The old saw goes that St Louis was “first in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League”. We’ve got gallons of local booze lore, and you’ll soon read more on the Lafayette Square connection to the Browns, so let’s go with “first in shoes” for now.
By 1909, boot and shoe production was St Louis’ leading industry, with 26 companies engaged in the business. Within the first twenty years of that century, Roberts, Johnson & Rand (RJ&R) emerged as the largest shoe manufacturing company in the U.S.
Traditionally a guild craft from long ago in Europe, shoe making was a trade plied by skilled immigrants, primarily German, in early America. In 1848, Elias Howe patented the sewing machine. A decade later came the lasting machine, which sewed and shaped the uppers of shoes. Along with innovative heeling and welting machines from the 1860’s, shoe manufacturing went from being a task for skilled to largely unskilled labor.
Brothers Oscar and Jackson Johnson, with their cousin Edgar Rand, were wealthy wholesalers in Memphis. They moved to St Louis in 1898 to escape recurring outbreaks of yellow fever in Memphis. They linked up with John Rogers and his nephew Eugene, who were sales executives for Hamilton-Brown Shoe here. RJ&R was incorporated in 1898 and established the Star brand as their trademark.
In 1903, RJ&R announced plans to double their production, and contracted with Theodore Link, architect of St Louis Union Station, to design a building for the specific purpose of shoe production. The site they chose was once the location of Schnaider’s Garden, a bucolic summer resort featuring beer and refined entertainments. Now, in the spirit of the new century, the Garden was cleared to suit the area’s burgeoning industrial growth. The building that resulted, on the corner of Mississippi and Hickory, runs 60 feet across, 350 feet long and 5 stories tall. RJ&R’s operations here covered the entire shoe manufacturing process from raw material to finished product. It also led, in successive expansions, to the construction of what is now M Lofts and 1111 Mississippi.
The administrative end of this enterprise was managed from new offices built at Washington Avenue and 15th Street in 1910. RJ&R merged with Peters Shoe Company of St Louis in 1911, and formed the International Shoe Company (ISCO). This one year gap might explain why the Washington Avenue structure features “Roberts, Johnson & Rand” on its east face, and “International Shoe Company” on the south. The Peters Shoe acquisition brought with it the 600,000 square foot building at 13th and Washington, home now to the City Museum. Kids truly love it here today, but perhaps not so much in the early 20th century.
In St Louis, women, immigrants, and children inexpensively filled the need for unskilled labor. A 1907 report by the National Child Labor Law Committee, cited RJ&R as one of the worst offenders.
Around the turn of the century, when factories began to unionize, manufacturers built plants in smaller towns with less costly labor. International Shoe built factories in Cape Girardeau and Washington, MO in 1908, and transferred fully half of its St Louis operations there. Other locations followed in DeSoto, Hermann, Hannibal, St Charles, and Jerseyville, IL.
The company thrived in the early 20th century. Poll Parrot, Red Goose and Patriot shoes were three prominent brands. In 1913, St Louis shoe houses sold nearly 28 million pairs of shoes and boots from 61 regional plants. World War I was stimulative to business, and the Great Depression didn’t affect ISCO as badly as its competitors, due to low costs and wide distribution. It produced an estimated 50 million pairs of boots and shoes for the U.S. government during World War II.
In the years following the war, anti-trust litigation and foreign competition began to force manufacturing overseas. Domestic employment began to decline in 1947, and steadily continued to erode. In 1955, ISCO initiated offshoring to a new plant in Puerto Rico. The company diversified and became Interco in 1966.
A wave of plastic shoes from Asia in the late 1960’s decimated St Louis shoe industry profits. The building at Hickory was transferred to new owners in 1968, and used for storage. It was boarded up by 1984. Interco moved from St Louis, and divested all its shoe operations during the 1990’s.
A new vision was realized in 2003 with the rebirth of the Roberts, Johnson & Rand shoe plant as the Lofts At Lafayette Square. The resulting 148,000 ft sq residential building houses 115 units that are fully occupied, year-round, and immune to the vagaries of the shoe business.
Thanks to a first-rate research source: “Shoe Business Of St Louis 1870 – 1980” by Ruth Keenoy (2016)
A good corporate perspective is provided from the current corporate entity, Furniture Brands of Clayton, MO, at http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/furniture-brands-international-inc-history/ (as of 1/2018)
A valuable resource was Phil Becker’s “St Louis Shoe Trade 70 Millions” from Forward St Louis, October, 1914.
And many thanks to Mimi Stiritz of Landmarks Association for the terrific history from 1984’s Department of Interior National Register of Historic Places nomination form.