Shoe Manufacturing

Walnut Hills played a significant early role in Cincinnati’s important shoe and boot manufacturing. Three concerns active in the 1870’s, all run by English immigrants, illustrate the large-scale industrialization of the industry. Quintin Eagle on Elmwood Av. (later Alms Place) manufactured shoe uppers from the 1870’s though the ‘90’s – a specialization that only made sense in a jobbing economy with a wholesale market for these parts. George Lapthorn and his family began producing shoes in a shop on Willow St. (now Preston) in the 1860’s. By 1880 half a dozen family members worked in the business, including “Mary E., forelady,” and thirty hands “with all the modern improvements, with a capacity of turning out eight hundred pairs of shoes per week.” In the mid-eighties the factory moved downtown, but Mrs. George Lapthorn had a boot and shoe store on Woodburn near Madison in 1892 which relocated to 483 McMillan a few years later.
George Stribley, the most important of the Walnut Hills shoe merchants, first went in to business in 1849 on McMillan near Kemper Lane, and a few years later moved to McMillan near Gilbert. (He was one of the founding members of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in 1855.) During the Civil War “he purchased a McKay sole sewing-machine, being the first to introduce this machine west of the Alleghany mountains.” He was also an early adopter of the lasting machine. The business on McMillan employed 50 hands in 1873, when Stribley moved his factory downtown, introducing steam power to Cincinnati’s shoe business. (Stribley continued to live on Gilbert Av in Walnut Hills.)
Stribley built a huge new factory in 1878; in 1882, he organized an association of manufacturers and a board of arbitration for labor disputes. Equal numbers of management and labor representatives sat on the board, and over the course of the summer set wages for the cutters throughout the city’s factories. By November they set wages for the lasters, bottomers, finishers and stock-fitters; beginning December 20 all employers and employees were bound to pay and accept the wages. The board kept the labor peace through the summer of 1884, and it was generally agreed that its collapse was owing to the intransigence of some of the newer employers “’in the business who entered into it for the purpose of making money and had no previous training. They had no Idea of the many drawbacks and hindrances to be encountered before they could realize their hopes of securing great wealth.”
A decade later, Stribley found himself organizing a meeting of shoe manufacturers squeezed from the supply side of the business. In April 1894, hides for soles stood at 4 7/8 cents a pound; in September, the price was seven cents; in 1895, the hides fetched 9 ½ cents a pound. “The principal cause” of the fluctuation “was the organization of the United States Leather Co., which controls about 70 per cent of the production of sole leather in this country. The formation of this company was a black eye to the hide man.” The perfidious supplier had purchased at least $6 million worth of hides at less than a nickel a pound and now jacked up the price. Shoemakers around the country were raising prices in response; the Cincinnati association reluctantly authorized its members to raise prices from 10 to 25 cents a pair of shoes.
Stribley’s company went out of business around the time of his death in 1898, but the industry in Cincinnati continued to grow, mostly in factories started by managers trained in Stribley’s. By the mid 1910’s Cincinnati’s shoe business grossed about $25 million a year, with 10,000 workers and another $10 million in hides, leather and other shoe materials. Only three other American cities, all in Massachusetts, produced more shoes than the Queen City.