A Place Called Abington
Writer Jason Jules looks closer at the original Abington boot, the creation of Timberland, and how the development of its sturdy workwear signalled the birth of an industrialised and modern America
At the very root of Timberland, a company that now has 7,500 employees all over the world and stores in virtually every major city, is a place called Abington. Today it’s a predominantly residential suburban neighbourhood not too far from Boston. It’s what you’d define as a small town – in fact it’s the fourth smallest town in Plymouth County – and yet it’s known globally for its indelible association with a premium shoe brand. Why? The answer is Abington shoes hark back to a bygone age; they represent a romantic view of the great outdoors, but they’re also bold, contemporary and understated. They’re purpose-built for today, yet unapologetically invested in the values of the past. Each shoe is an elegant balance between tradition and modernity, the past and the present.
It all began when Nathan Swartz purchased a 50 per cent share-hold in the Abington Shoe Company in 1952. He’d arrived in the US, aged 21, in 1918, and worked for shoe firms in almost every capacity, including sales, manufacturing, and distribution.
Now he was putting the sum of that knowledge and experience to use. In many ways Swartz’s move mirrors the general sense of optimism of the time; in the wake of World War II the United States had a bourgeoning middle-class and was awash with new fangled inventions and gadgets. But it was also a bold move. Away from all the new sleek chrome surfaces there was also a concern among many about the scale of social change taking place.
The introduction of streamlined cars, giant TVs and super-convenient refrigerators could only come about through an industrial revolution; one unlike anything the US had ever experienced before. Many became tense and anxious about the evident loss of long-standing values and structures, many of which had quickly become surplus to requirements with the arrival of this new age and the apparently universal acceptance of Fordism. It was a seemingly relentless process. Inventor, architect and philosopher Richard Buckminster Fuller compared it to “build[ing] a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The fiction writing of the period – for example Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1958) – explores people’s changing attitudes at the time. The sense of becoming adrift from the familiar, and in many ways imagined, past is seen with trepidation on the part of Kerouac’s main protagonists. But for Holly Golightly (the main character in Capote’s novella-come-morality play), the modern metropolitan city is a place in which she can reinvent herself, and escape the drudgery of rural life and an unhappy marriage. Both works focus our attention on a sense of overriding uncertainty surrounding notions of place and identity in 1950s America. As Golightly says: “I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet.”
At the time the Abington Shoe Company was in many ways a crystallisation of these underlying cultural tensions. The town itself had once been a centre for American shoe manufacturing. The Abington Shoe Company, however, was not founded in the wake of the town’s manufacturing golden age. It was incorporated in 1933, four years after the Wall Street Crash, right in the middle of the Great Depression (the worst ever economic crisis to hit the United States). Inevitably then the Abington Shoe Company’s business proposition was a pragmatic one; the production of low-priced, unbranded footwear for outlets that would later label the shoes themselves. Its identity was both fixed and fluid. The Abington Shoe Company became known
as a no-name shoe manufacturer.
In the midst of the 1950s, a time otherwise known as ‘the Golden Age of Capitalism’, this dichotomy between identity and place once again proved to be to the manufacturer’s advantage. The chameleon-like quality of the company’s product allowed it to navigate through both the underlying identity crisis brought about by rapid social change on the one hand and the emerging sense of optimism in society on the other. It provided Swartz with the ability to build on the company’s manufacturing tradition and, in doing so, to adapt and stay relevant to the changing times. Having witnessed the Great Depression first hand, this dexterity is something that Swartz could not have failed to prioritise. While on one level identity and a sense of belonging are non-fixed for the Abington Shoe Company, the very name ‘Abington’ offsets this flexibility by identifying the company with one singular location.
When his business partner suddenly died in 1955, Swartz bought the Abington Shoe Company’s remaining shares and continued to operate it (without changing the name). It was at this point that Swartz also brought his two sons into the company – Herman and Sidney. Working from a converted warehouse, the family continued to produce private label men’s dress shoes and rugged work boots for other companies. Many of the shoes could be found in army and navy surplus stores, as well as discount stores in the region. These were discount-priced shoes; but what was required of them was the kind of craftsmanship that stood up to the interrogation of wholesale buyers, as well as the individual demands of the wearers – many of whom were blue-collar workers with a high expectation of the shoes ability to perform in adverse conditions.
By this point, like many other small towns of its kind, Abington is experiencing a population boom. According to the 1950 census the population was at just over 7,000, but by 1960 it has increased by almost 50 per cent. To get a sense of what the town must have looked like, and in some ways felt like, one only has to turn
to Robert Frank’s epic photo-essay published in 1958. The Americans was the very first book of its kind, a cultural map of a country in picture form. Swiss-born Frank travelled the length and breadth of the country photographing, in a kind of non-prejudiced and almost poetic way, anything he saw that caught his eye.
Using a reportage-style approach, regarded conventionally as the reserve of social-archive photographers, he created a book that was something of a shock to the contemporary reader. It provided a somewhat harsh commentary on the shiny new consumer age; individuals were captured in isolation and communities appeared to be overwhelmingly fractured. These images were at complete odds with the dominant aspirational notions of the time. Kerouac’s introduction to the book only helped compound this general response. He recognised the unapologetic and uncompromising nature of Franks’ journal: “The humour, the sadness, the everything-ness and the America of these pictures!”
At this point in American culture, 1955 to be precise, Elvis Presley came to the fore, causing teenage hysteria and moral panic all over the country. James Dean also died that year and Rebel Without a Cause, arguably his greatest film, had to be released posthumously. Both the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and Dean’s film underlined the country’s increasing generational gap, and the turbulence it was causing.
This was also the year when the desegregation of public schools was met with violent challenges; 14-year-old black schoolboy Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered in Money, Mississippi. Black seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to vacate her seat in the white section of a city bus; and in doing so galvanised the Civil Rights Movement that followed. Bewildered, sad, lost and confused, perhaps 1955 bore all the evidence of a nation’s growing pains, and of a young country coming of age – quickly, with new and often conflicting claims over its identity.
Almost a decade after these epic events Marshall McLuhan would publish Understanding Media. In some ways the book was a totally radical reading of culture and society and in others a reassuring, almost placatory take on the changes America had been facing since the end of World War II.
In it, his now famous and often misappropriated concept of the ‘global village’ was first explored. In the book’s introduction he writes: “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.” Rather than seeing the growth of technology and industrialisation as alien and as dissolving our connection to nature, he sees it as a part of a continuum, part of society’s modern development – an extension of man. For McLuhan, a car or a house is no less a part of man’s natural environment as a nest is to birds or a hive is to a swarm of bees. Instead he posits that within this emerging global village tribal disputes would also grow, an inevitable by-product of our increased proximity to, and heightened awareness of, our previously far off neighbours. But even with the popularity of his books and the fame that followed, McLuhan’s was a non-judgmental take on this emerging landscape. To him the only viable strategy was to recognise what was happening, accept it and prepare for the inevitable – because to resist or deny it was pure folly.
In many ways it’s obvious that in those interim years, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, the Swartz family were firmly aware of the changing cultural and social landscape. It seems they were eager to embrace change rather than react against it, while at the same time committed to preserving the family-found traditions.
They had an urge to innovate; to create new protective footwear that advanced and enhanced the experience of the great outdoors, and to further the interconnection between the wearer, nature and technology. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they made their ultimate breakthrough.
In the late 1960s the Swartz family relocated the Abington Shoe Company factory to New Hampshire where it was easier to find the skilled workers required to make the footwear. By 1968 Nathan Swartz had given responsibility for the company to his two sons. The company was still making unbranded shoes, but the brothers were experimenting with various ways to create a new, technically improved outdoor boot. For a while there was little success. Then Sidney Swartz struck on a new way of fusing the sole of the shoe to its upper. Rather than call on one of their in-house workers to develop the prototype they summoned Nathan Swartz, then happily retired in sunny Florida, and asked him to come back and work on the new technology. It was Nathan Swartz who mastered the revolutionary manufacturing process of melding soles to leather without stitching and it was this innovation that would ultimately help transform the Abington Shoe Company into the global lifestyle brand Timberland.
The Swartz family were continuing a tradition of innovation that had long been part of Abington’s shoe manufacturing history. Ever since the early-1700s the area had been associated with shoe manufacturing. The availability of leather and a number of tanneries in and around the town allowed for the birth of a cottage industry, involving whole families making shoes by hand. In 1815 Jesse Reed invented a machine that mass-produced metal tacks and this unique innovation helped develop the town’s larger factory-based footwear industry. Then, in 1858, Lyman Reed Blake, another Abington local, patented the first machine able to successfully sew the soles of shoes to their uppers. This invention was further developed four years later and rolled out by the Gordon McKay Shoe Machinery Company who bought Blake’s original patent. As a result of this invention more than half the footwear worn by Unionist soldiers throughout the Civil War was made in Abington.
Almost 100 years later Abington was once again witnessing the revolutionising of the industry with the introduction of the Swartz family’s injection-moulding technology, an innovation that allowed for the full waterproofing of footwear. They called the new shoe-line Timberland. It proved so successful that they eventually renamed the company Timberland in 1978.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of that landmark innovation. Between then and now much has happened to the company that once made no-name shoes for surplus stores. It is, after all, now one of the most recognisable brands in the world.
The current range of Abington shoes show that Timberland is in no hurry to forget the company’s early years, the journey that led up to that invention, and the foundations laid by Nathan Swartz. The Abington years encapsulate a time when aspiration and optimism went hand in hand with tradition and caution, when a sense of identity, name, place and, therefore, purpose never changed.
Perhaps that’s why the Abington range is so compelling, within it you see the whole evolution of a company – and even of a country – up to today. Launched in 2008, it’s a young line that reminds us of saw mills and tanneries; of lumberjacks and river men and of the conditions and demands that informed the times, and provided the foundations for the old, original Abington Shoe Company. It embodies the idea that identity is fixed in the past but can also be transformed in the present, and that, ultimately, only by valuing these two abilities in equal measure will we have a sure grasp on the future.
Written for sister publishing agency DocumentStudios.com
Photography: George Harvey
Styling: David Hellqvist
Art Direction: Mark Thompson