The McKay Stitcher: The Machine That Revolutionized Footwear Production
On 7 February 1870, Henry H. Warden, of the Russell & Company trade firm in Shanghai, wrote to colleague John Cunningham. Cunningham served as an agent in Boston for the Walsh, Hall & Company of Nagasaki in the tea trade. In this particular letter, Warden replied to an inquiry Cunningham had made concerning a potential shoe business in China.
"Thanks for yours of Nov 30 -
As to the McKay Machine. If it
is capable of turning out 4 @ 5000
shoes a day (those are your figures)
I should say it might be run
here to advantage for a week,
the Leather coming with it, and
supply China and the regions
round about for a year, I
fancy it is only adapted to making
foreign shoes. E. C. will be able
to give you a better opinion
than I can - He will be able
also to say whether you are
likely to find anything here
worth your while. I did not
forget to speak to him about
What is the McKay machine that Henry Warden references in this letter from John Cunningham papers?
The McKay stitcher was a sewing machine created by inventor Lyman Reed Blake and improved by businessman and self-educated engineer Gordon McKay. Prior to the introduction of this stitcher, shoes were hand stitched in a time-consuming and piecemeal manner. The machine revolutionized the speed of footwear production by machine sewing the uppers to the soles.
In 1858, Lyman Reed Blake initially invented an interesting, but not entirely functional, sewing machine. Foreseeing a future in shoe machinery, Gordon McKay bought the patent from Lyman Reed Blake in 1858 for an immediate $8,000. An agreement was reached that Lyman Reed Blake would receive a $72,000 share of future profits. The entrepreneurial engineer for whom the machine is named then improved upon the design until submitting an enhanced patent in 1862. The McKay machine produced finished shoes far faster than hand stitching; it is often credited with giving the North a material edge during the Civil War while the Confederates went without proper footwear.
After the war, having found his market in shoe machinery, Gordon McKay made all moves to retain his profits. In 1866, he designed a leasing system for the McKay machinery which demanded royalties for each pair of shoes made. The low cost of leasing the machines allowed manufacturers to engage in the production of shoes. This production in turn furthered Gordon McKay's business as he secured a profit for each pair made by his machines.
In his letter, Warden refers Cunningham to the expertise of his brother, Edward Cunningham (“E. C.”), a senior partner of the Russell & Company trade firm in Hong Kong. The John Cunningham papers at the Society do not contain information about further footwear business plans in China or correspondence between the brothers about the McKay stitcher. However, it is still a true mark of global prowess that Henry H. Warden and John Cunningham discussed the introduction of the McKay machine to Asian markets less than a decade after its invention.
| Published: Friday, 7 February, 2014, 1:22 PM
"His intrepidity had well nigh been fatal to him": Dr. John Jeffries
By Amanda A. Mathews
This past Sunday we may have celebrated the day of our national weather-groundhog with Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of another six weeks of winter, but today we celebrate National Weatherperson's Day as recognized by the National Weather Service. This date, 5 February, was chosen for to celebrate the anniversary of the 1745 birth of Dr. John Jeffries, a Bostonian who is credited as one of the nation's first weathermen, flying a hot air balloon above the city of London to take scientific weather measurements.
This fascinating individual has an equally intriguing connection with the Adams family. A Boston physician, Dr. Jeffries first crossed paths with John Adams during the Boston Massacre Trials of 1770 as a witness testifying for the defense. As the surgeon attending to Patrick Carr, one of the townspeople shot by the soldiers, Jeffries had asked Carr questions about what had happened, and Jeffries relayed to the jury what he had learned. Carr, who died of his wounds ten days later, supported the defense account that the mob pelted the soldiers with more than just snowballs and helped instigate the confrontation. Jeffries became a loyalist as the Revolution broke out and eventually left Boston, becoming a doctor in the British Army first in Nova Scotia and later set up his practice in London.
It was in Europe that that Dr. Jeffries and the Adamses crossed paths once again. While dining with Benjamin Franklin in Paris on February 14, 1785, John Quincy Adams met Dr. Jeffries who described to the guests his voyage by balloon from Dover, England, to Calais, France, the first to cross the English Channel by air. John Quincy recorded in his diary, "Dined at Dr. Franklin’s with a great deal of Company, among the rest Dr. Jeffries who lately cross'd with Mr. Blanchard, from Dover to Calais. He is a small man: has not an agreeable address, but seems to be very sensible: he related his voyage: in which his intrepidity had well nigh been fatal to him: the balloon descended he says, 3/4 of a mile in 2. minutes: he and Mr. Blanchard were both of them obliged to throw almost all their cloaths in the water. At one time they were not more than 20 yards above the surface."
Several months later when John Adams became the first American Minister to Great Britain and moved to London, Dr. Jeffries became the family physician. Abigail said of him in a letter to her sister, "Dr Jeffries is our family Physician, and is really an amiable benevolent Man tho formerly he took a different side in politicks." In addition to treating the regular ailments of the family, Dr. Jeffries was present for the birth of John and Abigail's first grandchild when their daughter Nabby gave birth to William Steuben Smith in April 1787.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. John Jeffries, his family papers are available at the MHS.
| Published: Wednesday, 5 February, 2014, 8:00 AM
Remembering the Ladies with Cokie Roberts
By Kathleen Barker
On 29 January, the Society hosted a special author talk for a very lucky group of middle-school students. The star of the show was none other than Cokie Roberts: MHS Fellow, journalist, political commentator, and author of the new children's book Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies. The book, which is based on her 2004 bestseller Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, chronicles the lives of the women who helped to found and nurture the United States. Abigail Adams is duly represented, as are Martha Washington, Phillis Wheatley, and Mercy Otis Warren. The book also introduces young readers to characters who might be less familiar: women like Deborah Sampson, the Massachusetts native who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolution, or Esther DeBerdt Reed, who raised more than $300,000 to purchase supplies for the underfunded Continental Army.
As the noon hour approached, nearly 120 pre-teen history enthusiasts from Lexington, Mendon, and Upton, Mass., filled the MHS Reading Room to learn more about Ms. Roberts, her book, and the documents that made it possible. After a brief overview of the book, Ms. Roberts opened the floor to questions from the audience. The students asked nearly every question imaginable (and several that no one could have seen coming) over the next 45 minutes. For example, which revolutionary lady would Ms. Roberts most like to hang out with? Sarah Livingston Jay, of course! Jay, the smart, funny, feisty wife of patriot John Jay, raised her family and managed her household with good humor while supporting her husband's busy political career. Several students asked Ms. Roberts to connect women of the past to the ladies of the present. One clever young lady from Lexington asked if there were any current situations in which Americans needed to "remember the ladies." As Ms. Roberts explained, several groups of Americans are still fighting for equality in our society today. Women in particular must still advocate for equal pay, and for more flexible working conditions that recognize women's essential role as caregivers. (Keep fighting, ladies!)
The afternoon's presentation was perhaps best summed up with a question asked by a young lady from Mendon: why didn't women have rights from the very beginnings of colonial America? Well, it could have taken hours to debate that issue, but unfortunately, the students had to return to school. The program ended with Ms. Roberts signing autographs (and even a few hands!) while the students perused a small exhibit of MHS documents featured in Ms. Roberts's works. The students had the opportunity to read Abigail Adams's "remember the ladies" letter and Phillis Wheatley's poems, along with a fascinating letter written by Paul Revere in support of Deborah Sampson's request for a military pension.
Contact the Society's education department if you are interested in bringing your students or colleagues to the MHS for a program or workshop. While we can't promise that Cokie Roberts will make an appearance, we can guarantee that your students will have a great time learning about the past through MHS collections!
| Published: Monday, 3 February, 2014, 11:14 AM
This Week @ MHS
With a new month comes a long period with a lot of public programming here at the Society. Keep your eyes on our events calendar this week and in the weeks to come to see what we have on tap. Kicking things off this week on Tuesday, 4 February, is the next installment of our Early American History Seminar series. "Law and the American Revolution" is a panel discussion that considers the state of the field of scholarship on the American Revolution as it relates to legal history. This scholarship is poised to accelerate and move in innovative directions as the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act approaches. Alan Rogers of Boston College moderates the discussion among Sarah Bilder, Boston College Law School; T.H. Breen, University of Vermont and Huntington Library; Bruce Mann of Harvard Law School; and Kent Newmeyer, University of Connecticut. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to received advance copies of the seminar papers. Discussion begins at 5:15PM
On Wednesday, 5 February, stop by at 12:00PM for "'Dam all pumpkin states': King Williams War in the North and Colonial Legitimacy." In this Brown Bag talk, Kate Moore of Boston University shares information about her project to find out how Puritan divines and a German militia captain used war with the French to legitimate their authority to colonists, colonial leaders, and Native American allies. The project also seeks to explain how they justified strategy, finance, and diplomacy during this late-17th century colonial conflict. Brown Bag talks are free and open to the public.
Finally, on Thursday, 6 February, join us again at noon for "Boston's Mayor James Michael Curley: The Quintessential Politician & Public Works Patron." In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first election as Mayor of Boston of perhaps the most prolific politician in Massachusetts history, this talk will highlight the building of public works in Boston during Curley's time in office. This talk is presented by Lawrence Overlan who has been researching, teaching, speaking, and writing about James Michael Curley for over a decade. This public program is free and open to the public.
| Published: Sunday, 2 February, 2014, 4:04 PM
Debrief the Reader: Researcher as Resource
As a reference librarian at the Society I work regularly with the more than three thousand individual manuscript collections in the holdings. Often the job is a search for a specific piece of information in order to answer a defined question, perhaps for a remote researcher who cannot visit the library. In other instances, reference work might entail giving researchers suggestions for collections that are relevant to their particular project. Usually this second type relies heavily on searching the online catalog, ABIGAIL, or other in-house resources, to find collections that carry certain subject headings or involve certain people.
Unfortunately, in both of these situations, I do not always get the chance to look at a given collection in-depth and thereby gain a more complete understanding of the contents and how it might complement other resources or collections we have. This can be troublesome in a place where the reference librarians are sometimes expected to have deep knowledge of every collection in the building. In order to level the field a bit I try to focus my attention on the occurrences of the early days of colonial New England, roughly the period of the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 up to the end of King Philip's War in 1676. When researchers come forward with questions concerning this time period I try to direct them toward collections or reference materials that, hopefully, will be of use.
While my colleagues in the collection services department are able to delve deeply into collections while going through the processes of arrangement and description, I do not always get that opportunity. Further, if a collection lacks descriptive aids then it can still be difficult to ascertain exactly what lies within and how it might fit with other collections. Yet, there is one recourse that I have left at my disposal should the chance arise.
Enter: the genial long-term researcher.
When a researcher brings an in-depth project to the MHS, we on the library staff have a wonderful opportunity to gain insights into the collections with which they work and to learn the topical connections existing among them. To illustrate: over the last couple of weeks we have had a researcher visit us nearly every day to work on a project involving 17th century colonial interactions between the English settlers and the native inhabitants. The researcher, who worked at the MHS in the past, came prepared with a few ideas of relevant collections with which to work. I suggested one or two other collections that I knew by name but of which I did not have intimate knowledge, with the idea that maybe one or two items would be relevant. As it happens, these collections turned out to be a veritable goldmine for our researcher. This also spurred her to investigate a couple of other things that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
This entire process is a benefit to both the researcher and myself. While I was able to point her to a collection she did not know about and which aided her research, she was able to identify to me the content of the collection, why it was so important for her research, and how it fits in with other collections that touch on the same time period. Because I lack the very thorough knowledge of the topics and themes involved, the researcher helps establish and explain the web of connections among the characters contained in our holdings. Without a doubt, the knowledge graciously passed on to me with regard to these collections will now help me to better direct future researchers in their endeavors to unlock the long-past and lesser-documented realities of 17th century New England.
| Published: Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 4:07 PM