Writer

MARLBOROUGH – Before 1835, shoe manufacturing did not exist in Marlborough. A half-century later, the city boasted more than two dozen shoe companies and was believed to be the second-largest producer of shoes and boots in the world.

“In many ways, the making of shoes was solely responsible for turning Marlborough from an agricultural town focusing on apples to an industrial city,” local historian Paul Brodeur recently told the Community Advocate. 

Samuel Boyd pushes development

Brodeur is a long-time Marlborough resident and local historian, and a former trustee of the Marlborough Historical Society who has his own website about local history. 

He credits businessman Samuel Boyd with jumpstarting the shoemaking boom.

“[He was the] father of the city,” Brodeur said. “He was personally responsible for building the infrastructure of the city in the 19th century, mostly at his own expense.”

In 1835, Boyd and his brother Joseph started their shoe business. Previously, shoemaking had been a solo endeavor, with shoemakers sometimes traveling between towns to make one pair of shoes at a time for specific customers. 

Within two years of 1835, though, other companies had been started alongside Boyd’s effort. The nascent industry employed 150 people in Marlborough and produced over 100,000 pairs of shoes in 1837. The upward trend then continued.

Assembly lines and mechanization drive growth

Boyd introduced the concept of “shoemaking by team,” an early version of a factory assembly line. A few years later, Boyd partnered with a friend, Thomas Corey, to found the Boyd & Corey shoe company as the next step in his career.

The next decade marked the beginning of the “machine age.” Production skyrocketed as sewing and pegging machines dramatically increased the number of shoes a factory could turn out in a day. 

By 1855, Marlborough was producing two million pairs of shoes and boots a year. 

But that wasn’t the ceiling. The 1860s brought further automation in the form of steam power. That led Marlborough to become one of the major suppliers of boots for Union troops during the Civil War. It was during the war years that the John A. Frye Shoe Co. formed.

Workers’ strike initiates decline

Paul Brodeur said locals in the 1870s believed Boyd’s factory was the largest in the world. “Many of the early owners of the more than 20 factories [in Marlborough] learned from him,” Brodeur said. 

Immigrants, mostly from Quebec, Italy, Ireland and Greece, poured into Marlborough to work in the shoe factories. The industry grew in kind. 

But labor unrest around the turn of the 20th century dealt a blow less than a decade after Marlborough became a city in 1890. 

“The Great Shoe Strike of 1898 and 1899 shut down production and crippled the industry,” Brodeur said. 

“The entire city was adversely affected, and the growth of the city stopped entirely,” he added. 

People sold their homes. Businesses closed and sold their facilities. Those workers who immigrated expressly to work in the factories struggled. 

Shoe era ends in Marlborough

While more shoe companies continued to open during the first half of the 20th century, increasingly they could not compete with factories in faraway locations where wages were much lower. 

The businesses that had fueled Marlborough’s growth and prosperity began to shut down. 

In 1982, Frye Boot moved its manufacturing out of the city. 

The final survivor, Marlborough Footware, which had started less than 20 years earlier in 1963, then also left. 

The nearly century-and-a-half legacy of shoe manufacturing in Marlborough was over.